Thursday, July 24, 2014

Math Reform in America

Elizabeth Green as a fascinating article in the Times about why efforts to reform the way American schools teach math -- the New Math of the 60s, the new New Math of the 80s, Common Core today -- have all failed. This was my favorite part:
In the 1970s and the 1980s, cognitive scientists studied a population known as the unschooled, people with little or no formal education. Observing workers at a Baltimore dairy factory in the 80s, the psychologist Sylvia Scribner noted that even basic tasks required an extensive amount of math. For instance, many of the workers charged with loading quarts and gallons of milk into crates had no more than a sixth-grade education. But they were able to do math, in order to assemble their loads efficiently, that was “equivalent to shifting between different base systems of numbers.” Throughout these mental calculations, errors were “virtually nonexistent.” And yet when these workers were out sick and the dairy’s better-educated office workers filled in for them, productivity declined.

The unschooled may have been more capable of complex math than people who were specifically taught it, but in the context of school, they were stymied by math they already knew. Studies of children in Brazil, who helped support their families by roaming the streets selling roasted peanuts and coconuts, showed that the children routinely solved complex problems in their heads to calculate a bill or make change. When cognitive scientists presented the children with the very same problem, however, this time with pen and paper, they stumbled. A 12-year-old boy who accurately computed the price of four coconuts at 35 cruzeiros each was later given the problem on paper. Incorrectly using the multiplication method he was taught in school, he came up with the wrong answer. Similarly, when Scribner gave her dairy workers tests using the language of math class, their scores averaged around 64 percent. The cognitive-science research suggested a startling cause of Americans’ innumeracy: school.
So that's math education in America: destroying children's native ability in math. A few years ago I watched my youngest daughter descend into cognitive paralysis in the face of her math homework, too confused to even count along a number line correctly. Over the course of the first grade she only got worse. These days she is performing at grade level, but I don't think she can do math at all; I think she memorizes the answers to all the likely questions. I shudder to think what happens when she encounters long division.

The stumbling block that wrecks all math reform efforts is the training of teachers. According to Green, teachers in states moving to Common Core are being asked to radically change their teaching methods with only two days of instruction and no chance to practice. In class they try to convey what they only half understand using completely unfamiliar methods, with predictable results. At a deeper level, says Green, we simply don't give teachers enough training to overcome their biggest experience of teaching, the way they were taught themselves. (I was personally told, when I started teaching, to remember what my most effective teachers did and copy it.) Since the way teachers were taught is precisely the problem with math education, it is extremely different to make any change work. And since we know that for many people the way we teach math damages their understanding rather than helping, many of our teachers don't understand math well enough to teach it conceptually anyway. Not to mention that the attention span of the American system is too short to ever enact a reform that takes a generation to pay off; the Japanese experts interviewed by Green all emphasized persistence as the key to education, and here we switch fads every few years.

All this is why I think Common Core math is doomed. Americans who understand math conceptually have too many career options for many to be drawn into the modestly paid, low prestige profession of elementary school teaching. For practical purposes we are stuck with the teachers we have, and they are not going to throw themselves into learning a very difficult to master new way of teaching, especially when they all assume (correctly) that the fad will pass and in a few years they will be back to what they were doing before.

Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was and is one of America's most famous painters, and one of my favorites. His body of work is huge and full of wonders in many different veins. The National Gallery has a nice summary of his early career:
Winslow Homer was born in Boston, the second of three sons of Henrietta Benson, an amateur watercolorist, and Charles Savage Homer, a hardware importer. As a young man, he was apprenticed to a commercial lithographer for two years before becoming a freelance illustrator in 1857. Soon he was a major contributor to such popular magazines as Harper’s Weekly; in 1859 he moved to New York to be closer to the publishers that commissioned his illustrations and to pursue his ambitions as a painter.
Homer spent much of the Civil War sketching for Harper's. Most of his war work was forgettable and quickly forgotten, although the historians say he grew as an artist from the constant work. Home Sweet Home, 1863.

Here is a historical oddity, quite possibly the first work of art to depict a sniper with a telescopic sight. Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, 1862.

At the end of the war he painted what I regard as his first masterpiece, The Veteran in a New Field. Homer began this work in the summer of 1865, as the nation meditated on the Union's bloody victory and the assassination of Lincoln. It is drenched in symbolism -- the Union veteran has returned home to take up farming again, but the scythe in his hand suggests the grim reaper, and I at least always imagine that he is remembering his awful days in other, bloodier fields. Yet the amazing wheat crop before him suggests a hopeful future.

In the later 1860s and early 1870s Homer painted many, many pictures of children, especially boys in the country. Sick of war, I suppose, and longing for a return to the innocence of the antebellum years. This is Boys in a Pasture, 1874.

Another interesting facet of his work is a number of paintings of working women looking competent. Sick Chicken, 1874.

Sick Chicken is a watercolor, as is this lovely work, Over the Stile (1878). After spending 20 years mastering oil painting, in the 1870s Homer got bored with that, or something, and decided to take up watercolors, which people told him was crazy. But most of the famous works from the later decades of his life are watercolors, so I guess it worked out for him.

Another favorite of mine, The New Novel, 1874.

Homer quit illustration in 1875 to paint full time and had a huge success at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Here he showed several works including what is probably his most famous, Breezing Up (A Fair Wind). People who loved the sea loved the painting and praised it extravagantly; those who disliked the sea were ambivalent. Among the latter was Henry James, who wrote,
We frankly confess that we detest his subjects...he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial...and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded.
In 1877 Homer made a return trip to his old Civil War stomping grounds in Virginia and made several watercolors of African American life. This is Dressing for the Carnival. According to the Met:
The brilliant light and color of this scene, originally titled "Sketch–4th of July in Virginia," contradict its more solemn meaning. The central figure is being dressed as Harlequin, the clown and social outcast of European comic theater. The strips of cloth being sewn to his costume, however, derive from African ceremonial dress and from the festival of Jonkonnu, when slaves left their quarters to dance at their master's house. In the years following the Civil War, aspects of Jonkonnu became part of the celebration of the Fourth of July and Emancipation. Here, the pageantry of multihued costumes suggests a festive celebration, but it also reflects the dislocation of traditional African culture and the beginnings of its transformation into a new tradition.
The success of 1876 allowed Homer to travel widely and take his work in new directions. In 1881 to 1882 he spent more than a year in England, mainly in the North Sea fishing village of Cullercoats. He painted mainly in watercolors; this, Sparrow Hall, is one of his few oils from that time. He was fascinated by the fisher women of Cullercoats and painted them many times.

In the 1880s and 1890s he traveled widely in Florida and the Caribbean, creating many of the works for which he is best remembered. This includes the one at the top of the post, Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda, 1899, and the one above, Native Hut, Nassau, 1885.

The Gulf Stream, 1899.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Impressionist Orientalism

Renoir. Above, Madame Clementine in Algerian Dress. Below, Algerian Woman, 1883. More here.

Fin del Mundo

Crystal spearpoint from the Fin del Mundo site in northwest Mexico, a camp of the Clovis people radiocarbon dated to 13,400 years ago.

Digital Liberation vs. Office Drudgery

From The Baffler:
Utopian reveries spill forth almost daily from the oracles of progress, forecasting a transformation of Information Age labor into irrepressible acts of impassioned fun. But we know all too well the painful truth about today’s ordinary work routines: they have become more, not less, routinized, soul-killing, and laden with drudgery. The contrast between the glum reality of cubicle labor and the captivating rhetoric of Internet liberation, which once seemed daft and risible, doesn’t anymore; now it’s only galling. . . . Such are the perverse rewards we reap when we permit tech culture to become our culture. The profits and power flow to the platform owners and their political sponsors. We get the surveillance, the data mining, the soaring inequality, and the canned pep talks from bosses who have been upsold on analytics software.
A bit over the top, but I certainly don't see any evidence that computer technology has made work more liberating for more than a tiny minority of people.


Of Aeschylus' eighty or ninety plays and the roughly one hundred twenty by Sophocles, only seven each have survived; Euripides and Aristophanes did slightly better: eighteen of ninety-two play by the former have come down to us; eleven of forty-three by the latter.

These are the great success stories. Virtually the entire output of many other writers, famous in antiquity, has disappeared without a trace. Scientists, historians, mathematicians, philosophers, and statesmen have left behind some of their achievements -- the invention of trigonometry, for example, or the calculation of position by reference to latitude and longitude, or the rational analysis of political power -- but their books are gone. The indefatigable scholar Didymus of Alexandria earned the nickname Bronze-Ass for having what it took to write more than 3,500 books; apart from a few fragments, all have vanished. At the end of the fifth century CE an ambitious literary editor known as Stobaeus compiled an anthology of prose and poetry by the ancient world's best authors: out of 1,430 quotations, 1,115 are from works are now lost.

In this general vanishing, all the works of the brilliant founders of atomism, Leucippus and Democritus, and most of the works of their intellectual heir Epicurus, disappeared. Epicurus had been extraordinarily prolific. He and his principal philosophical opponent, the Stoic Chrysippus, wrote between them, it was said, more than a thousand books. Even if the figure is exaggerated or if it counts as books what we would regard as essays and letters, the written record was clearly massive. That record no longer exists. . . .

There was a time in the ancient world -- a very long time -- in which the central cultural problem must have seemed an inexhaustible outpouring of books. Where to put them all? How to organize the groaning shelves? How to hold the profusion of knowledge in one's head? The loss of this plenitude would have been virtually inconceivable to anyone living in its midst.

--Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Fighting Lyme Disease by Vaccinating Mice

Twelve years ago there was a promising vaccine for Lyme disease, but GlaxoSmithKline withdrew it, primarily because it had too many dangerous side effects. Too many dangerous side effects to use in humans, that is; but what about using it in some other animal? People mostly get Lyme disease from tick nymphs that pick up the bacteria by biting mice, especially white-footed mice. So biologist Maria Gomes-Solecki set about developing a Lyme vaccine for mice. Of course you can't vaccinate millions of mice by giving them all shots, so it had to be an oral vaccine.
Gomes-Solecki spent the next decade developing her vaccine. By 2006 she had formulated oatmeal pellets laced with OspA. Those pellets reduced the number of infected ticks lab studies, and research published earlier this year shows they can also be effective in the field. Gomes-Solecki and her colleagues selected seven football-field-sized plots in Dutchess County, New York and planted them with live traps. Traps on four of the plots were laced with OspA vaccine. The other three plots contained only placebo pellets. By the second year, the vaccine had slashed number of infected ticks by 23%. By the fifth year, the researchers saw a 76% reduction. White-footed mice live about a year, and ticks live about two. So with each passing year, “you keep on taking more and more bacteria out of the ticks,” Gomes-Solecki says.
Interesting. I can see this being used in places where lots of people go into the woods and encounter ticks, like busy woodland parks. Maybe I could talk the Marines into using it at Quantico, since half my crew gets Lyme every time we have a project there.

Medieval Graffiti from English Churches

BBC News has a good feature on the work of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, which is one of several groups in the UK trying to document all surviving medieval graffiti before it disappears. Ships like the one above in Bassingham are fairly common, possibly carved to give thanks for surviving storms at sea.

Compass-drawn circles like these from Great Gonerby are another common type.

Graffiti like this strikes people very differently, and it is hard to know who is right. To some people it seems mainly like random doodling, but to others it is a link to a non-official medieval religious culture full of pagan elements and anti-clerical sentiments. To Brian Porter, who records graffiti in Lincolnshire, these look like images of straw men -- figures made of straw and burned as part of harvest celebrations in many parts of Europe -- and he takes this to be a sign that pagan traditions remained strong despite the church's efforts. I would call that a stretch, but then, who knows?

The Guardian has a nice set of images from another graffiti-recording effort in Suffolk. This design is known as "Solomon's Knot" and historians think it was used to avert the evil eye or keep away devils; this example is from Lidgate.

Bishop from Scole, Norfolk.

Complex bird design from Dalling (overdrawn with black to make it visible).

I am wondering how I can turn this into a new signature for myself. (From the cloister of Lincoln Cathedral)

Crepe Myrtle, Dupont Circle

Marvelous plants that burst into bloom as most flowering shrubs and trees are settling down for a midsummer nap.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Beachcombing for Legos

In Cornwall, the sport of the hour is hunting for legos on the beach. They are easy enough to find, ever since a shipping container stuffed with nearly 5 million washed overboard during a storm in 1997. This is Tracey Williams, apparently one of the leaders of this movement:
These days the holy grail is an octopus or a dragon. I only know of three octopuses being found — and one was by me — in a cave in Challaborough, Devon. It's quite competitive. If you heard that your neighbor had found a green dragon, you'd want to go out and find one yourself.
We humans love to search and find, especially bright pretty things. As an archaeologist, I ought to know.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser

Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000) was an Austrian-born artist, architect, environmental activist, and loon. Born Friedrich Stowasser, he changed his name to Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser ("Peaceful-Kingdom Rainy-Day Darkly-Multicolored Hundred-Water.") He came to regard modernist architecture as the physical expression of totalitarianism and spent his adult life raging against it. He built a handful of strange buildings across Europe that can best be compared to those of Antoni Gaudí, then bought land in New Zealand and set about trying to build an off-the-grid eco-paradise there.

Hundertwasser hated straight lines -- he once called them "the devil's tools" -- and his love of curves was so great that he once designed an apartment building with undulating floors. His career, I think shows the value of unconventionality bordering on insanity; who else would have fought so hard against the totalitarian machinery of modernism? What sane careerist family man would have given us such an original vision? In 1958 Hundertwasser issued a manifesto in which he laid out his views of architecture and society; the rest of the text in this post comes from that manifesto.

Painting and sculpture are now free, inasmuch as anyone may produce any sort of creation and subsequently display it. In architecture, however, this fundamental freedom, which must be regarded as a precondition for any art, does not exist.

Functional architecture has proved to be the wrong road to take, similar to painting with a straight-edged ruler. With giant steps we are approaching impractical, unusable and ultimately uninhabitable architecture.

The tangible and material uninhabitability of slums is preferable to the moral uninhabitability of utilitarian, functional architecture. In the so-called slums only the human body can be oppressed, but in our modern functional architecture, allegedly constructed for the human being, man's soul is perishing, oppressed. We should instead adopt as the starting point for improvement the slum principle, that is, wildly luxuriantly growing architecture, not functional architecture.

Today we live in a chaos of straight lines, in a jungle of straight lines. If you do not believe this, take the trouble to count the straight lines which surround you. Then you will understand, for you will never finish counting.

The irresponsible vandalism of the constructive, functional architects is well known. They simply wanted to tear down the beautiful stucco-facade houses of the 1890s and Art Nouveau and put up their own empty structures. Take Le Corbusier, who wanted to level Paris completely in order to erect his straight-line, monstrous constructions. Now, in the name of justice, the constructions of Mies van der Rohe, Neutra, the Bauhaus, Gropius, Johnson, Le Corbusier, Loos etc. should be torn down, as they have been outdated for a generation and have become morally unbearable.

Today's architecture is criminally sterile. For unfortunately, all building activity ceases at the very moment when man "takes up quarters", but normally building activity should not begin until man moves in. We are outrageously robbed of our humanity by defiling dictates and criminally forced not to make any changes or additions to facades, the layout or interiors, either in colour, structure, or masonry.

This jungle of straight lines, which is entangling us more and more like inmates in a prison, must be cleared. Until now, man has always cleared away the jungles he was in and freed himself. But to clear a jungle you must first become aware that you are in one, for this jungle took form stealthily, unnoticed by mankind. And this time it is a jungle of straight lines.

Any modern architecture in which the straight line or the geometric circle have been employed for only a second – and were it only in spirit – must be rejected. Not to mention the design, drawing-board and model-building work which has become not only pathologically sterile, but absurd. The straight line is godless and immoral. The straight line is not a creative line, it is a duplicating line, an imitating line. In it, God and the human spirit are less at home than the comfort-craving, brainless intoxicated and unformed masses.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Oh, the Weirdness of the Moche

The latest from the gold-crazy, sacrifice-mad denizens of Peru's coast: metal cat claws from an elite tomb in suburban Trujillo, about 1500 years old. The History Blog:
Big cats and deities with feline characteristics played an important role in Moche cosmology. They are frequently depicted in figurines, murals and painted on ceramic vessels. One of the painted friezes at the Temple of Moon, as a matter of fact, depicts large felines attacking and killing human victims, and a feline features prominently on what may be the most important artifact discovered in the tomb: a pyramid-shaped copper scepter which is topped with the face of a feline, fangs bared. The four sides of the scepter are also decorated, three of them with warriors displaying their weapons and the fourth with a large cat that has just killed a nude prisoner.

Medieval People Drank Water

Just discovered a new blog on food history, Les Leftovers, from which I extract this:
The idea that Medieval people drank beer or wine to avoid drinking bad water is so established that even some very serious scholars see no reason to document or defend it; they simply repeat it as a settled truth. In fact, if no one ever documents the idea, it is for a very simple reason: it's not true.

Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it. . . .

Gregory of Tours (sixth c.) writes that when one man "arrived at a village by the road, he went into a small habitation and asked there for water." He even favorably mentions a pond – that is, still water – as a source of drink: "In the middle is a large pond with water that is very agreeable to drink". And in one tale a merchant uses river water from the Saone to dilute wine. Gregory also tells of a crowd finding the marks where a hermit had knelt to drink water from the river. St. Lupicin is said to have drunk the water of a local stream. When a child restored to life miraculously speaks, he tells his mother "Run quickly and bring me a cup of water."
And so on.

One piece of evidence that medieval people drank water is the great prominence of wells; would people have given so much prominence to something that was mainly for the livestock?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Harvest

When I lived in a place without deer I had a wonderful vegetable garden; my green beans and tomatoes especially gave me great joy. Here my initial effort at bean growing only drew a horde of hoofed invaders -- legumes are deer's favorite food -- so I quickly gave up on that. I also planted blackberry and raspberry bushes, but the deer pulled them out of the ground and ate them -- the bushes, that is and I mean entirely ate them, leaving just a few shreds of dirty root. So I built a berry bush cage and the plants subsisted for a while under it, but they never amounted to much and I finally gave that up. For a while I grew tomatoes and peppers in pots on the back porch. The deer did not venture onto the porch, but something else did (raccoons? squirrels?) and I got tired of tending my tomato plants all summer only to end up with half eaten fruit. So this year all that is left of my farming ambitions is a single potted jalapeno plant. So far, nothing has molested the peppers, and here is he first one.

Cut Paper by Bovey Lee

Bovey Lee is a Chinese-American artist, born and educated in Hong Kong; she came to America in 1993 and now lives in Pittsburgh. Many more amazing cut paper works at her web site.