Archive for August, 2009

Why Educate?

August 27, 2009 Leave a comment


When the September issue of Harper’s arrived at the house the week before last, I immediately read Mark Slouka’s article Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School. I was going to write about it at the time, but the website still had the August up. September is online now (though you may need an account to read the full article). If you can get access to the article, I recommend it. Slouka makes a good case for the dangers of de-emphasizing the arts and humanities in favor of math, science, and preparation to participate in the market economy. I think he mis-represents the nature of mathematics at times. Whether he does so out of ignorance or in service to his argument I have no way to tell. But any errors in this direction shouldn’t distract from his larger warning about an imbalance in US education, with which I largely agree.

It is difficult, indeed unwise, for a university administrator to resist the temptation to build strength in disciplines that have the potential to bring in external research funding (at a major research university anyway). But at least when one makes such decisions, one should be aware of the issues Slouka raises. After the jump, I’ll quote some passages from the article to give an idea of his argument.

I am reminded of my son Joel’s initial first grade homework assignments years ago. On the first evening, he was to establish a location in the house where he would put his completed homework, so that he would be able to remember on a consistent basis to bring it to school each day. There was a similar assignment the next night, maybe involving setting up a regular work location. I had the sinking feeling that the underlying goal was to train him for the workforce rather than educate him. A year later, at our parent-teacher conference to review his work, I was struck even more forcefully by the realization that that teacher’s concern was his success at developing proper work habits, as opposed to his giving free rein to his curiosity.

This is an old tension in education, workforce development and socialization versus creativity and imagination. Many have written far more eloquently about it than I can, Slouka in particular. So I won’t say more. Except to note that science and math are not on one side of this. They are very much a haven for creativity and imagination. The problem that arises is how to respond when business and legislative leaders argue that math and science, as the areas most likely to lead to new business opportunities and most in demand by highly desirable businesses, should be given extra funding so that a university can train more students to prepare for careers in these fields. This is a good problem. Yet, it can open the door to mis-understanding about what a research university’s mission is, what the larger benefits of math and science education to all citizens can be, and how important arts and humanities are as well for an educated citizen.

Let me leave it at that. Here are representative excerpts from Slouka’s article:
Read more…

Categories: Culture, Education, Math, Science

Field Measurements

August 27, 2009 Leave a comment

The “field” in the title of this post refers to field events in track and field — throwing and jumping. “Measurements” refers to how the throws and the jumps are measured — English units versus metric units. I will eventually argue, with regret, that it’s time to let go of English units in this context. Not in general. I’m not a metric fanatic. For scientific use, sure, go metric. But for everyday use, I have no desire to abandon English units. I do, though, in field events.

Let me be more specific. The world already uses the metric system in field events. The problem is that we in the US don’t, and this creates total confusion when an international event is being broadcast on US TV. The equipment on the track lists distances and heights in metric, the graphics on the screen show them in metric, but the announcers speak in English units. It’s nonsensical. More on this later in the post. But first, some context. Read more…

Categories: Measurement, Sports

Penney’s Takes Manhattan

August 26, 2009 Leave a comment


Clark Hoyt’s Public Editor column in Sunday’s NYT surprised me. He chose to address the apparent furor over Cintra Wilson’s Critical Shopper column two weeks ago on the opening of J.C. Penney in Manhattan’s Herald Square, right by Macy’s famed flagship store, ultimately judging her as crossing the line from edgy to objectionable. I read the article online the evening before it was printed, and I didn’t feel that way. I enjoyed it. Am I becoming dangerously inured to snark?

See for yourself. Read Wilson’s column, then Hoyt’s critique. Here is how Wilson opens:

J.C. Penney has broken free of its suburban parking area to invade Herald Square, and the most frequent question on New York’s collective lips seems to be: Why?

Why would this perennially square department store bother to reanimate itself in Manhattan — in the sleekest, scariest fashion city in America — during a hair-raising economic downturn, without taking the opportunity to vigorously rebrand itself? Why would this dowdy Middle American entity waddle into Midtown in its big old shorts and flip-flops without even bothering to update its ancient Helvetica Light logo, which for anyone who grew up with the company is encrusted with decades of boring, even traumatically parental, associations?

J. C. Penney has always trafficked in knockoffs that aren’t quite up to Canal Street’s illegal standards. It was never “get the look for less” so much as “get something vaguely shaped like the designer thing you want, but cut much more conservatively, made in all-petroleum materials, and with a too-similar wannabe logo that announces your inferiority to evil classmates as surely as if you were cursed to be followed around by a tuba section.”

I love it. But Hoyt writes:

Or, as one reader, Daniel Harris-McCoy of Boston, put it: How do writers “navigate the fine lines between observation, satire and snark,” and when should editors step in to restrain them?

Although Trip Gabriel, the Styles editor, said the lines can be blurry, it seems to me that they were crossed and left far behind in this case. Wilson’s editors should have saved her, themselves and the paper from the reaction they got from readers, who concluded that the humor was at their expense, not for their benefit.

[NYT executive editor Bill] Keller said, “The key, I guess, is to imagine that you are writing for an audience with a broad range of views and experiences, and to write with respect for them.” Dismissing a point of view “with a contemptuous sneer is not only bad manners, it’s bad journalism.”

Hmm. Hoyt had already noted earlier that “Keller said his mother was a Penney’s shopper for much of her life, and she would have found the review ‘snotty.’ He told me that he wished it had not been published.” Harsh.

Speaking of harsh, remember that Keller believes (and Hoyt agrees) that torture, when performed by the CIA, should be called “harsh interrogation.” In contrast, when done by Iran on protesters, it gets to be called torture. (See Glenn Greenwald last month on this point.)

Categories: Clothing, Culture, Journalism

Bruni Valedictory

August 26, 2009 Leave a comment


NYT restaurant critic Frank Bruni delivered his valedictory column today. He is moving on. His departure was necessitated at least partly by the publication last week of his new book Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater. He can no longer dine in anonymity, with his appearance a secret no more. (See above for Bruni as a boy.)

In today’s column, Bruni selects some questions that were asked frequently or that he wishes he was asked and provides his answers. I especially enjoyed his response to, “Is there any best, safest way to navigate a menu?

Scratch off the appetizers and entrees that are most like dishes you’ve seen in many other restaurants, because they represent this one at its most dutiful, conservative and profit-minded. The chef’s heart isn’t in them.

Scratch off the dishes that look the most aggressively fanciful. The chef’s vanity — possibly too much of it — spawned these.

Then scratch off anything that mentions truffle oil.

Choose among the remaining dishes.

I recognize myself as one of the diners likely to order dishes I’ve seen in many other restaurants. I will pay more attention to this. No problem with the truffle oil advice. I’m always happy to scratch those items off.

Categories: Food, Restaurants

Zucchini Pancakes

August 26, 2009 1 comment


I wrote three weeks ago about the giant zucchinis we discovered in our garden. We brought in nine of them, which was about eight too many as far as I could tell. We gave a few away, let the others sit, and then Gail went to Boston to help Joel close up his apartment. So when they returned (landing at 2:10 AM this past Saturday), we still had zucchini to eat. Monday morning Joel came up with the solution: zucchini pancakes, following Mark Bittman’s recipe in How to Cook Everything.

Joel made the pancakes that morning, cooked one as a trial — a success, and refrigerated the rest. Gail bought lamb chops later in the day and last night we had a stupendous dinner. Joel cooked the lamb chops on the grill while Gail fried the zucchini pancakes. To complement them, Gail prepared an arugula and fennel salad with a plum salsa to put on both the salad and the lamb chops. Add to that a Wilson Winery 2005 reserve Zinfandel, purchased during the very first stop of our Healdsburg area wine-tasting trip last October, and we were all set.

I am lucky to live with two great cooks. Unfortunately, Joel is here just for the week before heading to France. I look forward to his culinary discoveries on his return.

Categories: Family, Food


August 21, 2009 Leave a comment


It’s not like me to let an entire major golf championship go by without commenting on it. So what happened last week? Well, I was so busy watching it that I didn’t take the time to write about it. I figured I would wait until the end. And then, when the end came — I need to learn a way to deal better with this — I found the result so painful that I put all thoughts of the tournament out of my mind. No blog posts, no reading of online or newspaper coverage. Yesterday my copy of Golf World came. Surprise PGA winner Y.E. Yang was on the cover. I haven’t looked inside yet.

The thing is, this is completely nuts. One of the greatest upsets in golf history took place. Tiger has won 14 majors, the last being the dramatic 2008 US Open victory prior to surgery. Tiger is back from surgery, has done poorly in the first 3 majors of the year, but is on a roll. Has won 5 tournaments this season, the last two in a row. He’s poised to win PGA #5 (which would tie him for most with Nicklaus and Hagen), major #15, increasing his lead on all golfers besides Nicklaus while moving closer to NIcklaus’s record of 18), plus his third tournament in a row and sixth of the year. His 14 major victories all came after entering the final round in the lead, alone or tied. Two points here — whenever he leads a major going into the final round, he wins, and that’s the only way he has won a major.

So what does Tiger do? He shoots a 67 to take the first round lead by a stroke over defending champion Padraig Harrington. He opens up a four-stroke lead in the second round. Many observers are conceding the tournament to him. A sloppy third day costs him two strokes off his lead. But he always wins when leading with a day to go. Doesn’t he? Even if others draw even, as they did, he finds a way. He wills the ball into the hole.

Not this time. Entering the final round, both Harrington and South Korean Y.E. Yang were two back. By shooting the better third-round score of the two, Yang earned the right to pair with Woods in the final round, with Harrington playing one pair ahead. Newcomers to final pairings on final days of majors have a long history of shooting high 70s or 80 and fading fast. Even newcomers who go on to greatness. Soon the camera finds a way of ignoring them, so you forget who that other guy in the final pair is. This was Yang’s likely fate, as Woods would fight it out with Harrington, if anyone at all.

Alas, Harrington shot an 8 on the par 3 eighth hole, ending his chances. And Yang just wouldn’t go away. Indeed, after an amazing chip in for eagle 2 on the short par 4 14th hole, Yang led. They had been tied for the lead on the 14th tee, and this was Woods’ chance to regain the lead. He birdied, but left the hole 1 stroke behind.

This is where Tiger has always excelled, going back to his days in junior golf, his great match play victories in the US Amateur, and most recently in his victory over Rocco Mediate in last year’s US Open. He always gets that birdie when he needs it, or intimidates his playing partner.

Nope. They both parred 15 and 16. They both bogeyed 17. And Yang finished it off with a birdie on 18 to Woods’ bogey.

A win for the ages. How could anyone not marvel at the Yang’s composure, his great approach shot on 18, his fearlessness, his swing, his tenacity. His win.

Me, I couldn’t. I was too busy fidgeting, waiting for Tiger to produce some magic, or for Yang to explode. Not that I ever root for someone to do something bad, but I sure wanted Tiger to win. And so, rather than being thrilled by Yang’s victory, I was too busy being anxious, and then in mourning. A major isn’t complete until I see the analysis on the Golf Channel. Not this time.

If you’ve been keeping score, you’ll know that this is the second major in a row that I didn’t let myself enjoy, whose ending left me an emotional wreck. A month ago, I behaved much the same way after Tom Watson missed the par putt on 18 that would have given him the British Open on the virtual eve of his 60th birthday. My greatest sporting pleasure — following the unfolding narrative of a major golf tournament — has become my worst sporting nightmare.

I understand the problem. It’s a familiar one. The curse of being a fan. Instead of maintaining emotional distance and allowing the drama to unfold, marveling at its twists and turns, I am hoping for a particular outcome. There are two problems with this, the emotional one that it leads to disappointment more often than not and the aesthetic-cognitive one that I’m I can’t appreciate what the beauty of what I’m watching because I’m too invested in a particular result. In other sports, I have learned to do a better job maintaining distance. I don’t know how to do that with golf.

It may be time to give golf up. Which is too bad, because I’d already been talking to Gail about whether we should try to get down to Pebble Beach in June for the US Open or over to St. Andrews in July for the British Open. We’ve only been to one US Open, in 2002 at Bethpage Black on Long Island. And to one British Open, in 2004 at Troon. (Not counting 1990, when I went to the second day of the Open at St. Andrews, as Gail stayed behind in Edinburgh with Joel, who had just turned 3.) I was thinking we should make sure to go to one of the two, if not both. Forget that. It’s time to cancel my Golf World subscription, block the Golf Channel on TV, move on. Or else get a sports psychologist. Just about every golfer has one. Maybe it would help.

Congratulations Y.E. What a win!

Categories: Golf, Sports

Gay Search-and-Replace

August 21, 2009 Leave a comment

Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, Osaka 2007 World Championships

Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, Osaka 2007 World Championships

[Stu Forster/Getty Images]

Last month I wrote about the dangers of search-and-replace algorithms, making reference to a post by Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log in which he discussed some examples, his post being precipitated by the Chicago Tribune online obit for Walter Cronkite that had “Mr.” inserted before every appearance of his name. (For example, there was a quote from his daughter, “Kathy Mr. Cronkite.”)

In my post, I quoted Zimmer’s passage that recalled other examples of unfortunate search-and-replacing, the most interesting of which was the replacement of “gay” by “homosexual” at the American Family Association’s OneNewsNow site, resulting in the American Sprinter Tyson Gay becoming Tyson Homosexual. Zimmer has a fuller treatment of the Gay-Homosexual gaffe in a Language Log post he wrote just after the 2008 US Olympic Trials, where Gay won the 100 meter race but injured himself in the 200 meters. (As a result of the injury, Gay didn’t qualify to run in the 200m at the Beijing Olympics, and because of a re-aggravation of the injury, he failed to qualify at the Olympics for the 100 meter finals.) Zimmer includes screen shots of OneNewsNow headlines such as, “Homosexual runs wind-aided 9.68 seconds to make Olympics.” Zimmer explains that the “American Family Association is a conservative Christian group chaired by Donald Wildmon, dedicated in part to combating the ‘homosexual agenda.’ This fight apparently includes changing all instances of gay in its online news outlet to homosexual.”

I mention all this again because as I was watching the men’s 100 meter races at the IAAF World Championships last weekend,* I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of and laughing at Tyson Gay’s new moniker every time I saw him. Plus, I was early in my reading of Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France last weekend, as a result of which I was simultaneously in the process of re-adjusting myself to the old-fashioned use of “gay” as happy-merry-lively. (I finished the book two nights ago. See last night’s post.) In recounting her early months in Paris, where she moved with her husband Paul in 1948, Child repeatedly uses “gay” to describe events and people. I would love to re-read those passages after the application of overzealous, wrong-headed search-and-replace.

*Recall that Gay entered this week’s IAAF World Championships in Berlin as the defending champion from the 2007 Osaka world championship in both the 100 meter and 200 meter races. He is no longer the top sprinter in the world, but still can lay claim to best in the world as we know it, since Usain Bolt seems to be from another planet. Bolt won both 100m and 200m races at the Beijing Olympics last year in world record time. In Berlin this week, Bolt set world records yet again in winning both events. (See my post on the 100m and my post on the 200m.) Gay was second in Sunday’s 100m, running the fastest non-Boltian time ever. Due again to injury, Gay withdrew from the 200m.

Categories: Books, Language, Sports, Stupidity