Sunday, September 12, 2004

Lessons of 9/11

As 9/11 slips into history (there were memorials yesterday,
sure, but mostly it was business-as-usual around town and on the airwaves)
let us pause and examine a few telling moments before we turn the page.

The accounts of that morning now famously show the president in an elementary
school classroom during a reading lesson.  He is sitting uncomfortably
on a tiny second-grade chair at the front of the room.  Adults who
don’t work in early elementary always look uncomfortable in those chairs,
so his demeanor at this point is typical.

The president is shown a book and he holds it as the teacher conducts
the lesson. The title of the book is almost always given as My Pet Goat.That’s
what Michael Moore calls it in his film that uses footage of the school
visit.  But on this point Moore is apparently wrong.  According
to The
New Yorker
(7/26/04) it is a workbook called "The Pet Goat".

This was uncovered, as so many news items seem to be these days, by
a sharp-eyed blogger, in this case href="">Peter Smith
who was puzzled about why no one seemed to be able to locate
the book on Amazon.  He watched the classroom footage and saw the
teacher leading the students in a stylized drill.

Interestingly it turns out that "The Pet Goat" it is not a proper children's
book at all (any author interested in children and in storytelling would
call her book My Pet Goat).  It is a rote "delivery system"
for drill and practice which is part of the Direct
phonics program, one of the “research based” models endorsed
by No Child Left Behind
The terme d'art for this type of program is "Teacher Proof".

A rear-eschelon action in the Culture Wars, played out in rooms with
tiny chairs and little academic status, the Reading Wars are nonetheless
hard fought and empassioned (and when Federal dollars are invlolved, as
they most certainly are in NCLB, worth a fair chunk of change). On one
side, reading is a "skill" best developed by repeated drills.  Content
is no more important than the programmed words strung together for the
nameless protagonists in "The Pet Goat":

A girl got a pet goat. She liked to go running with her pet goat.
She played with her goat in her house. She played with her goat in her
yard. But the goat did some things that made the girl's dad mad. The goat
ate things. He ate cans and he ate canes. He ate pans and he ate panes.
He even ate capes and caps. One day her dad said, "that goat must go. He
ate too many things." The girl said, "dad if you let the goat stay with
us, I will see that he stops eating all those things." Her dad said he
will try it. . . .

Do you hear an echo of our leader's odd syntax in that last line?

The other side fights for autonomy, engagement and "higher-order thinking"
(gathering evidence, constructing and evaluating arguments, making decisions). 
Kids will want to read if reading is enjoyable and useful to them.

Now run the classroom footage forward.  See the president's aide
come in and whisper the news that we are under attack,  Watch the
president and tell me, is it important to be able to think things through,
to draw on what you know and make decisions?

And before we leave the school, let's look at the last shocking footage. 
President Bush makes his first announcement of 9/11 with the young children
arranged around him as props. (Doesn't Jesus in the Bible have some pretty
strong warning about scandalizing little ones?) That no one had enough
sense to alter the planned “photo-op” to spare the children and reflect
the gravity of the unfolding situation tells us all we need to know about
our leaders and their priorities.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Bipolar Bears

It seems the Cubs have decided either to win big or lose miserably, no
middle ground.  I guess you have to respect that.

It follows a certain logic. You want to pass with flying colors or just scrape through:

Q: What do they call the student who got C's in Med School?

A: Doctor.

And I am tired of eating my liver over wretchedly punishing one-run
games (in which we have amassed a less-than-distinguished14-24 record).
I was momentarily distracted from this angst by the prospect of football
starting up, but then I remembered-- oh yeah, the Bears.

So fine, I say, you Cubs:  get shut out or win by double digits. 
Or do both in one day (today).  This is Chicago after all, a city
where the minor leagues give out ice scrapers in August.  Not because
"you never know", but, oh, because you do.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Correcting Selectrics

"Thud" best describes:

1. The return to Earth of the Genesis space capsule, now embedded in
the Utah desert;

2. Macier Izturis' double falling behind a scrambling Sosa, taking with
it the Cubs NL wild card lead;

3. Another sheaf of damaging documents grudgingly released to the press
in the dark of night by the Bush administration.

Salon has the best coverage of the Bush
National Guard controversy
, with

extensive links to sources:

Ironically, that means strings were pulled to get Bush out of the
Guard in

1973, just as they were pulled to get him enrolled in 1968.

There are some great investigations
underway in blog-land to compare the “original”  CYA memo regarding
Bush’s National Guard service with Microsoft Word versions typed today.

Part of the argument hinges on whether typewriters in 1972 had proportional

A quick check of on-line references

Even so, all Selectrics were monospaced -- each and every character
was the same width. Although IBM had produced a successful typebar-based
machine, the IBM Executive, with proportional spacing, no proportionally-spaced
Selectric office typewriter was ever introduced. There was, however, a
much more expensive proportionally-spaced machine called the Selectric
Composer which was considered a typesetting machine rather than a typewriter.

This agrees with my memory of typing technology of the time. Not proportional.
No way. Not on the slickest, fastest machines which were coveted like today's
latest Pentiums. And the Army would not have had many of those fanciest
Correcting Selectrics. Grunts and REMFs would have typed up five-carbon
forms (always with the government, five copies, hence the rainbow bottles
of boo-boo juice:  white, pink, pale blue, light green, and goldenrod)
on tired chugging Selectrics and manual bangers. Thud, thud. MSWord is
a whole different animal.

When computer-based word processing was phased in (mid-70's to mid-80's),
first as batch jobs sent to mainframes(you haven't lived until you've tried
to coach office assistants through preparing and batch-printing grant proposals
in UNIX, on deadline), then using increasingly powerful desktop machines
(remember working on the first Mac, the one that maxed-out at 5 printed
pages?? But it was WYSIWYG, and we loved it) the aspects of word processing
which were amazing to users, which completely blew us away (justified text,
proportional fonts, bold, italic, etc.) were trivial from the standpoint
of programming.

And now I sit on planes next to folk thumb-typing their grant proposals
on Black Berries, completely oblivious to the genesis of the QWERTY keyboard: 
the need to slow down typing speed so the slender flying typebars, propelled
upward by the typist's keystrokes in an acrobatic ballet would not crash
into each other and tangle, resulting in inked fingers, smdged pages, and
misaligned letters (which gave each machine a distinctive "signature",
so useful in detective fiction.)