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trouble is my business

images.jpgPhilip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s most famous character, is something of a mystery. He muddles his way through investigations, doing his best to make sense of an unfair and world, but what we know about Marlowe the man fits in an ash tray in a two-bit bar somewhere in the L.A. basin. Trouble Is My Business pulls together four stories that, read together, uncover some of Marlowe’s character.

In the title story, Marlowe is hired to reveal the gold-digging nature of a woman chasing a rich man’s son. Though he doesn’t trust her, he’s also sympathetic to a woman trying to survive in a complicated world — and by the end things get way more complicated than they first appeared. In the second story, Marlowe agrees to help a friend make a little money using a quasi-legitimate scheme. His friend ends up dead and Marlowe’s framed for the murder. The third story sees Marlowe working with another friend, this time a woman on the trail of some insurance money for stolen pearls. Finally, in “Red Wind,” on impulse he helps a woman escape the police and ends up shielding her from her dead lover’s perfidy.

The moral code that emerges from these vignettes is one that says you do a lot for friends — even when it sounds like a bad idea. It assumes women are innocent or at least deserving of protection, never asks for more than fair compensation, and often gets less. Sometimes Marlowe’s pronouncements clang against modern ears, but I don’t think he (or Chandler) cares. He lives his life as he sees fit and expects no sympathy.

the math myth: and other STEM delusions

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Questioning the status quo has always been fraught, even deadly. The furor around Andrew Hacker’s, The Math Myth, is no exception (though as far as I know Hacker has not been physically attacked or threatened). The accepted truth Hacker challenges is the sequence of math courses that almost all US high school students take – commonly called Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II – and which a slightly smaller number retake, as remedial or developmental courses, when they enter college.

These courses are designed to lead students toward calculus, a worthy goal as one of the great scientific and mathematical achievements of the last 500 years, but one that, to be fair, is not crucial to function effectively as a citizen of the 21st century. Instead, this math curriculum is the result of a Sputnik-era concern over the threat of Soviet competition in space and science more broadly.

As such, Hacker’s book asks us to reconsider our lock step requirements for all students in math and offers an alternative based in the thinking of a numerically literate social science professor. Here in essence is his argument, as I see it:

  1. Currently, the US requires all students to take math leading to calculus.
  2. This curriculum teaches skills and knowledge that are not used in most people’s everyday life.
  3. This curriculum teaches skills and knowledge that are rarely used, even by scientists, engineers, computer scientists, actuaries, or any other work we typically think of as needing mathematics.
  4. This curriculum is not improving the quantitative literacy or reasoning of our society.
  5. The transfer of math skills and thinking to other fields, as is often claimed, is unproven at best.
  6. Mathematical proof is abstract and unrelated to the way we in fact establish truth in the world, for example scientific proof or legal proof.
  7. The cost of forcing all students into the same math curriculum is too high, in terms of preventing too many otherwise talented students from completing their studies and entering the professional workforce.
  8. Therefore, we should offer rigorous alternatives to the current math curriculum that promote improved quantitative literacy and reasoning.

Along the way, Hacker includes some thoughts about why the status quo is what it is. Tradition is a big piece of it, as is using math as a surrogate for precision and rigor, something I have often observed. In addition, our math curriculum represents a de facto form of tracking for students, keeping out the “unwanted” from professional careers. You should read that as African-American, Latino/a, and other non-white students who are disproportionately stuck in the math pipeline. The status quo also serves mathematicians by giving them many jobs teaching all the students forced into those classes. Finally, Hacker argues that preventing students in the US from completing their degrees keeps the flow of foreign-born workers, often willing to work for less money than their US-born counterparts, open and strong.

Whether you agree with Hacker’s premises or not, he presents an array of evidence that is not easily dismissed. In fact, critics of the book mostly do not attack the ideas I’ve outlined above. Instead they focus on Hacker’s use of terms, which admittedly is not always careful from a mathematical perspective. That said, in no serious critique of the book have I seen anyone disagreeing with the basic premise that teaching math as we currently do in the US is costing our society the loss of many talented students who excel in many areas, but are denied access to college degrees because they do not complete the math requirements.

Keith Devlin, an educator, Mathematical Association of America-sponsored columnist, and a voice I respect, explicitly agrees with Hacker that “Algebra as typically taught in the school system is presented as a meaningless game with arbitrary rules that does more harm than good.” Devlin’s critique of Hacker draws a distinction between what is taught in US schools as “algebra” and algebra as it was historically developed and currently practiced by mathematicians. This distinction is useful as a defense of algebra as a whole, but not as a critique of Hacker’s work, precisely because Hacker’s argument is about how algebra is taught and used by our educational system. I say, for those that are concerned by Hacker’s use of “algebra” as a convenient metaphor representing “the current state of math education in this country,” substitute the longer phrase.

From my perspective, The Math Myth is titled provocatively for the purpose of creating controversy and selling books. Hacker does not attack the importance of math overall, but does question the current math establishment. As a thoughtful voice from outside the discipline, we should listen, broaden our thinking, and be open to the constructive message he brings. It is the students, as Hacker points out, who pay the price for our insistence on the status quo.

everyday white people confront racial & social injustice: 15 stories

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Whiteness is the unmarked signifier of deservedness.
– Michelle Fine

If you’ve read anything or been to workshops on racism and white privilege in the US, you will recognize many of the authors of the fifteen short essays that comprise Everyday White People Confront Racial & Social Injustice. These folks are “everyday” in the sense that they do not necessarily have special talents, skills, experiences, or positions that make them special or unique among their White peers. On the other hand, their collective and individual public stances against racism and other forms of oppression in our society make them far from ordinary. These people have made it their life work to fight for equality and equity across our society. They are to be respected and, to some degree, emulated, even as they would probably argue against it.

I have found it hard to get out from under the strong training in racism I received as a child. I have come to think of my racist mind and heart as my hard drive, but if I consciously install an alternative software, I can at least temporarily respond to the world with a more whole psyche and sensibility.
– Peggy McIntosh

Each of their essays brings a different perspective on ant-racist work. Most tell the story of their upbringing and the privilege they carry because of accidents of birth. Most discuss the ways that intersecting identities put them in more or less privileged positions depending on the social and political context. One of the most effective discussions of intersectionality comes in Jane K. Fernandes’ essay on the intersections of White and hearing privilege. The concrete examples she uses of the White Deaf community responding to her and to people of color in the deaf community bring it home in ways I had not seen before.

Intersections of privilege systems, when they are not unfolded and opened to full view, become a bastion for maintaining White power and privilege. In many cases, they take place out of the view of the majority of people and thus many, even those committed to social justice, do not see or understand the role of intersections in the maintenance of White supremacy.
– Jane K. Fernandes

All of them stress the importance of this work for White people, the responsibility to use the privilege we are born with for good in the world. Or as Michelle Fine puts it, “Our debt to justice is to interrogate our privilege and li(v)es of whiteness.” At the same time we must recognize that “those who are victimized most by racism – people of color – understand it best, having to navigate racism on a daily basis. White people who want to understand racism need to shift from listening to other White people to learning to hear people of color.” (Christine E. Sleeter) We must listen to our brothers and sisters of color, not speak for them, but follow their lead, working together for a more just society.

The concept of being an ally is useful but inadequate. It is not an identity; it is a practice. It is the act of being present, showing up and working with others that defines the activity of an ally. . . When I am not working from a long-term vision ambitious enough to create serious change and led by people most affected by the issues, no matter how good I feel about my work, I am not responding to the magnitude of the challenges we confront. I may be standing for the right things, but I am not standing with the right people as an effective ally in the appropriate struggles.
Paul Kivel

That means, as Andrea Rabinowitz suggests, you must have relationships with the people you are trying to help. Otherwise, you are liable to fall into missionary mode.

Saving People of Color is one of the preferred weapons of whiteness.
Heather W. Hackman

These authors don’t do what they do for money or fame. They have made it their life work because they believe it is that important. They could not stand idly by watching injustice without acting, because, as Kevin Jennings maintains, “Silence is not neutrality; it’s complicity.”

 Standing up for what is right will rarely (if ever) make you popular. Being an ally to a disenfranchised group is often severely punished by those with whom you share privilege, whether based on your race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability or any of a host of other categories I could name.
Kevin Jennings

They are racial and social justice workers because they understand that “the oppressor is also profoundly dehumanized by systems of oppression, and there cannot be racial equity unless we are all freed of this system.” (Heather W. Hackman)

They know they are imperfect. They still make mistakes, like we all do. Jennings implores, “it’s important to recognize the need for continuous struggle and to understand one’s proper role in that struggle.”

The slippery nature of whiteness and the incessant seduction of White privilege demand that I maintain a level of critical self-reflection and accountability as I do this work (at times, even my saying “I’m no expert” was an unconscious attempt to buffer a sort of false humility and gain racial justice credibility.)
Heather W. Hackman

They speak to the importance of interrogating whiteness and our role in it. Understanding the cultural erasure that being White promotes has motivated me to learn about and claim my heritage (Swiss and probably English, German, and French). I also must admit the ways in which I perpetuate and benefit from white privilege, as well as other accidents of my birth.

Privilege and White normativity have made [our] lives seem racially neutral, and thus [we] have never had to consider what it means to be White. . . I define whiteness as the combination of White privilege (the system that grants concrete and life-sustaining advantages and benefits to Whites) and White supremacy (the ideology that says we deserve them because we are superior.
Heather W. Hackman

Programs, laws, and policies are not enough, because people implement them. Hackman explains, “Policies are enacted to redress systemic inequalities, but because there is no corresponding internal transformation across this society, the desired result is not fully achieved.” And, “charity is useful and necessary, but it doesn’t change the system. We do need soup kitchens, I’m sorry to say, but we also need to be changing the system at the same time so we don’t permanently need soup kitchens.” (Alan Rabinowitz)

So, what can we, as White people, do? Christine Sleeter answers, “In order to learn to work against racism, White people must first recognize its everyday existence.” Second, the very a question “has the effect of distancing ourselves from the problem by assuming that we stand outside of racism rather than being complicity with it.” (B. Applebaum as attributed in Sleeter)

Further, White people learning to work against racism must come to grips with their own position as ongoing participants in and beneficiaries of racist systems that shield us from awareness of racism. . . although White people cannot escape participation in a racist system, we can learn to become “anti-racist racists.”
Christine E. Sleeter, quoting J. H. Katz

To conclude:

We need this book because it is a self-help manual for recidivist Whites, those of us who exercise our privilege as repeat offenders but are willing to try to change our ways as individuals, in our families, at work, in social movements. Read these chapters and think through your won biographies of embodying, enacting and resisting whiteness and bearing witness. You may periodically relapse into White privilege, but you will develop the muscle of reflexivity, of double consciousness that Du Bois so eloquently described for African Americans.
– Michelle Fine

We are all not finished yet.
– Maxine Greene, as quoted by Michelle Fine

dataclysm

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When we are online, every like, every follow, every click is recorded and analyzed by the corporations, large and small, that rule the internet. They use these terabytes of data to market their products, to predict how new products will sell, and more. Exactly what other uses they make of the data, most of us don’t think much about,  but the corporations own it and we give them permission to collect and use it when we agree to their terms of service.

The fact that most of us don’t think about someone watching our online behavior is a central assumption in Christian Rudder’s book, Dataclysm, made explicit by the subtitle Who We are (When We Think No One’s Looking). Using that premise, Rudder analyzes the clicks, messaging behavior, and survey results from the online dating site OkCupid, as well as few others. He has access to this data because he is a founder of the site and knows other people in the field. He leverages this privileged information into a book length speculation about what the data means.

Some of Rudder’s observations are well-considered and interesting. Some are less profound. At times I think Rudder jumps to erroneous conclusions and I’d wager a significant amount of money that any thoughtful reader of the book will agree with Rudder sometimes and disagree at others, depending on the specific context. Probably most readers will be occasionally offended by the book. But despite the fact that his ideas are often not fully supported by the data, they are also not fully contradicted by the data. So, even when you disagree with his conclusions, you have to admit he could be right. We just don’t know.

Overall, that makes for a provocative book that opens the imagination for the kinds of knowledge we could gain with careful analysis of the vast quantities of data we, as a global internet society, are collecting.

But beyond agreeing or disagreeing with Rudder, I have a more fundamental issue with Rudder’s approach to the data. He writes,”As far as I know, I’ve made no motivated decision that has bent the outcome of my work.” With this sentence he claims that he uses no theory to reach his conclusions, as if, somehow, he just lets the data talk and listens carefully, transcribing the data’s proclamations accurately.

I don’t think Rudder is naive, but I can only take him at his word. As any scientist or thinker knows, it is impossible to be theoryless. So, to claim explicitly to be theoryless means either he doesn’t know what theory or theories are guiding his decisions or he refuses to tell us. Either way, it is a deep flaw in the book that the reader doesn’t know the theoretical approach taken by the author.

Read the book for some interesting applications of descriptive statistics (and, typographically, for some great use of the color red!). But read with a skeptical mind.

 

beautiful souls

images.jpgIn the prologue to Beautiful Souls (2012), journalist and author, Eyal Press, asks why some people — faced with a law, a culture, a group of people, a boss, or other significant pressure to do something they believe is wrong — say no. He writes, “It is never easy to say no, particularly in extreme situations, but it is always possible, and so it is necessary to try to understand how and why women and men sometimes make what is difficult but possible real.” This led me to think that Press would answer this question; and to some extent he does, but I found the answer unsatisfying.

In thoroughly-researched and compellingly-told stories Press describes people who risked their lives and livelihoods for something in which they believe. One is a Swiss policeman breaking the law by allowing Jewish refugees into his country in 1938. Another, a Serb in 1991 identifying Croats as Serbs to save their lives. There’s a member of the Israeli special forces publicly refusing to serve in the occupied West Bank and a securities trader blowing the whistle on her company’s Ponzi scheme. And many more.

All of these can be seen as heroes, but part of Press’s point is that they don’t see themselves as heroes; instead, they are people who did what they thought was right at the time. Most agonized about it for days, weeks, or months. All of them paid steep prices for their acts. They were fired from their jobs, branded traitors, and lost friends. For some in their societies, the retaliation is revenge. But even people who think they did the right thing by refusing or whistleblowing feel uncomfortable around them because they show everyone else to be moral cowards. They are pariahs.

Trying to find a common cause for their courage is difficult, but they do share a seemingly naïve belief in the myths their society tells about itself. They have bitten off the stories of the moral structure of their society so thoroughly that they can’t believe they’re not true. And when they are first presented with evidence that the fantasy taught by their grade schools and governments and corporations is false, they ignore it and act as though the evidence is a strange exception rather than the rule that more cynical parties claim. They believe in and care about their societies so much that they are willing to risk everything to protect them. As Press points out, conformists (despite being framed as caring more about their group than themselves) usually benefit individually by not sticking out. Nonconformists (individualists, the story often goes, who don’t care as much about the group) are the ones who actually give greater benefit to their society as a whole by pointing out problems and ways to fix them. And they pay for it.

Nevertheless, to a person, even though they now have what I would call more realistic pictures of their societies, they say they would do it again. Press’s ultimate answer for why is a relatively old saw: they wanted to look themselves in the mirror every morning without shame. For me, looking for something more powerful in a world that I often find dishearteningly unethical and amoral, that wasn’t enough. I was hoping for something that, as a mentor of young people, I could teach and that would make a difference. I suppose my own naiveté shows in that hope.

what it is like to go to war

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Maybe it’s guy thing, but for as long as I’ve been old enough to think about it I’ve wondered how I would react to fighting in a war. The chaos and horror of the thing overwhelms – but is it, like many fears, worse in my mind than in reality? Or, is real combat even worse than I could imagine?

If I’m lucky, I will never know for sure. My sense from reading Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War is that for soldiers war is both less fearsome and more horrible than one imagines. From Marlantes, I learned that there are many moments of mundane ordinariness. There are also moments of abject fear. There are moments of just doing what you have to do for your fellow fighters and yourself. And for some there are moments of enjoying the power of death.

Throughout it all, according to Marlantes, the soldier has no illusion that he or she is safe from death. “Some random projectile can kill you no matter how good a soldier you are. . . . In a combat situation you wake up from sleep instantly aware that this could be the last time you awake, simultaneously grateful you’re alive and scared shitless because you are still in the same situation.”

Writing careful, thoughtful prose, Marlantes tries “come to terms with [his] own experience of combat.” He does not like war, but he admires the “noble warrior” and argues that, “As long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, or who are simply insane, we will need people called warriors who are willing to kill to stop them.” Whether you believe him or not, there is no doubt that when soldiers go to war, they come back changed. If you want to understand a little about that change and how we could help them come back from it, this book is for you.

a bushel’s worth: an ecobiography

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Personal, political, social, artistic, practical – it’s all in farming. And since farming is at the center of A Bushel’s Worth (2013), those adjectives also describe the book. But it’s also the love story of its author, Kayann Short, with the land of her grandparents’ farms and with her own farm – Stonebridge Farm – and the man with whom she works it. By turns poetic and discursive, the book is one part family history, one part land use policy discussion, two parts community supported farm operating manual, and three parts history of Stonebridge farm. To call it memoir seems shallow and unworthy of what Short has created.

But then, I don’t generally enjoy memoirs. To put all my cards on the table, I probably would not have read the book except that I have known Short for 25 years. And I love Stonebridge Farm as much as much or more than I love any other place.

So, for me, A Bushel’s Worth is familiar and friendly, evoking days of working together; of getting up at six to weed and water for a couple hours before breakfast; of heading back out to stake tomato plants or harvest garlic till lunch; of tackling a project – mending a roof or digging a water tank into the ground or building a new goat pen – in the afternoon; of smack-talking card games after dinner. The writing captures Stonebridge life so powerfully that it brought tears to my eyes for the first 20 or 30 pages, till I was able to manage the emotional impact.

Statements like, “Now John and I are the ones who watch the sunsets and seasons pass so that those we love have a farm to come home to” speak directly to me. I count myself lucky to love and be loved by the people at Stonebridge. And when Short writes, “I’ll walk out with you” to gather spinach for dinner or flowers for the table, I see Kayann and John walking side by side as the light gets lower and the heat of the day eases off.

Other passages are less emotionally loaded, but still beautiful: “In winter, we think in black and white, shadows and light, the contrasts stark against a graying sky as fresh snow hoods the upper sides of the tree limbs, white flocking on dark branches.” And the sections on Short’s connections to her family history – though less compelling for me – provide, like all historical context, deeper understanding and bigger significance for our present understanding.

One of the important and persistent themes of A Bushel’s Worth is that when one works in community with people and the earth, the earth gives back aplenty. Similarly, this book has given me a new appreciation of history and biography as a gift to those who have contributed to a community – thanks, Kayann.

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