Archive for April, 2010

Do it for the birds

April 30, 2010

Hummingbird enthusiasts, how far are you willing to go for the ultimate hummingbird experience? Because a California inventor has created a hummingbird feeder that you wear on your face. For $79.95 (shipping included) you buy one of these plastic helmets to pop on your head, sit quietly and motionless near a tree, and wait for the buzzing little birds to zoom up and drink sweet sugar water from a hole between your eyes. It sounds sort of awesome, and sort of terrifying.

This is real. It’s for when  you want to sit on your lawn waiting for a Hummingbird to suck nectar from your head. Mother’s Day is coming up fast, you know.


The Fat, the Dumb, the Happy… America, the mediocre educator

April 30, 2010

Eli Broad has it about right in this Bloomberg article:

“The American people frankly have been over many, many years, to be blunt, fat, dumb and happy,” said Broad, 77. “If they want their children to compete with children in India, China or Korea, they better get them a far better education.”

The U.S. ranked 21st with 78 percent of high school students graduating and going on to college in 2007, according to a 2009 survey by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which promotes economic growth, employment and higher living standards. Germany and Finland led with rates of 97 percent or more.

Broad, who has sought to improve instruction and student skills, said he wants his Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to devote the next 10 years to influencing state and national education policy, and to promote a standard national curriculum for mathematics and science.

“The biggest problem we have in America is governance,” he said. “You cannot compete with national education ministries and have 15,000 school boards. It’s going to take more direction at the national level.”

I think that first quote is worthy of a book title. Politics of public versus private education aside, Broad hits at one of the core issues in our education system. You may disagree on the solution, but our priorities are out of whack. Broad points out the issue of having thousands upon thousands of school boards deciding their curriculum standards, and trying to compete against centralized educational systems. Our systems are administered and delivered by, in his mind, the bottom 30 percent of the people coming out of college. I don’t totally agree with that—some of the smartest people I know became high school teachers, and not for the glory and power—but I do agree that the bar, and the comp, is pretty low to become a teacher. Moreover, a school board can be a very politically heated venue for controversial and irrational behavior; in our system the local flavor of political fervor can make a lasting impression upon our youth from a very young age. I guess any attempt to modify that system at this point would be labeled The Socialism, so I’m not sure what the best course of action is on that front. But the problem runs deeper than that.

Another issue with the status quo is our competitive emphasis on grades and degrees over learning and growth. How many college students get through a course final and go straight to the bookstore to see how much they can get for the book? If it’s not enough money, I’ve known some to ceremoniously burn books. It’s symbolic of the thought process that they will never actually need that knowledge in the real world. The student’s presence is a waste of money, but money is exactly what our universities need to stay competitive. So they let that mindset slide. Worse, since those are the cards universities and high schools are dealt, they play them, they up the ante, and according to Mark Ames, some stack the deck.

Ames recently touched on this in a “Fraudonomics” piece for The Exiled and The New York Press:

If you want your kid to grow up to succeed in a fraud-based economy, you need to teach him the ABC’s of cheating starting at a young age. This is one area where America’s schools aren’t failing their students. Cheating is so rampant in schools that nowadays if the student doesn’t cheat on his exam, chances are his teacher or administrator will cheat on his test for him. One in five elementary schools in Georgia are currently being investigated for tampering with the students’ standardized test scores—although suspicious patterns of erasing and remarking answers showed up in half of the state’s elementary schools. In California, as many as two-thirds of its public schools admitted to fudging its students’ standardized test scores. A survey of graduate school students found that 53 percent of business school grad students admitted to cheating, more than any other grad school discipline. Overall, up to 98 percent of college students today admit to cheating, compared to just 20 percent who cheated in 1940.

Those are pretty disgusting numbers. I’ve never really worried about cheaters with relation to my own grades because I’ve never really worried about my grades… I like to learn, I get what I earn, and that has worked pretty well for me. Cheaters could be a problem in a highly competitive, rigorous academic program as well as in an ass-backward, lazy system. But it’s that standardized test score tampering that strikes me as a systematic problem. That tampering allows schools to lower their standards to meet their students’ lowered performance.

When I sought out an MBA program, and then a law program, I went the private school route. It’s more expensive—luckily I got some scholarship money cuz I writes real good—but I’ve learned that a Jesuit education involves at least some modicum of teaching the ‘whole person.’ Unfortunately, I ended up in grad programs with a large number of Boeing employees who were there for their free, employer-funded education. Too large a number of the MBA students from Boeing* could care less what they got out of the program, other than a grade higher than D. This made group projects hell. The law program attracted far fewer of the certificate-chasers as you don’t go through that type of an academic pace just for fun. The program was high quality, but the company included a mix of the “Fat, Dumb, Happy” bunch that was there for a free buffet. The economic downturn has since forced Boeing to close the payment offer. While it might smart for a while financially, that move will make my university smarter in the end.

*Not a majority, but close. The “I have a full-time job” excuse didn’t fly far with the rest of us full-time workers.

Teacher with bunny phobia sues 14-yr-old for drawing; Also, owl w/ fear of heights

April 30, 2010

I love catching stories like this  from the Telegraph UK going across the wires:

A teacher with a phobia over rabbits is suing a 14-year-old pupil for compensation after she drew a bunny on the blackboard.

The teacher, from Vechta, Germany, says she was traumatised by the drawing, and claims the girl knew it would terrify her.

She had transferred to the school where a pupil from her former school had just become a pupil and told her new friends about the teacher’s fear of rabbits.

“We did it for fun and out of curiosity”, one of the girls told a court, adding, “We wanted to see if she would really freak out.”

School officials removed her from the class and now the teacher is seeking compensation for her terror and her loss of earnings, her lawyer Manfred Bormann told the court.

The case continues.

Since I’m on the subject of phobias, here’s a good story on a tawny owl whose childhood trauma left him afraid of heights.

Troy the Tawny Owl

Passage of the day

April 29, 2010

I haven’t done one of these for a while. Here’s one from Douglas Adams (Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy) and Mark Carwardine’s (zoologist) Last Chance to See, a book on world travels to see some of the most endangered species in the world:

The view across the immensity of Tiananmen Square from here is extraordinary. It is like looking across a plain from the side of a mountain. In political terms, the view is more astounding yet, encompassing as it does a nation that comprises almost one quarter of the population of this planet. All of the history of China is symbolically focused here, at this very point, and it is hard, as you stand there, not to be transfixed by the power of it. It is hard, also, not to be profoundly moved by the vision of the peasant from Shao-Shan who seized that power in the name of the people and whom the people still revere, in spite of the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution, as the father of their nation.

And while we were standing on this spot, the spot where Mao stood when he proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the music we were having played at us by the public address system was first “Viva España” and then the “Theme from Hawaii Five-O.”

It was hard to avoid the feeling that somebody, somewhere, was missing the point. I couldn’t even be sure that it wasn’t me.

YES!! Super Mario Bros. 1 mashup with Mega Man, Contra, Zelda

April 29, 2010

 Super Mario Bros. Crossover

It is what it looks like it is and it is glorious! Original Super Mario Bros., but you can choose a different NES character. The characters act just like they do in their own games (Samus has ball/bomb/wave beam, Simon from Castlevania jumps like a wuss and has a whip/axe, etc…), and the music comes from their games. A Contra gun to fight a curmudgeonly waddling mushroom might be overkill, but it’s overkill of the raddest kind.

Here’s the game:

What Generation Pepsi child did not at some point wish for this?

Dog lovers getting their own book club

April 27, 2010

I wasn’t surprised to see it’s in Portland. They’re weird there… in a good way. But I was surprised to see that dogs are not allowed. The first reading will be Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, by Temple Grandin.

Also, do you know how many pictures of dogs ‘reading’ there are out there? I know we love the anthropomorphization, and I’m guilty, but I was struck by the vastness of it all. It made the New Yorker cover once. If someone wanted to, they could make a blog out of pictures of dogs “reading,” and it appears it would go extremely well for them. Here’s a picture of a baby eating dog food for balance.

By the way, the blog Babies Eating Dogfood… don’t touch it, it’s MINE. Wonderful world we live in.

And just because this is my blog, I am never going to let this slide: Please do not use the “no, not that kind” ‘joke’ unless you are making fun of it. It hurts me in the brainular area.


April 26, 2010

(via eduardos)

Historian wrote nasty Amazon reviews of rivals, blamed wife

April 23, 2010

Historian Orlando Figes had better hope he was a forgiving wife. In what started as something silly–Figes anonymously blasting rivals in Amazon book reviews–he managed to set fire to bridge after bridge. First, he set his lawyer loose on media and peers who circulated speculation that he wrote the anonymous reviews. Then he said he wife, a barrister, wrote the reviews. Today, we learn he wrote the reviews.

In a statement released to the Daily Mail the professor of history at London’s Birkbeck College said that he takes “full responsibility” for what he called “foolish errors”.

A barrister… someone whose career is based on her adherence to ethical standards–plus she’s a lecturer of law at Cambridge. Not cool. Maybe she did give him the OK to do it, but all that means is that she had the guts to take the heat for both of them, and that he did  not.

I’m sure he did this fully aware his actions were a complete misuse of anonymity. I’m also pretty sure he likes his book, given that he apparently thinks it “leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted.” Ticking off the media, a group fully aware of its rights in telling the news, was not a good move. But throwing your wife under the bus?

As for what started all of this, it’s wrong (and possibly grounds for legal action), but anonymously 5-starring one’s own book is not that uncommon.

Very, very unfortunate book typo FAIL

April 19, 2010

epic fail photos Recipe Fail

Betty White with flaming chainsaw, riding John Ritter… Portland asked/received

April 19, 2010

The Portland Mercury asked readers what they wanted for a cover, and THIS is what they decided on…

Betty White with Flaming Chainsaw on John Ritter

And you thought that “Keep Portland Weird” sign was a joke. Portland wished and Andrew Zubko granted… I love the Mercury.

Music journalism in Vancouver is by no means well

April 19, 2010

Vancouver’s weekly entertainment guide, the Straight, has a seriously malfunctioning music section. I’m just throwing it out there as I’ve spent many weekends up in Vancouver, and have never found a good issue of the Straight’s music section. I’ve tried, and in the beginning I thought it might be possible Vancouver didn’t have a music scene. It turned out the paper just inadequately covers it. Wouldn’t bring it up, but I wish better things for such an awesome city.

This weekend there was a pitiful anonymously written rant about an artist (La Roux) who stood up the interviewer, not once, but OMG twice!!1! Here’s how it started:

Hey, here’s a tip for all you musicians out there, up-and-coming and otherwise: if you don’t want to piss off the people whose job it is to convey information about you to the public—in other words, the lowly class known as music journalists—it’s best to refrain from repeatedly jerking said people around.

It ends with Anonymous Newswriter calling La Roux a “fucking skrag” and insinuating her music’s bad because she wouldn’t interview. That wouldn’t fly in a community college newspaper, let alone a city that just hosted the Olympics. At least some of the commenters gave Anonymous Newswriter a little hell for it. If this were posted in The Stranger (Seattle’s paper), it would come across as a fake rant to poke fun at music writers–no way it could be real.

But in Vancouver, it’s real. And if I hadn’t checked online before I left the states, I would have missed a concert, ’cause the Straight didn’t have space for it with posts about Lady Gaga concerts in freaking August. Someone help Vancouver… there’s a kick-ass music scene with no journalists to cover it.

Decade-Overdue AP Style Change: “Web site” Now “website”

April 16, 2010

The Associated Press tweeted a huge change today. Well, actually I think they tried to tweet yesterday but first someone was using their phone line then they forgot their AOL internet password. But finally, in a move that should have happened in 1995, the AP announced today that “Web site” is now “website.” The tweet from APStylebook:

“Responding to reader input, we are changing Web site to website. This appears on Stylebook Online today and in the 2010 book next month. about 3 hours ago via CoTweet

AP Style is THE set of rules journalists are required to follow, and Web site was one of the dumbest of the rules. That’s as in “World Wide Web,” and yes you are supposed to capitalize that when you talk about it, just as you capitalize Internet. You do that, don’t you? No?

The AP style police are throwing a few other ideas around, including whether to allow “Mac” when referring to what should be called an “Apple Macintosh computer,” and whether Bomar is yet such a household name  that one need not say “Bomar portable electronic calculator” when referring to the brand.

Welcome to a bigger world Associated Press, get online and defend yourself ’cause John McCain’s clowning your Myspace.

Pulitzer board: ‘Know who’s great, Hank f’n Williams’

April 13, 2010

The Pulitzer crew had one of those, “dude, we should totally… ” moments in bestowing the Pulitzer on Hank Williams. Williams appears to be surprised with the win, given that he stopped writing music half a century ago. I’ll agree that he deserves recognition, even when it doesn’t make too much sense.

The win has also spurred Hank’s son Bocephus to renew his clamor for an overdue Tea Party Fashion Luminary Award.


… please…

Opinion pages picking up where governments fear to tread

April 13, 2010

Great ‘drawn word’ by Carmen Cerra at the Ames Tribune. 

This pope issue is gathering steam among a few in the media, and there’s a revolutionary atmosphere to some opinion pieces that I haven’t seen in a long time. Richard Dawkins joined Christopher Hitchens in opining that the pope should be arrested when he goes to Britain. Hitchens, of course, is actively working toward that goal. I am not to be seen as saying I support or oppose that move, as I leave that to the professionals (and the Catholics). Besides, I’m a live-and-let-live person when it comes to religion. I likes my religion and my government separate, but I have no hate for people passionate about their faith. For that reason, I stay out of the fray, even when horrible decisions come to light. There are enough bloggers out there on that beat.

But in a world where it seems no single government is going to take a stance on this issue, I am glad to see some real passion in the Opinion pages.

A is for Anarchy – Books for ‘Hipster Children’

April 8, 2010

A group called Soundscreen Design has published a trio of books for “hipster children.” I’m fairly certain that, had my parents read me Never Mind Your Ps and Qs – Here’s the Punk Rock Alphabet, I’d have been an accountant by the time I was 14… just to rebel.                                                       

The other two books are M is for Metal, and ABC&W The Country and Western Alphabet. If you are wondering “How do I tell my kid his first boob joke?,” or, “What’s the best way to teach my kid to flip the bird,” that ABC&W book should be  considered in your portfolio of options. Whichever genre you choose, know who’s buying these books? You and this guy:

epic fail photos - Family Photo Fail

Just saying.

But “M is for mohawk, a silly hairdo / It has lots of points, but it has no point, too” is still funny.

(I saw in in a link from the New York Post blog section.)


April 6, 2010

When one is searching for a job, should one just move on when the posting misspells “professional?” Require too much experience, underpay, and misspell that? A “then/than” problem also added to the sting of a law firm rejection letter.

Unfortunately, in a market where a minimum wage kennel cleaning job gets 260 applicants (including accountants), beggars cannot be choosers.

Accused Stalker asks ‘Beer in Hell’ author to help win over Trump

April 6, 2010

Who better to help shore up your image problem with Ivanka Trump than I Hope They Serve Beer in  Hell author Tucker Max? Makes sense, at least if you have a self-described insanity problem. This is sad enough that I have a hard time finding it as funny as everyone else seems to think it it is. I’ve seen a blog showing the entire e-mail (not linking b/c I don’t know the authenticity), and it gets weirder.

Odd recall: book as choking hazard

April 6, 2010

U.S. and Canadian consumer protection agencies just issued a recall on a set of books because they constitute a choking hazard to children (and, ostensibly, curious adults). Not really news, but I thought it was a little odd.

Life in a post-Asimov reading bender

April 6, 2010

This has become less a place for me to discuss things I’m reading, and more a place for me to rant on topics somehow tenuously related to literature or journalism. But I’ve been reading some good stuff lately.

I just became a sci-fi fan, or at least an Asimov fan, through the Foundation trilogy. I never have gotten into sci-fi books, though when I was little I did get into the fantasy Tolkien/McCaffrey type of stories and I love the movie Trekkies. The Foundation plot is based around the prophetic Hari Seldon’s use of mathematical sociology to shorten what he foresaw would be a dark age following the fall of the galactic empire—changing what he was mathematically certain would be many centuries of barbarism and economical squalor into 1000 years of rebuilding. As the key events progress, failure likelihood increases (uncertainty bred by likelihood of deviation), and an unforeseeable mutation occurs midway through the series. In many regards, the story reads like a classic historical novel, and the inevitable rise of strong-minded heroes who Seldon knew would climb the ranks and guide the course of the entirety of civilization during “Seldon Crises” comes across with striking believability.

Asimov’s devise of preplanning the future path of civilization came to me at an interesting time, as I have been spending a lot of time reading about complexity theory, non-linearity, and the general deficiencies of classical economics and financial theory. I’d have to say, Asimov provides a better counterpoint to the economics realists I avidly read than your typical Chicago School economists, and it was the perfect escapist reading for the complexity theory curriculum. That said, I also recently read Benoit Mandelbrot’s The (Mis)Behavior of Markets and I recommend that every bit as much as Asimov. Mandelbrot, of Mandelbrot Set and fractal fame, is one of the thinkers dismantling the archaic core of statistics-based financial theory, and this is a great starting point. On the other hand, I found a dirt-cheap copy of a newer book, The Flaw of Averages, and I overpaid. The first half was an entertaining look into how the use of statistical averages—as in a boss saying, “I don’t want a range, give me a number!”—can seriously undermine forecasts. I liked it; it was written in a way someone who had never taken a statistics course could understand, and for the most part I couldn’t agree more (crucially, he doesn’t seem to understand what Black Swans really are). The second half is a fall from grace, with so many diatribes on how great particular economists are—because they won Nobels—that I wondered whether some ideologue had hijacked the printing press. The book, in my mind, made for a dangerous combination of early learning and opinion control, and I can’t recommend The Flaw of Averages.

Post-Asimov, I went on a sci-fi tear that quickly acquiesced to the realization that there’s not much worse than a poorly written sci-fi story. I enjoyed Greg Bear’s Hegira, liked Frederick Poul’s Tomorrow Times Seven, and lost interest with Frank Herbert’s The Green Brain (Crichton without science). Somewhere in there I tried reading a Star Wars novella… it was a dark time in my life.

In need of some reality, I bought Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, a memoir of sorts about life as a comparative literature student among Russian lit enthusiasts. Batuman’s blog on the New Yorker site had me instantly wanting to read her book and I am just now finishing it. On plane trips this past week, back and forth from Seattle for my father’s funeral (one reason I haven’t felt like blogging much lately), I read Alice in Wonderland and Don Quixote. Aside from business and finance books, that’s about all I’ve been reading lately.