the little sister

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The Little Sister is all atmosphere and attitude. Chandler’s protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, more observes the action than drives it forward. He is pessimistic and tired, even as he cracks wise at any opportunity. Women throw themselves at him, but he can’t seem to marshal the energy to do more than kiss them once or twice and keep up the banter. He’s a step behind every murder, and the loosely knit plot keeps the reader feeling even further behind. (I repeatedly found myself looking back in the book to see what I’d missed, only to realize that I didn’t miss anything; the details weren’t there to notice.)

At the same time, having just read The Maltese Falcon, it was hard for me not to notice that many of the plot devices were similar. If, as some commentators suggest, Little Sister is partly a response to Chandler’s experience in the movie business, I think it’s also paying homage to Hammett’s classic.

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video games and learning: teaching and participatory culture in the digital age

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As Kurt Squire notes in the forward to Video Games and Learning, educators and gamers don’t often talk to each other — “game people think educators are lame, and educators think that game people are hyperviolent misogynists destroying all that is good in the world.” Squire and other educator-gamers (see, for example, Keith Devlin) are trying to change that, because they believe that gaming not only has something to teach educators, but that gaming may be a significant part of the future of education. Squire asks not, “Can you learn from games?” but “How do we make good learning games?” and “Can games help transform education?”

Squire is pretty critical of the current educational culture in our country. He argues that it is based in “passive knowledge reception,” with a structure that isolates “students by age ability, filters all information through the teacher, and features few opportunities to interact with experts, much less to become one.” He sees school as all too often full of failure that reinforces the idea that students know little or nothing – stand back and let “the experts” tell you how it is.

By contrast, gaming communities “don’t survive by selling players the fantasy of being incompetent, powerless, forced to follow arbitrary rules, and impotent in the world.” Instead games give the opportunity to “become leaders, teachers, or authors in the domains they are studying.” Games clearly communicate “what players must do to become experts” and regularly give the opportunity to interact with people who are more advanced. They are engaging and motivate learning in a wide range of fields for the purpose of doing something (albeit, usually scoring more points in the game), not just learning because your teacher told you to. Games, Squires believes, can be a meaningful part of, and can influence, a curriculum that also includes, people, books, homework, and all the other things we’ve come to associate with education.

This all might sound pie in the sky. Squire acknowledges that “such a change would require revolutionizing across the entire education system – from the professional development of teachers (who themselves are treated as recipients, not producers of knowledge) to the assessment system.” But he’s not just theorizing; he’s gone out and worked in “low-performing” schools, introducing a gaming curriculum in collaboration with teachers on the ground. Together they have learned what can work and what can’t, adjusting their approach on the fly. The stories of these experiments are some of the most compelling parts of the book.

Squire does not pretend to have all the answers. While he is a reformer, he is not concerned with scaling the interventions he’s helped pilot. He sees education reform as a process, not a product. He wants to spread “reflective teaching practices that engage kids in advanced design thinking about themselves and their communities.” In this he has succeeded.

#iStandWithRochelleGutierrez

Research in math rarely generates much controversy, but the recent back and forth over the work of Rochelle Gutierrez and others is something of an exception. That work discusses the cultural roots of math, specifically the way it operates as a gendered space that perpetuates male and white privilege. Even though many professional organizations in math have supported Gutierrez and her work, people continue to demonize her.

Suffice it to say that I stand with Gutierrez. See here for more information.

(For an added bonus, check out The Liberated Mathematician.)

the maltese falcon

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Dashiell Hammett tells this classic story in terse, punchy sentences that take the reader around San Francisco and through a twisty plot with Sam Spade, private eye. Spade is worldly, jaded, at times childish, and always chauvinistic. Despite his shortcomings, his ability to assess people and their motivations is remarkable, his insights and intuitions not perfect, but close enough to do the job. In the end we see that, for Hammett, Spade’s flaws are reflections of the world in which he lives.

have his carcase

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It took me a long time to read Have His Carcase. Sayers’ detailed style is, perhaps, a little slow for the contemporary ear. On the other hand, it speaks to the real pace of most police work. They laboriously check every lead, slowly eliminating possibilities till they narrow it down to the real killer. It’s not exciting, but it is satisfying because it works.

the new jim crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness

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In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander traces the history of racialized control in the US – from slavery, to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration – pointing out the similarities and differences, particularly between the Jim Crow of the early and mid-20th century and the mass incarceration of African-American and Latino men in the present day.

Jim Crow – which had replaced slavery as the method of reinforcing white supremacy in the US – was a system of laws and practices that made black people into second class citizens unable to vote, to serve on juries, to live in white neighborhoods, to go to school with white children, to use the same bathrooms as white people, or to participate in white society in a myriad of other ways. When it began to crumble in the face of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a period of relative hope for racial equality for African-Americans that included more decent-paying jobs, educational opportunities, and more.

The time of promise was short-lived. Alexander argues that the War on Drugs is the mechanism that was and is used to replace Jim Crow by imprisoning of huge numbers of men of color and reinforcing what she calls the “caste system” in the United States. The War on Drugs was initiated by President Reagan in 1982 despite the fact that at the time “less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation.” Money for drug enforcement skyrocketed. “Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,206 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to 181 million.”

Because “police can stop, interrogate, and search anyone they choose for drug investigations, provided they get ‘consent,’” racial biases have free rein. In fact, police are allowed to rely on race as a factor in selection whom they stop and search (even though people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites) – effectively guaranteeing that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown.

“Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African-Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” In that same year, African-Americans were admitted to prison at a level “more than twenty-six times the level in 1983. The number of 2000 drug admissions for Latinos was twenty-two times the number of 1983 admissions.” (Emphasis in the original.) By comparison, “the number of white drug admissions was eight times the number admitted in 1983.”

After arrest, prosecutors can overwhelm defendants with extra charges for which they have no evidence in an often successful attempt to get them to accept a lesser, but still felonious conviction. Because of harsh sentencing laws, “drug offenders in the United States more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control – in jail or prison, on probation or parole – than drug offenders anywhere else in the world.”

Predictably, the prison population exploded: “In 1972, fewer than 350,000 people were being held in prisons and jails nationwide, compared with more than 2 million today [2012].” They are disproportionately black and Latino. “One in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men. For young black men, the statistics are even worse. One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, and far more were under some form of penal control – such as probation or parole.”

This despite the fact that crime rates in the US remained flat or even fell during this time. Moreover, study after study show that crime rates are roughly equal across racial groups. It is not that black and Latino men are more likely to commit crime. It is that they are more likely to be targeted for arrest, more likely to be convicted, and tend to have longer sentences when convicted.

Once convicted, discrimination that is remarkably similar to Jim Crow segregation is legal and encouraged. A system of laws and practices denies felons the right to participate in society, even though they have “paid their debt.” “The vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives – denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.” Felons cannot vote or serve on juries. Felons cannot apply for federal low-income housing. They are not eligible for most financial aid for college. It is legal in almost all states to deny jobs to the formerly-incarcerated, and they are barred from obtaining many licenses to open businesses of their own. Even in states where convicted felons are eligible for some of these right, they are shackled by legal fees and paperwork requirements that make exercising those rights all but impossible.

Alexander is clear and thorough and thoughtful. The statistics she cites are useful and compelling. Her arguments are logical and compassionate. If at times I felt overwhelmed by the book, it speaks only to its power.

Her goal is not to propose remedies, though she does begin to discuss them at the book’s end. Instead, I think her goal is to show how the system of mass incarceration is one of the biggest, if not the biggest civil rights issue of our time. In this, I think she succeeds.

When she does discuss remedies, she brings in the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who called for a shift from civil rights to human rights. Alexander, in turn, suggests that we unify across racial lines, not by ignoring our differences or pretending that we don’t see the color of each other’s skins, but by recognizing and acknowledging the humanness that we all possess. We can no longer accept the “racial bribes” we are often given, the crumbs that put most whites, even if they live in abject poverty, above most people of color. Some people of color benefit, too, but at the expense of everyone else. Alexander argues that a more just and better world could exist if we reject those bribes and form a coalition that recognizes the common human needs we share and are systematically denied. Together we could be more powerful and build a society that benefits all the people, rather than just a few.

As I read this book, I repeatedly thought that a similar analysis needs to be done of many of our institutions so that we can understand and deconstruct the ways that all our institutions disadvantage people of color, women, and others. I thought particularly of the ways that higher education pushes out people of color and poor folks, sending them the message that they don’t belong there. Perhaps someone is already working on these books. I hope they are, because I believe that knowing and understanding these issues can help us create a more just society.

silence of the lambs

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In Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris uses straightforward clear prose to tell the story of an aspiring FBI agent, Clarice Starling, assigned to help track down a serial killer by interviewing the brilliant sociopath, Hannibal Lecter. When the serial killer kidnaps the daughter of a US Senator, the chase is on to rescue the daughter before she dies a gruesome and lonely death.

The novel is part procedural, but the best moments are personal. The dynamic between Starling and Lecter is brilliantly rendered. I found myself waiting for more.

I never saw the Academy Award-winning movie adaption. The book is good enough on it’s own.

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