You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2010.

A filmic tour of the Grand Canyon from the 1920s (via).

Searching for the Grand Canyon Suite led me here. (Previously on this blog.)

XKCD scores with another historical item.

The mouseover text, which you’ll have to visit the site to read, is especially good; previously on this blog.

Total coalition fatalities for each season since 2001.

Plagiarism is understood to be a cardinal sin at the professional level. But, via the email, we get this piece asking whether there are ambiguities at the undergraduate level.


Fatalities are the total fatalities in each month from 2001-2010, so “January” is the sum of January, 2002 plus January, 2003, etc.

Monthly Fatalities

(Coalition, not just American, and both combat and non-combat)

At least, in terms of measuring how much students learn:

That conclusion invites another: students are, in essence, rewarding professors who award higher grades by giving them high ratings, and punishing professors who attempt to teach material in more depth by rating them poorly.

The article, from the Washington Post notes the most widespread alternative to evaluations, standardized tests:

In K-12 education, you have standardized tests, and those scores have never been more widely used in evaluating the value added by a teacher.

Because nothing ever goes wrong with those:

The district said the educators had distributed a detailed study guide after stealing a look at the state science test by “tubing” it — squeezing a test booklet, without breaking its paper seal, to form an open tube so that questions inside could be seen and used in the guide. The district invalidated students’ scores.

With Nebraska moving from the Big Twelve (which lost Colorado last week) to the Big Ten (which already has eleven schools*) we’ll briefly have a great situation where the Big 10 has 12 members and the Big 12 has 10 members. (Sadly this probably won’t last as a number of Big 12 schools are contemplating a move to the Pac 10.)

*Hence their cute logo.

Yglesias links this appreciation of the great “Starship Troopers.” One of my all-time favorites, not least because of Casper van Dien’s teeth.

[E]ven though it was produced in 1997—and based on a Robert Heinlein novel from 1959—Starship Troopers is such a clean, strong, almost direct post-9/11 allegory that Verhoeven and Neumeier had to have seen what was coming.

It’s remarkable how the satire, which seemed over-the-top at the time, now looks like it didn’t go far enough.

It’s 1915, and Josephus Daniels wants you to want a bigger Navy, by exposing you to “the complex life that throbs through our dreadnoughts.”

Here’s a short clip including a submarine going down.

You can take in the whole thing, or at least 11′24″ of it, at the National Film Preservation Foundation.

what LB said, about this terribly daring article that seems to suggest that the importance of identifying and eliminating bias affecting women in the sciences cannot be determined unless science has established that men and women have the same innate* mathematical abilities.  To this I’d add the following:

1) This argument apparently only works for math. If we’re talking at the level of the facts people normally pull out here, there’s some research that suggests that at the tip of the tail, the brightest men are better at math than the brightest women, and the usual argument proceeds from here to conclude that this explains why men are more likely to be PhD’s in math, etc.  But similar research shows that the best female communicators are better than their male counterparts, and that women are natural consensus builders and yet no one suggests that top literature and political science departments are and should be female-dominated, because here we can easily see that innate tendencies can be overrun by other factors.

In fact, when girls get into gifted programs in greater numbers than boys, there are articles in the NYT about ways we have to ensure that the boys are tested properly, worrying about the biases and expectations of the teachers and testers.  This is a smart thing to consider.  Would that we took the same attitude towards preteen girls who struggle with math instead of writing them off because the top men might be better than the top women!

2. You (probably) cannot see the tip of the tail from where you are. The hidden assumption of these kinds of arguments is that the granting of, say, academic positions in the sciences at Harvard neatly tracks mathematical ability, and that the academic positions in question always go to the candidate who is best at math.  (It would make hiring easier…) I think it’s questionable whether the marginal utility of mathematical talent is sufficient at the top end across all scientific disciplines to explain any kind of hiring disparity.  Being a 1.23% better mathematician might be outweighed easily by a more creative head for experimental design, or a stronger work ethic, or a charming personality that encourages others to collaborate, or having an advisor run into someone at a conference and drop your name, or having a generous grant, or what have you.

Moreover, the purported difference in mathematical ability is not sufficient to explain day-to-day disparities in the professions.  Not everyone who is a working scientist or engineer or statistician or social scientist is in the top 1% of mathematical abilities.  Not even close.   Sometimes they let you be an engineer with only 650 on the Math SAT!  The relevance of the long tail for most very smart people: not so much.

2b.  Side note to philosophers: we’re not actually mathematicians. This needs to be said.

3. An uncomfortable alternative explanation suggests itself. Let me set aside the sciences for the moment.  Philosophy is about 25% female, and whenever this topic comes up, some  philosophers fall all over themselves explaining why more women don’t major in philosophy, why more don’t go to grad school, why women drop out along the tenure stream in ways that ensure it’s not their fault:  there are differences between men and women regarding mathematical ability, women just can’t handle or don’t like rigorous arguments, perhaps it’s time to consider that women just don’t like philosophy, or that they’re not as good as it as men, so of course the top jobs….

For some reason, the negative effects of the attitudes of senior philosophers towards the likely character traits of their female students on retention rates of said female students rarely comes up.

Not that I think that’s a complete explanation, or even one meant as more than a zinger; whatever leads to fewer female scientists and philosophers and engineers includes many factors, and the sensible thing to do would be to get up out of the armchair and… identify and eliminate such factors, if possible, as the House bill proposes.   We shouldn’t need to prove that men and women have identical mathematical abilities to discuss how to remove systematic barriers to entry.

*I have a problem using “innate” ever since I overhead this conversation at an x-phi conference:

“We psychologists try not to say “nature vs. nurture.”  “Why?” “Because it’s always wrong and it makes you look like a dumbass.”

I had no idea Alan Greenspan was Indian.

A fun poll asks us what 20th century philosopher will be read in 100 years.  What I find interesting about the list is that it depends on what you mean by read, and by whom?   Are the works to be read as coursework?  for pleasure?  for shaping politics?  Who is the audience?  Professional philosophers?  Trends die quickly,  and the birth of analytic philosophy may be regarded as no more than a passing fancy suitable only for 22nd century historians of philosophy.  (“A New Interpretation of Two Dogmas of Empiricism”; “Hesperus, Phosphorus, and American Cosmology post-1969″; ‘The Trolley, Ethics, and Ancient Rail Safety Protocols”; I will be here all night if I get started)  The general educated public?  Most of the authors on that list aren’t read now by non-specialists.

So much in the past depended on the survival of your manuscripts.  It’s also interesting to consider the differences in what of a philosopher’s work was thought to be interesting when they lived, and what resonates now.  Leibniz’s contemporaries couldn’t pore over his letters to figure out what was UP with the monads; basic courses including Descartes read the Meditations, not the Passions or Optics or Meterologie; and many philosophers published their now-canonical works posthumously.

It would be interesting to see what a list like this would have looked like in, say, 17th century France, or 1st BCE Greece, or 19th or very early 20th century America.

Our present-day philosophers will see more of their works survive, and philosophy is now professionalized more than it has been in the past, although that might mean just that the canon ossifies more quickly, rather than lending longevity to the works of the canonized.

Were I to recommend a course for being read in 100 years, I’d recommend writing on as many topics as possible, so desperate gleaners of the past can find something sexy in your work, and writing engagingly for non-specialists but with sufficient subtlety that the profession bothers to keep your works taught, and that they need to be taught in order to be understood.  You should probably try to be scandalous; atheism was popular for a while but that won’t get you as many clutched pearls today.  Finally, your work should be imperfect but in a tantalizing way.  You can have a principle that doesn’t quite work; you can equivocate on a key term so future scholars have something to do; you can write e-mails that clarify your thoughts.

Of course, if you try this, you probably won’t get hired or get tenure.  Fortunately, that also fits a well-patina’d tradition.

Speaking of US-Central American relations as we were, one of our far-flung correspondents sends us the below, from Guatemala. I mean, who needs to be on Mount Rushmore when you can pitch buffalo wings with a side of sexism.

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In response to some of your inquiries, let me say here a little of what I say in the foreword to the new book, in the hope this will clear up some confusion. As you’ll read quite clearly there, I do not believe the “Buchanan File,” as the publisher is calling it, could possibly be legitimate. Indeed I am completely sure it is a fiction. So all the effort I have put in to providing a reasonably clear historical context for the book’s narrative should in no way be seen as an effort to authenticate that narrative, but rather, simply, to make the reader aware that the author of this obviously untrue narrative has nevertheless for some reason woven into it real, and significant, historical episodes.
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… is a line I like from page 69 of this new book, a package of which just arrived on my doorstep. Pretty soon, gentle readers, you will be able to buy one of your own.
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I enjoyed these.
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