Saturday, July 16, 2005

BUBBLEGUM CRISIS

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There is this Japanese anime called "The Bubblegum Crisis" which depicts a world of robocop only these are used stupidly. Just the other day, in California, the police shot a deranged man holding his own child hostage, 90 times. I would call that rather excessive except this is what we are doing in Iraq to people who drive past our soldiers when they patrol.

The 9/11 attitude of shoot first and ask no questions is permeating our society. An excessive use of force like I detailed here such as the poor woman who was tasered twice because she panicked and wanted to talk to her husband on the phone when the police pulled her over (they claimed this was more humane than shooting her dead!) or the little kindergarden child who was arrested for acting like a child. When we put all our money, energy and love into police, they end up being used for anything and everything and especially, to use violence or heavy handed force out of proportion to the problem they are trying to solve.

The militarization of the police has been ongoing since the Vietnam war and is now totally out of control.

This latest episode, my son spotted and told me to write about it. From the BBC:
An 11-year-old girl who threw a rock at a group of boys pelting her with water balloons is being prosecuted on serious assault charges in California.
Maribel Cuevas was arrested in April in a police operation which involved three police cars and a helicopter.

She has since spent five days in detention, in which she was granted one 30 minute visit by her parents, and has spent a month under house arrest.

Her lawyer accuses the authorities of criminalising childhood behaviour.

"They're treating her like a violent parole offender," Richard Beshwate said. "It's not a felony, it's an 11-year-old acting like an 11-year-old."

The girl is due back in court at the beginning of next month.

Police say they had to investigate as the boy who was hit by the stone she threw suffered a deep gash to his head and needed hospital treatment.

He has reportedly acknowledged to officers that he started the fight in late April.
Several things about this story: First, any boy that loses a fight with a girl and then lets the cops arrest her is...well, we know what sort of adult they become. Second. the boys admit they attacked the girl who was minding her own business. Third, they were a gang and I am assuming, white. She is minority. Fourth, a helicopter and three police cars? And they didn't arrest the assailants? Fifthly, a girl walking alone who is assaulted by strange boys in a gang has a right to self defence and this includes using rocks and sticks and whatever to drive them off.

Period.

In my mispent youth in Arizona, we had "Desert Wars" which were fought over the no-man's land between the golf course and my parent's home grounds. This battle raged for years. We used all sorts of weapons and developed tactics though the trench digging got us in hot water when a boy broke his arm falling into one, but he never ratted on us. This was universally understood that we kids kept our secret wars secret.

One day when I was in the fifth grade, a boy decided to ambush one of us and used a slingshot to fling a piece of teddybear cacti which was long, venomous spines, at us. It slammed into my foot right through the leather shoe! I fell, screaming for this ran right into my young bones. I was hospitalized. None of us told the adults who did it. We kept that a grand secrect.

But I was told! I made certain it was really Timmy and then, while still limping, I nailed him with a rock and knocked him out. Again, he didn't rat on me nor did anyone turn us in.

All's fair in love and war.

Many years later, I went into Poco Loco, a notorious biker bar, to find someone. This tall, blonde tatooed guy was there. I told the bartender to tell Red Fromme that I was looking for him. When I said my name, the biker turned and yelled, "Goddam! Elaine! Haven't seen ya since sixth grade!" He then bellowed, "I hit her with a cactus and she knocked me out with a rock! She made me what I am today!" refering to our battles back then.

I was stunned. I had other commitments but would have reconsidered hitting Tim with a big rock if I knew he was going to stop being a pesky skinny buck toothed kid and turn out a hunk. Oh well.

But back to the news, the whole thing is, we kids would rather die with a rattler in our beds than have parents or cops or anyone interfer with our stuff we did when not under supervision. Indeed, when my son moved up to our mountain, he had to carve out his place the same way. There was a certain amount of violence involved including his famous taco tackle in the school lunchroom when he used a taco as a weapon of mass destruction. Ask him sometime about that. Heh.

The only time police needed to come was when someone reached for a gun. This was a sign of a coward. This is dangerous. But rocks in self defence?

I have used worse, much worse, and with great effect. And I did it always in self defence.

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

FINAL FANTASY SYMPHONY

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This is for my own kids and their friends. Great news! From the BBC:
The sound of leading orchestras playing the music from the Tomb Raider game, or the scores of Frogger and Pacman, may be heard all over the world if a new venture in the US proves a success.

Symphony orchestras will be playing the music from games like Halo
The dramatic soundtracks of today's video games are a far cry from the time when arcades resounded to the noise of repetitive bleeps and jingles.

Advances in technology mean music can now drive in-game action and stir players' emotions, much like the score of a Hollywood blockbuster. In the US, two renowned video game composers are trying to tap in to gamers' growing attachment to the soundtrack of their favourite software.

Last week, in the first of a series of nationwide concerts, an audience of more than 10,000 heard the famous Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra playing the hits of the pixelated world.

Against a backdrop of images and lights, classically-trained musicians turned their hand to the themes from sci-fi epic Halo, Tomb Raider, the Mario games, plus a medley of old-school favourites like Pong, Space Invaders and Pacman.
We have discussed this before, the puzzling inaction of orchestras taking advantage of real interest in music. I studied music as my minor at the university and I recall with horror the attempts to force me to listen to annoying, hellish modern stuff that was no fun to play and nearly intolerable otherwise.

I will note here that Japanese anime/game music has many modern components even using 12 tonality without being annoying because it is in small doses and fits the framework of what is happening. But I notice that my response to melody is as always, very strong, namely, when something divinely lovely happens, it causes joyous feelings to radiate from within which brings pleasure.

Ah, pleasure! The forgotten component of music!

As for the light show: my daughter and I got to see "The Wall" done to Pink Floyd in the NYC Museum of Natural History's planetarium with lasers and all sorts of fun stuff. It was fabulous. When I was a child, I saw Holst's "The Planets", a fun piece, done at night with a slide show of the universe and our galaxy. Loved it so much, when I choreographed one dance, probably one of the audiences' favorite if applause is a gage, where slides of Voyager photos were projected on a black stage with a black backdrop and you could only see it when I moved about with the 100 yards of highly reflective guazy cloth I used, recreating Loie Fuller's famous style of dances 100 years previously.

All done to "Au Clair de Lune" by Debussy.
"Video games have become a new way of telling stories, and music a fundamental part of that.Mr Wall began working in the industry 10 years ago, with an eye to the expanding area of game soundtracks.

In the early days, technology was a limiting factor. But as consoles and computers advanced so to did the sophistication of in-game sound. When Mr Wall composed the score for Myst III, he used a full symphony orchestra and choir.

The soundtrack was packaged on a separate audio CD with 250,000 special editions, while more than 30,000 CD's of the game's music were sold online.

"That's when I realised there was a big market out there," he says.
I am so pleased Mr. Wall and the other composers of appropriate music have found a place to grow and flourish. Video games and anime are the opera houses of today. I remember an early Final Fantasy environment. You could go to an opera house and watch a pig sing on stage. It was hilarious, outrageous and a great way to bring opera into a kid's life.

Warner Bros cartoons back in the forties and fifties had a resident composer who wove opera, symphonic music and his own, very modernist, creations into memorable wholes. The studio had a small symphony orchestra that rendered the music very beautifully.

We look forwards to the tours of Mr. Wall's show. We hope there will be more like it. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

EDUCATION NUTS AND BOLTS

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An old favorite of American mythology is the "can do" attitude and the "invent a better mousetrap" bravado. This was well earned and well respected. When faced with an obstacle, one relied upon technical cowboy inventiveness. Unlike the European peasants, mired in tradition, the American immigrant strode forth to try new things in new ways even if much of it looked like the Old World, we did create a lot of creators.

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and even old Ben Franklin were inquiring minds which explored nature and roamed about in literature and science, seeking new things.

From Reuters News:
Moves by international companies to move jobs in information technology, high-tech manufacturing and research and development to low-income developing countries were just "harbingers" of that longer-term adjustment, Freeman said.

Urgent action was needed to ensure that slippage in science and engineering education and research, a bulwark of the U.S. productivity boom and resurgence during the 1990s, did not undermine America's global economic leadership, he added.

The United States has had a substantial lead in science and technology since World War II. With just 5 percent of the world's population, it employs almost a third of science and engineering researchers, accounts for 40 percent of research and development spending and publishes 35 percent of science and engineering research papers.
This was due nearly entirely to Adolph Hitler and the Russian Revolution and all the war and destruction and the impossibility of being an intellectual in a dead totalitarian climate. Refugees came to America which was sort of free and reasonably ripe for action. Money was here too, thanks to us winning both the British and the French empires in one swoop after WWII.
Numbers of science and engineering graduates from European and Asian universities are soaring while new degrees in the United States have stagnated -- cutting its overall share.

In 2000, the paper said, 17 percent of university bachelor degrees in the U.S. were in science and engineering compared with a world average of 27 percent and 52 percent in China.

The picture among doctorates -- key to advanced scientific research -- was more striking. In 2001, universities in the European Union granted 40 percent more science and engineering doctorates than the United States, with that figure expected to reach nearly 100 percent by about 2010, the study showed.

The study said deteriorating opportunities and comparative wages for young science and engineering graduates has discouraged U.S. students from entering these fields, but not those born in other countries.
52% of Chinese graduates are in the sciences? This is an eye-opener indeed. After Sputnik, I remember how our government got really big on the "study technology" hobby horse...and then went off to try to take even more of the British/French empires when we occupied Vietnam unsuccessfully.

Now the hobby horse sits in the attic collecting spiderwebs.

On the other hand, there has been this ongoing symposium in Oxford, England, called the TED. From the BBC:
Scientist Professor Richard Dawkins has opened a global conference of big thinkers warning that our Universe may be just "too queer" to understand.

Professor Dawkins, the renowned Selfish Gene author from Oxford University, said we were living in a "middle world" reality that we have created.
Hell, according to Justin Raimondo at Anti-war.com,
George Orwell's playbook: war is peace in this monstrous new world, and vice-versa, since the clear lines that used to separate them are erased. And this is not an anomaly, but the dawn of a new era, which might be called the Bizarro Age, in which up is down, the old rules are repealed, and the laws of God and man annulled
We are in Bizarro Age! Too queer....actually, it isn't that hard to understand any of it. All one has to do is drop the self-centered attitude homosapien animals enjoy and look at the works of nature with a critical eye.

Back to Dawkins in Oxford:
For example, what if the universe isn't static nor is flyin apart but is actually twisting inside out? Thanks to increasingly huge black hole entities? Won't that be interesting?
"Successive generations have come to terms with the increasing queerness of the Universe."

Each species, in fact, has a different "reality". They work with different "software" to make them feel comfortable, he suggested.

Because different species live in different models of the world, there was a discomforting variety of real worlds, he suggested.

"Middle world is like the narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum that we see," he said.

"Middle world is the narrow range of reality that we judge to be normal as opposed to the queerness that we judge to be very small or very large."

He mused that perhaps children should be given computer games to play with that familiarize them with quantum physics concepts.
Well, I grew up exactly that way. At first, my parents were proud that I could comprehend various concepts that were supposedly difficult to fit into a belief system. But it wasn't hard at all! It was simple as falling off a chair.

Since I had no previous beliefs to deep six, it was simple.
Our brains had evolved to help us survive within the scale and orders of magnitude within which we exist, said Professor Dawkins.

We think that rocks and crystals are solid when in fact they were made up mostly of spaces in between atoms, he argued.

This, he said, was just the way our brains thought about things in order to help us navigate our "middle sized" world - the medium scale environment - a world in which we cannot see individual atoms.
My grandparents as well as parents were all astronomers. They always talked about this sort of thing. How different timescales work on objects in the same quantum matrix. Time for a rock passes quite differently from that of a fly yet both exist on the same plane of reality, however briefly.

When I learned about the spaces between the atoms of seemingly solid objects and that within these atoms there is still more space within which movement is occurring, I was about seven years old. I thought, if only I were able to visualize and then merge with the sub atomic structure, I could insinuate myself through solid objects.

In other words, I could use my mind to walk through walls. So I worked on this research project which mystified my mother who wondered why I would stare long and hard at a wall and then walk into it.

Maybe teaching children this sort of stuff has a downside?

Even as Dawkins, the number one evolutionist theorist around today, talked excitedly about expanding the minds of youth, the Catholic Church turns its back on science. From the NYT:
An influential cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, which has long been regarded as an ally of the theory of evolution, is now suggesting that belief in evolution as accepted by science today may be incompatible with Catholic faith.

The cardinal, Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, a theologian who is close to Pope Benedict XVI, staked out his position in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on Thursday, writing, "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not."
It seems, the more monkey-like the human, the more they detest Darwin's assertion that we are mere apes.
Opponents of Darwinian evolution said they were gratified by Cardinal Schönborn's essay. But scientists and science teachers reacted with confusion, dismay and even anger. Some said they feared the cardinal's sentiments would cause religious scientists to question their faiths.

Cardinal Schönborn, who is on the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, said the office had no plans to issue new guidance to teachers in Catholic schools on evolution. But he said he believed students in Catholic schools, and all schools, should be taught that evolution is just one of many theories. Many Catholic schools teach Darwinian evolution, in which accidental mutation and natural selection of the fittest organisms drive the history of life, as part of their science curriculum.
"One of several theories" is funny. I don't see any other "theories." I do see blind faith declarations all designed to elevate homosapiens to a plane equal with invisible and vindictive gods.

Why this is a step up baffles me.

Even as we bewail the loss of faith in engineering and surrender the laurels of that great institution, the Tinkerer who made things work and replace it with mordant desires to live forever, brainlessly proud, we must remember this: living forever is a curse.

At the Oxford symposium there were the usual lusts for everlasting life. The vision of the future was to do what Dr. Faustus wanted to do: stop time. As the great magician/scientist declared he had reached perfection, the devil came to collect his paltry soul. For indeed, eternal life is like the Egyptian pyramids: dusty, dry and dead. Even if the entity exists and can be touched and seen, it would be dead inside or more like a rock or a comet floating in space. Detached and disinterested. This is why the race against time spawns great things as even the busy bee works hard for the hive even as itself has but a very short life compared to the queen and hers isn't that long, either.

This is why birth and death are the intertwined snakes of existence.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

ELECTRONIC SCHOOLS

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In Britain, there has been rising consernation about the situation in many schools. Several undercover stories detailing or filming the mayhem in and outside the classrooms have caused quite a stir over there. In many countries, boredom and disrespect and lack of self control causes breakdowns in the learning process.

From the Telegraph company news:
The girl was ignoring me and playing music on her mobile phone, so loudly that the rest of the class could hear. I kept telling her to stop. Then suddenly she lost control. Standing up, she put her face inches from mine and shrieked: "Don't make me hurt you. I swear to God I will do it."

I was two days into my undercover investigation for a Channel 4 Dispatches programme when this incident happened. It was the first time I had felt physically threatened in school and the feeling stayed with me for a long time. Although extreme, this was the type of behaviour I encountered again and again in the 16 secondary schools I went in to, eventually filming those that seemed to be representative of the problems I saw.
Children always challenged teachers but the trick is for teachers to challenge students...to learn.
In my very first lesson, I spent 20 minutes trying to get children to be quiet, take their coats off, put away their mobile phones and stop hitting each other. Pupils were supposed to be studying for a GCSE exam on earth materials but when I mentioned the subject, one girl shouted out: "I haven't got a clue what earth materials are." It transpired that a staggering 26 supply teachers had taken the class since the start of the year.

I tried to teach them but had been left with no real instructions. In the worst example of this lack of planning, I was handed a scrap of paper with "draw a picture of your favourite food" written on it - that was for a class of 14-year-olds for an entire hour.
Learning for tormorrow. Most students at the bottom are slated for being cut out of society. They will mostly end up either on the dole or in prison. They keep many people employed. Teachers, prison guards, police, courts, newspaper staff, they are the grist in society's job mill. This isn't productive nor good. These are not capitalist jobs or value added jobs. They are just jobs.

The methodology for teaching has barely moved since my grandfather picked up a piece of chalk in front of his blackboard in 1914. Up until ten years ago, he could walk into any university, pull his stem wind-up pocketwatch out of his vest, reset it, clear his throat, and begin teaching, it had changed so little. We are fortunate that some schools dare to experiment with new ways of doing things and I found this story most interesting: From the Associated Press:
An honors student at Ohio State, a kid in a fifth-grade science class in Kentucky and a deaf student in England, all begin their learning experience the same way: with their hand wrapped around a remote control.

Not a TV remote, but rather one that connects a student with everyone else in the class, with the instructor and with the subject at hand.

Hundreds of colleges, high schools and even middle schools are using "clickers" — as even manufacturers call them. A moderator can pose a question and within seconds the respondents' answers are anonymously logged on a laptop at the front of the room.

"This is the MTV era," said Neal H. Hooker, an Ohio State professor who uses the technology in his agricultural economics course. "It's the instant gratification generation. They don't like doing a quiz and hearing the responses in three days. They want to see if they've got it right or wrong right then."

Interwrite, a clicker manufacturer in Columbia, Md., has over a half million remotes in use, most in classrooms.
I always wanted instant feedback when I was trying to learn something. Students are understandably shy about raising the hand and asking for clarification or to start all over again. Yet this is a need. Any method that helps a teacher gage student understanding gets a full hearted hooray from me.
The clicker itself isn't different in size or shape from the one that enables you to switch from "Fear Factor" to "Nova" at home. Software logs the students' answers enabling the teacher to determine if students understand the topic as the topic is being discussed. Teachers can post a true-false or multiple-choice quiz at the front of the room and, within seconds, the students' responses are logged, their scores tabulated and a grade is assigned to each.
I loved flash quizzes when I was a young student. They were very useful for studying for exams. The one problem was grading them. Most teachers had students pass each other's quizzes to each other but then, this did lose a lot of time. And the teacher would see the results much later, too late to act forcefully to reset minds.
More book publishers are tailoring their textbooks to provide exams and quizzes for classes with hand-held remotes to meet the growing demand, said Donald Yocum, a social studies teacher and technology specialist at King Middle School is in rural Harrodsburg, Ky.

Yocum's school has five sets of mutually compatible clicker sets — all won at state or national teachers conventions.

Many clicker-makers hand out the systems as prizes. Their thinking is that once teachers and students see how cool the systems are, the word will spread.

"All of the kids like it," Yocum said. "It helps the ones who don't like the traditional way of doing things, who don't like to sit there and write out their answers on a piece of paper. This way, through an interactive system, they stay engaged."

Many feel that the ideal use of clickers is in larger classes at universities, where sometimes hundreds of students jam lecture halls to hear a distant figure at the front of the class talk in a monotone until the class ends. Clickers are also becoming popular in various business uses, such as seminars and conventions.

"It's not like an hour-long lecture where the professor is droning on and everybody goes to sleep because they don't know what's important," University of Southern California physics and astronomy professor Christopher Gould said. "It lets the lecture turn into a two-way conversation."
Readers of this blog know I am an enthusiastic pro-computer, pro-electronic person. I type way faster than I can write by hand and logging on and interconnecting is so much more brain-friendly than other methods of doing scientific or literary things, I feel as if my mind and body finally are working in tandem, not struggling for dominance with each other or worse, the brain desperately trying to drag the hand around, frog marching it into battle.

My husband is half deaf. He struggled to do well in school despite his disability but he lost a great deal of potential ground thanks to not being able to hear what the teacher said when they turned to the blackboard. Each time, the voice faded to nothing and he couldn't read the lips, either. If he had electronic multi-tasking devices in elementary school onwards, what a difference it would have made.

We have build so many useful tools, like prehistoric humans, we must use them. We are the tool using animals.

Here is another interesting study in the opposite direction: from the BBC:
TV viewing before the age of three was linked to poorer reading and maths skills at the ages of six and seven among the 1,797 children they studied.

The Washington University findings back the US advice that children under two should not watch any television.

But TV viewing among those aged three to five seemed to aid literacy later.
Very interesting. I suspect one problem is the growth of the brain needs socialization more than anything in the very beginning and this means more tactile contact since this is the most ancient part of our psyches. We are, above all, animals. And animal babies need a great deal of physical contact with their mammalian mothers. The same is true of birds. Learning to socialize, identify those nearest and dearest, to be consumed by this process seems very important for the very young. Song birds memorize their songs during nesting time, not as adults. Young mammals learn to get along with siblings and to copy mother for when they must nurture. Namely, we learn how to be mothers during infancy. In humans, being mother is very difficult and complex just like giving birth is difficult due to the large size of our babies' heads. So the learning process lasts much longer but the emotional base is built in infancy.

Without this base, it is nearly impossible to build anything later as studies of severely abused babies show.

Watching TV interferes with all this due to the fact that there is no tactile backup and the attachments are inappropriate, namely, the child isn't memorizing mommy's face or other social details but is being put in a coo-coo bird's cheat whereby the attachment is indifferent to the survival of the baby and indeed, hostile to it. Advertisers, for example, are particularily hostile to the survival of the baby.
Another study in the same medical journal, by Dr Robert Hancox from the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, found that children aged five to 11 who watched the most television were the least likely to leave school with qualifications.

Another, also published in the archives journal, of Californian school children aged eight found those with a TV in their bedroom, but no home computer, achieved the worst scores in school achievement tests.

Those without a bedroom TV, but access to a computer, scored the highest.
Heh. My kids had computer games and computers and very little TV watching, actually, by choice. They enthusiastically dove into the interface/active universe without hesitation.

They now teach me, not the other way around!

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