17th and Irving

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Not sure what to call this

I've spent a lot of the last year or year and a half thinking about education in a more general way than I was want to think of it in years prior. Much of this change in how I approached thinking about education was spurred by the introduction of more rigid "top-down" principles of what education is supposed to be brought in by the new principal of my school (who is in many ways simply an echo of the city of New York's educational policies which, in turn, are echoes of the Department of Education's policies).

Schools in New York City are burdened by budget deficits and all their resulting problems, but in the spirit of acquiescence, those who discuss these financial problems usually discuss them in a way to dampen the extreme to which finances ARE a problem. Often they point to this study or that school district in which spending deficits don't seem to have mattered quite as much as they do generally. None of the rich school districts that surround New York City (or Chicago, or San Francisco, or Los Angeles etc.) however, seem to be in a hurry to give back the money they get. Usually these amounts dwarf, per student, money spent on urban education. At New York City's public schools in wealthier areas, parents generally raise huge amounts of cash to supplement the educational budgets of their children's schools, I have yet to hear of anybody wondering if this is a waste of their money or energy. As a nation, our educational policies have created separate and unequal schools.

In order to get around the burden of these deficits, and to pay less per teacher, lessons are often supposed to be scripted in New York City's public schools. These scripts, which demand little input from the teacher, tie topics to various learning outcomes that comply with state-tests. The tests are devised to insure that teachers are following the scripts that seek to turn the art of teaching into a science. In this way, ingredients can be poured into a classroom in attempts to create classrooms with scientifically "predictable" outcomes. So far the outcomes have failed to improve standards of education and only increase the political manipulation of the results.

Edicts are issued about the proper way to question, the proper way to assess learning outcomes and pretty much anything that can be quantifiable, down to what a bulletin board outside of a classroom should look like. The bulletin boards are not there anymore to highlight the work of students in the class, but to reassure visitors from various state agencies that they are in fact, in a school that is aware of their various protocols and standards. After awhile these edicts sound like attempts to organize so many scatters of shells at a beach. Order is imposed simply for the sake of reaffirming the order established by those in power. What is unscripted is seen as a threat, a boast, irresponsible.

The message in an urban school to its students tends to be "don't mess this up." Because of gang violence and other assorted problems, scanning is probably necessary, but it is an ugly, unpleasant affair in which students are viewed first as potential threats, and only second as students. This is probably always going to be a problem, although, without having dwelt on the issue I would argue that there are some possible ways of making this a less confrontational affair. For instance, as it is now at our school, there are no lockers and for the students to wait in line, they must wait outside. There is probably a way to make sure that students don't have to wait outside in terrible weather, and it would be nice, if students only had to carry things like notebooks they did homework in and books they used. As of now, students have no place to keep their textbooks, so the textbooks stay at home and teachers attempt to hoard classroom sets that assistant principals want in their book rooms. As well, concerning lines, we should be looking at ways at making the process less confrontational, which will be difficult, because anywhere you have a couple thousand students waiting in a line because they are not trusted, you are going to have the potential for conflict. Sadly, the line into scanning sends a strong message of what we actually expect from our students. It is hard to eradicate that message and it is made harder when the students have so little input in what their school looks like. We might give them walls here and there for a mural, we might let them put up posters for a few activities, but clearly, when students see the bureaucratic slogans and state standards and other what-nots there not so much for them as for visitors from the state, the message is only reinforced: "this school does not belong to you and is not influenced by you. You come, go through the procedures we've set up for you and then leave." While teachers, other students and some administrators try to soften and change this message, the message is what begins everyday, and often it's the last poster the students see on their way out of the school. In order to get a poster up in the hallways at our schools, various forms must be filled out and the posters must be ok'd by multiple administrators.

The ideal teacher from an administrative viewpoint is not one who will challenge students to learn more than they thought they could, or one who will challenge assumptions, the ideal teacher is a link in a chain, communicating protocols and learning objectives to the students. These students will then successfully pencil in dots on a state test and write sentences in an approved fashion following various points from various grids to score a number on a test issued by the state of New York. As well, the ideal student is not one who challenges the assumptions of a teacher, who goes beyond a teacher's knowledge and brings back a new perspective for looking at a topic or subject, but rather one who will parrot the learning objectives in a way that indicates they have understood the topic so that they will score higher on these end of year tests. In the minds of those who devise the state history tests, it is more important to understand that the presidential cabinet is part of the unwritten constitution than it is to be fascinated by the vagaries, confusions, questions and assumptions of the world in which our government took form. To have become fascinated, to have delved into another world, means nothing if you have forgotten some of the canonical points of the topic several months later.

Art exists in the world, there is no blueprint that an artist would have to follow, rather the artist will choose various methods and modalities as she goes about her work to the extent that she needs them. Science on the other hand, eventually needs a laboratory where ideas, thoughts and experiments can be codified and examined with a minimum of prejudice. Looking back through the history of science, we can see how difficult it is to make a true laboratory - especially since the creation of a question often has a cultural impetus. Great scientists often have about them the air of an artist, and great artists often employ uncomfortable levels of scientific process in their work. I would argue though, that teaching intrinsically is more of an art than a science. There are goals for students, these goals can, to some degree, be assessed. Not to a percentage point, often not to a point on a chart, but simply to a skill learned and exhibited, and more importantly an assessment can be made of whether this student has gained some knowledge of what she believes by studying the topic and completing the activity. A good teacher will employ whatever tools she has at her disposal to help students reach various goals set by the teacher as they go through their curriculum, but the goals in the best classes are also set, in part, by the students. The student is not the object we hope to reach through a lesson, the student is the Reason for the lesson. And the point of the lesson, furthermore, is to help the student discover what it is that she is good at, what she excels at, and to help her figure out how it is that she wants to spend her life. Any lesson that does not have that at its base is useless and lessons that are simply attempts to meet a grid to be tested on a state test fail this and fail the students to a level that is contemptible. In short, they are defeated by their lack of flexibility, their inability to react to what happens organically in an uncontrolled environment. What an administrator sees though, in a large urban school system, is a way to save some money and to make a few politicians happy without threatening the world view of anybody with actual power.

At my own schools, growing up, I believe that this idea, that the student needed to discover her life's work and to question the world around her, was often the focus of the lessons. Often we had classes that we did not like, which we had to struggle through and learn just enough to get by, but in other classes we were discovering passions that we poured ourselves into with results that took us deeper into the subjects and deeper into questions we were asking to define ourselves. In none of the classes was there ever a focus on state tests or even SAT results; the idea being, I believe, that if we were working in our classes, these skills would become innate. When test scores to gratify parents and administrators (as well as some teachers I suppose) are the focus of our educational efforts, we deny students opportunities to ask questions about themselves and the world. Instead, we ask them to perform for us like so many circus animals.

I know that when I was in high school some students took classes to improve their SAT scores, that we obsessed over the scores, but I never felt pressure to take classes to prepare for SATs or ACTs and, along with the practice versions of those tests, these were the only standardized tests I remember being compulsory in high school. In thinking about my intelligence and my abilities, after trusting my own judgment, I would trust the judgment of my best teachers long before I trusted the abstract results of these standardized tests or made any conclusions about my abilities based on them. Getting a 90 on a Regents test would not validate or invalidate whatever it was I learned in a class, it would only suggest that on the day I took the test, I got lucky on a few guesses, I did not have a headache and that to some degree, I paid attention either to the class or to the textbook, perhaps both. As to mastery, its greatest power would be to suggest that, at least in this subject, I was probably not a complete idiot. Yet, for administrators, these results are paramount, even if they are often engineered, as newspaper stories sometimes point out, as much by various administrative powers or sociological conditions as by the students taking the tests.

This paramount importance of tests is true now whether they are SAT results in the wealthier school districts, or state-mandated Regents tests in the poorer districts of New York. These results can determine the endpoints of administrators' ambitions. They do not consider much the individuals who take the tests. Can an SAT result predict the success of an individual? No, but it can predict rather accurately the success of a population along a grid - useless for one student, useful only in sifting and organizing when individuals are considered so many shells on a beach by some administrator or someone wielding the powers of judgment over said administrator. A teacher's observations of her students are expected to be boiled down to numbers and preexisting statements that are filled in by number on a report issued six times a year. There is something wrong when decisions about individual school's educational policies and goals are based on tests taken on one day over several hours rather than on the observations of teachers whose jobs entail spending hundreds of hours with these same students and coming to understandings with them at individual, class and school levels.

In some school districts, and in some universities, administrators are trying to bring more administrative oversight into how grading is done. Sometimes this is by having grading conferences in which school goals are explicitly stated with resulting questions being simply about how we are going to reach those results in grade scores given. Sometimes, in other schools, administrators actually come in and look over various student work and tell the teacher what they believe the grade should be. Along with the loosening bonds of tenure, and the large number of teachers who have no tenure in public schools, this means that many grades are artificially inflated, and sometimes passing grades are given to students who barely show up. If the goal of education is to prepare a student to pursue their aspirations, we are giving them little in the ways of knowledge or skills for that pursuit of happiness.

At some level, the idea of a classroom has become too democratic for our decision makers, we are reaching some sad end in the line of management books that began appearing with great frequency in the 1980s. Our belief in Taylorism or the manipulations of the ideas of B.F. Skinner to produce outcomes that support management goals leave an alarmingly small sphere in which the student can focus on her own beliefs and goals while satisfying the goals and expectations of the grids. As well, the freedom and comfort that many in educational administration take in making judgments of students at this macro level is misguided and in its extremes, cruel. To label an 8 year old or a 16 year old with a level or a number is more than absurd, it is a crime against those children's ability to control and name their own futures. There are tests in many states for children as young as five years old. Standardized tests at this age that are not for individual issues and that are used to rate schools or push students towards certain tracks is beyond absurd.

Some programs, like special education programs or second language learner programs often lead to lower test scores on average and to spending money in the budget on things that do not help schools' ratings or "grades" as they're often called. With alarming frequency, principals facing tremendous budgetary constraints will attempt to reduce or even eliminate these programs. To attempt to eliminate programs that help students who have less a chance of reflecting glory on a school in an attempt to cut the number of those students who use those programs goes against the very foundation of a democratic society and the principles of public schooling. It is wrong in every ethical consideration that there is and it sends a clear message to those students and to the people who try to help them: you are an impediment. The impediment, in actuality, is the system that encourages ways of thinking that lead to these kinds of decisions. It is a system that robs many of the most vulnerable without consequence to those who already have built-in advantages that practically assure them of comfortable lives regardless of the decisions they make.

As teachers, we need to make our classrooms into places where students explore and expand their own abilities through activities constructed around our areas of expertise so that we may help them and sometimes serve as guide, sometimes as interpreter and explainer and sometimes as taskmaster. It is not that I'm against larger curricula that we, as teachers, measure ourselves against and that we use to keep on a larger schedule, I'm for that, especially as exposure to different topics is key for students just being introduced to the large spectra of our disciplines. I do believe, however, that we should be trusted to a greater degree to envision and plan our classes, to assess our students and to determine what it is that our classrooms should look like and what they should reflect. I believe given that freedom, schools will work more for students rather than the private ambitions of those entrusted with the responsibilities of running public schools.

Students will work with many different types of people during their lives, and their first exposure to this reality is in the classroom, where they are surrounded by a myriad of teachers and fellow students. Rather than attempting to codify and regularize those people an individual student will come into contact with, a school administrator should do her best to see that individuals will be exposed to as great a variety of people and environments as possible, especially if she really believes the students under her supervision will be competing in a global marketplace.

As a teacher too, I believe it is my responsibility to examine and name my beliefs about my areas of study and to challenge them by learning more and examining more thoughts about those things I am learning about. As well, I want the freedom to bring in new ideas and topics that might challenge students or speak more closely to their own interests, in other words, I want to be able to react to my students with greater freedom and to have the trust of my school leadership that I am imparting necessary skills and knowledge. In the spirit of that, I have always welcomed classroom visitors at any time and have always been willing to listen to ideas about my classroom if the intent is to help the students and to help me think about new issues and problems. When dealing with New York City's educational policy makers however, this conversation about my classroom has been almost exclusively a one way street and it seems that, in this, nothing will change until new ways of thinking have penetrated the Department of Education in New York. I am praised for the ways in which I am following directives and criticized sometimes for not having followed protocols; I am judged almost exclusively on passing rates and test scores. One way I was criticized this year was to have pointed out that I had not distributed a study guide issued by a private company assisting in instructing for the state Regents tests. In fact I had issued the books (though I made no lessons in conjunction with them because I found them rote and limiting in the ways I wanted my students to think about history), but the particular administrator making that criticism had not bothered to ask if I had distributed these books or not. The unopened box of guides the administrator was referring to spoke to the sad attendance rates that are a problem city-wide and not just at my particular school, the other two boxes had been opened and distributed. When that person was in my room, that box was just another box on a checklist. My classroom is more than a checklist, and in fact, when that person was in my room, there were many more important things going on that would have told the person much more about whether my students were being challenged and learning history.

Still, rather than respond to this problem in any meaningful way, and rather than ask the question, why do so many of our students believe it is not necessary to attend school, our administrators work tirelessly to thin the ranks of students on our rolls and to make the ones who don't show up someone else's problem. They do not do this out of cruelty, they do it in attempt to keep their schools open. They do it to avoid punishment, just as many teachers follow a script and just as many students follow that same script. Inspiration as a possibility in problem solving is non-existent, and piece-meal solutions which might effect some good are ignored in search of city-wide protocols or other such instruments that avoid individual scrutiny. This does not just do a disservice to teachers and students, but to the administrators themselves, who given, theoretically, greater leeway to run their schools, are actually handicapped by the fears of their political leadership.

As a society we should be asking hard questions about our educational policies, and they should start with the question of why do so many of our most at-risk students find so little to motivate them to attend school and to graduate? Why does a student at an urban school have to be so extraordinary and so awake to life's challenges so much younger than do students at suburban and wealthier schools? How can we engage students while maintaining the validity of our academic disciplines and their focuses of study? Why do we have public schools?

As a teacher I should be encouraged to find creative ways to approach my students' needs, interests and content knowledge. My own experience in this regard is not without reason for optimism, as I believe my direct supervisor has encouraged to the extent she can, experimentation, variation and topic-depth. Sadly, however, the further you go up the chain, the less support their seems to be for these important aspects of teaching, and the quicker these encouragements are trumped by the pressures of a system of oversight that considers the needs of the students considerably after it thinks about how meals will be catered at the next closed door meeting.

In a democratic society it is natural that their should be a dialogue on educational practice and what should make up acceptable classrooms and what definitely does not make an acceptable classroom, however, by mirroring a love for numerical results and for the false adherence to accountability and "the bottom line" politicians and community leaders love to pretend to pledge allegiance to even as they are finding ways to further their own ambitions without regard to these ideals, we are doing our next generation a grave disservice and I believe the parameters for debate should grow to include much more about class, denial of services and the influence of script-writing into teaching practice. As well, we should look at the motivations and methods behind budget allocations and at the difference in educational planning at schools that service middle and upper class students verse those that service students who are growing up in poverty.

Note: I have attempted to relate little of my personal experiences as a teacher while writing this because I wanted to attempt to begin understanding what bigger issues I was tying my reactions to as a teacher over the last year and a half or so. I suppose the next logical step is to look at my own practice as a teacher and to figure out what I should be learning from my own experience and how I should use these experiences to further inform my own teaching methods - which I'm doing in my planning, but maybe it would help to write out a reaction as well. I should also think about how I would imagine an administration should react to its teachers and students and think about the problems and positive steps that could be created in that paradigm. Finally, I should think about a question I brought up as a suggestion for administrators and politicians to think about - which is - why do we have public schools - or better put - why should we have public schools.

I know that this is chiefly for myself - but maybe somebody else will stumble on it. Hopefully, if that's the case, you will forgive these half-formed thoughts...

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

A few thoughts after downloading Boswell's Life of Johnson for my iPhone

When I noticed Boswell's Life of Johnson available as an application for the iPhone I did not hesitate. Even abridged, having Boswell and Johnson around with me made me too happy to even imagine. Wherever I was, and I saw myself in terrifying and boring places, pleasant places, there would be Boswell telling me about Johnson to wile away the time in better company than I would otherwise have (I mean, they would add much to any dinner party). So I downloaded it.

In the shower afterward I had a vaguely troubling thought. I was thinking about Samuel Johnson, the teachers who showed me his brilliance and gave me the keys they had to approach him and I began to wonder why I loved Johnson more than Blake.

I know they're not directly connected, and that style and matters of thought might be quite different to them, but they were writers who I was exposed to in equal measure, and who I have read with equal fervor. So why was my preference for Johnson rather than the radical prophet? This wasn't an aesthetic judgment, or an agreement of philosophies, I don't know if I have a nuanced understanding to the point where my preference could be founded on those kinds of foundations. Instead, I suppose it was a personal sense, and maybe it was Johnson's doubts at the end of the day, that appealed to me more than the certainties of Blake - though Blake's touch seems more modern, more direct and more dizzying. I don't know though, the sheer audacity of taking on the Dictionary is pretty brilliant.

I don't want to think too deeply on this, because writing intelligently about it would take time and I haven't eaten today. But it was on my mind, and I'd never really realized, I suppose, how much more I love Johnson than most writers. My feelings of almost relief at thinking I could have The Life around with me wherever I went surprised me and made me wonder at what this preference for someone of Johnson's character said about me.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Some thoughts on the presidential race now that August is upon us...

I'm not happy with the passivity of Obama's campaign over the last five or six weeks, however, there's this feeling I have that Obama might be attempting to ride over this wave as a kind of inevitable reaction of fear to his candidacy. By allowing the fear to his candidacy to grow as ugly as possible as the Republicans seek to provoke him into a stupid response with their veritable chest-thumping "Obama's a traitor who wants to suck the gas out of your car and give it to the hoot owls while you eat out of a grocery's dumpster," it might be that at the end of this road he can come out with a some kind of sane response that gains some traction with voters in swing states like Ohio and Florida while at the same time giving the Republican attacks the true shape of their idiotic ludicrousness.

I fear though, that this isn't going to work. That the Republicans, on a national level, are very good at giving the electorate a framework through which to view the presidency and its responsibilities and necessities. I believe American voters have proven time and time again that they want somebody in there who is a ball-breaker, who won't take bullshit and who is kind of macho. This was where Hillary had her greatest success among Democratic voters and she rolled up pretty huge victories in some of the swing states - she wasn't talking issues when she was beginning to win.

As well, I think, and I know I am speaking in great generalities here, that the Republicans have done an excellent job of making decisions about things like the environment seem, time and time again, like a decision between pragmatism and loony-we-don't-care-how-much-this-hurts-you-as-long- as-it-doesn't-hurt-a-dolphin arguments. In fact, environmentalism, in pretty much every study when dealing with energy delivery or car-design and in many other directions, shows tremendous potential to actually grow the economy in some pretty exciting directions.

It's hard to imagine at this point that the election is going to be won on issues, it's another popularity contest and the way to win those is to paint mustaches and boogers on your opponent's face. I mean, who wants to hear about the detail points of saving a bleeding and rocky infrastructure when you can hear about how Obama did or did not visit troops and how come? It would be refreshing to hear more opinions about what needs to be done voiced by the American voter rather than on their opinions on one candidate or other. I think when voters are asked to respond on issues, many of them have salient and insightful points to make, sadly when asked to respond to the actors in this campaign, they seem, increasingly, to respond with the conventional fallacies that are taking the lead in determining where this election will lead.

This little article at New York Magazine seems like pretty good reading - and it's quick.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Some clips and coming attractions from favorite movies...

This one is from Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live) - it's my third favorite scene in my favorite movie:

"Oh David, don't be irrelevant." - Two from Bringing Up Baby:

One of the more famous scenes in The Graduate - but it sums up his alienation pretty well...my favorite scene is the jump cut from the pool to the telephone booth, but it's not on youtube...:

Five Easy Pieces - a scene and the preview: the scene between the hero and his father at the end is I think one of the greatest:

There is no better than Rushmore - a god of films - "I'll take puncuality.":

I could do this all day - but I should do something with the day...

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Bemoaning Obama

To Whom It May Concern (I wrote at the Obama website),

I have been a strong supporter of Obama since he was in a tough campaign for the Democratic spot on the Senate ticket. Running against a Chicago machine Democrat with all kinds of support, his looked a quixotic campaign at best. But one worth running.

Even then, with an audience measuring in the small thousands, he seemed to promise a new way of approaching politics.

I believed in him again through a tough Democratic primary against a candidate that only a few years ago I wanted badly to one day be president: Hillary Clinton.

I believed in him more as he made inspirational speeches on important issues and difficult stands on issues not always immediately popular.

Now, I wonder if that belief, no, that faith, is not misguided. Over the last couple of weeks I have found Obama to be pandering to voters and to wealthy donors in ways that I find deeply disappointing at best, his defense of FISA for instance, left me shaking my head in disbelief.

I donated money to twice to the campaign to make this man president?

If I wanted to throw my support against the Constitution it appears I have come to the right place. I am embarrassed that a candidate I have defended and argued for, has turned his back on the values that make this country worth fighting for.

I am not against "flip-flopping" when circumstances change - for instance, in Iraq we are at an odd moment, and perhaps we will have to slow down our military withdrawal, more competent people than I know more - and unlike Bush, I hope Obama listens to them. To a certain extent, I understand Obama's need to maintain some positional flexibility, not for reasons of politics so much as for reasons of policy. I remain deeply convinced however, that we must end the abyss of money that goes into that war as quickly as is actually possible.

But his support of three things bother me to the point where I will withdraw my active support if they are views that are real or left unexplained in any cogent manner:

1) His support of the Supreme Court's ruling (a ruling led by Scalia, Alito and Roberts) that endangered protective laws against guns. I can't imagine a man who has worked with urban non-profit groups could possibly be for this ruling. As somebody who works in a deeply troubled New York City High School, I know first-hand what guns on the street can do to children. One of my students was shot through the heart, a random victim of a drive-by. She lived. She shuddered in class sometimes, they used to call that shell-shock. Now it's post-traumatic stress disorder. Another student of mine got shot seventeen times. Finally, one other, on her way to a bodega four years ago, never made it home. On their graduation day last week, my students had a moment of silence for her. A life should be worth more than a moment of silence, it should contain multitudes, instead, of celebration and joy. In Chicago, some teachers are afraid their students will revolt if they find out one more of their classmates was a victim of gun/gang violence. Clearly, laws already don't work, but instead of destroying them, perhaps we should find ways to strengthen them. Perhaps the gun dealers who knowingly sell to dealers who will re-sell or distribute should find themselves in danger of devastating prison sentences. Perhaps manufacturers should not be allowed to market or develop certain types of guns that appeal to gangsters.

Perhaps Obama should take another look at the language of the Second Amendment, written at a time when on our borders were lined with foreign threats and sometime hostile Indian tribes, this in a time before organized police forces. The second amendment reads differently if viewed through this prism. It basically seems to say that creating defense forces (like the police) cannot be limited by Federal authority.

2) His sudden support for FISA. This is a sickening and pandering play to the "Middle" of the electorate still scared by a political system more eager to blind its citizens than inform them. How has this happened? Well, whatever bright-eyed aide convinced him of this should be fired. Turning our backs on the Constitution's protections is not something I want my president to do. Ever. I felt sucker punched by this. Especially considering his prior statements about this act, which showed a nuanced contempt.

3) Finally I could not believe that Obama criticized the Court decision that limited the death penalty to cases involving murder. While the death penalty is a deeply flawed instrument of revenge in a system of law - already philosophically troubled - I have given up hope of a candidate with the courage to challenge its existence. But not to challenge its use as it is practiced in the United States? Not to ask the very real and excellent questions asked in the majority opinion is folly. How can one, for instance, quantify a non-murder crime? To what extent will the death penalty option bury certain sex crimes (since many involving children are sadly within family)? How will the courts handle the glut of procedures that might follow an enacting of this kind of punishment for this kind of crime? They're already overburdened. Should the Supreme Court protect the functionality of the court system as laid out in Article Three of the Constitution? At a time when in Illinois the death penalty has already been proven broken and unjust, it seems we should question with great skepticism any expansion of the death penalty, at the very least.

Obama, instead of asking these real questions, instead of challenging conventional wisdom and forcing voters to look deeper into the ideas of what it means to be an American, is settling for pandering. Pandering is the Bush administration. We don't need that anymore.

I thought we were supposed to be supporting a change: to how politicians gamed the system and left Americans out of the loop and vulnerable to the abuses of power.

I wonder now just what we are supporting.

with continued hope but shaken faith,

Andrew Decker
Brooklyn, NY//Mt. Prospect, IL

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Space Chimps: fact, fiction, video game

Supposed to be finishing the grading of the tests...it'll have to wait. I've been thinking about monkeys in space while listening to A Silver Mt. Zion - I'm all trippy:

The Legacy of Space Chimps
By Jeremy Hsu
posted: 30 May 2008
7:02 am ET

Chimps may represent the forgotten link in the evolution of human spaceflight

A new documentary and a separate upcoming animated film both hearken to the early days of the U.S. space program, when chimpanzees preceded men into the great unknown of space.

"Most people don't really want to acknowledge the chimpanzee missions as particularly historic," said David Cassidy, director and producer of the documentary "One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps."

But when Cassidy dug up footage of the U.S. Air Force's chimp program from the national archives and other sources, he also found press reels celebrating the exploits of the space chimps Ham and Enos. Ham paved the way for the first American to ever fly in space, Alan Shepherd, and Enos flew before just before John Glenn orbited the Earth.

Film footage reveals a time when the infant U.S. space program struggled to successfully launch rockets, let alone humans. That prompted the Air Force to train a group of chimps to test the physical effects of launch and spaceflight.

The documentary includes interviews with Ham's handler, who fondly recalled the chimp as "a sociable little guy" who adored the people around him. By contrast, Enos tended to give humans the cold shoulder.

Cassidy does not skimp on the darker side of the space chimp story. Some scenes that make for hard viewing include decompression sled tests which caused brain damage in chimps and human volunteers alike, as noted in the film by an Air Force physiologist. Chimp training appears to have involved a combination of rewards, such as juice sips, and punishment through electric shocks.

The act of chimp spaceflight was no laughing matter, either. Ham's apparent grin of happiness upon his return to Earth actually signified "the most extreme fear" through his baring of teeth, according to the film's interview with renowned biologist Jane Goodall.

However, Cassidy pointed out that people were just beginning to understand the intelligence and capabilities of chimpanzees in the 1960s.

"Most of the humans involved in the program grew very attached to the chimps and treated them very decently," Cassidy told SPACE.com.

That did not prevent the Air Force from eventually putting its chimp colony up for sale after the first successful human spaceflight missions. Although Ham lived out the rest of his life at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C., most chimps ended up at a biomedical research facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Twenty one chimps were eventually rescued by Carole Noon, a biological anthropologist who sued the Air Force for custody and founded the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care in Florida. The center now houses the largest chimp sanctuary in the world with over 135 residents.

Cassidy made the documentary after first hearing Noon's story, because he thought the chimps "need to be treated with a certain level of dignity" after their contributions to the U.S. space program. He pointed to the Russians, who unveiled a monument to Laika the space dog this past April.

"It's kind of fantastical when you think that we treated chimps like humans, trained them, dressed them up in space suits, and shot them up," Cassidy said. "You see how it can inspire an animated film."

That upcoming animated film "Space Chimps" takes a decidedly lighter tone with Ham III, the future grandson of Ham, and a crew of chimponauts blazing new trails for humanity by piloting a spacecraft through an inter-dimensional wormhole. They end up on a planet teeming with alien life and political intrigue — a mission outcome that scientists can only dream of.

A "Space Chimps" video game will also accompany the film's July 18 release, featuring single player and cooperative modes with plenty of simian acrobatics in colorful alien environments.

Perhaps chimps may one day play another role in dangerous space exploration, but they'll face stiff competition from robotic probes. Still, it's worth remembering that one small step into space that threw the doors open for human spaceflight.

"One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps" was directed and produced by David Cassidy, and is available at www.spacechimps.com. The "Space Chimps" animated film was produced by Vanguard Animation/Twentieth Century Fox, and will open in theaters on July 18. The "Space Chimps" video game will be released in July on PS2, X360, Wii, and NDS.

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Where logic "doesn't have no relevance"...

How is she pandering and slobbering today?

a) going on about elites
b) pretending she understands long commutes and pain of gas prices
c) not putting in her lot with so-called "experts"
d) talking about the little people she's meeting
e) all of the above

If you've guessed (e) then you've really got the measure of perhaps the most depressing and dispiriting descent into political opportunism since, oh, 2004.

From the Times:

This morning, George Stephanopoulos began his televised interview with Senator Hillary Clinton by asking if she could name a single economist who supports her plan for a gas tax suspension.

She did not. “I’m not going to put in my lot with economists,” she said on ABC’s “This Week” program. A few moments later, she added, “Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantages the vast majority of Americans.”

Throughout the exchange, Mrs. Clinton argued that she trusted her own eyes and ears instead. “This gas tax issue to me is very real because I have been meeting people across Indiana and North Carolina who drive for a living, who commute long distances, who would save money,” she said.

Senator Barack Obama has derided the gas-tax suspension as a gimmick that would save consumers little and cost thousands of jobs, and Kara Glennon, a member of the audience at a town-hall meeting, seemed to agree. Gas prices are “not academic” for her, she told Mrs. Clinton, because she makes less than $25,000 a year—and then she accused Mrs. Clinton of pandering. “Call me crazy, but I listen to economists because I think I know what they studied,” she said.

However, in an interview afterward, Mark Moorman, another audience member and a firefighter, said he shared Mrs. Clinton’s mistrust of experts. Political candidates cite economists but they “never say anybody’s name, or where the study came from,” he said. “So as far as me, it doesn’t have no relevance.”

Hillary Clinton, caring about the little people, because you know, the Clintons have always cared about the little people. I mean she was on the board at Wal-Mart, and everybody knows how well Wal-Mart has cared for its employees and in what high esteem they hold them. Hell, Sam Walton, that little person of little people, went so far as to call her "a great friend of ours." And by "ours" of course he meant little people everywhere, not those big nasty elites. And by elites, of course I'm not talking about somebody worth $109 million dollars or the dozens of billions of dollars the Waltons are worth. I'm talking about you and me, so Hillary, I believe you, and I invite you to come to my school and tell my students to their faces why as Senator you have put absolutely no pressure on the state of New York to make sure that our school gets just as much money per student as the schools in Great Neck and Chautauqua and then you can tell them about how you had no problem authorizing the insane president of the United States to use these same little people to go to Iraq seven or eight times each, some of them, to fight a war for the other little people like Haliburton and the various fellows of the Carlyle Fund. Maybe we can talk about what you did on your time at Wal-Mart to help the workers unionize or get higher pay or greater access to health care - after all, health care is so important to you and the little people are so important to you, I'm sure you have all kinds of things you can say. Or you can prattle on about the elites some more and we can all wonder at the inanity of this campaign being run in the middle of a moment when the only important things are the things we are not talking anything about.

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