Archive for February, 2005

Another Cup

Feb 27 2005 Published by under borderland

I just sent off a guest cup to The Year of Coffee to see if he will post it as a guest cup in his blog. The guest cup feature is a bit of genius, I think.

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Things I Should Have Photographed

Feb 26 2005 Published by under borderland

I was thinking that lists of things might make a good blog category. I think that lists are an underappreciated literary genre. They are so common, so personal, so localized that they have little relevance to anyone but the author. A perfect topic for a weblog!

I was thinking about this as I was driving into town to spend time at my classroom on a sunny Saturday morning. Teaching school is not a 40 hour a week job for me, or anyone else that I know. I am particularly inefficient because I waste so much time doing unnecessary things like this blog entry, instead of boring but necessary chores like grading student work, that I get little done during my regular work hours. While I was thinking about this lists category idea I drove by some interesting things to photograph:

  • Snow cairns lined up along Sheep Creek Road that some creative person made from the chunks pushed into berms by graders that cleared the hard pack.
  • A bunch of ROTC soldiers crouched down in a circle at the base of the University sled hill, aiming weapons outward while children sledded nearby.
  • An Eskimo woman dressed in a kuspuk waiting for a bus on Geist Rd., holding a long piece of baleen.

The snow chunks will still be there for a while, I hope. I might actually take that picture.

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Natural Selection

Feb 24 2005 Published by under borderland,science

Now and then you realize that there are still some things that you’d never thought of doing before. You’ve done crazy things. So have I. I’ve jumped from an airplane, fallen in a crevasse, dumped my canoe. But I had a parachute. I had a rope. I had a life jacket. I’m such a wimp.

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Impossibility

Feb 22 2005 Published by under education

Dermot Cole said it in the local paper on Sunday. It’s the first time I’ve seen written in any mainstream publication. He was writing about the word, proficient, but I noticed another word. His point was that what most people think proficient is, and what the state benchmark tests mean are not the same. Maybe he’s right. It doesn’t really matter to me what they call it if somebody makes the cut score. They could call it “minimally competent,” or “good enough,” or, as Cole suggested, “marginal, minimal or even mediocre.” Or they could call it meaningless. That’s what it is.

The word I noticed in Dermot’s column was the word, “impossibility.” He said

Under the law, a school will be judged a failure in 2014 if even one student is not proficient.

That’s about as practical as deciding that everyone in America will be healthy, wealthy and wise by 2014, but no one wants to be accused of “leaving children behind,” so the impossibility of achieving the goal receives little attention.

The impossibility of this requirement makes the entire NCLB effort ludicrous. In a mock display of reasonableness, the law recognizes that we won’t be able to attain this lofty goal immediately, so they devised a scheme to give us time (to fail). They call it “adequate yearly progress” (AYP). This way, the torment gets spread over a period of years, and officials can claim that they gave us plenty of time to comply. Never mind that the whole idea was bogus to begin with. I think that we ought to have an additional index called “adequate daily effort.” We could key it to attendance, homework done, visits to the bathroom and the nurse, and time-on-task in the classroom.

Critics of the law, mainly Democrats, have been lamely complaining that there isn’t enought funding to ensure that this goal can be met. That’s ridiculous, too. There isn’t enough money on the planet to do that – not that I’d mind having lower class sizes and state of the art everything. But that won’t do it. The fact of the matter is that this whole business is completely insane. The only thing that makes it seem otherwise is that people talk about it as if it was somehow doable.

Teachers have lost their jobs in other states for saying this. We’re all expected to get on board or get out. I could go on… but that’s for another day on the soapbox. I’m just happy to see that someone else, not a teacher, is sane enough to recognize the obvious.

As to the definition of ‘proficient,’ that was decided by a committee. It is a negotiated definition. This is a perfect illustration of the power of language. Words are political. Language is not neutral. Not ever. The power to define words is the power to control people. If you don’t agree with that, try making a joke about bombs at an airport. You’ll quicky learn about the official definitions of ‘humor,’ and ‘terrorism.’ All definitions are negotiated. But some of us bring less clout than others to the bargaining table. History books are full of stories about people who have strongly disagreed with the meanings of various terms. The president believes that proficiency can be measured by a single test, written by people who don’t understand that meaning is always negotiated.

    Questions to ponder:

  • Where does meaning come from?
  • When did standardized tests first become popular?
  • Why are tests so popular today?
  • What are schools really being asked to do these days?
  • How is the mission of public schools different now than it was a century ago?
  • Why do students have so little practical knowledge in this “Information Age?”
  • Why aren’t parents held accountable in any of this NCLB legislation?
  • Why aren’t there standards for textbooks?
  • Why aren’t there standards for legislators?

As a teacher it seems I may be participating in the end of formal education. The demands on the model have exceeded its design limits. It’s time to bury the wreckage and move on.

Regards from the borderland,

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Strayhorn Launched

Feb 20 2005 Published by under technology

Starting off with a new look. Nothing exceptional, a bit simpler. The picture of the rocket is a mini-celebration demonstration because I learned to post images. But that doesn’t have much to do with the new WordPress upgrade.

I spent the better part of yesterday messing with the new WordPress version 1.5, Strayhorn. It’s got a lot of new features that make it pretty fun to work with. The main thing is that there are more design possibilities, since WordPress bloggers can use/develop themes to create a wide variety of different looks. And as soon as I have the time to make an “about this author page,” and an annotated links page, those will be coming.

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Post Dumped

Feb 18 2005 Published by under technology

It’s not that bad, but I have to confess. I did a couple of things this week that I regret. I’m trying to get used to the fact that when I write things here, people might read them. I know. That’s the point. But there is only a very thin filter on my idea-generator. So a good idea on Tuesday might be pretty ugly-looking by Thursday.

That’s what happened. That’s all. No big deal. Maybe nobody even looked at it, or thought too much about it if they did see it.

I had this insight into blog genres. I realized that there are basically two different kinds of blogs. There are the informational blogs, and there are the personal expression blogs. There are lots of variations. I figured that I could use this new insight in my tagging scheme to help me sort the weblogs that I have on del.icio.us.

Tagging the links I’ve saved wasn’t really an issue until recently, when I collected over 100 links in a category and tried to find one. It was a huge discovery when I learned that I could click on “add” in the related tags list and search for items that shared BOTH tags. Now, this is a retrieval system that is way better than any folder full of folders. The reason this works for me is that when I put something in a typical folder, there it sits, inside of a single label or buried deep in a labyrinth of folders that I need a shovel and a rake, practically, to find my way through. I lose things easily because my need to find any single thing isn’t always based on a primary category name. Most things fit into more than one category, and organizing material in static folders is always an exercise in choosing the most general label for an item. With del.icio.us we can use as many tags for a single item as we like. This is exactly the reverse of conventional filing systems. In a conventional filing system, if you want to use multiple labels for something, you have to create duplicate items to put in multiple folders. Searching through multiple tags for a single item makes sorting through the layers far more helpful.

So I am liking del.icio.us a lot now. I can even imagine myself getting a little fired up talking about folksonomy and social tagging with anyone who cares enough to help me better understand what it all means. Not much chance of that for me just now, though. Nobody I know has heard of or would even care about any of this. To me, though, I think we are on the verge of a major shift in how information is going to be structured and retrieved.

See? There I go.

The problem with the post I made about this is that del.icio.us is public. And it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with this blog. In the blog post I announced that (oh so cleverly…) I had chosen the tag name, ‘geek,’ for the informational blogs; and the tag name, ‘freak,’ for the creative expression sites. I was careful to mention that I meant nothing derogatory by either term. I thought it was funny that the words rhymed. I mentioned that we are free to use any name that we choose for a tag, and that feature makes del.icio.us powerfully versatile. What happened is that a couple of days after this stroke of dimness I browsed my weblogs file on del.icio.us and saw the word, ‘freak,’ under the title of some thoughtful person’s creative effort. I guess I’m just too polite to be that off the wall and not care what anyone thinks. I wondered what the person who wrote the blog would think if they happened to look though my links. See, it’s no big deal. It’s just taking time for me to get used to the social part of social software.

It’s true that words carry the meanings that we choose for them. But context is everything. And the context in a list of labels is pretty thin. How would anyone who didn’t know me be able to recognize that, to me, the word freak is a term of affection? It has negative connotations that are more commonly applied. As I mentioned before, ambiguity is presumed in all expressive acts. Without any broad context to help other people understand my thinking, I couldn’t leave those labels.

So I made the second mistake. I immediately (because I was in a hurry at the time) deleted the blog post and edited the tags. I should have edited the blog post, too. It would have saved me a bunch of time writing this one. I’ll learn. Embarrassment in a powerful teacher.

I also mentioned that WordPress released a new stable version, Strayhorn, that offers some new features. It’s going to enable me to create “static” pages, and to style the blog with templates. So tomorrow we are going to explore a new look.

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Using Usenet

Feb 09 2005 Published by under technology

Now that I understand a little bit more about how it is organized, I may be able to put Usenet to work for me. I installed Thunderbird, which has an email client as well as a news reader. I used Google to search for the groups that I might want to subscribe to. Thunderbird is way faster than Google for flipping through lots of messages, because with Google, the browser page has to refresh each time you navigate to something new. Thunderbird does that instantly.

I found some interesting news web pages by following links that people posted to a group. I expect, too, that if I want to buy something I can find someone with experience who could comment on whatever I need to know.

I don’t like watching people verbally abuse each other, though; there is a lot of crude, and not too clever, writing there. I think that giving people the space to form communities built on common interests is one of the most powerful features of the web. Being able to search the archives makes this resource valuable.

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Using IRC

Feb 09 2005 Published by under technology

This past week has taken me to some new corners of the internet I’d never seen. Communicating on the Web introduced me to Internet Relay Chat. I have no experience with IM or other direct messaging applications, so this was my introduction.

Technical issue: It took me a while to get oriented to Chatzilla. I spent a long time trying to figure out what channels were available. Finally, I discovered I could use “join channel” from the file menu. That was faster (way faster!) than using the /join command in the text entry field. It gave me channel names and numbers of users for the different channels that were open. I joined several channels at once. It was like using “Seek” on the radio dial. I could flip between different channels real fast. The conversation moved real SLOW, so I had a lot of time to channel surf.

Weirdness: The “join channel” screen provided the channel name, number of users, and also a tag line describing what the channel was mostly about. Some of these labels were altogether vulgar, or hateful, or just plain strange. Something for everyone, apparently. One of the channels I joined on Tuesday night was #wikipedia. I thought that maybe I’d learn something more about this interesting internet resource. Instead I learned that college kids in dorm rooms use IRC to tell each other about how stoned they are on various chemicals. After a fairly involved discussion about the limitations of sobriety, they complained about someone involved in the wikipedia editing process who, they believed, was too focused on his own power and authority. A tedious discussion.

That being said, I’m glad that I know about IRC now. It may come in handy some day. I liked the #php and the #wordpress channels. They stayed pretty focused. At this point, though, I see this as more of a curiosity than as a tool for me. I can see great potential for constructive work with IRC, but I also recognize that what can be accomplished with any tool depends on the choices made by its users.

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The Best

Feb 02 2005 Published by under borderland

New to blogging, me. I suppose that any time we enter a new cultural space a certain amount of self-consciousness is to be expected. This past week spent doing blog research ( a fancy word for screwing off at work – not that much ’cause all hell breaks loose in a fourth grade classroom when you turn your back for more than five minutes) was going along in a predictable way. I’ve been looking at many, many blogs. Trying to get a sense of what they’re mainly about. I followed a link to The Fifth Annual Weblog Awards which turned up some interesting bits. I looked through a few, but since the blog form is new to me I had to check out an article, How to Blog, by Tony Pierce, that was up for an award. The word, ‘blog’ took on new meaning for me after that. This is going to be very very time consuming. I fear it is only the beginning. This was a post written about 7 months ago, evidently. According to Tony, it got him quite a bit of notice. Aside from the practical advice, it’s funny. How to Blog is a list of rules, I guess you could call them, for blogging. They are good rules. You could read them a few times and still learn something. There are 30 of them.
Rule 26, for instance:

26. dont be afraid to come across as an asswipe. own your asswipeness.

Unconventional advice. And so you want to look around. He’s got pictures and links all over the place. The pictures are funny. That’s a rule: use pictures. I decided after I saw what he was doing that I wanted pictures on my blog. But I have to learn how to do it. I looked back at How to Blog in order make this post and I noticed the rule for making pictures. It’s rule 17. Some of the pictures are of half-naked women. That’s ok.

He’s a cubs fan. Lots of stuff on the Cubs. I don’t care about the Cubs. My mothers father played ball for the Yankees in 1912. But it isn’t popular to be a Yankees fan outside of NYC anymore. I don’t mind reading about the Cubs. I just read a little faster. Tony uses profanity. That’s another rule. Rule 4. I’m not sure about that one. I don’t curse when I write.

This blog is altogether original. Irreverent. Rich. Because of that, it’s hard to describe. Definitely non-commercial. Makes me realize how conditioned we are to expect (and not expect) certain things from media. When someone REALLY makes a statement, you know. Tony’s not imitating anyone or anything as near as I can tell. And I really appreciate the instructional commentary for blogging that he hands out. I’m taking lessons.

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Watching Bush

Feb 02 2005 Published by under borderland,politics

I watched the president give his State of the Union pep rally speech on television a little while ago, but I had to turn it off to go do something important, like open a beer or put a log on the fire (I think it was both) since it’s about -30 degrees F – I can’t find the little degree symbol on the keyboard. I am one of the increduluous other half that can’t believe he got elected. Since the election I’ve been paying more attention to political commentary. But it’s hard to find a source with a point of view that doesn’t seem like another mouthpiece for the administration. The best example of blatant political propaganda comes from the recent scandal in which Armstrong Williams was discovered to have been paid over two hundred thousand dollars to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. It wouldn’t have been news, except that Williams was posing as a journalist. Even though everyone involved is sorry and outraged and behaving properly sobered, I have to wonder how much more of this rot goes on all the time. I also wonder if there may be money out there for me to prostitute myself and sell somebody’s line of crap if I ever find myself high enough up in the food chain that anyone would care what I think.

For those of us who wonder about what the Bush crowd might be up to when nobody is looking, it’s great to find critics of the administration publishing on the web. Talking Points Memo: by Joshua Micah Marshall is a good starting point. Marshall is a professional writer. He writes for The Washington Monthly and a bunch of other political media sources. His blog’s first post is from November 2000, and he has maintained a steady focus on Bush throughout his tenure as president. The blog is totally monotonous, since it’s focus is so narrow. But if you want to know about what’s going on in DC, it’s a good place to look.

I think this blog exemplifies the enormous power of bloggers to subvert big media outlets. There’s something for everyone, and lots to choose from.

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