From the monthly archives:

February 2010

How can schools use research?

by Harry on February 9, 2010

Madison School Board member Lucy Mathiak, with a lament that, presumably, all thinking school board officials in the US share:

For years, MMSD staff have advocated for their proposals and programming choices by arguing that they are research-based data driven best practices. At times, I have wondered whether the research selected has undergone critical review. That is, do the people selecting the research stop to ask whether the research is methodologically sound with verifiable results, much less whether it was conducted on populations or under conditions that are comparable to the Madison public school district.

I’ve also wondered at an understanding of research that ignores entire bodies of data or work that falls outside of the narrow educational research paradigm. (Prime examples of the latter case include the district’s unwillingness to consider the considerable body of research on how children learn to read that is carried out by cognitive psychologists, linguists, and communicative disorder researchers. But that’s another post.)

What follows is my longwinded response, which builds up to a plea for Districts (or groups of districts) and States to establish local versions of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Mathiak’s particular concern is that the only source concerning underrepresented minorities mentioned by name in a report on TAG developments is by Ruby Payne, who is not a researcher, and self-publishes. Whatever the merits of this particular instance of the worry, it is a shared worry for a reason. Educational research (broadly construed as it should be) is voluminous, to say the least, and even much of the best of it is not designed, or written, to be readily accessible to non-academics. Educational leaders, whether at the school or district level, are not trained in the consumption of educational research: in fact, they are not even presented with a great deal of it during their training, even for the purpose of learning what it says. Preparing them would be quite difficult, for a couple of reasons. First, education is beset by a culture of deference to ideological commitments, which makes it quite difficult to have some kinds of discussion in a way that is really sensitive to the evidence. Consider inclusion – the policy of including children with special educational needs in the regular classroom – which is, in some quarters, a matter of faith of such strength that evidence is really irrelevant. It is similarly difficult in some districts and schools to have an evidence-sensitive discussion of racial achievement gaps. When you do have the discussion, furthermore, it is not necessarily the discussion you think you are having! (The most unnerving conversation I had with a superintendent was one in which the superintendent told me that his district uses Ronald Ferguson’s work to design their policies around the racial achievement gap, which I would think was a pretty good idea had he not just told me, as truth, a whole bunch of claims that I had, the previous day, read a Ronald Ferguson essay disproving). Training leaders to conduct such discussions in these circumstances, in which some of them have, themselves, made the particular commitments of faith, is no easy task.

[click to continue…]

Japanese Paper Theater

by John Holbo on February 9, 2010

Here’s a handsome coffee table book I’ve been wanting for a while: Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater [amazon]. And you know what! I just ordered it, because for some reason Amazon has it for sale for $6.46, instead of $35. Go figure. I advise you to order your own copy before they come to their senses.

Let me quote the product description, by way of posing my question for the day:

Before giant robots, space ships, and masked super heroes filled the pages of Japanese comic books – known as manga – such characters were regularly seen on the streets of Japan in kamishibai stories. Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater tells the history of this fascinating and nearly vanished Japanese art form that paved the way for modern-day comic books, and is the missing link in the development of modern manga.

During the height of kamishibai in the 1930s, storytellers would travel to villages and set up their butais (miniature wooden prosceniums), through which illustrated boards were shown. The storytellers acted as entertainers and reporters, narrating tales that ranged from action-packed westerns, period pieces, traditional folk tales, and melodramas, to nightly news reporting on World War II. More than just explaining the pictures, a good storyteller would act out the parts of each character with different voices and facial expressions. Through extensive research and interviews, author Eric P. Nash pieces together the remarkable history of this art and its creators. With rare images reproduced for the first time from Japanese archives, including full-length kamishibai stories, combined with expert writing, this book is an essential guide to the origins of manga.

I’m a comics guy, so this is very interesting to me. Let’s think about it theoretically – in a McCloudish sequential visual art-ish way. Suppose you want to tell a story (tell anything) in pictures, and you want to get reasonable distribution. First, you can bring the people to you. Go monumental. Build something that lots of people can come and see on a regular basis. Paint the ceiling of your church, or carve your images into the walls of a public building/structure. This has been done at many times and in many places. It is a time-honored method for getting lots of people to see your sequential visual art. Second, you can make lots of copies that you distribute widely. This modern method works great as well. Third, you sort of split the difference. You make some copies, but not too many; and you make them large, but still portable. And you make the circuit with them, ‘performing’ for relatively small, paying audiences. Comics as traveling theater. Well, obviously the Japanese went that route for a time. Who else has? It seems odd to me that there aren’t more examples of this kind of thing. It’s seems a natural sort of middle ground to hit upon when you don’t have enough cash for a cathedral and no one has invented cheap enough printing yet (yes, I know there was cheap printing by the 30’s. I’m sure you get what I’m saying.) There’s puppet theater. Why not more of this ‘comics’ theater thing? Who did this before or besides the Japanese (or after)?

Obviously it doesn’t go just for sequential visual art. Any old picture that you wanted to share around might pose you this distribution dilemma. But the theater formula seems particularly winning, potentially. It also seems like the sort of thing that you could do even if you didn’t have, say, paper. Fabric. Wood. Lots of cultures have had access to basic materials that might have served, and that wouldn’t have been prohibitively expensive for small-time operators. So are there more examples of ‘comic’ theater, in the sequential visual art sense?

I’m still waiting for my copy, obviously. I don’t know much about the Japanese case yet. Maybe some of these larger questions are addressed in the book.

Six Nations open thread

by Chris Bertram on February 7, 2010

We usually have a Six Nations thread at this time of the year, to give our North American commenters the opportunity to make the same old joke about the Iroquois they made the previous year. I didn’t see Ireland-Italy but I did enjoy England’s largely undeserved victory over the Welsh, whose second-row forward Alun Wyn Jones managed to gift England 17 points by getting himself sin-binned. Something tells me that if England can be this crap and still get a victory, they might manage to win the whole thing.

Bacevich on the American faith in force

by John Quiggin on February 5, 2010

The American Conservative is a mixed bag, to put it mildly, but this piece by Andrew Bacevich is well worth reading. Bacevich points out how rarely the faith of the American policy elite in military force has actually been rewarded with success. The key quote:

An alternative reading of our recent military past might suggest the following: first, that the political utility of force—the range of political problems where force possesses real relevance—is actually quite narrow; second, that definitive victory of the sort that yields a formal surrender ceremony at Appomattox or on the deck of an American warship tends to be a rarity; third, that ambiguous outcomes are much more probable, with those achieved at a cost far greater than even the most conscientious war planner is likely to anticipate; and fourth, that the prudent statesman therefore turns to force only as a last resort and only when the most vital national interests are at stake. Contra Kristol, force is an “instrument” in the same sense that a slot machine or a roulette wheel qualifies as an instrument.

To consider the long bloody chronicle of modern history, big wars and small ones alike, is to affirm the validity of these conclusions.

[click to continue…]


by Chris Bertram on February 4, 2010

BBC Radio 4 had a fascinating programme the other day about the use of drones in warfare by the US, British and Dutch military. It is still available at iplayer here (though those of you in the “wrong” jurisdictions may need to find fancy workarounds). A guy gets in his car and drives to work in an office in Nevada. From his office he controls drones in Afghanistan. Occasionally he kills people (who can’t shoot back at him, since he’s 8000 miles away). When he’s done, he gets in his car and drives home to his wife and kids. You can tell the difference between ordinary farmers and insurgents by the way they move across terrain, apparently. Some of the people controlling drones are in the military. Some of them are civilian contractors, perhaps based in a different country to the army they’re fighting for (such as British commercial operators based in Surrey, flying surveillance drones for the Dutch in Afghanistan.) The programme raised the issue of whether software engineers might one day be tried for war crimes. Looking at things the other way, if the Taliban contrived a way to blow up one of these operators on their daily commute in Nevada or Surrey, would it be a terrorist murder of a non-combatant or a legitimate act of war?

Zombie ideas walk again

by John Quiggin on February 4, 2010

A glutton for punishment, I’ve decided the Zombie Economics book manuscript I submitted a month ago (mostly online here) is in urgent need of more zombies. I’ve been struck, even in that short space of time by the extent to which, with undeniable “green shoots” now appearing, the zombie ideas I’ve written about are clawing their way through the softening soil and walking among us again. The most amazing example is that of the Great Moderation – surely you would think no one could believe in this anymore, but they do.

So, I’m planning to add a bit to each chapter, pointing to examples of these ideas being revived. I’d appreciate good examples for the rest: Trickle Down, Micro-based Macro the Efficient Markets Hypothesis and Privatisation (of course, the Queensland government gives an example v close to home).

[click to continue…]

Sam Bowles and Inequality

by Henry on February 3, 2010

A “good article”: in the _Santa Fe Reporter._ I’m quoted in it a few times, although I’m not sure that I’m especially qualified to pronounce upon his career and thought which are respectively far more distinguished and far more wide-reaching than my own. When I see myself having said ““I think what he’s doing is very smart. And it actually has some promise for a future, coherent research agenda,” I wince a little – what I meant to say is closer to “very, very _very_ smart” and a “future, coherent research agenda that could help remake the field of economics as a whole.”

The piece is good on the linkage between economics and inequality:

Bowles’ course was set in 1968, when he was an assistant professor at Harvard, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to his department looking for advice on the next stage of his social justice campaign. “We were just elated that we could use economics, which we had so painstakingly learned, to answer questions that Dr. King thought were important,” Bowles tells SFR. “We were also extremely angry that we were totally unable to answer the questions on the basis of having gotten a PhD at Harvard.”

… Most economists in 1968 thought of inequality as “somebody else’s problem,” Bowles tells SFR. “I actually was denied the right to teach a graduate course in inequality because it was said not to be economics.” It wasn’t always thus. “The founders of the discipline of economics, almost to a man—and they were only men—thought that the problem of distribution between classes—they used the word classes—was the key to understanding why nations grew or not,” Bowles says. What Bowles sees as the essence of his profession—problems of wealth distribution—the Friedmanites see as the road to hell.

Mainstream political science was no better, failing nearly entirely to investigate the sources of structural inequality in the US (there is still no coherent field of American political economy) . My sense is that both fields have improved significantly over the last several years – the causes and consequences of inequality is a significant focus of research – but they have a hell of a long way to go.

Nominet consultation on .UK

by Maria on February 3, 2010

Nominet, the body that administers the .UK country code, is holding an EGM later this month to decide on its future governance structure. As my old colleague Kieren McCarthy points out, the proposals include “a larger Board, lower voting thresholds, explicitly recognising that Nominet has a “public purpose”, giving the Board the right to set pricing, and a promise to review the organisation’s current membership setup to pull in more of the Internet community into its decisions.” These are all very good things.

Nominet has been through the wars in the past couple of years, with the biggest battles provoked by domainers (bulk commercial buyers of domain name registrations) trying to take over the Board of what is essentially a public interest organisation. (Like all fights, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Kieren wrote about the power struggle last year.)DTI, now of course known as BERR, was alarmed and threatened to take it over altogether. A big part of the problem is that there’s a very low bar for voting rights – basically anyone who does bulk registration of names – and so turnout is low, meaning capture by self-interested groups is distressingly easy. The changes being proposed at the EGM would address this. But they need to be voted in…

So, to the probably tiny percentage of CT readers who are interested, please do head over to Nominet and inform yourself about these issues.

Full disclosure: Through my work with ICANN (where I finished up last month), I got to know some of the Nominet team and think they’re doing a good job in difficult circumstances.

To judge from this interview with Zizek in The Times of India, they were right the first time.

How can you dismiss Buddhism so easily? It’s the fastest growing religion in the world.

In the West, Buddhism is the new predominant ideology. Things are so unstable and confusing that with one speculation you can lose billions of dollars in a minute. The only thing that can explain this is Buddhism which says that everything is an appearance. That’s why the Dalai Lama is so popular in Hollywood.

You have also been critical of Gandhi. You have called him violent. Why?

It’s crucial to see violence which is done repeatedly to keep the things the way they are. In that sense, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.

UPDATE: Apparently Zizek was misquoted. At any rate, one person who claims to have been present for the interview says so, and it seems plausible enough.

I posted recently on The paradoxical politics of credible commitment, noting the excellent analysis of Gordon Brown’s politics by Sebastian Dellepiane.  He argues that the Labour government did not make the Bank of England independent simply in order to defuse City suspicions of them. This self-binding policy was also in fact enabling, because it made it possible for Brown to adopt a classic Keynesian economic strategy by about 2000.

The Euro started out as a self-binding credibility-gaining mechanism for Eurozone member states. But the Euro also turned to have an ‘enabling’ side to it. It contributed to new kinds of instability by facilitating the extension of cheap credit and by permitting increasingly risky lending practices to spread throughout the European financial system, in Germany and France as well as in the weaker peripheral economies.

This has led me to think some more about the relevance of the logic of credibility gains in the current European crisis.

The self-binding austerity politics now under way in the Eurozone also has some paradoxical features. The crisis has produced an explosion of fiscal deficits and an accumulation of sovereign debt. The ECB favours fiscal austerity to restore stability, and so does German public opinion. This means that every other member state must adjust to low demand conditions and domestic deflation. But while Gordon Brown’s self-binding monetary policy proved to be enabling, Eurozone governments’ self-binding fiscal policy might be seen as self-disabling, because it involves commitment to a strategy that may prove self-defeating. There are two reasons for this.

[click to continue…]

On knowing how to start, and when to stop

by Kieran Healy on February 1, 2010

Mark Pilgrim, on getting started:

I’m a three-time (soon to be four-time) published author. When aspiring authors learn this, they invariably ask what word processor I use. It doesn’t fucking matter! I happen to write in Emacs. I also code in Emacs, which is a nice bonus. Other people write and code in vi. Other people write in Microsoft Word and code in TextMate+ or TextEdit or some fancy web-based collaborative editor like EtherPad or Google Wave. Whatever. Picking the right text editor will not make you a better writer. Writing will make you a better writer. Writing, and editing, and publishing, and listening — really listening — to what people say about your writing. This is the golden age for aspiring writers. We have a worldwide communications and distribution network where you can publish anything you want and — if you can manage to get anybody’s attention — get near-instant feedback. Writers just 20 years ago would have killed for that kind of feedback loop. Killed! And you’re asking me what word processor I use? Just fucking write, then publish, then write some more. One day your writing will get featured on a site like Reddit and you’ll go from 5 readers to 5000 in a matter of hours, and they’ll all tell you how much your writing sucks. And most of them will be right! Learn how to respond to constructive criticism and filter out the trolls, and you can write the next great American novel in edlin.

Bill Watterson, in his first interview in 15 or so years, on stopping:

Readers became friends with your characters, so understandably, they grieved — and are still grieving — when the strip ended. What would you like to tell them?

This isn’t as hard to understand as people try to make it. By the end of 10 years, I’d said pretty much everything I had come there to say. It’s always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip’s popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now “grieving” for “Calvin and Hobbes” would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I’d be agreeing with them.

I think some of the reason “Calvin and Hobbes” still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it.

I’ve never regretted stopping when I did.

“The Irish Times”:

RYANAIR HAS appeared in the bottom 10 of an “ethical ranking” of 581 companies, based on environmental performance, corporate social responsibility and information provided to consumers. … Ryanair is ranked 575 on the latest list, just ahead of Occidental Petroleum, US tobacco company Phillip Morris and oil giant Chevron. At the bottom is Monsanto, chiefly known for genetically modified foods.

This isn’t interesting because the ranking has any validity (I suspect that the ranking process is even more arbitrary than the usual – the worst-ranked companies are too obviously the bottom feeders that you _would_ expect to find there) but because I imagine that Ryanair will respond to this with a press release that marries bluster and belligerence with a certain sense of accomplishment. The company prides itself not only on being perceived as having no social conscience, but as having a reputation for screwing its customers as systematically and mercilessly as possible. Which other airline’s CEO would “announce that he wanted to charge passengers to use the toilet”: as a publicity stunt? Clearly, Ryanair thinks that this reputation is a money spinner for them (it is quite deliberately cultivated), and they have indeed made quite a lot of money. But why (if they are right) would a reputation for shafting your customers be a commercial asset for a consumer-oriented business in a relatively competitive sector? The “standard economic account”: doesn’t seem to provide much insight. Help me out here.