Friday, December 30, 2005

Is dorky the new sexy?

Sagan was, simply speaking, sexy, in a sense that transcends mere sexuality.
—Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life, p. 264

In perusing the Wired News list of "2005's 10 Sexiest Geeks", I noticed that my friend and dorkbot instigator douglas irving repetto was on the list!
Some people say the term "sexy geek" is an oxymoron. Here at Wired News, we say it's redundant.
I don't know who nominated doug, but my guess is Xeni Jardin (herself a pretty sexy geek), who's listed as a suggester for the article, based on the boingboing team's contact with dorkbot (such as David Pescovitz's MAKE article and several bb posts).

See also my previous post about dorkbot's 5th anniversary. The dorkbot map (which I started) is growing at a rapid rate, with 45 members so far.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Lincoln Center's Cartoon Musicals in NYC

A much-awaited film series has begun this week: the return of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's series about the wide-ranging intersection of animation and music, Cartoon Musicals! This is a dream come true for animation buffs: the series features some truly rare and offbeat stuff, and curator Greg Ford shows his excellent taste and vast, insightful knowledge of the medium.

The first part of the series, back in August, already set a high bar. A Disney compilation showcased the early Silly Symphonies with their imaginative world-building -- the best one showing the rivalry in a music world between lands of classical and jazz music -- and the wild graphic inventiveness of some of the more experimental segments from compilation pictures like Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, and Melody Time -- the best being "All the Cats Join In" from Make Mine Music, which I recognized as largely animated by Fred Moore's, since the wild joy of the dancing teens in the cartoon shows his famed ability to create appealing characters. Fantasia 2000's "Rhapsody in Blue" segment, shown at the end, looks like a pale retread of the graphic styles used earlier. Meanwhile, the screening of Tex Avery and company's MGM shorts showed the power of crowds: there's nothing like hearing one's fellow theatergoers break into applause at the mere anticipation of Red Hot Riding Hood, the moment her name appears in the credits! And the screening of Columbia shorts gave an opportunity to see a rarely shown studio's work -- although this was the least popular of the screenings I attended, the audience apparently gravitating to watch, say, Warner Bros. cartoons with a crowd (a good resource about Columbia's cartoon character Scrappy is Harry McCracken's Scrappyland website).

This time around, the roster is equally impressive. Shorts programs include compliations of such off-beat artists as Oskar Fischinger's abstract animation and George Pal's 3-D stop motion Puppetoons. Pal was basically the only person in America at the time to regularly use the stop-motion animation technique; and instead of using movable puppets, he used a mind-boggling technique of "replacement" animation which involved creating thousands of separate physical copies of a character. He then went on to make live-action films that included some of the pioneering serious science fiction films, such as Destination Moon, War of the Worlds, and When Worlds Collide.

Features include the Fleischers' Hoppity Goes to Town and Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure. The latter is particularly rare, and I've been curious to see it ever since a January 2003 retrospective of the great Tissa David (who was one of the first women in animation) included a charming clip of her animation of Raggedy Ann and Andy in the forest; other master animators who worked on the film included Emery Hawkins, Art Babbitt, Grim Natwick, and director Richard Williams -- as the program notes point out, it's odd that the mainstream success of Williams's Who Framed Roger Rabbit hasn't led to more interest in his other work. (See also Eddie Bowers's website about the sad story behind Williams's ambitious, experimental feature The Thief and the Cobbler, which was taken out of his hands just as he was completing it and released in butchered form). Also, it was the subject of a great making-of book by animation historian John Canemaker, The Animated Raggedy Ann and Andy, which includes chapters on David, Hawkins, Babbitt, and Williams (it's truly refreshing to see such solid emphasis on the animators in these days of celebrity-voice overexposure).

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Rushkoffiana

Now is an exciting time to be a fan of the maverick media theorist Douglas Rushkoff.

He's known for analyzing media and the power of storytelling therein, and has dealt both with how viewers can become empowered by "taking control of the story" and the shadier side of how advertising and other manipulative forms of media control the audience (and has analyzed the potential for new media forms to lead to both cases). Also, he's known for dealing with Judaism from an unconventional, counter-institutional perspective as an "open source religion", such as in his book Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism and articles like "Judging Judaism by the Numbers" and a New York Press article on the "self-imposed death of institutional Judaism". Freethinking lapsed Jews turn out to be like Paikea in Whale Rider, who was the black sheep of her Maori tribe for flouting the convention of male leadership, only to turn out to be the true heir to the tradition underneath the superficial differences and rituals.

Appropriately his message has straddled mediums: nonfiction and the farthest-out fantasy fiction; books, comix, newspaper and magazine columns, and TV documentaries. He also doesn't hesitate to combine these topics in unexpected ways, such as a book chapter titled "From Moses to Modems".

Two major Rushkoff projects have been released this month: his business book Get Back in the Box ("I think it will succeed in doing for business and organizations a lot of what it was I trying to do for Judaism: showing that a renaissance, open-source mindset leads to great innovation.") and the first issue of the ongoing comic series Testament. He's said:
...the two main projects I do have coming out right now - Get Back in the Box and Testament - represent the culmination of the last two decades of inquiry and experimentation. So these projects aren't over just because they're about to be published.
Before the book was released, he released for discussion some provocative passages from Box onto his blog as "Thought Viruses":
  1. One Thing
  2. Open Source and the Authorship Society
  3. Social Currency
  4. Follow the Fun
  5. The Ben & Jerry's Syndrome
  6. Brand as Communication
  7. It's Supposed to be Fun
Also, he has an ongoing column in Arthur magazine. See the outstanding first installment Evolution as a Team Sport for a taste: it looks to renaissance as a better metaphor for change than revolution, and the analysis of the role of centralized currency and the resultant central banking is remniscent of William B. Greene's and Proudhon's theories of mutual banking:
...it was during the Renaissance that centralized currency came into widespread use. Before then, localities developed their own currencies, often based on real commodities, and many of which existed side-by-side more centralized currencies that were used for transacting with other regions. With the establishment of the nation state came the exclusive right of kings to create money by "fiat" - literally by invention - and then force everyone else to compete to pay it back. To this day, people who want to buy a house must borrow, say, $100,000 from the bank and then pay back $300,000 over thirty years. Where does the other $200,000 come from? The borrower is to compete for it in the marketplace. Only $100,000 was loaned into existence. The rest must be taken from others.
There's also an archive of columns for The Feature (which ended earlier this year) for even more stuff to dig through (I'm telling you, keeping up on Rushkoffiana is almost a full time commitment itself).

His short book Open Source Democracy: How Online Communication is Changing Offline Politics is available online as a free ebook. Also available for viewing online are his documentaries on advertising and manipulation, The Merchants of Cool and The Persuaders.

Rushkoff appeared on Sunday, December 25 on the WBAI radio show Equal Time for Freethought, as part of a subversive winter holiday special from the secular humanist viewpoint (Rushkoff covered Hanukkah, whereas Robert Price did Christmas). The show is available as a MP3 in the WBAI archives.

(last updated December 29, 2005)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

dorkbot turns five!

This month, New York City's monthly watering hole for techies, artists, and hackers, dorkbot-nyc, had its fifth anniversary meeting. Founded by artist and Columbia University Computer Music Center professor douglas irving repetto, its motto, "People doing strange things with electricity", gives the impression of what to (un)expect. Its dorky arena includes almost anything within the wide bounds of electronics, including both hardware and software, with a square emphasis on low-budget, do-it-yourself, personal projects. The results are geeky, goofy, technical, off-beat, and as wacky as the presenters' personal interests; the three presentations of a typical session will have almost nothing in common.

The first meeting I attended, when dorkbot had been around for less that two full years, was in April 2002, featuring a video by Kyle Lapidus and Tali Hinkis, who together with their children, the musical prodigy Rama (who's already composed a theme song for dorkbot) and Lisa Dlisah, have been among dorkbot's most stalwart regulars. I heard about dorbkot on Michael Stutz's now-defunct linart mailing list, where doug would regularly announce meetings with subject-line titles that inevitably worked dorkbot's name into spoofs like "oh when the dorks, go botting in". As the title suggests, the list dealt with the intersection of Linux and art, and was one of the predecessors of the the free culture scene, before the explosive growth of Creative Commons in early 2003. I've almost never missed a meeting since then (there are some pictures of me to be found in the photo gallery archives of past meetings).

Some of my favorite projects over the years: Cory Arcangel's mischievous digital antics; vagamundo, aiming to educate about the difficulties faced by Latin American immigrants by recreating them in video game format -- where the video game is housed in a vendor cart similar to the one used by them; Caspar Stracke's experiments with the wonderfolly obscure CED movie-on-a-record home video format; Tom Moody's MSPaintbrush art; Scott Draves's electronic art including his open source, Philip K. Dick-inspired electric sheep generative screensaver; and doug's own walking table. One project I wish I hadn't missed is Steve Baldwin's Ghost Sites, concurrent with the tenth anniversary of the world wide web; his website is a truly fascinating compendium of the forgotten corners of web history.

While the meetings have spread mainly through word-of-mouth (as is in keeping with the spirit of them anyway), it's attracted some media coverage, including a June 2004 article in the New Yorker and a fantastic article in the first issue of a publication that perfectly meshes with dorkbot's aim and audience: MAKE magazine.

There are dorkbots that have sprung up in different cities across the globe (which I honestly don't know much about), but the nyc one is the original. The global distibution can be seen in the map for dorkbotters that I recently created (using Google Maps via Frappr) which already contains over thirty people.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Frappr group for Equal Time for Freethought listeners



(inspired by Brian Flemming's similar antics with the Church Sign Generator)

Last week, the map I created for listeners of the radio show on scientific naturalism and secular humanism Equal Time for Freethought (for which I am on staff as a researcher/consultant), which airs on WBAI in the metro New York City area, finally went live with a link on the official site.

The map is made via Frappr, a super cool site that uses Google Maps to allow people in a group to post their locations on the planet. (For more examples of ways people are using Google Maps, see Google Maps Mania.) I've also created a couple of other Frappr groups: for Distributed Proofreaders (forum thread) and dorkbotters (that is, people who go to dorkbot, including the local nyc group).

I'm very pleased to see that the first two listeners to add themselves, besides the staff members of the show, are all the way from Grand Rapids, Michigan and Mayer, Arizona! Clearly, the show is being heard via the online WBAI stream and program archives (older, no longer updated archive of some 2003 shows) as well as on the local radio.

It's also cool that Mark Plus has referred to the science fiction movie Stargate, which I also like (and which is unfairly dismissed by some critics as just another dumb shoot-'em-up). Not only does it celebrate the intellectual curiosity of James Spader's unabashedly nerdy linguist, but in its depiction of a basically decent and innocent group of people being lorded over and kept in ignorance by a violent, vindictive, anachronistic god, it parallels the rise of militant Islam and other fundamentalism today, for instance this quote from Sam Harris's The End of Faith:
It is as though a portal in time has opened, and fourteenth-century hordes are pouring into our world. Unfortunately, they are now armed with twenty-first-century weapons. (p. 107)

Feedback is welcome! You can post feedback in the comments section for this post, and tell us about your experience with ETFF. For instance: How did you find the show? (Especially for people outside of the metro-NYC area) What are your favorite episodes? How does the show's worldview fit in with your own?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A decade of Pixar feature films

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Toy Story, rounding out a decade of feature films from Pixar.

I literally grew up alongside computer graphics; Tron was released, on July 9, 1982, just a month before I was born; also, the adolescence and adulthood of the medium parallel my own. I remember missing Toy Story during its original theatrical run (remember how back then, it was promoted as a "Disney" rather than a "Pixar" film?), instead seeing Jumanji (what a load of crapola that was) while Toy Story was playing on a different screen of the same theater. However, I didn't miss the revolution for long: I've looked forward to each new release since Monsters, Inc.'s wickedly clever trailer in which the characters wind up in outer Mongolia instead of outer Magnolia (oh, the pain-of-anticipation of seeing that one a full year before the release of the film itself).

Pixar has moved from one artistic triumph to another, barely missing a beat: the early shorts like Luxo Jr., Red's Dream (which spawned the spoof Red's Nightmare, itself an impressive example of early CG), and Tin Toy are perfectly charming and work smoothly within the technical limitations; Toy Story looked like it would be a mere exemplar of the crassest product placement imaginable; Toy Story 2 became a worthy sequel (one critic said that in the scene where Jessie the Cowgirl is abandoned by her former owner, the film makes you cry over a computer generated piece of plastic!); and The Incredibles showed that animation was able to deal with human characters, and was a better example of the genre than most "real" superhero movies. Sometimes, they've been one of the few worthwhile movies in their respective years. (For example, in 2003, Finding Nemo faced off against Dumb and Dumberer, Daddy Day Care, The Cat in the Hat, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) They're to today what rock'n'roll was to the Sixties: the best of an era.

Like Pixar's early shorts, other very early examples of CG that were done well and in keeping with the film, like the Genesis Effect in Star Trek 2 and the T-1000 in Terminator 2, also hold up well. One interesting and almost unknown predecessor is the work at the Computer Graphics Lab at the New York Institute of Technology, where they attempted to make a feature called The Works over a decade before Toy Story. Traditional animator Shamus Culhane (who worked at most of the major studios of the time including Fleischer, Disney, and Walter Lantz) visited them and included tantalizing descriptions of the lab in his two books, Talking Animals and Other People and Animation: From Script to Screen. In the former, he concluded by saying (in 1986) that
I am convinced that computer animation will produce beautiful works of art — beautiful beyond our most fantastic dreams.
Online, there's a fascinating 1983 article about the making of The Works, a collection of pictures from The Works and other CGL projects, and a 1984 animation of Gumby by the creator of the original stop-motion version of the character, Art Clokey (this was one of the earliest examples of character animation using a connected, flexible body rather than segmented, separate parts).

One interesting development is the existence of personal websites of Pixar animators like Victor Navone (his movies page has showreels of the particular scenes he animated on Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo; and The Incredibles — a welcome contrast to the anonymity of most animators) and Cameron Miyasaki. One could arguably include Bruce Perens of open source fame, who worked at Pixar as a programmer for software used in the films A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2; see his post on a debian mailing list at the time of Toy Story's release (his involvement in both Toy Story and the Linux distribution debian is the reason why debian's releases are named after Toy Story characters).

Looking at the state of CG today, it's easy to conclude that the other big studios haven't made much of the medium's artistic potential. The Onion once said (I haven't been able to find the source of the quote) that CG has often been "the worst parts of terrible movies", producing particularly annoying characters for the live-action likes of Scooby-Doo and Kangaroo Jack. While Shrek was funny and charming, the copies of its humor became tiresome; perhaps Ice Age was the best with its successful updating of slapstick comedy. The overemphasis on big-name voices has been particularly obnoxious, amounting to saying, "Hey, I'm Will Smith, I'm a clam! I'm Will Smith, I'm a kangaroo!" as Billy West — one of the generation of voice actors who got by on their ability to actually, well, voice cartoon characters — put it in an Onion interview.

So, I want to see the rise of vibrant indie CG features with wacky unique visions, to compare with the likes of those by traditional independent animators like Lotte Reiniger, Ladislas Starewicz, Sylvain Chomet, and Bill Plympton. The decrease in cost of computer animation equipment and software has led to a hobbyist CG community, often using freeware apps like POV-RAY and Blender (see their official movies gallery and the entries in this year's animation festival).

Where will CG be on November 22, 2015? CG technology has opened up a limitless play space, whose possibilities have just been marginally explored. Dare I say "To infinity and beyond!"? Let's prove Culhane right!

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Screenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: study on web-using teens

Earlier this month, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a study about American teenagers on the Net. This showed that not only are teens sophisticated users of the Net, they're also using it as creators. The most impressive statistic is that over half of teens who used the Net created content; particular forms such as blogging, personal webpages, working on webpages for other people, and even remixing of existing content are all fairly common.

The report confirms what I've definitely seen of the existence of a "generation gap" in Net use, especially for leisure as opposed to basic activities, like email for everyday communication, and reference. A lot of older people I know don't appreciate the significance the Net, seeing it as just another unproductive diversion for brats with too much time on their hands. For me it's odd, because I was in the era just before the Net came around; it wasn't a significant factor in my teen/high school years, only really getting into it in my 20s; so that I didn't grow up with it but rather came of age with it. It's funny, all the little ways that it's changed things; for instance, not getting references to subjects I didn't know about, whereas nowadays a Google search has a good chance of turning up the relevant explanation. And anyway, the Net has only recently actually come to its potential as a truly participatory medium, where such participation and real interaction is practical and widespread.

However, the study showed that kids are usually fortunate enough to have adults who do appreciate, and benefit from, their kids' superior technical prowess:
Parents of online teens view the internet and email as a positive addition to their children’s lives and teens are often the ones leading the technology adoption curve in their households.
and
Bloggers are tech-savvy and intrepid internet explorers. Bloggers and to a lesser extent teens who read blogs are internet omnivores who explore, play with, utilize and generally inhabit the internet with a greater abandon than their less blog-savvy counterparts.. They help adults do things online.
The New York Times had an article about the study, which pointed out that teens are just messing around, "tinkering with the toys that the digital revolution has put before them" rather than consciously being "at the vanguard of change". This was summed up with a good quote from one teen:
I taught myself how to use the Internet, so basically it was just a step-by-step process that clicked into my head. I just read directions and that's how I set it up. Pretty simple.
One thing that young people have in their favor, in this regard, is exactly that they haven't intimidated themselves into believing that such activities are more complicated than they are.

Speaking of the real Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it so happens that the first comic book issue featuring them is online in its entirety at the official website.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Nick Sagan (Carl's son) has a blog!

A few days ago, less than a week after reading Keay Davidson's biography of Carl Sagan, I was browsing through the library and randomly came across a science fiction novel by Carl's son Nick Sagan (the third of Sagan's five children). Although I had heard of Nick's career as a TV writer (including, appropriately, for Star Trek series The Next Generation and Voyager), I had no idea that he wrote science fiction books. In fact he has written two SF novels so far: Idlewild (2003) and Edenborn (2004). I can't opine on the novels, not having read them, but I'm pretty sure that Steven Baxter is right when he says that Nick "has a sense of wonder in his DNA." ;)

So I checked his site (see the pictures page for some photos of him with Carl!), and he has a brand-new blog that just debuted earlier this week! In fact, it debuted on Halloween and in his first post he weighs in on his favorite holiday (mine too; in fact, I found my own way to tie it in with SF).

(I'm trying to think of other personal websites by children of famous people; the only one that comes to mind is that of humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers's daughter Natalie Rogers.)

Welcome to the blogosphere, Nick!

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Monday, October 31, 2005

The scary state of Jules Verne translations



Roderick T. Long's recent post about the merits of Jules Verne reminded me of this. I recently was pretty shocked to find out that the most widely available English translations of Jules Verne's books are totally mutilated and inaccurate. As much as 1/4 of entire books are cut, including in particular much of the social and political material, giving the impression that Verne didn't deal with those issues. For example, the most available translation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was done by a clergyman who decided to omit all mentions of Darwin. Much of what is kept doesn't fare much better: in that same translation, Nemo's figure for the density of steel was confused to make it lighter than water. Most of these hack translations were done in the 1800s, but are still widely reprinted today, with little awareness about them. In contrast, the translations into other languages are generally okay, and in the non-English-speaking parts of Europe the sophisticated aspects of Verne's work are well known. Walter James Miller's article "The Rehabilitation of Jules Verne in America", by one of the main advocates for re-translating and rediscovering Verne, is a good overview of the situation. (I have to disagree, though, with his conflation of adult fiction with sophistication and children's fiction with lack of it; especially since a large portion of serious science fiction readers are what Isaac Asimov called "intelligent youngsters".)

Shortly after finding this article, I stumbled upon and bought a used copy of Miller's annotated version of From the Earth to the Moon, which he both translated and annotated with copious explanations of the many references in the book. This is truly how Verne should be read! He points out that the book is as much a political satire (and a prescient one, foreshadowing the role of the military-industrial complex in spaceflight) as a technical account of the details of manned spaceflight; he even judges it to be among Lysistrata and Catch-22 as one of the great antiwar satires.

Other accurate new translations have appeared, including one of Journey through the Impossible by secular humanist publisher Prometheus. (I've previously listed some of their more interesting and unusual titles.) Unfortunately not all of the newer translations are completely free from problems either; Roderick (in an email) pointed out a site about some problems in the 1996 translation of Verne's rediscovered Paris in the Twentieth Century, (can it really be a decade? I remember hearing about it at the time) and offering its own translations (and comparision to the published version) of the first and second chapters.

Aslo, an accurate modern translation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Frederick Paul Walter is available online on Project Gutenberg.

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Sunday, October 02, 2005

So who's opsound?











Creative Commons Australia has a new animated video that's a must-see. Here's a 13 MB QuickTime file of the movie itself; the org's post also has the script (which may be more accessible for those without broadband access) and the source files for the animation (done with the software package Moho).

Not only does the movie explain in a clear and accessible way the legal issues involved in the Creative Commons organization's limited copyright system, but it's flat-out hilarious and an excellent piece of animation in its own right. It takes full advantage of the freedom that the animation medium offers; and the voice acting, dialogue ("you are SOOOOOO busted!") and sound effects are top-notch, convincingly getting the dialogue across without relying on lip-synch (because the characters don't have mouths). These screenshots give some idea of the inventive imagery, but the movie has a funky energy that needs to be seen in motion.

What's even cooler is that it prominently features NYC's own (if largely internet-based) ultra-experimental independent open source record label Opsound, and one that really has an "open" spirit to it in its operation as well as in its Creative Commons-licensed music. For the first half of the cartoon, it's the main example of Creative Commons content used! I've known about Opsound since just before it opened in early 2003 (at almost the same time as the iTunes Music Store); I was actually familiar with some of the relatively scattered and relatively unsuccessful attempts at applying the "open source" approach to music and other art forms rather than software, a bit before the explosive success of Creative Commons. Being one of the earliest open labels I heard about, I was quite surprised that it was so close to home! I've gone to a number of Opsound's events, including the Psy-Geo-Con 2003, a concert of a one hour excerpt of a version of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony stretched out to 24 hours, and a release of Opsound's first CD, from catalpa catalpa, at the famed CBGB's.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Heinlein & science fictional feminism

Today's New York Times book review section has a fantastic article, "Heinlein's Female Troubles" by Mary Grace Lord, about feminism in Robert Heinlein's science fiction.

Jonathan Kozol

On September 13, I had the chance to see in person one of the leading education writers, one whom I admire while simultanenously having profoundly mixed feelings about. With an incredible amount of energy and raw passion for a 69-year-old—especially considering that this is just one event of a two-month book tour—Jonathan Kozol talked to a packed crowd at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble in Manhattan to promote his new book The Shame of the Nation : The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (there's also an excerpt in this month's issue of Harper's magazine, "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid"). Dozens of copies of the book (in a deluxe hardcover edition, to boot) were flying off the shelves; such demand is certainly a testament to the huge numbers of people who care about education and want to improve it. I was tipped off to the appearance when I unexpectedly heard Kozol on The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC radio earlier that day, in which the talk was announced.

As Kozol has done in his writings since the 1960s, this book documents in gory detail the shocking degree of racial and class inequality in the public schools; this book also points out the difference between the legal segregation of the pre-Civil Rights era with the segregation in practice today, where poor schools have almost entirely black and Hispanic students and rich schools only white and Asian ones.

Kozol also had some great stuff to say about standards and testing, with his characteristic sharp indignation. He called No Child Left Behind "the worst piece of education legislation in my lifetime"; contrasted a teacher reading literature to a class for its own merit and a desire to share their own experience with it, with reading it to teach "skill 67-B"; and mentioned that a brilliant student who was struggling to get through school because he consistently did terribly on tests, but read literature like Dickens precociously and with deep understanding, "just might have something to say about standardized tests" when he becomes a teacher.

In addition to his work about the public schools, Kozol went through a period of involvement with alternative schools, for instance in his 1972 book Free Schools (the revised edition, issued a decade later, was retitled Alternative Schools). It so happens that I first knew of him through this phase, rather than his more well-known work about the public school system described in his other books, and therefore associate him with it more than most people would. One of the first books I read about alternative schools is Chris Mercogliano's account of the Albany Free School, Making It Up As We Go Along, before going to the 2003 IDEC (International Democratic Education Conference) which was sponsored by and held near that school. Not only did Kozol influence the school, but Kozol's name was mentioned in a blurb for the book by Ron Miller, which listed Kozol among the critical writers on education of the 1960s such as John Holt, James Herndon, Herbert Kohl, and George Dennison (and also said that Chris's book is in some ways the best book on education to appear since that period, and the one that recaptures their spirit and compassion). Even then Kozol was quite critical, indeed sometimes hypercritical, of many alternative schools, viewing many of the more middle-class oriented schools as elitist—although many alternative school people used his criticisms constructively to help address such issues of privilege.

So it's disconcerting for somebody like me, coming from that perspective, to see his current complete dismissiveness of alternative private schools as opposed to his previous support of them (however tempered that was by criticism). For instance, in an interview in The New York Times Magazine at the time of release of the new book, he says, when asked whether he endorses any private schools,
They starve the public school system of the presence of well-educated, politically effective parents to fight for equity for all kids.
It's particularly ironic because the interview points out that Kozol never had children, so he himself is an example of how somebody without children in the public schools can work to help the children in them. Kozol also sees schooling as a national responsibility, instead of as a local, familial, or personal one, and has called for more national control of education; from the same interview:
Schooling should not be left to the whim or wealth of village elders. I believe that we should fund all schools in the U.S. with our national resources. All these kids are being educated to be Americans, not citizens of Minneapolis or San Francisco.
and has also dismissed any role of the free market in reforming the school system, for instance in "Kozol Sees Hypocrisy in Testing Craze":
For example, he said, voucher proponents contend they want to use the free market to help poor children get a better education.

"When did the unbridled free market ever serve the poor as well as it does the non-poor? Never." Just look at the low-grade banking, grocery and health care services in inner cities, he said.
and in the appropriately titled "The Market is Not the Answer" from Rethinking Schools:
But we have to be careful not to succumb to this nonsense that a public system is inherently flawed and that therefore we have to turn to the market place for solutions. I've never in my entire life seen any evidence that the competitive free market, unrestricted, without a strong counterpoise within the public sector, will ever dispense decent medical care, sanitation, transportation, or education to the people. It's as simple as that.
and in the same interview, also says that there's absolutely no inherent problem with state monopoly of schooling. (It so happens that one of Kozol's least-known books is Children of the Revolution: A Yankee Teacher in the Cuban Schools (1978), a favorable account of the Cuban education system—no pesky private schools draining resources from the public monopoly there.)

And while flipping through The Shame of the Nation, the only mention of the 1960s free/open school movement I could find is a 2-3 page section (with one very brief footnote to his Free Schools book) which basically puts down the excesses of the movement, associating it with "do your own thing" yuppie-ism, a lack of structure and standards, and elitism (white teachers going into poor schools without understanding the kids' needs); he also sees its main effect as leading to an over-reaction in the opposite direction, to a retrenchment of very conservative approaches to pedagogy that overemphasize discipline and order. And while he says that one of the mistakes the movement made is to neglect to teach and assist children, under the pretense of giving them freedom to choose to learn, and ignoring how their poverty and under-privileged status prevents students from actively trying to learn, there are many examples one could point to of poor children in very difficult circumstances initiating their own learning, given the right support. For instance, the "Hole in the Wall" project in India, which showed that groups of children could learn to use a computer on their own—some of the children being under such extreme poverty that they favored Microsoft's Paint program because they didn't have access to real paper and crayons to draw.

In fact, Kozol has gone from one extreme to the other, with somewhat of a tendency towards black and white thinking (no pun intended); during some of his alternative schools period he was as dismissive of the public schools as he is dismissive of private schools today. According to Jerry Mintz, when Kozol was organizing what eventually became the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools (NCACS) in the 1970s, he didn't want even alternative public schools to join the coalition. Either extreme can be very counterproductive; either when one is opposing even the public schools that are making major efforts to go against the grain, in Arnold Greenberg's words, "infiltrating the system"; or ignoring altogether the role of private schools, with their relative independence from the system. It's necessary to do both at the same time. And no matter how flawed and resistant to systemic change the public system is, one can certainly applaud teachers who do their best against tremendous obstacles to make it decent for children there, even if this won't make any lasting change in the system.

It's instructive to contrast Kozol's combination of criticizing the present public school system while assuming that the same system is necessary in a reformed variety, with the "deschooling" approach of people like Ivan Illich, John Holt, and John Taylor Gatto, who have combined a critique of the methods and curriculum of schools with a critique of the logic of the school system itself, and how the former flows from the latter, indeed seeing public schools as "public" in name only. No opponent of the compulsory public and private school system, even Gatto at his most passionate, could get better data on how the system has failed at the very things it's supposed to do, and at the cost of a huge amount of freedom.

When saying that it would be easier to reform school systems "overnight" than to deal with more complex problems such as poverty in communities as a whole, Kozol makes a very good and inspiring point about doing what can be done to help in the here-and-now, and not letting problems that are difficult or impossible to address prevent one from doing something about the more manageable ones. However, one can still see how the centralized machinery of the school system has the allure of making it easy to imagine immediate solutions implemented from the top, although the very automatic nature of such ease of manipulation by a minority is itself the problem (see Lewis Mumford's idea of the "megamachine"). Although Kozol has many trenchant and accurate criticism of No Child Left Behind and federal standardized testing, it's also no coincidence that it's those methods of federal funding, rather than the sort Kozol favors, that is politically feasible within the nature of the system.

Here's what Matt Hern says in his book Field Day, about the contrast between his own deschooling approach and Kozol's one in dealing with the issues of privilege Kozol talks about (and whose analysis of the problem Hern largely agrees with as one of the best):
One could read a book like Savage Inequalities and interpret the stories as a call to government to correct these inequities and, with massive resource infusions, ensure equal institutional opportunity. But when you're in a hole you should stop digging. Schools and the state are inextricably linked and schools are both reflecting and reinforcing a vision of society. As institutions they reinforce the social disparities around them. (p. 39)
And it should be noted that just about 99.9% of Kozol's readers indeed "interpret the stories as a call to government to correct these inequities and, with massive resource infusions, ensure equal institutional opportunity", and that this is what Kozol explicitly advocates nowadays. Hern is absolutely right that political and economic decentralization (and hence equality) have to go hand in hand.

(One might also wish that in addition to private alternatives such as alternative schools and homeschooling, people like Kozol would give more consideration to ideas of changing public schools to be more like the less manipulative public institutions, like libraries and museums.)

One can also question the limitations of wanting all schools to be like well-funded, affluent public schools, even though that would address the most blatant problems faced by poor schools, such as 40 kid rather than 20 kid classrooms. Even high schools that are nice, affluent, with small class sizes and supposely attention to the intellectual needs of students, can be a total waste of time and life for all involved.

One can also criticize Kozol's assumptions (which are, needless to say, very common among leftists) about the market, and especially how free markets reinforce inequality and fail to offer opportunities for the poor. Leftist free-market economic schools, such as those of the radical classical liberals, mutualists, single-taxers, and individualist anarchists, see the inequalities of the current system (which are used to oppose the very existence of any and all markets) as resulting from the degree to which its markets aren't free, due to systematic privileges that favor the rich over the poor and concentrations of power in banking, land and other institutions. The original idea of a free market which is carried forth by those traditions, a very progressive one of "a fair field and no favor", has been distorted beyond recognition by both proponents and opponents of "free markets". For instance, Kozol describes how poor students are forced to take idiotic courses in subjects like sewing and hairdressing when they would prefer, and be capable of, courses in advanced science and other challenging subjects. There's a chapter in The Shame of the Nation called "Preparing Students for Markets" about how they're being coerced into training for subservient jobs. Now just what does this have to do with a free market based on voluntary exchanges of labor between equal producers?

It should also be noted that those behind many of the particularly egregious attempts at corporate influence in public schools, such as advertising and brand names in textbooks, are more than willing to take advantage of the "captive audience" status of students there. The voucher and charter approaches, given a great deal of attention as exemplifying "privatization" by both supporters and detractors, are also some of the most enmeshed in a sort of pseudo-independence from the public system. And schooling is an example where the influence of the state is far beyond what is directly administered by it—our culture has so internalized the ideas about education and equating it with the current school system that private schools are far closer to the approach of the public system than they are legally made to be.

This is why some people have been using the term mutualization to refer to the process of getting real democratic control of social services in the private sector, as opposed to both nominally public state control and the corporate control commonly associated with "privatization". Many alternative schools can be understood as excellent examples of mutualization, and there are many more examples once one looks out for them, for example The New York Times ran an article on the very large-scale nonprofit mutual health organization in African countries that have made up for the lack of functioning state healthcare.

Once such mutual services are seen as part of the market, the market looks a lot nicer and "greener", and less deserving of reflexive condemnation. As upaya has written on his blog,
There are at least two ways to think about what is and what isn't part of the market. On the one hand, you have the Rothbardian idea that market is just the sum total of all voluntary human activity. That means hippie communes, charities, revolutionary workers collectives, and so on would count as market institutions. On a narrower conception of markets, the market is constituted by the total of commercial exchanges in a society.

When libertarians express an easy "let the market handle it" attitude, many non-libertarians will reasonably assume that this means "let for-profit commercial exchange handle it." And that might not be a very good or a very attractive idea. For instance, getting utilities out of the hands of government is a good idea, but should they be transferred to big utilities corporations (who are likely very well connected politically) or should they be turned into consumer co-ops? From a libertarian perspective these are both shifts from state to market. Indeed, as radical libertarians (left, right, or center) will be quick to point out, the consumer co-op solution is probably the more free market solution. And yet, the consumer co-op might be considered by some to be more of a "community-based" (read: grassroots and cooperative) rather than "market-based" (read: corporate, greedy, and competitive) solution.
some examples upaya mentions being,
mutual aid societies, neighborhood assemblies, land trusts, co-ops, tenant's unions, independent labor unions, neighborhood watch and cop-watch, alternative media, community gardens, LETS systems, barter networks, mutual banks, open-source information, etc.
Most ironically, during his alternative school phase, Kozol came up with methods of how schools could use the market to fund themselves, reasoning that if they could generate a profit from a successful business, ones that could take advantage of the particular situtation of their local community, they could rely less on tuition for funding and moderate the pressure to profit solely from the school. Hence, they would become more accessible to poor students who would not be able to pay normal tuition costs. One of the schools that used this approach was the Albany Free School, which generated profits by fixing up neglected buildings of the area, and thus contributing to the community as well. The community and self-sufficiency obtained by such local self-reliance won't be taken away from above when the group in political power changes.

I've always had mixed feelings about Kozol; even where many of his points are useful and true, something has always rubbed me the wrong way about his stuff, even where it's closest to alternative education. Some of this is rhetorical: Kozol sometimes crosses the thin line between indignation (usually at well-deserved targets) and self-righteousness and bombast, making a good point with sledgehammer-like unsubtlety. It seems that, despite Kozol calling much-needed attention to lack of equality, my underlying point of disagreement is that Kozol's value system is one that seems to place equality above liberty. Kozol has said that poor districts have neither liberty or equality and so don't have to worry about choosing one, but deciding which one causes the other is important to get out of both. Bertrand Russell's Proposed Roads to Freedom has a nice quote from G.D.H. Cole's Self-Government in Industry, about how it makes a big difference whether lack of wealth is seen as the cause of the lack of freedom or vice versa:
What, I want to ask, is the fundamental evil in our modern Society which we should set out to abolish?

There are two possible answers to that question, and I am sure that very many well-meaning people would make the wrong one. They would answer POVERTY, when they ought to answer SLAVERY. Face to face every day with the shameful contrasts of riches and destitution, high dividends and low wages, and painfully conscious of the futility of trying to adjust the balance by means of charity, private or public, they would answer unhesitatingly that they stand for the ABOLITION OF POVERTY.

Well and good! On that issue every Socialist is with them. But their answer to my question is none the less wrong.

Poverty is the symptom: slavery the disease. The extremes of riches and destitution follow inevitably upon the extremes of license and bondage. The many are not enslaved because they are poor, they are poor because they are enslaved. Yet Socialists have all too often fixed their eyes upon the material misery of the poor without realizing that it rests upon the spiritual degradation of the slave.

As a random semi-related digression, while I was looking around the Barnes & Noble I spotted the book The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl: The Illustrated Screenplay, based on Robert Rodriguez's movie, whose story was written by his 7-year-old son Racer Max Rodriguez (two of Racer's brothers are also actors in the movie). The New York Times review of the movie contained this charming little nugget of ageism:
There's a reason children aren't allowed to vote, drive or make movies with multimillion-dollar budgets. Lively and imaginative as their inner worlds may be, the very young still lack the discipline and maturity to shape them into coherent and compelling stories...
Any adult who makes a bad movie with an incoherent and uncompelling plot should have their driver's licence and right to vote revoked.

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

19th century educational pioneers vs. the 21st century educational status quo

Following up on my announcements of new electronic versions of classic 19th century works on education by Friedrich Froebel and Herbert Spencer are two examples of the difference between their ideas introduced well over a century ago and the educational practice today.

Last Tuesday's health section of the New York Times had an appalling article, "Tough Day for Kindergartners (and Parents)" by Laurie Tarkan, about the unhappiness both children and their parents face when the children begin attending kindergarten; and how this unhappiness is being dealt with only by increasingly elaborate methods of "greasing the wheels" to make a smoother transition into the system. In the blandly matter-of-fact account of such methods, there isn't the ghost of a suggestion that the system itself is the problem, even as it acknowledges that the new environment is less individualized and breaks up the students' previous relationships with their parents and preschool community. For instance, "not wanting to go to school" is listed as one of the experts' "Signs that the transition may not be going smoothly for a child". Erich Fromm, who had the courage to use psychology to critique rather than reinforce the status quo, pointed out with his concept of an "insane society" that when a society's norms run counter to the conditions for human mental health, what is considered to be normal behavior is actually mental illness.

Could there be a greater indication of how modern kindergartens, with their ever-greater "academic demands" in order to "move the needle on achievement", and their function of breaking kids away from their parents and into an artificial environment before clamping down on them with stricter control in later grades, are the polar opposite of the intentions of Friedrich Froebel when he created the kindergarten? He was recognized as one of the first educational theorists to insist that education has to follow the needs of children rather than molding them to educators' preconceived ideas, and that the teacher's responsibility should be to assist the students in developing their own abilities and inclinations to learn. He was the sort of guy who as a teenager apprenticed with a forest ranger in the local Thuringian Forest so that he could be in the middle of nature.

For the real thing read his autobiography.

And in contrast to Spencer's ideas on physical education in which "free plays are vastly better than formal exercises of any sort" (Charles W. Eliot), comes this snippet from the letters section of this month's National Geographic, about a photograph in the May 2005 issue (in the same feature, by the way, which discussed a market socialist hippie commune last month):
I was disturbed by the photo showing children in the FBI's on-site day-care center being "marched" to recess. Can someone explain what educational purpose is served by requiring the children to walk with their hands on their head like they are under arrest?
to which the editors matter-of-factly reply:
Teacher at the Lasting Impressions Child Development Center—a nationally accredited program—employ follow-the-leader type activities to get the children organized and concentrated on going out to recess.... This particular day the teacher asked them to walk outside with their hands on their head.
So even walking out to recess has to be done in a controlled matter!? Words fail me.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

some cool books from Prometheus

Prometheus Books is the largest and most well-known publisher of books about secular humanism in the United States, but it also has a few books that are a bit more offbeat. Here's a list of random interesting-looking books from them, prepared as part of my research for possible topics and guests for Equal Time For Freethought. In fact, a couple of books on the list (the ones by Litman and Davin) are ones I knew about and was interested in long before I noticed they were from Prometheus.
Liberation blasted open the doors of business to women, but failed to answer one unavoidable question--who is left to take care of the children and attend to the minutiae of daily home life while the husband is also at work? The essentials of cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children are not "small stuff" and seem to require a Ph.D. in life lessons to be handled properly.... This is an urgent call for women to negotiate equality in the home and for men to understand that motherhood and "housework" are just as important as breadwinning.
This very personal exploration of the fantasies that populate the underworld of sexual desire will shatter preconceived notions that S&M is based on perversion and pain; Jacqueline argues that the act is founded on consensuality and mutual agreement, a 'bond' lacking in such truly perverse sexual encounters as rape and other forms of sexual abuse.
There are a lot of classic older texts in the catalog, many being well-known and reprinted elsewhere. However, I find the selection of classic feminist books, including many critical of religion's role in perpetuating male dominance, particularly interesting:
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market socialist hippie commune in National Geographic

National Geographic magazine has a regular series where they look at a particular ZIP code area of the United States in each issue. In last month's (August 2005) issue, the feature was on the East Wind commune in Tecumseh, Missouri—a prototypical 1960s hippie commune that's lasted until today. While it's always nice to see the idealistic 1960s alternatives still around (for instance, contemporary alternative schools that began in the "free school" movement during the 1960s and early 1970s), it also happens to be an interesting example of market socialism in practice. While the work and resources within the commune are distributed collectively, the commune's revenue comes from the half-million dollars of annual profit which they obtain from a nut butter business. The article makes there out to be a sharp, ironic contrast between such market profitability and the socialist ideals of the commune—the name "East Wind" comes from a quotation by Mao Zedong—but from a market socialist point of view it can be seen as quite consistent. From that viewpoint, there is no need either to reject all communitarianism as rigidly autocratic and un-capitalist, or to dismiss the possibility of alternative structures that don't resemble a corporation thriving in the marketplace.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Herbert Spencer's essays about education on Project Gutenberg

Following closely Friedrich Froebel's autobiography, another pioneering work in education has been posted to Project Gutenberg, after being prepared by Distributed Proofreaders (see my earlier post on DP), and again I'm credited in the text for my work on it. The book in question is the collection Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects by Herbert Spencer, a leading 19th century scientist whose radical social and political theories influenced the likes of Alexander Berkman, Voltairine de Cleyre, Henry George, Emma Goldman, and Benjamin Tucker.

The group of essays "What Knowledge is of Most Worth?", "Intellectual Education", "Moral Education", and "Physical Education" were originally written in the 1850s and collected in book form in 1861. This edition adds five additional essays, as well as an excellent 1911 introduction by Charles W. Eliot. Known for creating the "Five Foot Shelf" collection of selected books, Eliot summarizes the essays in a concise space and describes the extent to which Spencer's reforms were put into practice in the intervening time.

As the titles of the essays suggest, Spencer applies the idea of freedom in education in very different contexts, as described by Eliot for intellectual education:
Spencer put very forcibly a valuable doctrine for which many earlier writers on the theory of education had failed to get a hearing—the doctrine, namely, that all instruction should be pleasurable and interesting. Fifty years ago almost all teachers believed that it was impossible to make school-work interesting, or life-work either; so that the child must be forced to grind without pleasure, in preparation for life's grind; and the forcing was to be done by experience of the teacher's displeasure and the infliction of pain. Through the slow effects of Spencer's teaching and of the experience of practical teachers who have demonstrated that instruction can be made pleasurable, and that the very hardest work is done by interested pupils because they are interested, it has gradually come to pass that his heresy has become the prevailing judgment among sensible and humane teachers.
physical education:
He taught that although gymnastics, military drill, and formal exercises of the limbs are better than nothing, they can never serve in place of the plays prompted by nature.... free plays are vastly better than formal exercises of any sort.
and most provocatively and originally, "Spencer's doctrine of natural consequences in place of artificial penalties" in moral education:
His proposal that children should be allowed to suffer the natural consequences of their foolish or wrong acts does not seem to the present generation—any more than it did to him—to be applicable to very young children, who need protection from the undue severity of many natural penalties; but the soundness of his general doctrine that it is the true function of parents and teachers to see that children habitually experience the normal consequences of their conduct, without putting artificial consequences in place of them, now commands the assent of most persons whose minds have been freed from the theological dogmas of original sin and total depravity.
This is an illustration of how a naturalistic and utilitarian worldview, in which human behavior is seen in context as part of the cause-and-effect structure of the natural world, and is judged by the harm or benefit it causes, leads to a more non-punitive way of dealing with and preventing harmful behavior.

Eliot puts Spencer's views on education in the context of his generally libertarian ideas, referring to "Spencer's objection to the constant exercise of authority and compulsion in schools, families, and the State". Also, Spencer's ideas for freedom in education were tied with his scientific worldview. According to Eliot, Spencer was one of the first people to assert the value of science both as a subject and as the basis for an experimental, experience-based method of learning superior to rote memorization.
He answered the question "what knowledge is of most worth?" with the one word—science.
Spencer himself shows the connection in "Intellectual Education":
Having a common origin in the national mind, the institutions of each epoch, whatever be their special functions, must have a family likeness. When men received their creed and its interpretations from an infallible authority deigning no explanations, it was natural that the teaching of children should be purely dogmatic. While "believe and ask no questions" was the maxim of the Church, it was fitly the maxim of the school.
Thus, Spencer is one of the many educational reformers and pioneers coming from a perspective of Enlightenment scientific humanism; others include Voltairine de Cleyre, John Dewey, Sebastien Faure, Fransisco Ferrer, William Godwin, Emma Goldman, Joseph Neef, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Bertrand Russell.

Interestingly, Spencer himself was homeschooled, due to health problems preventing him from being able to attend school. Also, Spencer was an early advocate of children's rights: see the chapter "The Rights of Children" in Social Statics (original 1851 edition online); long before A. S. Neill put forth his concept of "freedom" and "license", Spencer stated the idea of personal freedom and autonomy within the bounds of respect for the same freedom for others, regardless of age: "the law—Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man—applies as much to the young as to the mature". In the same book's chapter "National Education", Spencer argued against a compulsory school system. Given the stereotype that associates homeschooling with a fundamentalist and creationist mindset, and the common support of the compulsory public school system as a means to teach evolution, it's particularly ironic that he was also one of the main proponents of evolution, for instance, in the article "The Development Hypothesis", written before the publication of Darwin and Wallace's theory of natural selection (in 1852), he defended evolution against creationism:
Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution [originally "Theory of Lamarck"] as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all. Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief, but assume that their own needs none.
while he himself noted the irony in the 1892 revised edition of the "National Education" chapter:
The majority of those who vehemently object to a State-religion are disabled from seeing that their favourite measure, State-education, is objectionable on similar grounds.
Spencer seems to have been one of the influences on the Stelton Modern School. In Mike Gold's 1921 article "A Little Bit of Millenium", he mentions that one of the children at the school is named Herbert Spencer Goldberg; and in a statement by Alexis Ferm published in the April 1921 issue of that school's magazine The Modern School (online here), he quotes this passage from "Intellectual Education":
As suggesting a final reason for making education a process of self-instruction, and by consequence a process of pleasurable instruction, we may advert to the fact that, in proportion as it is made so, is there a probability that it will not cease when schooldays end. As long as the acquisition of knowledge is rendered habitually repugnant, so long will there be a prevailing tendency to discontinue it when free from the coercion of parents and masters.
It so happens that in this same statement, Ferm also mentions Froebel's ideas of the relationship of a teacher to a student in free education:
Froebel says that the true educator is a passive follower, but at the same time is positive in relation to his or her own life. This is the ideal of our teachers--always being ready to help the child to gain knowledge of his own power and through this knowledge to develop self-reliance....
Another connection between the two books is that, in the bibliography of the Froebel book, an 1879 edition of Bertha Meyer's Aids to Family Government, or From the Cradle to the School, according to Froebel is listed which also includes Spencer's The Rights of Children and The True Principles of Family Government.

For more information on Spencer, there's a good collection of writings by and about him at Roderick T. Long's website.

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Friday, August 12, 2005

r. i. p. UFO skeptic Philip J. Klass

I'm sad to see that today's New York Times has an obitiuary for Philip J. Klass, known among skeptics for his books about UFOs. One of these books, UFOs Explained, was the first skeptical book I read, which together with Martin Gardner's Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus, I found in my high school library. This is one of the factors that then led me to pick up Carl Sagan's books, starting with Broca's Brain (which has a section on pseudoscience) and the then-brand-new The Demon-Haunted World.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

T. H. Huxley essays on Project Gutenberg

A 1902 collection by Thomas Henry Huxley, Lectures and Essays, including essays like "Autobiography", "Lectures on Evolution", "Naturalism and Supernaturalism", "Agnosticism", has just been posted to the website Project Gutenberg, after being prepared through Distributed Proofreaders. There's already a ton of Huxley material on PG, including many essay collections that overlap with this one (such as another one, posted just this past May, which also went through DP, Science and Christian Tradition, which has three essays in common: "The Value of Witness to the Miraculous", "Agnosticism", and "Agnosticism and Christianity"), but one can't have too much of a good thing.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Baby is Three

Two weeks ago, the humanist radio show Equal Time for Freethought (on WBAI in the New York City area), for which I'm on the staff as a researcher, celebrated its third anniversary. Given that tonight's show featured science fiction author David Gerrold, I think a reference to Theodore Sturgeon's famous short story is appropriate.

Given how marginalized the show's philosophy of "secular humanism and scientific naturalism" is in our society and (especially) the mass media, I'm proud it's been on for so long. In fact, when I started listening to tonight's show I suddenly got a gut reaction of surprise to this — hey, humanism is coming from the radio! It may be a relatively small step towards getting the message out (especially in the constraints of a half-hour format) but it's still significant.

Tonight's discussion was interesting, since I'm a longtime science fiction fan (as, of course, is interviewer Barry Seidman). Some of my favorite SF is directly relevant to secular humanism. Fritz Leiber's Gather Darkness! and Robert Heinlein's If This Goes On— are excellent depictions of future theocracies. Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow shows the characters' emotional reaction of both wonder and fear to the re-introduction of science in a post-nuclear war world where the scientific worldview has died out. The interview captured well some of the spirit of science fiction's attitude of taking social change as well as technological change as a given, and its optimism towards such change being progressive as Gerrold noted was the case with one of his novels, even post-disaster SF often maintains an optimistic tone, concentrating on the characters' ability to persevere through reason in adversity. This attitude is well captured in the following quote:
Is it the only kind of literature displayed in county drugstores in which young readers are invited to cast off their ethnocentrism and consider the possibility that there are alternative hypotheses about human nature and society?
—Reuel Denney, "The Astonished Muse", quoted in "The Role of Science Fiction" by Ben Bova, in Science Fiction: Today and Tomorrow, ed. Reginald Bretnor, 1974

Another example that comes to mind is Carl Sagan's observation in Pale Blue Dot that it would be expected that people living their whole life in, say, a space colony on an asteroid to have mores very different from any of those existing on Earth. I've been influenced by Eric Frank Russell's charming inventions of future alternative societies, with their anarchistic distrust of social hierarchy and their ability to repel invaders nonviolently. However, I'm not sure that I agree with Gerrold's statement that SF is ten years ahead in dealing with social issues before they're widely discussed by the general public. Only ten years? ;)

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Froebel's autobiography on Project Gutenberg

An eBook of the autobiography of Friedrich Froebel, the education pioneer best known as the inventor of kindergarten, has just been posted on Project Gutenberg. This was prepared via Distributed Proofreaders and I had a role in producing this as the "Post-Processor" (completing a finished copy of the book after it's been proofread); I'm credited in the text. (I've previously posted about my involvement with DP, where I explained the process a bit more).

Since Froebel didn't write a formal autobiography, it's a compilation of two long autobiographical letters, heavily annotated by the translators (with 142 footnotes for a work of about 150 pages!) and also contains a Froebelian chronology and bibliography, so it has quite a bit of historical material.

Quotes about Froebel's educational philosophy from the book:
While others have taken to the work of education their own pre-conceived notions of what that work should be, Froebel stands consistently alone in seeking in the nature of the child the laws of educational action—in ascertaining from the child himself how we are to educate him. —Joseph Payne
and
As the cultivator creates nothing in the trees and plants, so the educator creates nothing in the children,—he merely superintends the development of inborn faculties. So far Froebel agrees with Pestalozzi; but in one respect he was beyond him, and has thus become, according to Michelet, the greatest of educational reformers. Pestalozzi said that the faculties were developed by exercise. Froebel added that the function of education was to develop the faculties by arousing voluntary activity. Action proceeding from inner impulse was the one thing needful... —R. H. Quick (from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article on Froebel)
As an indication of his stress on spontaneity, "Nature, Love of" is listed 14 times in the index!

Paul Avrich's history of The Modern School Movement discusses Froebel's great influence on Elizabeth Ferm of the Stelton Modern School. He's also one of the six historical figures in Dana Bennis's "Why Have Freedom in Education?" dialogue in the latest issue of AERO's magazine Education Revolution.

Other free ebooks about alternative education on the Net that I know of:

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

My first anniversary at Distributed Proofreaders

Today is exactly one year since I've joined Distributed Proofreaders. It's a project for producing electronic texts of public domain books (from classic to obscure) for the website Project Gutenberg (which is one of the largest such websites, and has existed in some form since the 1970s). The work of producing a text is split up so that many people can work on it at the same time. Most of the work of producing an accurate text is the work of correcting and formatting text that has been extracted by software (known as OCR) from a scan of a book's page; in DP, proofreaders log on to the site and, via specialized software, compare the digital text and image side-by-side. One page is proofread at a time by any one person.

It's a lot of fun. It provides a way to indulge two of my favorite things, old books and computers, at the same time. There's a combination of flexibility and seriousness in the structure. The activity level is high as books move through the site and eventually end up on PG. Also, it demystifies the process of producing electronic texts, which is easier than one might think.

Some of the authors I've proofread during this time: Jane Addams, Edmund Burke, Augustus de Morgan, Mary Mapes Dodge (as editor), Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Froebel, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Henry Huxley, Maurus Jokai ("the Shakespeare of Hungary"), John Maynard Keynes, H. P. Lovecraft, Thomas Paine, George Santayana, Herbert Spencer, Alfred Russel Wallace.

I proofread just over 1,300 pages during this time. Also, I'm credited in the following texts:
  1. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (aka Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality) by Sigmund Freud
  2. Democracy and Social Ethics by Jane Addams
  3. Dream Psychology by Sigmund Freud
One thing I haven't done yet is submit books to DP.

Friday, July 01, 2005

OK, I've started a blog.

Well, after thinking about making a blog for a long while, I finally just decided to quit procrastinating and just start one, and see where it ends up. The first day of the first month of the second half of the year is a nice round time to start afresh.

I've just got back from the Alternative Education Resource Organization's 2005 conference, "A Spectrum of Alternatives", held last weekend, and one of the first things I'm going to do is to write about it. (Also, I was talking to a person at the conference who was posting entries to his own blog about the conference, and I was thinking, "hey, it looks easy, why not!") I've also been to two of their previous conferences in the same location, the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) 2003, and 2004's AERO 15th anniversary conference; it was nice seeing people again from those conferences, as well as seeing new folks too, such as seeing Alfie Kohn in person for the first time.