Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thought through? Or: Thought? Through!

Berkeley High School, like many high schools across the country, has found a problem with a gap in student achievement that breaks across racial lines. Often, schools with such gaps try to find ways to raise the test scores and grades of the minority groups on the theory that they can, with the proper tools, teaching and motivation, achieve just as well as the higher-performing students.

Berkeley, however, will take a different approach. They will figure out new ways to reach out to those students who are not reaching their full potential. And they will stop reaching out to those students who are.

The Berkeley High's School Governance Council, a group of students, parents and teachers, has recommended the school cut five science lab sections -- which the council says have mostly white students -- in order to redirect resources to reaching the other students. A council member who spoke to the newspaper said the decision was "virtually unanimous," which shows that, whether or not he did well in science, he has no idea what either of those words mean.

One of BHS's science teachers points out that while the advanced placement or AP labs may reach mostly white students, there are minority students in them also. The teacher doesn't mention it, but achievement in AP labs and classes is often heavily weighted when students apply to elite colleges or in scholarship applications -- so some of those minority students who would lose their labs might have much more difficulty in being accepted or in paying for college following high school.

On the one hand, there's a certain ugly but undeniable logic to the suggestion. If the school wants to use resources to reach underperforming students, it will have to take those resources from somewhere. On the other hand, the council's stated rationale -- the labs reach white students and we need to help non-white students so we'll take away what the white students have and give it to the other ones -- is bigotry writ fairly large. There are, one might assume, some other course offerings that BHS could trim to gain the needed resources to improve education among those who need the most help. Fortunately, BHS puts its course catalog -- more than 90 pages, which I think is longer than some smaller colleges -- online so we can check out what some of those courses are.

There is, for example, the "Social Justice Seminar" course "Social Justice, Social Responsibility and Social Change." Really? Takes a whole year to teach kids "Vote, pay your taxes, don't break the law, do unto others as they would do unto you, love your neighbor as yourself and look out for the little guy?" Maybe even the high-performing Berkeley students aren't that smart.

BHS offers a semester-long course in "Popular Culture in 20th Century America." This is a course that presumes teachers know more about pop culture than students, which is a non sequitir of monumental proportions. The pop culture teachers would know more about is the older pop culture, AKA "What my parents liked," and I think we know how much teens love to hear their parents talk about the music they liked, movies they saw, and cool clothes they wore.

There are others. The PE department offers year-long courses in "Funk Aerobic Exercise," badminton (teacher recommendation required for placement in the advanced group), and a semester-long ultimate frisbee course.

A superficial view to be sure, but the point is that the council which recommended the cuts could have found plenty of trimmable things on which BHS spends its taxpayers' money that could free up resources for needed work among its low-achieving students. Especially considering that those labs also serve minority students.

Instead, Berkeley High's School Governance Council seems quite happy to be a school that would rather tell smart minority kids whose performance in an advanced placement lab might have earned them shots at MIT that it's more important for them to have the chance to take a semester of ultimate frisbee. That choice may or may not have been thought through. But it certainly indicates a group of folks who are through with thinking.

(H/T to Erin O'Connor, who used the headline I wanted to use)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Free Is in the Eye of the Beholden...

While watching TV late at night at the folks' house, I saw a new commercial for a service that charges you for a credit report. Well, technically, they don't charge you for a report -- that's free. But you don't get the report unless you enroll in a credit monitoring program, and that costs you a monthly fee after the trial period.

Of course, the law allows a person to request a report of their credit history free of charge once every 12 months -- including from the company that runs the service that isn't completely free.

The company has made several try-to-be-clever commercials with their curly-headed protagonist detailing, in several musical genres, how his inattention to his credit rating left him unable to buy a house, cool car, mountain bike, modern cell phone or to get a good job.

I also noticed that, according to Facebook, I had a chance to become a fan of the band. I'm pretty sure that "fan" isn't synonymous with "someone who wishes you would just shut up and go back to making French-language movies about infidelity," so I passed. Funny thing here -- the lead "singer" is French-Canadian and speaks English with a decided accent, so his voice in the commercials is dubbed. The songs were written by an ad guy who's also responsible for that ubiquitous faux-Cockney gecko who shills for an insurance company.

Maybe there's some kind of repellent that would get rid of them both.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Get My Grinch On...

I hate snow more than 90% of the time I see it anyway, so when it's mixed with 40 mph winds, sleet and doled out in half-foot-deep-or-more amounts, I find myself assuming a wrath towards it of near-Biblical proportions.

I am, of course, a man of peace and I wish to be at odds with no one on earth. I own no weapons save for those socks I didn't wash the last time I wore them to mow the lawn. But should anyone brave the elements, come to my home, knock on my door and sing "White Christmas" to me, I shall direct upon that person the Gaze of Instant and Painful Death. And it will be several minutes before I am sorry.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Gotta Watch Them Verbs

This article by author Naomi Wolf suggests that Carrie Bradshaw, the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, became "feminism's foremost philosopher." But how can you take Ms. Wolf seriously?

It's not because Bradshaw is what we quaintly used to call a "fictional character" and thus has no philosophy not given her by writers, Ms. Parker and show producers (one of whom I went to college with).

Nor is it because this fictional character was a shoe-obsessed airhead who spent most of the show chasing after a man (Chris Noth's "Mr. Big") who, from what I hear, frequently treated her poorly.

No, it's far simpler than that. Second paragraph, first sentence. Ms. Wolf says the show "centred not around a couple," using that funny British spelling because this article appears in a British paper. It is impossible, of course, to center or centre around anything. You may orbit around something, you may revolve around something, you may circle around something or you may wander around something.

But you can only center on something. Remember, the center of a circle is the point that is equidistant from all points on the circle. That means it has to be one location, and that means it can't be "around" anything.

Just a former reporter's pet peeve. I feel better now.

Yet Another Big Honkin' Lump of Coal... me, to go with the egg on my face for not following the article about Dr. Nathan Grills far enough to find out that the Australian professor was spoofing scientific articles about silly subjects, something I of course hold very dear.

In fact, Dr. Grills plays Santa and he says he does so out of a belief in what he calls:
...the true meaning of Santa. The true Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a very generous man who gave of all his wealth to bless others who were in need. This was a reflection of one of the greatest gifts given to humanity: the baby Jesus. We need to reclaim Christmas for the beauty of giving and loving.
Oh, it gets worse for me yet. In his everyday work, Dr. Grills studies HIV transmission in rural areas of India to see how charities can help victims of the disease in those regions. I feel like I just kicked a puppy...that is, I feel like this his how I would feel if I ever had kicked a puppy, because I am not the kind of person who would do such a thing, although based on how I made fun of this really neat guy you probably shouldn't take my word for that.

As one of the people who made fun of your spoofed study, Dr. Grills, I certainly apologize, on the one-in-a-million chance either of my readers ever meets you and mentions my earlier post to you. And the study itself is pretty dadgum funny. It gave me a ho-ho-ho for the day.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Another Big Honkin' Lump of Coal

To the apparently underemployed Dr. Nathan Grills from Monash University in Australia, who suggests that the image of the right jolly old elf, all chubby and plump, promotes obesity in children.

The tradition of leaving Santa a glass of brandy also promotes an image of drunken driving, Dr. Grinch -- Grills, I mean -- says. I respond thusly:

1) As we learned from any number of Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, the reindeer are sentient. Santa can have as much brandy as he wants; he has nine designated drivers and one of them has an illuminated nose.

2) I'd imagine that after Santa's "helper," AKA "Dad," sweats through the midnight, midnight-plus-one and perhaps midnight-plus-two-and-three hours to put together that blasted bicycle, he's earned a swig, so lay the bleep off, Doc.

3) Children love Santa, but children do not want to be Santa. There is no waiting line to perform chimney-work, for example.

4) A glass of brandy and a mince pie left out for Santa? Australians have some different holiday traditions, it would seem. No wonder the old lush never touched the milk and cookies my sister and I made sure were left for him.

You know, if university professors like Dr. Grills and the fellow mentioned the other day keep this up, all that coal is going to make people start questioning their ecological commitment.

You're Looking in the Wrong Place

Sometimes, even famous people I like say things that don't make much sense. Sam Elliott, the only man alive whose mustache could probably beat Chuck Norris's in a fair fight, thinks the reason that New Line Cinema didn't make sequels to 2007's The Golden Compass was because the Roman Catholic church put too much pressure on them to shelve the project.

Compass was based on the first -- and best -- of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" fantasy novels. Pullman is an English writer who despises C.S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia" children's novels and was initially pretty upfront that his works were designed as a sort of "anti-Narnia," although he didn't use that term.

Pullman misreads Lewis at a number of critical points. His trilogy has the disadvantage of having enough attitude and agenda for three books, but having story enough for only one and a half. And New Line was facing the reality that a film based on the best book of the series draws a 42% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and carries the barely better than break-even score of 51 at Metacritics.

New Line was also facing a wretched financial picture, managing to somehow squander the mint of money that came from The Lord of the Rings trilogy into several year's worth of box-office underwhelmingness. They spent between $180 and $200 million on Compass and had an initial domestic take of barely $70 million (Mr. Elliott's figure of an $85 million gross comes from who knows where). New Line, in fact, went under and was bought out by Warner Bros. less than three months after Compass was released.

This writer notes that the church has protested a number of things which have gone on to do quite well, among them a handful of little movies about an English boy wizard, a gal from the Detroit suburbs who's sold a record or two, and some books about vampires written by a Mormon homemaker.

So I'm going to take the risk of disagreeing with Mr. Elliott, who's one of my favorite character actors, and say that the real reason no one's going to make any sequels to The Golden Compass has more to do with The Green Paper than any religious influence that the Roman Catholic church holds over the board of directors of New Line Cinema or its successors.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

One Big Honkin' Lump of Coal

That will be on its way forthwith to one David Kyle Johnson, an assistant professor of philosophy at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Professor Johnson takes to the Baltimore Sun to enlighten us all about how wrong it is to encourage children to believe in Santa Claus.

Professor Johnson also provides another fine example of my thesis that professors don't have enough to do.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Due Credit

Since I dinged Stephen King for uncomplimentary comments about military folks, it's proper that I acknowledge his good gesture to National Guard troops from his home state of Maine.

About 150 soldiers scheduled for deployment in January will get bus tickets home thanks to King, who donated $12,999 towards their tickets from a training base in Indiana to Portland and to Bangor, Maine's major cities. The cost was $13,000, but King is apparently a bit of a triskedekaphobe and didn't want to jinx the troops, so his assistant put in the extra dollar.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Like Getting Socks for Christmas...

At least, it seems that's how a large chunk of the good folk of Illinois feel about the idea that terrorists now housed at a facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be moved to the Thomson Correctional Center in the western part of the state.

I'm pretty sure they don't see this as a good substitute for the Olympics they were supposed to get in Chicago. Granted, a number of the gentlemen who might be housed at TCC might have some athletic feats in mind, such as the Exterior Fence Pole-Vault, the Underground Handmade Tunnel Endurance Crawl or the Multiple High-Velocity Projectile Obstacle Course Dodge.

But I believe the fanfare that accompanies Olympic sports might not be welcomed by the athletes practicing the above skills. In fact, I'd suspect they wouldn't even want anyone to know about the contests until well after they're over.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Two letters that can represent great possibility and an open doorway to achievement.

And they can also be the biggest quagmire imaginable, making it utterly impossible to move forward or, in many cases be taken seriously. "If we'd done this" or "If this hadn't happened" are fine statements to include in an overall review of events and policy. But after awhile, they're as useful as old fish and smell little better.

With that thought in mind, feel free to read this Newsweek piece by David Rakoff, in which he shows an attitude that still whines about the 2000 presidential election and the outcome.

I can understand how many people might like to dream about a world in which George W. Bush was not elected president. But every bit of energy expended in such a dream is energy that can't be used in order to deal with the world the way it is, and Rakoff's piece about how everything would have been better if Gore had won is just mean-spirited wishful thinking.

And it plays fast and loose with facts, too. Rakoff refers to a signing ceremony for the Kyoto Treaty regulating greenhouse gas omissions taking place in his alternate March 2001. Of course, President Clinton signed that treaty in 1998 but never submitted it to the Senate for ratification, which would make a "signing ceremony" a bit of a redundancy.

Ah, but who cares! The article's point was to take snide jabs at all of the author's favorite targets by giving them fates he felt they deserved, and to show how everything bad that happened from 2000-2008 was President Bush's fault.

So at least one person had fun with it, anyway.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Whatcha Hidin' There?

Astronomers have discovered that Alcor, a star in the handle of The Big Dipper constellation, has a previously unseen companion.

It's kind of par for the course for stars in that particular constellation, as many of them have shown up with unexpected companion stars as observing equipment improved and astronomers were better able to make out details. Alcor is a large bright star and the companion is a red dwarf star, one of the most common stars found in the universe. That's on the occasions when they're found, of course, as they are pretty dim compared to other stars and often are overlooked.

The new star will be named according to the conventional practice of the International Astronomical Union, which designates mutiple-star systems with letters of the alphabet. So it will be called Alcor B, and the former Alcor will now be called Alcor A in light of the discovery.

There is no truth to the rumor that the appearance of a previously unknown companion to Alcor prompted the IAU to consider renaming it "Tiger."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

About Face!

Signs of intelligent life have been found amongst the members of the Sussex Squares homeowners association in Virginia. They have agreed not to tell 90-year-old Congressional Medal of Honor honoree Col. Van T. Barfoot (ret.) to take down his flagpole, and they've agreed to stop threatening to sue him if he doesn't.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

From the Vast to the Minute

Here are some pictures from the other end of the King's realm mentioned last week.


One of the morning shows at the gym had a piece on dogs who compete over obstacle courses and such. At some point it probably involves catching a frisbee, too.

And they had a small demonstration, which was a relief because at first the tag on the screen said "Dog Show" and I was worried this was one of those things where the dogs are blow-dried and trimmed and styled to a degree that must shame the ancestral wolf within. At least I hope it does.

The dogs, coached by their people, ran through a couple of tubes, jumped some low hurdles and dodged back and forth between some upright poles. The thing was, they looked like they were having an absolute blast, even though everyone's breath was steaming and the people were all bundled up against the cold.

And I suppose I might have myself a blast too if I were a dog and doing these sorts of things: I get to run! I get to jump! I get a treat! And I am a good dog! A very good dog! I do not possess a spoken language to express my overflowing happiness, so I will lick your face instead!

I've seen other kinds of these shows, too, where the dogs do indeed catch the frisbee, and another where they are supposed to run and jump as far as they can into a tank of water, and several other contests. There's probably a sour-faced animal rights activist group somewhere that thinks these things are awful and exploitative and whatnot, but I seriously hope a Great Dane whizzes on their collective natural-grown-hemp-fiber pantlegs.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Mixed blessing?

So once again my alma mater will play in a bowl game. Northwestern is in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, FL, on Jan. 1. The Wildcats play the Auburn Tigers. Which probably means we won't be breaking our streak of bowl losses anytime soon.

But it's a New Year's Day bowl game, even if it is named after a restaurant. The Outback Bowl began life as the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1986 as a late December bowl game. (There was a Hall of Fame Bowl beginning in 1975, but it specifically matched small schools against each other and didn't have much of a profile). It switched to the January set the next year and has been there ever since. It's been the Outback Bowl since 1994.

We'll just have to see if this will be the game where we Northwestern alums get to stop saying, "Northwestern University: Losing bowl games -- and graduating the people who run the companies you work for -- since 1949."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?

The Sussex Square Homeowners Association of Henrico County, VA, has sent a letter to Col. Van T. Barfoot (ret.), telling him he can't have a free-standing flagpole on his front lawn.

The 90-year-old Congressional Medal of Honor winner likes to raise the flag each morning and lower it at sunset. But since the homeowners association doesn't like his flagpole, he has until 5 PM Friday to take it down or get sued. Should he lose his lawsuit, the association would also ding him for legal costs.

Can we count the different stupidities here?

1) Having your notice to a 90-year-old man written and delivered by a law firm and threatening to have him pay your legal bills if you have to sue him.

2) Denying an application to said 90-year-old man to erect a flagpole even though the association bylaws don't explicitly forbid it, on aesthetic grounds.

3) Getting hot and bothered about a flagpole in a yard owned by a 90-year-old man. How long do you think this is going to be a problem?

4) Telling one of fewer than 100 living Congressional Medal of Honor recipients -- who by the way also earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star and a Purple Heart during his career -- he can't fly the American flag the way he wants to.

As my headline suggests, who thought this would be a good idea? And digging a little more, let's see what Col. Barfoot did to earn his nation's highest military honor. We can find it at the Medal of Honor Society website, but I'll summarize. He captured three machine-gun nests and 17 German soldiers. By himself. Later in the day, he faced down three tanks and shot one in the tread with a bazooka, disabling it. While on his way back to his unit after blowing up a German artillery piece, he helped two wounded soldiers back to safety.

I figure that guy who gave three tanks the hairy eyeball and a bazooka round when he was 24 may have lost a step or two in the ensuing 66 years. At 90, he may not be what he once was. But I'm betting he's still got enough in him to handle a county homeowners association.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Iam adveho Rex

Advent focuses us on Christmas, which focuses us on the birth of a baby. It is a good thing to do.

It's also a good thing to remember that the baby would grow into a man, and that in a way that human language can't fully explain, that man would simultaneously be a first-century Jew as well as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and has always been the engine of creation itself as God's own Word.

The Boston Globe's "Big Picture" site offers a daily reminder of just a few small parts of this King's realm, with some help from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


I read towards the end of October that November was being set aside by folks who blog as a time to try to post at least once a day. It has a name that combines letters of its words into some slightly menacing Soviet-era agency-sounding word, but I forget what it was.

Well, I thought I'd try it. After all, I used to write at least five days a week when I worked at the paper, and I did that for a few years. Let's see if I still can, I sez.

I can, it turns out, although it's not as easy as it was when the city council or the school board or the police went and did something that gave me a ready-made topic. Hunting up your own stuff every day is a little bit harder work, even with the whole internet at your disposal. Some things I don't care to write about at all, some I don't care to write about any more, and some I don't care to learn anything about them in order to write more. Some posts said what I would have said, so why do that over and over again.

The only day that's kind of questionable was Sunday, Nov. 15. All I posted was a link to the sermon that went up on my sermon blog. But on the other hand, I posted the sermon, which is about as long or longer as most of the things I post here, so I'm inclined to let myself off with a warning.

This exercise really broadened my respect for some of the best daily columnists and such, like my favorite, the late Mike Royko. Nine hundred words, five or six days a week. Even with research assistants to handle the legwork, that ain't shabby.

My respect for the worst columnists, of course, remains quite narrow.

(ETA: Andrew Sullivan is actually the worst columnist/pundit who writes in any kind of a national forum, but I choose not to link him.)