Someone needs to tell my brother-in-law Bob that he isn't alone, despite those who might claim he ought to have his permanent residency revoked because he doesn't like the stuff.
I'm good with pumpkin pie. And pecan pie. And apple pie, yum. What I don't much like is cherry pie. Is that an offense for which one should lose one's citizenship?
Here's a little piece of bad news from higher ed land, neatly described in a column by Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria: Americans don't do science anymore, and now we're not even willing to let in the foreign grad students who've been doing it for us.
Two serious problems are combining to lead to what sure looks like the inevitable decline of American leadership in science and technology. First, fewer and fewer American students major in a scientific discipline (in 1975, the U.S. ranked third in the proportion of students majoring in science or engineering; today, we rank 17th); and second, the foreign students who want to come to the U.S. to study and do scientific research find it increasingly difficult to get visas.
Zakaria makes the crucial connection between American primacy in higher education and the spread of western culture and ideas (including little things like democracy and free markets) throughout the world. Part of the reason we've been so successful in causing other nations to want to emulate us is because by and large, we educate their business, technology, and government leaders. When our universities are no longer the envy of the world, the best and brightest from elsewhere will no longer come here to be educated -- and in fact, many of them can't come here now because the process of getting a visa is so cumbersome.
It's a vicious circle. Zakaria thinks Condoleezza Rice will be able to do something about this as Secretary of State, and I hope that's true. But apparently we also need to do a better job of recruiting American students into science and engineering (says the humanities geek). And that won't happen until science and math education improves at the K-12 level. Gotta start somewhere...
Hellooo...is anybody out there?
I'm sure you've all been too busy cooking, eating, and shopping to read my silly little meanderings. I've been, um, sort of busy myself, what with making a flying trip to my brother's house to meet my new nephew (Carter John Traill), hosting and participating in the various festivities surrounding Wendy and David's wedding, and assorted work-related obligations. I do have a question, though, which came to me following the wonderful Thanksgiving dinner prepared by sister-in-law Emilie (who managed to do all that cooking despite having given birth two weeks ago).
What foods must you absolutely have at Thanksgiving dinner in order for it to really seem like Thanksgiving dinner?
I ask because about halfway through our lovely meal last Thursday, my mother suddenly looked confused, and said, "Where's the stuffing? We forgot to make the stuffing!" All of us looked at our plates, and at the dazzling array of dishes on the table, as if expecting to see a dish of stuffing that just somehow hadn't been passed around. But Mom was right -- there wasn't any stuffing. We all merely shrugged and kept eating, since it was quite apparent that we had more than enough food -- and hey, with the scalloped corn, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and dinner rolls, it wasn't as if we were lacking for carbs!
Stuffing is right up there with my favorite parts of a holiday meal, so I surprised myself in a couple of ways: first, because I hadn't immediately noticed the lack of stuffing, and second, because by the time we noticed, I didn't really care. I love stuffing so much that if you asked me before Thursday if I would even consider a Thanksgiving dinner adequate that didn't include it, I would have been horrified at the very suggestion -- but when it was missing, it didn't really matter. Odd, eh?
Two cities are about to suffer them, barring some kind of intervention: Salinas, CA and Buffalo-Erie County, NY are both faced with financial situations that appear to make it impossible to keep their libraries open.
The situation is bad in Salinas, where the failure of two tax measures on the ballot earlier this month leaves a $10 million hole in the city budget. The result: all three of the city's public libraries will be closed, since their $3 million budget is one of the things the city simply can't afford anymore. Several possible solutions are being explored, but the circumstances are not promising.
Things may be even worse in Buffalo-Erie County, where community shock and outrage has followed the announcement that all 52 of the county's public libraries will close if a proposed county budget -- which includes an 80% cut to the library system's budget -- goes into effect. Library director Michael Mahaney says that what's left after the cuts may not even be enough to shut the libraries down in an orderly fashion, let alone to keep just one library open.
The big question -- and one that we as a society have been trying to answer for years -- is whether public libraries are valuable enough as a public good to be worth reasonable support from taxpayers. Judging by the shock and anger of people in Salinas and Buffalo, a lot of citizens are complacent in their belief that government will always find the funds to keep non-essential but highly regarded services like libraries going. These closings are a wake-up call: this could happen anywhere, an increasingly likely consequence of voting against the latest tax increase or bond issue.
Michael Kinsley published a collection of essays in the mid-90s called Big Babies. In the title piece, Kinsley takes to task all of those who think they can have their cake (low, low taxes) and eat it, too (expensive and plentiful government services):
They make flagrantly incompatible demands -- "cut my taxes, preserve my benefits, balance the budget" -- then explode in self-righteous outrage when the politicians fail to deliver. They are, in short, big babies.
I'm not saying it's unreasonable to want to pay lower taxes. I'm just saying that you have to be ready to walk the walk that comes with that -- no libraries, poor schools, less police protection, no safety net. Too many Americans seem to think that government will always manage to find a way to provide the services to which they're accustomed. As the citizens of Salinas and Buffalo are learning, that simply isn't the case.
So, surely you've all heard about the 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich supposedly bearing the image of the Virgin Mary that so recently sold on eBay (for 28 grand, no less). The question naturally arises, if the sandwich is really 10 years old, why isn't it moldy? Divine intervention? As it turns out, there is a scientific explanation: mold doesn't like the trans fats in margarine or the calcium in cheese, so a grilled cheese sandwich made according to traditional methods stands a better chance than most other bread-based food items of passing through the years mold-free.
But wait, there's more: apparently, Hello Kitty has also chosen to make a miraculous (if burnt) cheese sandwich appearance. Of course, the nonbeliever in me can't help but dismiss this sandwich as the product of a Hello Kitty toaster -- but I guess my lack of faith is just something I'll have to work on.
My real concern here is that I eat grilled cheese sandwiches often -- as frequently as once a week. Has a divine or supernatural being been trying to communicate with me via toasted bread, and I just haven't been paying attention? Clearly I need to start carefully examining my grilled cheese sandwiches before I eat them. Remember Richard Dreyfuss and the mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? It's so obvious to me now: food can be a vehicle for all kinds of unexpected, life-changing messages. "Watch what you eat" is starting to take on a whole new meaning!
Google Scholar is here, and already the topic of much discussion in libraryland. ResourceShelf has a good initial review of the service, and finds much to like about it. For those of us (most of us?) who frequently use Google, the interface is comfortingly familiar, something which certainly can't be said for the various indexes to scholarly literature.
But Google Scholar has a lot of limitations, and there are a lot of things that traditional scholarly indexes do better. For example, Google Scholar does not (and I assume, could not, unless reliable metadata for every article and book they have indexed suddenly appears on the open web) offer a controlled vocabulary search. I won't give you all of the reasons why controlled vocabularies help retrieval, but think of it this way: when you search without controlled vocabulary, if you want to be reasonably sure your results are comprehensive, you have to think of and search as many synonyms for your keywords as you can. Ideally, controlled vocabularies solve that problem, by choosing one word and indexing everything on that topic or closely related topics under it.
And although I only had time to try a few searches, I was disappointed that in most cases, Google Scholar didn't lead me to an actual article. It was a good quick-and-dirty source of citations, but following those citations only took me to a page where I could log in or pay for access to an article (duh, most of this stuff is definitely not free). In some cases, I ended up on pages that mentioned the article in question but that didn't actually link to it. Of course, as an affiliate of the University of Minnesota, I "qualify" for access to many if not most of these resources -- but the only way to know for sure is to go the indexes offered by the Libraries and repeat my searches. Very frustrating.
Compare this to searching directly (as an authenticated user, natch) in scholarly indexes. I can search using much more sophisticated strategies, and once I've located a promising citation, I can call up a menu of choices (thanks to the nifty FindIt service) that will link me directly to full text, or to the Libraries' catalog to find out if we have the journal in print. FindIt also gives me options to request the article via Interlibrary Loan, to ask a librarian for more help, or to post the citation to my UThink blog. Pretty cool, eh? And it's not like the U of M is way ahead of the curve here: many, many college and university libraries offer similar (or even more advanced) services.
That's pretty far afield from Google Scholar, though -- the major advantage of which might be that it's free. It should be an incredibly useful tool for unaffiliated scholars, though they'll either have to pay through the nose or make an actual visit to an academic library to see most of the articles Google Scholar has helped them discover. Google Scholar could also be an avenue to promote greater exposure of real scholarship to the non-academic world. Anyone with an interest in a particular topic can now Google up a page of citations, which could at least hint at the breadth and depth of work being done in a field, even if the person can't actually read any of the articles. For these reasons, I think Google Scholar is a positive development. But until and unless it becomes a more sophisticated tool, I can't agree with those who claim it portends the end of the academic library.
I've been neglecting the Shades a bit lately, due to a combination of factors: the usual laziness, an especially mentally draining period at work, and an unhealthy obsession with Hordes of the Underdark. I've saved up plenty of things to blog about, though, so all of my loyal readers can rest assured that sooner or later, Shades will return to its normal level of activity.
Until then, I have another question. I dropped the daily questions thing without any fanfare, because for a while, I ran out of questions. Also, in light of the whole election thing, my questions started to seem intolerably trivial rather than just quirky and silly.
I'm over that now (though my media blackout continues, more or less), and ready to go back to my usual navel-gazing. (See? All it took was a little Valium spritzer! Thanks, Kristi!) And what do you know, I still have the occasional question. So from now on, these will be occasional questions rather than daily questions. They will appear approximately weekly, but it could be more or less often depending on when they occur to me.
Like you care. Anyway, for the three of you who've managed to overcome your skull-crushing boredom with this entry to get this far, here's the question:
Why do so many people find it necessary to back into parking spaces?
Last Friday night, John and I went to Orchestra Hall to hear the Minnesota Orchestra play Mahler's 7th Symphony (nicely done, by the way). We sat for nearly five minutes in a parking ramp traffic jam, because the four, yes, four cars directly in front of us all had to back into their parking spaces. What is the advantage to this practice? If you understand it, please enlighten me.
Nice story in today's NY Times about the rise, fall, and tentative resurrection of First Avenue. My favorite thing: the way the article depicts Mayor R.T. Rybak's primary claim to fame as having stage-dived at First Avenue.
Rybak also gets the best quote in the article. He compares First Ave. to the Guthrie and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, saying "Minneapolis is at its best when it doesn't try to imitate anybody else." This is true of most cities, I think, which are almost always better off when they simply embrace their character and native institutions, warts and all, and develop an identity based on that. Rybak is right: things like First Ave., the Guthrie, and MIA are why we're not just "a cold Omaha."
I'll believe it when I see it, but I do think that this article reports some encouraging signs that Governor Pawlenty may be ready to acknowledge the critical importance of the University to Minnesota's economic health and cultural vitality. In response to state-commissioned study findings showing that education in Minnesota is suffering, Pawlenty said, ""In a state where we are trying to answer the question in a hypercompetitive world economy, 'Why Minnesota?,' one of the first and most important answers is because we have a world-class teaching and research university or universities. If that's the case, then we should make sure that's a pretty high priority on where the funds go."
Here's hoping this is more than lip service. I'll be eagerly watching the upcoming budget negotiations to see if the Governor and Legislature follow through.
As I wrote last week, I began a news and media boycott after the election. It was necessary so I could maintain my sanity and not succumb to an overwhelming sense of fear and despair. Although the immediate pain and worry have mostly passed along with the violent spasms of postmortem commentary (self-flagellating or self-satisfied, depending on which side the pundit is on), I find that I'm still reluctant to re-engage with news, television, and the blogosphere.
The result is that I'm feeling calmer and more focused than I have in a while. This is not to say that I'm focused on the right things: I've been spending a lot of time reading (What I Loved, linked over there on the left, which is turning out to be a beautifully written and mind-expanding, though melancholy novel), and playing Hordes of the Underdark -- pure escapism, on both fronts.
But losing myself in fantasy and staying out of touch with the events of the moment is therapeutic, especially after the stress and excitement of election season. It's good to take a little break from the burden of keeping myself informed. Although it's constantly under siege by my sense of futility, the civic ideal of the well-informed citizen is too deeply ingrained for me to give up on it entirely. I'll come back to politics, following the news, and thinking about the issues eventually. But for now, I'm going to continue my little news blackout.
The great state of Texas has forced textbook publishers Holt and McGraw-Hill to change language in health textbooks for high school students regarding marriage. Prior to the changes, the textbooks used gender-neutral phrases like "individuals who marry" and "married partners." The Texas Board of Education is insisting that the textbooks strictly define marriage as occurring between a man and a woman, and the parties involved as husband and wife.
Although this story is interesting (if disheartening), it's merely a minor example of an ongoing outrage. Texas, as the second-largest purchaser of K-12 textbooks in the nation, has a huge influence on the content of those textbooks. A little over a year ago, I read the excellent The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn" by Diane Ravitch, an education historian at NYU. In it, Ravitch exposes how interest groups from the left and the right and state boards of education have forced textbook and standardized test publishers either to adopt the blandest possible language in many cases, or specifically to include language that interest groups see as supporting their agendas.
I don't think enough people are angry about this, so I strongly recommend The Language Police to anyone interested in how children are educated. Not convinced? Visit the link above, and read the excerpt there from the book's first chapter, which gives some bizarre, almost unbelievable examples of reading passages that were removed from a standardized test because of bias or lack of sensitivity. You'll want to read the whole book to learn how pervasive these practices are.
Are you looking for a music listening experience that's educational as well as entertaining? Well, look no further than MASSIVE (Math and Science Song Information, Viewable Everywhere), a searchable database containing information on, samples of, and purchase links for over 1700 math and science songs. Or if you're not looking for anything specific and would just like to listen, visit MASSIVE Radio, which plays exclusively math and science songs. The songs run the gamut from elementary to advanced and from silly to serious. Try it out -- maybe you'll learn something (and maybe Andy, the most musical scientist I know personally, has something to contribute)!
No, really -- for three credits at an accredited university. A musicology professor at The University of North Carolina-Charlotte plans to offer a course titled "Examining 'American Idol' Through Musical Critique," in which students will watch American Idol, learn about the musical styles in which the contestants are asked to sing (Motown, Broadway, etc.), and, of course, critique the contestants' performances.
Predictably, there's lots of eye-rolling going on about this on the Internet. And I have to agree that a course like this just provides more fodder for people who think higher ed is marginalizing itself by taking things like Idol seriously enough to merit academic inquiry. Still, I can see how the show could be an effective gateway to the study of classic American popular music styles, and my hope would be that the syllabus would emphasize that aspect of the course.
There is a major flaw in relying on Idol for that purpose, however: almost all of the singers adopt the same mainstream pop belter style, vaguely inflected with elements of R&B and gospel. It isn't really possible to learn much about various pop styles based on American Idol performances alone -- students would need to listen heavily to classic performers who epitomize the styles that Idol contestants are supposed to be emulating. Such an approach would teach students a lot about both the history of American pop music and what constitutes good performances in various pop genres. (something from which, incidentally, American Idol contestants would benefit tremendously!)
As long as the course relies on "real" music history as background material for critiquing the show, this could be a valuable way into learning about pop music, public relations issues aside. I'd love to see the syllabus.
...something to write about besides the news of the week. I'm trying to get back to life as I knew it before Wednesday, but it's not easy. I'm used to focusing on minutiae rather than big issues (especially in this blog), but right now, that seems pointless at best, irresponsible at worst.
But let's forge ahead anyway. Today it occurred to me how fortunate I am to be swamped with work right now. I need to focus and be productive for the next few weeks, else I will disappoint myself and a lot of other people. I won't have a lot of time to read, watch, or listen to news, which means I may be able to avoid stewing over it and making myself generally miserable. Yesterday, I imposed a complete news blackout on myself. Today, I gingerly approached a few sympathetic sources: AM 950 (Air America, et al.), Salon.com, a few blogs.
I couldn't take it, though -- it was too much like picking at a scab that hasn't healed -- and so I quickly re-entered my coccoon of work and music. Work is fairly therapeutic; as I catalog, I have the satisfying sense of imposing order on a piece of the universe. It's a minuscule and insignificant piece, but still...it's something I have control over, and being productive feels good.
As I discovered while listening to my iPod during a lunch-hour walk, though, even listening to music can pose a problem. The first two songs I heard were The Honeydogs' "10,000 Years," and Paul Hardcastle's sublime piece of 80s cheese "19." My fellow Gen-Xers surely recall "19," Hardcastle's dance-pop-electronica-lite tribute to Vietnam veterans. Usually, I'm amused by the disconnect between its seriousness and its style, but today it made me shudder. You may not know "10,000 Years," from last spring's album of the same title. It's the best song on a good (if slightly pretentious) album, with lyrics that are at once full of both near-apocalyptic earnestness and wry gallows humor:
Ticker tape comes down
Selling war bonds in every town
They're melting their toys down for the war effort
All the kids are standing in line to enlist
Can we please say goodnight to the last 10,000 years?
Can you hear the cold blowing down hell's door?
Can we please say goodnight to the last 10,000 years?
Please wake me up when it's over.
Good stuff, but not what I needed to hear today. I had to switch back to Schubert and Brahms.
..in the fact that Minnesota did itself more or less proud. Stunningly high voter turnout, solid support for Kerry (no, Governor Pawlenty, the suburbs are not a right-wing monolith!), and +13 seats for the DFL in the state House of Representatives. Patty Wetterling lost, but by a much smaller margin than the polls showed -- nice performance against a well-funded incumbent with attack dogs at the ready.
My brother-in-law (former Minnesotan) has claimed for a long time that politically, Minnesota was on its way to becoming "South Dakota with pro sports." I hope we proved him wrong yesterday.
I'm afraid. I'm very afraid. But I'm proud of my state.
And I promise to stop writing about politics now.
So far, for me, not much -- but look for updates to this post when I come up with more.
Check out this item over at Winter in the Cities. Apparently, at a rally for President Bush last week, Governor Pawlenty used a U of M flag in a troubling and inappropriate way. I'm pretty appalled, especially in light of Pawlenty's antipathy toward University funding.