Monthly Archives: May 2003

briefly/visitors

I turned on referrer logging recently to see how people were finding my page. It seems that new visitors fall into three categories:

  • People who click the link on Mason’s page. Welcome!
  • People searching in Google for “gazebo’s”. For these visitors, I suggest you read this and then try this.
  • People searching for explicit pictures of Xenosaga characters. I won’t quote any search results here since it’ll only draw more such hits, but some of these are really sick. Look, if you’re going to search for this sort of thing on the Internet, at least find some women who are not computer generated. I assume finding an actual woman in the real world is out of the question, of course.

briefly/transit

I’m riding the BART these days, shortly before it becomes extremely convenient for me to do so (my new apartment is adjacent to a BART station), since my campus parking permit has expired.

The best thing about this is that I recover a little bit of time that used to be wasted driving – 40 minutes a day or so. At the moment I’m just playing Golden Sun on my GBA, but I should pick up a book to read, or download the NY Times (or at least the crossword puzzle) onto my Clie.

contemplation/monotheocracy

It is contended by many that ours is a Christian government, founded upon the Bible, and that all who look upon the book as false or foolish are destroying the foundation of our country. The truth is, our government is not founded upon the rights of gods, but upon the rights of men. Our Constitution was framed, not to declare and uphold the deity of Christ, but the sacredness of humanity. Ours is the first government made by the people and for the people. It is the only nation with which the gods have had nothing to do. And yet there are some judges dishonest and cowardly enough to solemnly decide that this is a Christian country, and that our free institutions are based upon the infamous laws of Jehovah.

—Robert Green Ingersoll, apparently not referring to George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.

More on church-state separation today. First off, Howard Dean by way of Slate (fourth item) informs us that Bush’s 2001 education bill states that “every school has to certify there’s constitutionally protected school prayer in your local public school.” (Dean’s phrasing) Which leads me again to ask, have any of our legislators even read the constitution? Or have all the copies in Washington been removed to the Ashcroft residence to be used as toilet paper?

My concern is that even if the courts don’t recognize constitutionally protected school prayer now, they will in the near future given the way Bush is stacking the courts. (This will be especially true if the plans to eliminate the filibuster rule go through.) Is school prayer a more dangerous problem for education than standardized testing? Well, no. I honestly don’t think the slippery slope goes very far. It’s just a waste of student time, and alienates the Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, etc.

(Off-topic – David Brin once made the argument that our society benefits from the social stigma that accrues to intellectuals, especially in schools. The idea being that those branded as nerds are discouraged from socializing, so they end up spending their free time studying, and later in life, making new discoveries. The reason I bring this up is that the rate of atheism among scientists is much higher than in the general population – 50% versus 10%. Maybe the alienation of atheists will be good for scientific discovery – however, the increase of religion in education is overall very bad for science.)

This provision in the education bill illustrates the three-pronged attack that religious conservatives are making on church-state separation. Enact laws that push the boundary of acceptable religion in government, selectively enforce existing laws through Ashcroft’s Justice Department in a way sympathetic to Christians, and appoint judges who will uphold these actions. The article linked last Friday from The American Prospect focused more on the latter two points.

So how far are they going to get? My guess is that Abrahamaic monotheism will become the de facto state religion of the United States; for example, the kind of school prayers that will eventually be allowed (or mandated!) will be ones with vague references to “God” in a way that satisfies Jews, Christians, and Muslims (but no one else). Those people who have the silly fixation with posting the Ten Commandments on every available wall (under the absolutely ridiculous pretense that “they are the basis for our laws”) will be allowed to do so. There will be some backsliding on women’s rights and gay rights, but I don’t think it’s the slippery slope scenario leading to the Talibanization of America that some people envision. Certain rights are enjoyed by too large a fraction of the populace to be overturned. (Sorry, Rick Santorum – I don’t think contraception is going to be outlawed anytime soon.) In other words, the tyranny of the majority only extends as far as the majority.

Still, it’s going to suck if this comes about – maybe not so much for those atheists who are lucky enough to be straight and male, and thus just have to grind our teeth through the latest government-sponsored prayer, but mainly for the ones the religious right really has it in for – gay men, and women of all orientations.

(Off-topic again – couldn’t the Democratic presidential candidates make a dent by attacking Bush on women’s rights? Some of the judges he’s nominated are on record with severely misogynist comments. Then there’s that international treaty on women’s rights that the Bush administration refused to support. I’m sure there are more examples; maybe I’ll go look around Google News later.)

Another area that will suffer, as I’ve repeatedly mentioned, is American science. In fact, it’s already suffering. This is a big enough topic to merit its own post, though, so I’ll deal with that in an upcoming entry.

notes/summer

This past weekend was my first to be completely free in a long time. I celebrated by playing lots of Planetside and Dynasty Warriors 4, hence the silence on this page.

Classes are over and the campus is very quiet today. The summer session will start up in a few weeks but until then the place is going to seem pretty depopulated.

After nine months of cool weather, 72 degrees feels blazing hot. Especially when climbing the hill from the BART station…

contemplation/theocrats


The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.

—Thomas Jefferson

The American Prospect has an article this week (W.’s Christian Nation) summarizing attacks on church-state separation by the Bush administration and others. (As most of you know this is one of my favorite topics.) Most of it is not new to me, although it seems like every week there’s some new Christian nutjob appointed to an influential judgeship. The article is useful, though, in sketching the big picture for church-state issues. I’ve started thinking in somewhat broad terms about this, so I may write about it in the next few days (or, alternatively, find something more interesting and drop the thread entirely). Anyway, here are some of the questions I’m pondering:

  • How worried should we be? Everyone’s got their favorite slippery-slope scenario that ends with George H. W. Bush’s dream of revoking atheists’ citizenships. Realistically though, how much ground is going to be lost in the next few years under Bush, DeLay, Frist, and Scalia?
  • How much of this does the American public support? Some ridiculous fraction of people think “under God” ought to stay in the Pledge of Allegiance (and to these people, I extend a heartfelt middle finger). Presumably not all of these people are in favor of, say, school prayer. How far does the tyranny of the majority extend?
  • How sympathetic is Bush personally to the goals of the religious right? (And does it matter?) Is he just trying to shore up his base, or does he really envision a Christian nation?
  • What are the immediate, identifiable effects of religious politics? For one, American science is already falling behind in fields like cloning and stem cell research.
  • How does the situation compare with other nations? Most European countries have populations more secular than the United States, despite a lack of official church-state separation.

I’d like to say something intelligent about these issues, but it remains to be seen whether I can come up with anything. In the meantime, I’m off to this thing at John’s house.

planning/stroll

Tonight: dinner at the advisor’s house. (It’s a farewell party for two graduating group members.)

These occasions have two (related) good qualities:

1. John has very good wine, and

2. His house is in walking distance.

Unfortunately #2 will no longer be true in a couple of weeks when I move, so I’ll be able to enjoy less of #1 in the future.

A woman once asked me, “How many drinks does it take before you start talking?” I’m not sure such a number exists, actually. (I don’t intend to test for it tonight, but I thought I’d mention it.)

recycling/practice

None of my regular readers are Plasticians (as far as I know) so I don’t feel guilty about recycling my posts from there (as I’m about to do). There’s a discussion running today (Bush Raises Education Bar – States Issue Platform Shoes) about how states are artificially raising their standardized test scores by lowering standards in order to meet federal requirements. What really set me off, though, was a comment making the common argument that “teaching to the test” isn’t a problem if the test covers the right content. My own public school experience has made me skeptical of standardized testing, but until I pounded out this post I didn’t realize how visceral my feelings were. Anyway, here’s the full text of my comment. (Italics are quotes from the post I’m responding to.)

Subject: Teaching to the test is not so easy to solve.

How hard is it to teach a kid reading, writing and ‘rithmatic, and to then test for it?

On the level of an individual classroom, not insurmountably difficult. But how hard is it to test for, say, writing skills on a statewide level in a standardized way? My guess is it’s pretty damn hard.

The state will have hundreds of thousands of writing samples to evaluate, so you have to hire a bunch of people to grade these things. For these evaluations to be any good, they should be controlled in some way across the different graders, so someone draws up a rubric of what, for purposes of the test, defines “good writing”. It’s not enough just to check grammar, spelling and punctuation ? students need to write coherently as well as correctly. It’s important that the rubric be strictly adhered to, so that a student’s score doesn’t depend on which grader he happens to get, but on the other hand any attempt to distill the essence of “good writing” into a ten point score is necessarily going to be incomplete.

In addition to the rubric the test makers have to put some constraints on form and content of the writing sample. Obviously fiction and poetry are out ? too hard to draw up a corresponding rubric. Testing the ability to write a research paper is too impractical. Topics political in nature or otherwise thought-provoking may bring out some bias in the grader, so those need to be avoided. So the only thing a standardized writing test can really test is the ability to write short essays on extremely bland subjects. This is where “teaching to the test” comes in.

If the problem is “teaching to the test”, make the test reflect the objectives. Problem solved.

I hear this frequently, and it seems to me that such an argument ignores the practicalities of standardized testing.

The biggest problem is that one can increase one’s score on a standardized test through familiarity with its form as well as its content. (I understand this is the principle behind SAT preparation courses.) This leads to the biggest single waste of my time when I was in high school (and that’s saying a lot!): practice tests. Literally weeks of class time spent taking the standardized tests over and over again, practicing that short bland essay when we could be reading literature or writing fiction or poetry. We actually studied the grading rubric itself ? it took on importance far in excess of its design and became the de facto definition of good writing for my sophomore English class. This is what is meant by “teaching to the test”, and it’s a total waste of time and money. A true test of a student’s writing ability and versatility cannot be done on a statewide level.

And that is why I blame the Connecticut Academic Performance Test for all my short and bland Plastic posts.

Any thoughts?

celebration/stage

Stage Clear! Advance to the next level.

It’s official – I have finished my classes for this semester, and completed the course requirements for the Ph.D. The next hurdle is the qualifying exam, which I won’t take for at least another year. Then on to the final stage – the dissertation. Berkeley’s physics department does not require a thesis defense, so I’ll be spared that ordeal.

Doesn’t sound like much when I put it that way, but I have three or four more years of research ahead of me. It’s certainly nice to be done with classes, though.

contemplation/explosion

Walking back from lunch today, I heard a loud bang and saw a puff of smoke by a fountain on campus (at the corner of Bancroft and College). Nothing seemed to be damaged, and I walked on by, not really knowing what to think. I guess it was probably a dumb fraternity prank, but the explosion at Yale today makes me think I should take these things more seriously.

rant/violence

In case anyone is wondering why I don’t care for Joe Lieberman, here’s a good example. The author of that piece nails it in the second paragraph so there’s really not much more for me to say. If he’s worried about his daughters, maybe he should try actual parenting instead of working to censor a form of entertainment and, yes, artistic expression.

In terms of obnoxious comments by Senator Lieberman, though, this doesn’t even come close to the time he suggested that atheists are necessarily immoral. (Not to mention implying, falsely, that he had the backing of George Washington and John Adams on that assertion.) I’d love to hear his explanation as to how I turned out a productive member of society despite my lack of religion and preference for violent forms of entertainment. Or maybe it’s all a delicate facade, and I’m just going to snap any minute.

You know, it’s not the video games that inspire my violent thoughts, it’s sanctimonious politicians. Maybe we can get them banned instead.