Sunday, April 09, 2006

Confused about censorship

Andrew Sullivan is supposedly a conservative intellectual. I say "supposedly," because for a conservative he doesn't seem to have a very good understanding of the concept of free enterprise and for an intellectual he doesn't really seem to understand censorship. In his latest broadside on the Danish cartoon controversy he writes:

Comedy Central still won't let Matt and Trey include an image of Muhammed on South Park, despite the fact that they have done it before. In the battle between religion and free speech, Viacom is against free speech.

Um, no. Viacom isn't taking sides in a supposed battle between religion and free speech here. And if they were to take sides, I'm pretty sure that they would assert that they had the right to broadcast graven images 24 hours a day if that is what they wanted to do. What they are doing is saying that needlesly offending people just to prove a point isn't in their business model. Just like it isn't in Andrew's business model to tick off the people at Time who sign his paychecks by posting the cartoons himself, even though it is perfectly within his power to do so.

And that's their right. They own the station and so they get to choose what goes on there. That's what free speech is all about. If you want to see images of Muhammed then buy your own damn cable channel.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Celebrating Ignorance

It all started with a young woman who dropped out of school. Supposedly she left because she failed algebra six times and was frustrated. This could be seen as evidence that our math education system is broken and never mind the fact that she was absent for two thirds of the classes during the sixth semester.

Well, we all know that the way we teach math in our schools leaves much to be desired. Even people like me who had an extremely successful experience agree on that. We can argue about why this is and what needs to be done and whether things are getting better all day long. As an aside, I think the main problem is elementary school teachers. If you have ever taught a "math for primary educators" class, you know that the people going to teach your first graders are, by and large, both unproficient in and hostile to mathematics. Nothing like your teacher hating math and being no good at it to inculate a love of the subject in students. Instituting math education by math specialists with degrees in math at all levels (and also paying them more) would probably go a great distance in improving math education in this country.

But then...

Richard Cohen, a Washington Post editorial writer, picked up on the story of this poor truant girl and framed the issue in a different way, claiming that mathematics is useless and should not be a requirement for a high school degree:

Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know -- never mind want to know -- how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later -- or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note -- or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.

Gabriela, sooner or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.

Wow. There are so many downright stupid things written here that I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps I was learning the wrong things when I was wasting my time learning how to actually write proofs, in the mathematical sense, but Cohen's friend Shelly is just an anecdote. Not only is it not a "proof" of anything, but it is not even compelling evidence in support of his assertion. Learning mathematics, of which algebra is one part, does impart analytical skills. A different sort of analytical skills than learning to write, but valuable ones nonetheless. Evidence of this, for instance, is that of all undergraduate majors, mathematics majors score the highest on average on the law school proficiency examinations. Of course, law schools also require a writing sample, but clearly they value both types of reasoning ability and even probably see them as correlated.

But learning mathematics also helps you get by in this world in tangible ways. Knowing mathematics, even at the level of high school algebra, allows you to figure out your taxes (without using the tables, even), compute a tip, evaluate a credit card or loan offer, compute the tax break you would get from a home loan, and figure out how much you should be saving for retirement, just off the top of my head. Having a feel for mathematics allow you to evaluate risk, which is something we all need to be able to do and something that a lot of people seem to be terrible at. Understanding mathematics at a higher level is a prerequisite for programming a computer, working with money in any meaningful way, becoming a scientist, or practicing medicine. All enterprises that Cohen clearly values less than writing op-ed pieces.

Well, whatever. This wouldn't bother me so much if it weren't such a prevelant sentiment among people who otherwise claim to be educated. Would they be so proud of admitting that they didn't know how to read? Why are innumerate people so proud of their ignorance?

As always on these subjects, PZ Myers makes much the same points more eloquently than I do.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

NCLB goes to College

Not satisfied with ruining our public primary and secondary education, our President apparently wants to institute standardized testing in colleges.

This is the Bush administration in a nutshell. It combines bad policy that destroys class mobility with crony capitalism. One of the members of the commission proposing this is Jonathan Grayer, the CEO of Kaplan, who would, of course, make a pile of money off of this.

As it says in the article:

Part of what is driving the demand for accountability is money.

Spot on.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Frist's killing ground?

Apparently there were hundreds of lost pets found brutally murdered in West Virginia. Was Bill Frist spotted anywhere in the vicinity?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Joyeux Noel

I suppose this should count as the latest salvo on the war on Xmas, as this is a perfectly secular holiday for me. Nonetheless, as a sporadically practicing Jew I can (and do) enjoy joining the rest of the Western world in this orgy of feasting and consumption.

Happy Haunnikah, Merry Christmas, Good Solstice, or whatever other benediction is appropriate for you on this day!

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The intellectual bankruptcy of J-school graduates

Looking at the headline White House refutes UK Iraq memo, one might believe that the White House had offered some information that, you know, actually refutes the allegation that the Iraq war was planned in 2002. So what did Scott McClellan say?

McClellan insisted the process leading up to the decision to go to war was "very public" -- and that the decision to invade in March 2003 was taken only after Iraq refused to comply with its "international obligations."

However, McClellan also said he had not seen the "specific memo," only reports of what it contained.

So, the White House might have "denied" the veracity of the memo, but I don't see any evidence of a "refutation" here.

Having seen the doofuses who major in journalism at any large university, this doesn't surprise me. The number of so-called journalists who can actually write and edit seems to have dwindled as media employees have come to study "journalism" or "communications" rather than major in some area of the liberal arts where they actually have to learn how to read and write.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Pushing that rock

You scored as Existentialist. Existentialism emphasizes human capability. There is no greater power interfering with life and thus it is up to us to make things happen. Sometimes considered a negative and depressing world view, your optimism towards human accomplishment is immense. Man is condemned to be free and must accept the responsibility.



Cultural Creative














What is Your World View?
created with

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Yeah, I knew this

I am:
"You're a complete liberal, utterly without a trace of Republicanism.  Your strength is as the strength of ten because your heart is pure.  (You hope.)"

Are You A Republican?

The matter with Kansas (and why I'm not a Republican)

In case you haven't been following the doings over in the flat state, the Kansas State Board of Education is attempting yet again to abolish science.

This is yet another example of why I'm not a Republican. (As if I needed another reason.) If I really bought into all this (you're on your) "ownership society" crap I could think of this as a good thing. I could rationalize all this away by focussing on the fact that my eventually well educated kid will be at an advantage when he has to compete for jobs with these flat earthers. Which is true. But the fact is that his well-being will depend on living in a society where everybody has a basic understanding of science and so raising a generation of ignorant Kansans is not something to celebrate.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Could someone explain this one?

What, exactly, are the grounds for awarding a woman $7M because her husband happened to be an agent of the Cuban government?