Schwarzenegger’s not so bad…

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:52 pm

I knew I always liked Arnold’s movies (a guilty pleasure, but my own), but I was distressed that he would be elected governor of my own ex-home-state. But as it turns out, he’s really not so bad in a lot of ways.

A good example…how many other elected Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter…but especially Republicans) would be willing to stand up quite so strongly, and clearly, and unequivocally, for the separation of church and state as this. The Wall of Separation blog at Americans United for Separation of Church and State reports this interview between Schwarzenegger and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos:

The ABC anchor then moved to religion noting that Schwarzenegger is a Catholic and asking, “How do you reconcile your political positions on abortion, on gay rights, on the death penalty? They’re opposed to the positions of the Catholic Church, the pronouncements of the pope. How do you reconcile that?”

Schwarzenegger said it was “easy” and that he never experienced a “sleepless night” over supposed conflicts between religious dogma he professes to and his political actions.

“I’m representing the people of California,” Schwarzenegger explained. “The people of California, all of them are not Catholics so, therefore, I do not bring in my religion into this whole thing. As a matter of fact, religion should have no effect on politics.”

No effect at all, Stephanopoulos asked.

“I think it should not,” the governor continued. “I mean, if you make a decision, it should not be based on your religious beliefs. It should be based on what is it how can you represent the people of California the best possible way? And we have a combination. We have Jews, we have Christians and we have Hindus. We have Buddhists. We have all kinds of different religions here and there’s 140 some religions in this state.”

Seemingly surprised or somewhat dubious, Stephanopoulos continued, “So your faith plays no role in the forming of your political philosophy?”

“Not for me,” Schwarzenegger said.

Good for you, Arnold!


The Gates

Filed under: — Joe @ 11:38 am

The GatesAfter the snow, I found a chance to take a walk in Central Park to see The Gates. People all over the park (including me) were walking around with big smiles on their faces. One big advantage of this installation is that it’s bringing people (non-New Yorkers and New Yorkers alike) into the park in the wintertime, when it’s very, exceedingly, beautiful. For me, that was a big part of what I enjoyed, just the lovely winter landscape.

landscape with gatesBut the gates really do add something. First (photos don’t really capture this), there are so many of them–but the park is still much, much bigger than they are. That allows long vistas of curving rows of gates, but even more it allows views of the park, long distance, with just a little hint of an orange glow somewhere off in the distance. I liked that–it’s a big park, with so many unexpected vistas, turns around a bend to a surprising nook, or stream, or cliff. That’s part of Olmstead and Vaux’s real genius, to me (and as a Brooklynite, I have to emphasize that it’s just as wonderful in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park).

Buildings and gatesThe other thing that I’ve always loved about Central Park is not just the park…but where it’s placed (location, location, location). It’s a park right smack in the middle of the greatest city in the history of the world, and the views of the buildings surrounding it, the trees counterbalanced by the spires and towers, have always thrilled me. There were many places where the gates somehow echoed those buildings (rectangles echoing rectangles), and in that way they brought the city into the park, and spread the park out into the city, even more than I usually get to see.

In the unlikely event anyone hasn’t seen enough photos of the park this week (I think I counted an average of 2.5 cameras per person when I was walking around), I’ve set up a gallery of my own photos. And if you really want the full (or partial) immersive experience, I’ve posted a large, but low-quality (3 mb) and a small, but higher quality (1 mb) video creation (both are .wmv format).


Free webhosting for teachers

Filed under: — Joe @ 5:36 pm

I came across an interesting deal. I can’t vouch for the company myself, but Lunar Pages Hosting looks pretty legit, and they’re making a very generous offer available for teachers. They define teachers as only K-12, so that doesn’t include me, but they’re offering a webhosting package absolutely free for teachers (for educational use). The terms are liberal, the space is reasonably large, and they seem to be committed to doing this for the right reasons. And the price is certainly right! Any K-12 teachers should certainly give them a look.

Chess Supernationals

Filed under: — Joe @ 5:30 pm

After a lot of back and forth and logistical confusion, the arrangements are made. I’ll be accompanying my daughter and her chess team when they go to compete in Nashville, Tennessee, at the 2005 US Chess Federation Supernationals. The PS 282 Royals, in only their second year as a team, managed to score a wild-card slot in the NYC Chess in the Schools Grand Prix. That earns them a trip to Nashville. The kids are excited, the parents are proud, and the knights and bishops are ready to fly.

So in the first week in April, I expect I’ll be trying my first attempt at chessblogging.


Lawrence Summers, among others

Filed under: — Joe @ 6:30 pm

I’ve been thinking about the Lawrence Summers comments (women and men have different brains, that’s why women are always going to be underrepresented in science and math, this is primarily genetic and biological, not cultural and ideological, etc., etc.), especially in the light of some pieces of the same kind of thinking which Beth came across in an otherwise interesting book (Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design). Then I read another, similar comment, in a defense of Summers by a colleague on the CUNY Senate Forum listserv.

This colleague, like the others, said (I’m paraphrasing), that there may be all kinds of subtle cues, and cultural forces, pushing women out of math and science, and pushing men in, but that “if you really want to do something, no subtle cue will stop you.” And besides, he says, there’s nothing bad about women being different from men in this way (more empathic, less systematizing…less eager to try new things, more eager to model on others…less able to think abstractly, more able to think emotionally). It’s just different, and in fact women are better! Yeah, that’s it! They’re really sweet and nice. Why do they need that nasty old science and math when they’re so nurturing and soft and pretty?

The more I think about this, the more it seems that this colleague, and Koster and Summers and all the others are not just missing, but denying, a very powerful psychological fact. They don’t see just how powerful early experience (very early) is in shaping our development. It’s not that “if you really want something the cues won’t stop you,” it’s more that the very nature of what you really want is shaped by cultural/psychological/ideological forces before you even become self-aware or fully sentient.

These people don’t just want to deny any responsibility to work toward equality in society (although that’s clearly a major motivation for Summers, at least). They want to deny the influence, the impact and power, of early childhood–they want to deny, in a way, basic Freudian psychology. “It’s nothing we can do anything about–nothing to make us think about our own childhood, or our own mothers or fathers. Oh, no, not that. It’s just the structure of the brain.”

In addition, they’re not able (or not interested) to realize that “normal” and “natural” are themselves socially-constructed categories and labels. It’s an old argument, and (sadly) a thoroughly regressive and anti-intellectual one.

All in order

Filed under: — Joe @ 6:11 pm

Finally got everything validated, no errors, no warnings, the theme just the way I want it, after the upgrade. This is now (aside from endless fiddling) a WordPress 1.5 blog.



Filed under: — Joe @ 5:48 pm

In the spirit of unceasing fiddling, I’ve implemented Spam-Karma, in addition to AuthImage, for a try at getting rid of comment spam, and trackback spam, and still keeping the option of having trackbacks turned on. Let’s see how it works. (And while I was at it, I installed a one-click plugin manager, too.)


Filed under: — Joe @ 3:26 pm

Chuck Schumer has posted an easy-to-use Social Security Calculator to predict how Bush’s Social Security privatization plan will work out for real people, in the real world, beyond the false promises.

For this real person, in this real world, Bush’s wonderful plan will mean a 15% cut in my retirement income. In other words, I’ll lose money, every month, if Bush suceeds. What a great plan.


Upgrade troubles

Filed under: — Joe @ 8:21 pm

I upgraded my WordPress installation to 1.5, following the instructions to the letter, but I still (of course) managed to screw something up. Not a disaster, and I’m sure I’ll get it to work, but for right now, it’s impossible to read or write comments. And, the permalinks don’t work, either. 🙁


Darwin Day!

Filed under: — Joe @ 2:40 pm

DarwinIt’s Darwin’s birthday (196 years–approaching the bicentennial!), and in honor of the day, a good gesture would be to attend one of the events scheduled as part of the Darwin Day Celebration. Or, failing that, it would be a good time to make a donation to the National Center for Science Education. Or your local public school–to the science program. Or even take a few minutes to read the late Ernst Mayr on Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought.


Live Session Scheduled

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:36 pm

InnovateInnovate has scheduled the live session for discussion of my article for Tuesday, 2/22, at noon. It’s right in the middle of the day, but I’m hoping colleagues, friends, anyone interested in online education or asynchronous discussion will be able to steal an hour or two (while eating lunch?) to join the discussion. You’ll be able to type your questions in, and hear me talk, and if you have a usb headset/microphone, you can even talk yourself.

I’ve participated in this kind of session before, through the Sloan-C Online Research Workshop, and other venues. While there’s always an inevitable period of “Can you hear me? No? Can you see the powerpoint slide? Yes?” it’s still kind of fun, and a good way to get some discussion going, at least introducing some concepts, for future thought and investigation.

Of course, the asynchronous option remains open–just click on “discuss” after reading the article.


We’re number 6! Or 3!

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:33 pm

This week’s Chronicle reports on 2-year colleges working to recruit international students (the link probably only works if you’re a Chronicle subscriber). But a sidebar with statistics reveals that BMCC, where I work, has absolutely no need for that. Without any extra recruiting at all, we’re already number 6 in the whole nation in terms of total number of international students. And if you look at proportions, we’re number 3! (Behind only our sister CUNY school, Queensborough Community College, and Santa Monica College). 10.6% of our enrollment is international students.

Of course, that’s no surprise whatsoever to those of us who teach at BMCC. I hear different estimates all the time of the number of languages spoken at BMCC. Sometimes it’s 17, sometimes 45. Basically, the number doesn’t matter much. We’re an incredibly diverse, international college. That fact brings some challenges, but it also makes the place incredibly rich, and incredibly rewarding, for teaching and learning.


Disagreeing with Dawkins

Filed under: — Joe @ 4:35 pm

Richard Dawkins is one of my favorites, and I’m really enjoying his latest book The Ancestor’s Tale, but he does have a very big problem in an introductory chapter. The point is not at all central to his argument, and it’s really contained just in an analogy, but it’s a problem that I encounter far too often, and I would have hoped he’d be beyond this.

Frustratingly, oral tradition peters out almost immediately, unless hallowed in bardic recitations like those that were eventually written down by Homer, and even then the history is far from accurate. It decays into nonsense and falsehood after amazingly few generations. Historical facts about real heroes, villains, animals and volcanoes rapidly degenerate (or blossom, depending upon your taste) into myths about demi-gods, devils, centaurs and fire-breathing dragons.

What he’s missing here is that oral tradition (and “factual” “historical” writing, too, for that matter), is an intentional, creative, discourse. It’s literature–with a purpose and aesthetics that often have nothing to do with “accuracy.” People don’t just tell stories (or write them) about centaurs and dragons because the stories have somehow “degenerated” from the “real” events. They tell those stories because they like them.

Of course, Dawkins finishes that paragraph by saying that “oral traditions and their imperfections needn’t detain us because, in any case, they have no equivalent in evolutionary history.” And that is true. But I’m a little disappointed in him that he insists on seeing these features of oral tradition as “imperfections.” This may be a problem that’s particularly hard for scientists to overcome. It’s an unfortunate blind spot.


Postcards from Buster

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:36 pm

Buster and his DadI’m a big fan of the PBS Kids show Arthur. My daughter’s been watching it for years, so I’m very familiar with all the stories and all the personalities. Buster, Arthur, Francine, Binky, and DW are well-known characters in this house. The show is consistently educational, consistently fun, and consistently interesting.

So the new spinoff, Postcards from Buster, is also a big hit around here. Buster Baxter (a bunny) travels around the country, meeting different kids in different kinds of families. The stories aren’t quite as compelling as in Arthur, but it’s still a fun show, and works well as a kind of travelogue.

But in one of the shows (which we haven’t seen yet), Buster is going to meet a family with two moms. So what? So the Bush administration and its Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, finds this unacceptable. In the ever-vigilant quest to make the country safe for homophobia (I’m quoting Richard Goldstein), she has decreed, and PBS has cowardly agreed (so much for that much-vaunted “liberal bias” at PBS–they folded like a house of cards), that kids shouldn’t see that gay parents and their families are normal, natural, and part of our country–or even that they exist at all.

The New York Times today presents a very necessary humanizing picture of the poor kid, Emma, who is being told, by the US Government, that there is something wrong with her and her family. That she should not be seen.

It’s outrageous. My own 9-year-old, in hearing about this case, says “that’s stupid. Buster sees all kinds of families. People who live in trailer parks, his own dad’s a pilot and he works for a rock band and he’s divorced. There’s lots of different kinds of families, that’s the whole point!”

Kids get it, and they get it easily. A girl from another episode of the show was interviewed for the Times article.

Farah Siddique also knows what it means to feel marginalized, and she is grateful to “Postcards From Buster” for helping her feel less so. Farah, 12, lives in a Chicago suburb with Pakistani and Filipino parents who are Muslim. In a telephone interview, she explained why she was happy to appear on “Postcards From Buster,” wearing her hijab (a head covering) and studying the Koran.

“It was important to tell people about my religion and everything,” she said. “Some people think we’re bad because of 9/11 or something, and I’m telling them we are not bad, we’re not trying to hurt anyone or do anything wrong.”

Asked what she thought about PBS’s decision not to distribute the “Buster” episode about the children with two mothers, she said: “We don’t believe in that stuff. My opinion is that it is bad or wrong. My sister is 7, and she watches PBS Kids shows. I wouldn’t want her to watch that kind of thing.”

What if people said they wouldn’t want to watch the episode about her because they don’t like Muslims?

Without hesitation Farah replied: “Wow, I hadn’t thought about it like that. Can I change what I said? If people were judging me because of my religion I would get really sad. Now I think maybe they should show it.”

Spellings’ attitude–the idea that kids should somehow be “protected” from knowing about homosexuality–is a way of making sure that it’s safe and easy for their parents (and the policies of those who their parents elect) to be homophobic. Her idea that parents should get to “decide” whether or not they want to teach their kids that homosexuality is OK is just as stupid and dangerous as letting parents “decide” whether or not child abuse, or racism, or anti-semitism are OK.

If only Margaret Spellings, her boss, and the Dobsons and Dobson-followers et al. who agree with this narrow-minded, regressive thinking could watch Buster, feel empathy like Farah does…maybe they too could “change what they said.” But it’s probably too late for them. Their fears and insecurities about their own sexuality are too, too powerful.


The loss of a great one

Filed under: — Joe @ 8:20 pm

Sad news today of the death (at age 100) of Ernst Mayr. His must-read What Evolution Is will always have a vital place in my library. It’s one of the major classics of biology–or science writing in general.

As an ornithologist, Mayr classified many birds, most notably risking the hostile terrain of New Guinea to catalogue the region’s birds of paradise. But he will arguably be best remembered for formulating the concept of species that students still use today.

It was Mayr who defined a species as a group of individuals that are capable of breeding with one another, but not with others outside the group. This led to the idea that new species can arise when an existing species becomes separated into two populations that gradually become too distinct to interbreed; it was an answer to a biological conundrum that had eluded Charles Darwin.


We may never again see someone so influential, in this era of large research groups and even larger databases, [Walter] Bock [Columbia University evolutionary biologist] adds. “Things have changed,” he says. “You can’t look at single people any more.”

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