September 3, 2011

Ed Tech

From the NYT:
In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores
CHANDLER, Ariz. — Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way. 
In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius. 
The class, and the Kyrene School District as a whole, offer what some see as a utopian vision of education’s future. Classrooms are decked out with laptops, big interactive screens and software that drills students on every basic subject. Under a ballot initiative approved in 2005, the district has invested roughly $33 million in such technologies. 
The digital push here aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer, wandering among students who learn at their own pace on Internet-connected devices. 
“This is such a dynamic class,” Ms. Furman says of her 21st-century classroom. “I really hope it works.” 
Hope and enthusiasm are soaring here. But not test scores. 
Since 2005, scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene, even as statewide scores have risen. ...

First of all, 7th-graders shouldn't be reading Shakespeare. He's too hard for them. Maybe 9th graders should read Julius Caesar, a play with a much simpler style. But Shakespeare's comedies are hard. Also, they aren't very funny. King Lear is still really, really sad, but As You Like It is not really funny anymore.
Larry Cuban, an education professor emeritus at Stanford University, said the research did not justify big investments by districts. 
“There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period, period, period,” he said. “There is no body of evidence that shows a trend line.” 
Some advocates for technology disagree. 
Karen Cator, director of the office of educational technology in the United States Department of Education, said standardized test scores were an inadequate measure of the value of technology in schools. Ms. Cator, a former executive at Apple Computer, said that better measurement tools were needed but, in the meantime, schools knew what students needed.

Okay, but why is Ms. Cator a former executive at Apple Computer? If the K-12 market is as promising as she thinks, wouldn't her former boss Steve Jobs have made sure to keep at Apple? After all, he has a pretty good nose for the next big thing. Moreover, a quarter of a century ago, Apple was, to a large extent, the chief K-12 technology company. That was its strong suit in 1985. Since his return to Apple in the mid 1990s, Jobs has largely abandoned K-12 for the well-educated grown-up market, with vast success. 

On the other hand, I think there are opportunities to help kids learn better in K-12 with technology. Intelligent drilling is what computers can do well. And the iPad looks like a particularly good form factor. But most of the software currently for K-12 is lousy, and most of the people buying K-12 software aren't very good either.


A headline from the LA Times:
Rug store owner showed porn to teenage intern, police say

Wait a minute ... they have interns now in the rug business? Is nothing sacred anymore? I understand that the practice of interning -- i.e., young people from affluent families working for free to get a networking leg up on the competition -- had infested many industries. But, I had assumed, the venerable rug merchant business, which has been a byword for thousands of years of being in it for the money, would not stoop so low.

Obamamania in perspective

Brent Staples reviews Randall Kennedy's book on Obama for the NYT:
Every campaign enlists its own meta-language. As Randall Kennedy reminds us in his provocative and richly insightful new book, “The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency,” the Obama forces disseminated several messages intended to soothe the racially freighted fears of the white electorate. On one channel, they reassured voters that he was not an alien, but a normal American patriot. They also made clear that he was a “safe,” conciliatory black man who would never raise his voice in anger or make common cause with people, living or dead, who used race as a platform for grievance. On yet another wavelength, the candidate proffered his bona fides as a black man to ­African-Americans who were initially wary of his unusual upbringing, his white family ties and his predominantly white political support. 
The press viewed this courtship of black voters as largely beside the point for a “post-racial” campaign that had bigger fish to fry on the white side of the street. Kennedy, who teaches law at Harvard, is having none of that. He argues with considerable force that the candidate deliberately set out to blacken himself in the public mind — while taking care not to go too far — and would have lost the election had he not done so. He sees Obama’s courtship of black voters not as tertiary, but as the main event and as the perfect vantage from which to view the campaign and the presidency. 
“The Persistence of the Color Line” consists of an introduction and eight inter­related essays that offer a fresh view of events that had prematurely taken on the cast of settled history. One essay, “The Race Card in the Campaign of 2008,” lays out an exacting standard for determining when the charge of race baiting is appropriate and applies it to several statements that were labeled as racist, or at least nearly so, during the last presidential campaign. Kennedy praises the Republican nominee, John McCain (he “imposed upon himself a code of conduct that precluded taking full advantage of his opponent’s racial vulnerability”), and redeems the former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who was run out of the Clinton campaign essentially for saying what was indisputably true: Obama’s blackness mattered to his stature as a candidate. Without it, he would never have appealed so strongly “to the emotions of millions of white Americans who yearned for a moment of racial ­redemption.” 
... He sees [Rev. Jeremiah] Wright’s critique of America as excessive, but notes that it is, at bottom, more integral to the African-American worldview than was generally acknowledged during the episode. 
The messianic glow that surrounded Obama’s candidacy — Kennedy and others call it “Obamamania” — precluded closer scrutiny of his pronouncements, especially those having to do with race. The widely held notion that the now-famous race speech, “A More Perfect Union,” ranked with the Gettysburg Address or “I Have a Dream” strikes Kennedy as delusional. The speech, he writes, was little more than a carefully calibrated attempt to defuse the public relations crisis precipitated by the Wright affair. Far from frank, it understated the extent of the country’s racial divisions and sought to blame blacks and whites equally for them, when in fact, Kennedy writes, “black America and white America are not equally culpable. White America enslaved and Jim Crowed black America (not the other way around).” The speech was in keeping with the candidate’s wildly successful race strategy, which involved making white voters feel better about themselves whenever possible.
The cornerstone essay, “Obama Courts Black America,” is a breath of fresh air on many counts, not least of all because it offers a fully realized portrait of the black political opinion — left, right, center, high and low — that was brought to bear during the campaign. This is the most comprehensive document I’ve yet read on the near street fight that erupted over the question of how Obama should identify himself racially. There were those who viewed him as “too white” to be legitimately seen as black; those who had no problem with his origins; those who viewed the attempt to portray him as “mixed race” as a way of trying to “whiten” him for popular consumption; and those who accused Obama of throwing his white mother under the bus when it became clear that he regarded himself as African-American. 
Tallying votes, Kennedy reckons that it would have been political suicide for Obama to identify himself as anything other than black. This would have undermined his standing among African-Americans, whose overwhelming support he needed to win, and gained him nothing among those whites who were determined to punish him for his skin color, no matter how he described himself. 

Of course Obamamania was always all about race. Look, the guy was a state legislator as of 2004, and not even speaker, majority leader, or a whip in the Illinois legislature. He was chairman of the state senate's health and human services committee, which isn't bad, but it's not automatic Presidential Timber. Four years later, he gets elected President.  If his daddy hadn't been black, he would no more have become President than if the previous guy'd daddy had been Mr. Tree.

Let's say that as of 2004, Obama was about the 10th most important person in one of the 50 state legislatures in the country. With 50 governors, 100 U.S. Senators, and 435 Representatives, that means he was probably not in the top 1,000 politicians in the country four years before winning the Presidential election. Four years before getting elected President, Bush II was governor, Clinton was governor, Bush I was Veep, Reagan was ex-governor, Carter was governor, Ford was House minority leader, Nixon was ex-Veep, LBJ was Senate majority leader, JFK was U.S. Senator, Eisenhower was former supreme commander, and Truman was U.S. Senator.

September 1, 2011

Disparate Impact, Part MCXXXVII

The New York Times editorializes:
The Military and the Death Penalty 
Racism in the application of capital punishment has been well documented in the civilian justice system since the Supreme Court reinstated the penalty in 1976. Now comes evidence that racial disparity is even greater in death penalty cases in the military system. 
Minority service members are more than twice as likely as whites — after accounting for the crimes’ circumstances and the victims’ race — to be sentenced to death, according to a forthcoming study co-written by David Baldus, an eminent death-penalty scholar, who died in June. 
The analysis is so disturbing because the military has made sustained, often successful efforts to rid its ranks of discrimination. But even with this record, its failure to apply the death penalty fairly is more proof that capital punishment cannot be free of racism’s taint.

You know, if you do a study of star football running backs, after accounting for the circumstances, such as honors earned at that level, the whites will go on to be victims of racism in college, and then again in the pros. How do we know that? Because of disparate impact.

Alternatively, if one group has a bell curve shifted versus another group, the shift tends becomes more extreme the more extreme the selection critieria, whether for starring as running backs or committing heinous crimes. But, who could expect the New York Times editorial board to be familiar with and grasp the logic of normal probability distributions, as explained by La Griffe du Lion. Why should they? He's some pseudonymous academic.

August 31, 2011

Oak Park v. Austin

In response to my review of Bruce Norris's outstanding Chicago real estate play, Clybourne Park, James Kabala asks a good question:
What if, when the first middle-class black family or two had moved into Austin, NO ONE had panicked and sold. Wouldn't that have kept the neighborhood safe? An underclass family can't buy a house if the house isn't for sale! It seems as if the neighbors Steve commends as more practical/realistic/conservative were actually selling out the neighborhood both literally and metaphorically. If they had stayed put, there would have been no houses for anyone (white or black, middle-class or underclass, law-abiding or criminal) to buy, and the original families could have lived there indefinitely.

Norris touches upon this issue in Clybourne Park. The white family that sells out in 1959 to Lorraine Raisin in the Sun Hansberry's family has a personal reason to be alienated from their neighbors. Also, their real estate agent doesn't have a problem with it.  

The response suggested by James was the response of my in-laws in 1967 in the Austin neighborhood of the West Side of Chicago. They joined a liberal Catholic homeowners group founded by a priest whom my father-in-law knew from classical music circles. This priest had composed two operas about Chicago politics with librettos by Father Andrew Greeley. I had a long discussion with him about this at my father-in-laws' wake. 

All the members pledged to each other not to sell out. 

This failed disastrously in Austin. My in-laws held out for three years, long after most of the members had bailed out. But after their small children had been mugged three times, they finally got out. 

The role of real estate agents should be noted: real estate agents tend to specialize in one or two neighborhoods. When prices are going up, they tend to play a constructive role. For example, in our North Lakefront neighborhood in the 1990s, the local real estate agent organized many of the parties. But, if prices are going down, real estate agents can switch to trying to cash in quick by stampeding locals into panic selling. It's an eat-the-seed-corn strategy, but egging on massive turnover can make economic sense to real estate agents (including to the agents of the middle class black families) that were the first to move in. 

On the other hand, as the priest pointed out to me, a similar strategy saved Oak Park (where my father was born in 1917), just west of Austin. My father and I went to see Oak Park in 1982, which he hadn't seen since 1929. Having just read Theodore White's dismal account to visiting his old neighborhood in Boston, I expected it to be a horrible experience. Instead, Oak Park turned out to be full of architecture fans touring the lovely Frank Lloyd Wright neighborhood where my father had grown up. 

The differences between Austin and Oak Park were that Oak Park had the most historically significant domestic architecture in America. It was worth fighting to save. In contrast, while segregated Austin was a terrific place for a modest income family to raise a bunch of kids in the early 1960s -- the population density during the Baby Boom was so high that kids just played on the sidewalks in huge groups, with lots of adults around to keep an eye on them, and little girls walked to school -- there was nothing special about it. It was just a bunch of two and three flats. There were a million neighborhoods like this in Chicago.

People like Matthew Yglesias who are into urbanism, public transportation, and high density should study the destruction of working class urban neighborhoods in Chicago by integration. 

The other big difference was that the conspiracy in Oak Park went all the way to the top. Real estate agents were pressured into imposing "a black a block' quota of only selling to one black family per block. That was totally illegal after the 1968 Fair Housing Act, but, apparently, it was considered in such a good cause -- preserving the home of Prairie Style Architecture -- that everybody winked at it. (I compared Austin to Oak Park in more detail here.)

The general lesson from the differing fates of next-door neighbors Austin and Oak Park, as far as I can tell, is that, all things considered, it's better to live in a neighborhood full of architectural treasures inhabited by affluent and powerful people than in a neighborhood full of average buildings inhabited by average people.

There's no end to the way that nice things are nicer than not nice things.

Paul Graham

My new VDARE column is on Paul Graham, the finest essayist on what it takes to make it in Silicon Valley:
With the  school year starting up, I got to thinking about offering some avuncular advice to young people about how to make one’s way in the world. 
Fortunately, I resisted the urge. Instead, I’ll merely advise: read Paul Graham. 
For obvious reasons, I don’t offer young people much career advice. And even if I felt like it, I might not see much point in doing it myself because Graham has raised the quality bar so high over the last decade with his self-help essays.

Read the whole thing there.

My old articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

August 30, 2011

"Clybourne Park" by Bruce Norris

From my new column in Taki's Magazine:
Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in New York and Olivier Award in London, is the play I’ve been waiting for since the 1980s. Although Norris previously wrote six dramas for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Steppenwolf will finally stage his masterpiece beginning September 8th. 
It’s a bitterly funny two-act play set in the same two-bedroom house on Chicago’s Near Northwest Side in white-flight 1959 and then in gentrifying 2009. Norris is superb at writing dialogue in How We Talk Now. While most playwrights live for eloquent speechifying, Norris’s 2009 characters converse realistically in interrupting, overlapping, and apologizing snatches. Moreover, Clybourne Park is the first work I can recall to capture precisely what urbanites talk about most obsessively (real estate); how they converse (euphemistically); and why (the 3Ls of real estate are “location, location, and location,” which in Chicago means, above all else, race).
In my 18 years in Chicago, I was involved in innumerable conversations that included the phrase, “It just needs a little tuckpointing.” Yet how many famous plays or movies center around real estate? Real estate and race?

Read the whole thing there.

August 29, 2011

Women and Silicon Valley

Jaron Lanier reminisces about the early days of Silicon Valley in the New Statesman, with an angle I'd never heard before:
There were precious few girl nerds at the time. There was one who programmed a hit arcade game called Centipede for the first video game company, Atari, and a few others. There were, however, extraordinary female figures who served as the impresarios of social networking before there was an internet. It still seems wrong to name them, because it isn't clear if I would be talking about their private lives or their public contributions: I don't know how to draw a line. 
These irresistible creatures would sometimes date alpha nerds, but mostly brought the act of socialising into a society where it probably would not have occurred otherwise. A handful of them had an extraordinary, often unpaid degree of influence over what research was done, which companies came to be, who worked at them and what products were developed. 
That they are usually undescribed in histories of Silicon Valley is just another instance of what a fiction history can be. The advent of social networking software and oceans of digital memories of bits exchanged between people has only shifted the type of fiction we accept, not the degree of infidelity.

Histories of the Enlightenment have been written from the perspective of the women who hosted the salons. 

August 28, 2011

Bush lawsuit to undermine NYC emergency services proceeds

From the NYT, more on the triumphant Vulcan disparate impact discrimination lawsuit, filed by the Bush Administration in 2007, against the Fire Department of New York.
One afternoon after the trial let out, Capt. Paul Washington, a black officer in Engine Company 234, in Brooklyn, sat in the courthouse cafeteria with Firefighter John Coombs, president of the Vulcans. An hour earlier, Captain Washington had testified about racial insults he encountered on the job: the casual flinging of the N-word and the defacement of a flier for the Vulcans’ first memorial service after 9/11. Where the guest speaker’s name was printed, someone had scribbled other names: Buckwheat, Al Sharpton, Fat Albert. 
Now, the two men explained that overt animus like that was fairly uncommon on the job. Instead, they complained of a corrosive obliviousness to race, discernible in acts as unsubtle as dinner-table condemnations of affirmative action and as seemingly innocuous as a recreation-room preference for Fox News. 
“Our experience is different,” Captain Washington said. “There’s 50 white guys in a firehouse from the same background — middle-class, Long Island, the kids play soccer together — so, yeah, they’re having a ball. But if you’re the one black guy in the house, maybe you ain’t having so much fun.”