Thursday, December 30, 2010

Textbook errors create a stir in Virginia schools; even academic publishing has problems in quality in this cost-cutting age

For all the discussion of “amateur” vs. “professional” authoring and publishing, it seems that the flap over errors in social studies textbooks from Five Ponds Press (link), including “Our Virginia: Past and Present” (Joy Masoff) and “Our America” have really created a stir. The publisher even mentions helping students with their SOL’s (Standards of Learning tests) in promoting the lower-priced texts. The Washington Post has a story on Dec. 30 by Kevin Sieff. Errors included stating that the US entered World War I in 1916 (it was 1917). Another was that the Confederacy comprised 12 states (it was 11). And there was a controversial error involving the participation of blacks fighting for the South.

An interesting sidelight seems to be that the authors did a lot of their research for the texts on the Internet. “I read it on the Internet so it must be right.”

Of course, I remember my own factual gaffe on the back cover of the first edition of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book in 1997 on the "age" of the Bill of Rights (I don’t know how it got past me), but corrected it in the 2000 print-on-demand from iUniverse. But no one caught it until 1998, when someone in Minnesota noticed it proofreading my second booklet. (It’s a good idea when writing history not to say how “old” some document is, because the book itself will age anyway.)

There was some controversy back in the 1950s, because social studies in Arlington was always “Virginia and U.S. History” and “Virginia and U.S. Government”. And we always had a lot of collateral reading besides history and literature anthology texts. I don’t even remember what the anthologies were (in college, we had Crane Brinton’s “A History of Civilziation” and “British Poetry and Prose”). We had a lot of collateral reading: “Silas Marner” in 10th Grade English, John Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” in 11th Grade History, and “Huckleberry Finn” in college freshman English. It seemed (when I was a sub) that everyone read Goldman's “Lord of the Flies” (a kind of “Lost”) in 9th Grade English and had to take pop reading quizzes on it. Another external assignment was an abbreviated version of Elie Weisel’s “Night” – there’s eve a Spark multiple choice quiz here. And these assignments produced some vocabulary words (like “lorry”).

Update: January 9, 2011

Andy Rooney, on CBS 60 Minutes, talked about the textbook fiasco tonight, and Robert McCartney wrote a column for the Metro Section of the Sunday Washington Post, "Va. schools should insist on refund for textbooks".  No way to turn these into "teachable moments."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Smithsonian's "Mysteries of the Universe" takes up the coronal mass ejection issue

The Smithsonian has a Collector’s Edition for Winter 2011 of “Mysteries of the Universe” (104 pages) about many topics.
But the most important piece, by Robert Irion on p 70, “Staring at the Sun”, echoes the warnings that a large coronal mass ejection from the Sun could wreak havoc. Like the book by Lawrence Joseph reviewed Nov. 9 here, it discusses the 1859, 1921 and 1989 CME’s, and warns about our growing dependence on electronics.  It says that the effect of an 1859-style event might be reduced by precautionary voltage reductions by power companies and by various measures to redact satellites, but the damage could be over a trillion dollars and be long lasting.  Also, it notes that the 1859 event occurred after a period of little sunspot activity, and notes that sunspot activity dropped almost to zero in 2008 and 2009. But rather than 2012, it seems to think the greatest risk occurs in 2013 and 2014.
There are articles about all kinds of things, like the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, which does not have a quasar, but which will develop one in some billions of years when the Andromeda Galaxy approaches.
It talks about the Solar System, but does not have pictures of Europa and Titan, a disappointment.
It also has an article (“Ready for Contact”) by Sarah Zielinski about the search for extraterrestrials, and notes that a laser reply would be a sign of intelligence.  It is guarded as to how arriving extraterrestrials would treat us, but probably not as badly as in the film “Skyline” (or “V” or “The Event”).
If you believe in the idea that family gives future beyond the self, you have to realize that some day Man will have to find a new home, a new solar system, maybe a new galaxy or new universe to live in. Ever wonder “what makes me who I am?”  Why am I experiencing myself in 2010; why wasn’t I born in earlier times in more “primitive” conditions with more collective values?  It seems that “consciousness” or “soul” is an entity like matter and energy, and that consciousness can transcend the universe’s speed limit and jump universes.  It would make sense to transmit a person’s soul through a wormhole and reassemble it in another universe from the information transmitted, much like a download from the Internet, even like Facebook.  
The link for the “Magazine” is hereIt can be found in many supermarkets and retail outlets.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

George W. Bush and "Decision Points": Finding faith was like diving into the pool

Author: George W. Bush

Title: "Decision Points"

Publication: New York: 2010, Crown Publishers; ISBN 978-0-307-88522-7, 497 pages, hardcover, two sets of illustrations

The former president presents his experience, from young adulthood through the controversial presidency, as the unfolding of life’s challenges to an “ordinary person”.

True, he says early that if he had not made the decision to stop drinking, he could not have faced any other of his monumental problems during his presidency. He also describes the experience of going to a Christian church but not quite believing because he saw himself as a “logical person.” The “born again” experience was a kind of letting go, of diving into the deep end of the pool with dependents needing to be kept afloat.

I do recall his promotion of "faith based" initiatives early in 2001, and his interesting comment during an early speech at Ohio State, "a person without responsibility for others is truly alone".  I believe he made a similar comment toward the end of his Inauguration Day speech in 2001, a Saturday where I went snow tubing south of Minneapolis after hearing the speech. Later he would suggest that more people take interesting in "mentoring a child", and I don't know whether meant to include those who do not have their own children.

I do recall his announcing his stem cell decision, on "conventional right to life" grounds, in August 2001, about a month before 9/11, when I was "home" myself for a visit.

He is very firm in his conviction that he didn’t really “know” much more than the rest of us, despite the elaborate infrastructure for his daily presidential briefings, which go on the road with a president. Having lived in Dallas in the 1980s, I can say it would be nice to have a ranch and a fully equipped and stable personal office in the Texas Hill Country.

His account of how he came to understand the nature of the 9/11 attacks as they unfolded takes a little over a page. He first thought that a small plane had flown into the WTC, and then that a pilot had a heart attack. He experienced disbelief, until a point of recognition, as Andrew Card whispered to him in that elementary school gathering. The "Day of Fire" shocked him and indeed presented an existential threat to our way of life, not necessarily clearer to him because of intelligence, which was often murky. He mentions the New Line film "13 Days" about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. I recall that there was a small "existential" problem about Taiwan in April 2001, however.

On Iraq, he also says he really believed that Saddam had WMD’s, and makes plenty of arguments that even without them Saddam Hussein needed to be removed, given his behavior and the likelihood that he could shield terrorists.

On Hurricane Katrina, he describes some amazement as he flew over the flooded city.

He also experienced the Election Night in 2000 as an ordinary guy, amazed for a while that the media had fumbled the information about Florida. As a factual matter, it simply is unclear whether Gore would have won had the Supreme Court allowed the recount.

He is self-critical on taking up privatizing Social Security, when he says he should have turned more attention to immigration.

One of his most interesting suggestions is that redistricting should be done by a non-partisan committee.

He does not mention gay rights anywhere but he does mention oppression of homosexuals in radical Islam.

He provides a brief an non-apologetic version of the Plame affair ("Fair Game")

I take it that "W." enjoys daily life in Dallas, Texas.  I did.

Crown Books provides the following YouTube video:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI gives book-length interview in "Light of the World"

Authors: Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) , Peter Seewald and George Weigel (Foreword)

Title: "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times"

Subtitle: "A Conversation with Peter Seewald"

Publication: San Francisco, Ignatius, 2010. ISBN 978-1-58617-606-8; hardcover, 219 pages (Foreword and Preface, 20 roman pages), Three Parts, 18 chapters, with Appendix; each chapter has the form of a sequence of comments or questions (“is that a question?”), each followed by the Pope’s reply; hence the publisher calls this a “book length interview” with the Pope.

There seem to be three major points in the Pope’s thinking, as to what the teachings of the Church comprise:

First, God has a plan for us, to develop into a civilization that has a future, where we have much input but where He has a final say, and it is arrogant to say that we can challenge his Plan with intellect and reason alone to define “good” in our terms. (That’s a paradox as the Pope must use considerable abstract intellect to compose his answers.) Indeed, we are imperfect by definition and need salvation by Grace.

Second, God provides many instrumentalities for us to develop and gives us Free Will. He does not stop us from making choices that vary from his Plan, because if he did His Plan could not be carried out at all; His Plan requires us to have freedom. But some personal choices are intrinsically wrong or at least contrary to His intentions for us.

Third, because human beings are imperfect, they face challenges or “miseries” which demonstrate need for God. The “miseries” are individualized and different for various individuals and may seem to contradict political ideas of equality.

Before going into the “specifics” of Vatican prescriptions in morality (which are controversial), I’d like to run through a few original scenarios.

One: Back in First Grade, the teacher let us choose between white and chocolate milk for morning snack. But she warned us that chocolate was the wrong choice because it could make us sick. The boy who sat in front of me, Mike, chose chocolate. I said “you may get sick” and he said, “I don’t care.” He never got sick. Was his choice wrong? What was the point of the teacher giving us a choice if one option was always wrong?

Two: Physicists say that a universe could exist without the “weak force” and a weakless universe could have stars and planets supporting intelligent life. But a weakless universe doesn’t have elements heavier than iron. That means no radioactive elements, and no nuclear weapons. It means no heavy metal poisoning. But probably such a universe would have much less variety and “opportunity” than ours.

Third: In a typical information technology shop, ordinary programmers might not be given regular authority to update production files. This protects the integrity of production systems, but can make getting work done and fixing production problems more difficult. Should programmers be “bonded” and have more “freedom” to do their jobs more efficiently?

You can see where I could be heading: the questions about gay people. The Pope insists that God insists that God’s intrinsic purpose for sexuality is procreation and providing humanity a future, and also he hints that marital sexuality socializes people into meeting the needs of others rather than just following their own “rational” purposes, which for some people can seem quite tempting and rewarding. Hence the famous Vatican doubletalk on homosexuality – and contraception. The book does pay brief attention to his widely announced admission that condoms may be acceptable to prevent STD’s.

The Pope admits he is not sure whether homosexual orientation could be immutable or would develop in the environment. If it is immutable, he might have a problem, because God seems to have created something that is beyond behavioral choice that contradicts his plan. The Pope really doesn’t answer this. Maybe he’s wrong and God intended that some people explore psychological polarity for its own sake, without the need to procreate. But with the “environmental” hypothesis, the Pope may make more “sense”. Sometimes people (especially men) don’t “compete well” according to gender norms; and this is the “misery” that they must deal with to understand they need God. If they were encouraged to express “upward affiliation” openly, we might arrive at a society where people show much less empathy within the family and which people in general have much less “investment” in their biological future. It’s a scary style of thinking, isn’t it.

I understand his reasoning from an abstract perch. But when you say some lifestyles are more in line with God's (or society's) purpose than others, you invite expropriation (and the talk about compassion for "people" as opposed to their indivualities -- whether "chosen" or "miseries" -- sounds like a contradction). And some people feel that, to lead their own lives dedicated to marriage and family, they need to see everyone else have to do the same so that their world has "meaning."

The Pope does rationalize the celibate priesthood. He writes “Homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation” (in analogy to the Pentagon’s 1981 statement “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service”). He takes head on the idea that celibacy could become a “pretext for bringing people into the priesthood who don’t want to get married anyway.” He also writes that homosexual orientation “estranges them from the proper sense of paternity”, as if to highlight that generativity is an intrinsic moral responsibility for everyone. It wouldn’t be hard to connect the Pope’s thinking with right wing arguments about “demographic winter”.

The Pope does discuss the abuse scandal in terms of going back to standards of right and wrong, and in other parts of the book he gets into some things that are generally esoteric, such as Fatima’s appearances (Portugal) and the healings at Lourdes (France) (I visited both in May 2001).

Seewald sometimes begs the questions, summarizing moral arguments on his own, particularly toward the end, where he suggests that a media-saturated and “me first” world takes people away from the social cohesion (and Godly devotion) that a society needs for sustainability.

Ignatius provides this YouTube trailer:

Monday, December 06, 2010

Time's picture book on Benjamin Franklin

In my junior year in high school (they say it’s the hardest year), I remember having to read and compare two biographies for English. One of these was “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” (now available from Dover paperbacks),with its Moral Perfection Project of the Thirteen Virtues. I thought the family had a copy, but I don’t see it, so maybe I did borrow it from that old Clarendon library. The other biography was that of Edgar Allen Poe, and I even recall giving an oral book report on that, vividly, some public speaking experience setting up my 1998 talk on my own book, maybe.

Time Magazine offers (in supermarkets and pharmacies, mainly) a spiffy illustrated paperback “Benjamin Franklin: An Illustrated History of His Life and Times” (128 pages), by Richard Lacayo.

The book makes Franklin, our greatest non-president among the Founding Fathers, into a kind of heterosexual Leonardo Da Vinci or polymath. As a teen he might have come across as someone who would get onto “It’s Academic” or “Jeopardy” today. He was also given to philosophical ruminations (as a friend in the 1970s said, “verbosity promulgates egregious epigrammitization”). At 19, he wrote “A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain” and tried to argue that evil does not exist. Later, he tried to destroy all copies of this foolishness, but here it is (link ). Most of us know of “Poor Richard’s” pamphlets. Like #3, “Journey of My Voyage”, all rather self-centered, comprises lots of short passages rather like blog entries. Franklin’s activity in the printing business probably got him as close to global self-distribution, in comparison to what happens with today’s Internet, as anyone achieved. He also helped other pamphleteers, including Thomas Paine.

But perhaps it took his sort of Ayn-Rand-hero personality to enable everything he did, including is inventions (such as his armonica (p 54) where wine glasses produced musical tones, and for which Mozart and Beethoven wrote music (no polytonality yet, please).

His sense of family values was interesting, as he entered into a rare common law marriage with a woman whose first husband had deserted her, and as he had his first son by another woman.

Franklin’s contribution as a political founding father are in every history text, of course. He was early to oppose slavery, and the different schemes for representation in the House and Senate were largely his. Yet it’s his contribution as a literary content originator and distributor, relative to the capabilities of his day, which he increased, that seems like his most remarkable achievement. Intellectually and as a business person, he compares to the Internet entrepreneurs of our era.

The book sells for about $10 and the illustrations practically make it into a filmstrip (like what we used to have in grade school, in the 50s of course).

Franklin was also an avid chess player, but the rules may not have been quite the same as today, and published opening theory in those days was very limited.