Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Do we really love the geeks?

Lately, there's been a lot of talk about "geek is chic."  Comic book movies are coming out at least once a year, shows like Dr. Who and the Big Bang Theory have sizeable followings, and computers are as much a part of life as televisions once were.  Geek culture appears to be in.
But what of the geeks themselves?
Being a geek has never been about specific fandoms or about black-rimmed glasses.  Star Wars may have been a geek obsession as a sci-fi movie, but it was also the highest-grossing film for its time.  I doubt it was because a handful of kids in glasses and calculator watches saw it over and over again.  True geekery is about single-minded drive.  It's about latching onto something and pursuing for its own sake.  And that drive is something that our culture doesn't always appreciate.
As an example, let's look at a subject that is poorly understood and somewhat maligned--mathematics.  Since I started studying mathematics, I've noticed that the response I get from non-math people when I bring up what I'm studying is similar to the response I would get from introducing a two-headed garden snake--revulsion mingled with awe that I would even go near such a thing.  Sad, really.  Hidden Figures may have been nominated for Best Picture, but I doubt that enrollment in math departments and calculus classes will go up as a result.  (The class I took with the highest attrition rate was Calculus 2).  Similarly, with computer programming.  Last semester, I took an intro course in computer programming.  Out of a class of 30, maybe half turned up for the final.  Most people dropped out because it was "too hard."
Our culture loves the end result of geekery more than the geeks themselves.  We love programmers for giving us apps and games for our phones.  Does that mean that we would want to talk to an actual programmer about languages and debugging techniques?  Sheldon Cooper is abrasive and obnoxious.  He's also a Caltech engineer who makes a buttload of money.  How many of my readers laugh at his antics?  How many of us want a real Sheldon Cooper in our lives?  We love us some Game of Thrones, but we also call George R. R. Martin a "fat fuck" when he can't get the next volume out fast enough to satisfy our curiosity.  (And let's be honest here.  How many Game of Thrones fans actually heard of A Song of Ice and Fire before the show came out?)
What we love about "geek culture" is when something is so well done that it goes mainstream.  Because with it comes status and money--the two things geeks don't really care about when choosing an interest.  Sure, we may want our manga to sell.  Internet videographers would love to be the next Nostalgia Critic.  But only so that we can support ourselves doing what we love.  Anyone who pursues a field solely to "get rich" with find the work a disappointing slog.  And those who have been successful only were because their passion made the product special enough to be appreciated.  And that passion may create some of the greatest works and theories in history, but it doesn't make for scintillating coffee klatch conversation.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Jesus Camp and the 2016 election

In 2006, a documentary called Jesus Camp was released.  It followed three children who spent their summer at an Evangelical camp, and was largely a commentary on Evangelical Christian culture.
Now, I don't have a problem with the camp's existence.  My own children attend Jewish day camps every year.  Every summer, they pack up their modest bathing suits and their siddurim for a summer of fun with other Jewish kids in a Jewish environment.  So, if Christian parents wish to have their children in a religious environment, fine by me.
The documentary followed three of the camp attendees.  Levi was homeschooled using Christian curriculum materials that completely misrepresent science.  Rachael read Chick tracts and tried to convert strangers in a bowling alley.  Tory was in a Christian dance troupe where the costumes were military-knockoff camo gear.  But that wasn't my problem.
My problem is with the culture of the camp itself.
The documentary included scenes of the children praying over a life-size cardboard statue of then president George W. Bush.  The camp's culture encouraged patriotism and fealty to the Republican Party and its ideals.  At one point, the camp brought in an anti-abortion speaker who talked about the "millions of babies being killed" in a way that made the children cry.  He also taped the kids' mouths with red tape that said "LIFE" and handed out miniscule rubber baby dolls that represented embryos.  There was also a scene in which the campers are picketing the Supreme Court regarding an abortion case.  Camp director Becky Fischer was quoted as saying that she took her cues from Islamic extremists, who brainwash their followers into suicide bombings.  Although Fischer is not advocating direct acts of violence, she is pushing the children into specific political thought.  Christianity is now about conforming to an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, pro-Republican agenda.
Here's the other problem.  This documentary was released in 2006.  It is now 2017.  Every single one of the kids in that documentary is now old enough to vote, and more than likely did so in the last election.  Their main concerns would not have been equal rights, or preserving health insurance for the working poor, or increasing employment opportunities.  Their concerns would have been reversing the Obergefell decision, giving protected status to Christian companies a la the Hobby Lobby case, reversing Roe v. Wade, and the spread of Christianity at the expense of non-Christians.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Meanwhile, back in Congress...

As I said in my last post, it's been a busy month for the President.  On this day, February 20, he has already been in office for one month and has managed to still maintain the country's attention.  (It's not always the good kind of attention, but it is attention.  #WeAreAllSweden.  #RememberBowlingGreen.)
But today, I want to talk about that other branch of government, one that's a lot less popular.  Give it up for the US Congress!  535 members, split between the 100-member Senate and the 435-member House of Representatives.  The Senate is headed by VP Mike Pence (who only votes if there's a tie), and the House is headed by number 3 in line for the White House, Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican from Wisconsin's District 1.  Former VP candidate.  Guy who is partially responsible for Romney's bid for presidency tanking.  Infamous for wanting to dismantle Medicare.  And according to Queen Mom, with the country treating the president like a chimp on a unicycle, he has his chance.  I disagree.
See, the current administration is not the Congress of Queen Mom's time.  So much has changed since my mother first cast a ballot.  No more must we wait for our news at 6 and 11.  The rise of cable television meant not only the public access channel would live-stream Congress, but the Cable News Network (CNN) would provide 24 hour news coverage focusing on the entire world.  (Yes, I know cable has been around since the 1940s, but few people really had it until the 1980s.)  And CNN is not the only player in this game.  Fox News and MSNBC have also joined in along with Internet reporting in real time.  The only question is separating the truth from the not truth.  CNN is still considered fairly reliable.  And, having been derided as "fake news," they are no fans of the current administration.  This includes the 535 members of Congress.
Congress is now being scrutinized from all angles.  Unlike TV news, Internet news has the response button.  Stories can be liked, commented on and shared within a matter of minutes straight to our phones.  And now, the people can react within minutes, instead of saving up their frustrations for the ballot box.
"We're going to dismantle the independent ethics commission!"
"Like HELL you are!"
"Never mind!"
The Affordable Care Act, supposedly the first thing to go under the new administration, is still largely intact.  No longer was the discussion about high rates and faulty exchange websites, but about twenty million Americans--voters and the children of voters--losing their healthcare.  And this is a law enacted in 2010.  Imagine the outcry if longstanding programs like Medicare and Social Security wind up on the chopping block.  No one will do it because they will be out of office in the next election cycle.  And unlike the President, who has four years to convince the country that he should be re-elected, the House has only two year terms.  Paul Ryan has to think about how well dismantling Medicare will go over. 
I don't imagine it will go over well.
Unlike the AFDC, which was all but dismantled in the 1990s (TANF, the law that followed, provides fewer protections and more limitations), Medicare and Social Security are not "poor people's programs."  (which, to many, mean "black people's programs.)  They are "everybody's programs."  They are programs which middle-class, middle Americans rely upon for their retirement and healthcare for aging parents.  Telling the under-55 crowd that they will not have the same assistance that their parents (or even in some cases, older siblings) have, will not go over well in Wisconsin's District 1.  And, given how many members of Congress have come home to torches, pitchforks, tar and feathers already, I don't think anyone else will suggest it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

It's only been three weeks...

Next Monday is President's Day, and appropriately enough, it will also be the one-month mark on this presidency.  So, how are we doing so far?
  • Inauguration Day protests led to the arrests and detention of six journalists.
  • Comparisons of the size of the crowd between the Obama and Trump inaugurations led to the coining of the term "alternative facts."
  • Trump has falsely claimed that between three and five million illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton.
  • Trump has labeled CNN "fake news."  (CNN has found so many "alternative facts" during press secretary Sean Spicer's press briefings that it has refused to air them until they could be fact-checked.)
  • Steve Bannon of alt-right propaganda site Breitbart has been added to the National Security Council--supposedly without Trump's understanding of what he was doing.
  • Trump's business interests are being held by his children, including his overseas holdings, in violation of the emoluments clause.
  • Trump has taken two weekends off to play golf (and it hasn't even been a month.)
  • Trump's executive order banning entry of anyone who has citizenship in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Somalia was successfully challenged in court within 48 hours of being signed, and overturned in federal court not long afterwards.
  • ICE raids in urban areas have led to the detention and deportation of numerous immigrants.
  • A botched raid in Yemen led to the death of a Navy SEAL, the loss of an Osprey Plane, and the deaths of 25 civilians, including nine children.  Moreover, the Al-Qaida target remains at large.
  • National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has been forced to resign under suspicion that he has been involved in unlawful communications with Russia.
  • Tornadoes throughout the Southeast have not been responded to in a timely fashion by FEMA.  Meanwhile, a dam breach in California is being completely ignored.  (Makes me long for the days of "Brownie".  He did a heckuva job...)
A presidency riddled with scandals, questions, and poor judgement.  And it's only been three weeks.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What did I sign up for--Abuse and divorce

So, it looks like I'm taking a little break from everything wrong with American politics to discuss--everything wrong with Israeli politics.  Specifically, this cute little story out of Jerusalem.
A woman sues for divorce on the grounds of domestic violence.  Naturally, the Beit Din cannot force the man to give a get, but they have the power to sanction in case of refusal.  In this case, they did not use that power because--the husband only assaulted his wife after she left him.
Wow.  Just--wow. 
"When a man takes a wife and is intimate with her, and it happens that she does not find favor in his eyes because he discovers in her an unseemly [moral] matter, and he writes for her a bill of divorce and places it into her hand, and sends her away from his house," (Devarim 24:1).
"She does not find favor in his eyes" are the grounds for a get, according to Torah text.  I'd say assaulting her was evidence that he found her "unfavorable."
The rabbis argue that if she hadn't left, he would never have assaulted her.  However, I would argue that, based on everything I've read about DV, physical assault was the escalation of a situation that has gone very, very bad.  Usually, the wife leaving is a catalyst for escalation of abuse, and this can range from physical assault to murder.  (I actually know someone this happened to.  The wife was a victim of emotional abuse for years.  She left her husband, and he physically assaulted her.)  Moreover, the rabbis' statement sounds a lot like victim-blaming.
To me, there should be no discussion.  The man assaulted his wife.  We have it on the record.  This is grounds not only for divorce, but a restraining order.  The Torah is about compassion.  Where is the compassion for the abuse survivor?  Why do we have none for this poor woman?

Friday, February 10, 2017

Betsy DeVos's Department of Non-Education?

So, a few days ago, the controversial Betsy DeVos was confirmed for Secretary of Education.  A Secretary of Education who has never set foot in a public school as an educator, student, or even parent of a student, who supports religious charter education (read: Christian).   Her positions on education, not to mention her lack of experience, were so controversial that two Republicans "crossed party lines" and voted against her.  The deciding vote was cast by our VP.
In my time on this planet, I attended eight brick and mortar schools (six public, two private), homeschooled myself, briefly homeschooled my children, and enrolled them in yeshiva under court order.  I've seen a lot of schools.  Ignoring some of the obvious problems (like DeVos's comments about guns in school being needed in case of bear attacks), here is why I find her appointment "problematic".

Private schools, public funds:  DeVos is a strong proponent of "school choice," which sounds lovely but isn't.  In practice, this means that parents can send their children to any school that has space, opt for publicly-funded charter schools, or take their cut of per-pupil funding and use it for private schooling.  Again, all this sounds nice in theory.  In practice?  Well...
One of the last schools I attended was an all-girls boarding school in New England.  During the summer before I attended, the main classroom building underwent a complete renovation.  Well, almost complete.  There were no built-in accommodations for anyone with a physical disability.  No elevators.  No automatic door openers.  No ramps.  Not even Braille on the classroom doors.  And this was in 1996.  The Americans with Disabilities act passed in 1990.  The message was clear--disabled students were not welcome.  (This "enlightened" attitude extended to mental illness.  Several students going through mental health crises were quietly "counseled out.").
While it sounds great that parents can have access to any school for their children, in practice, parents are constrained by location, availability of transportation, knowledge of options and the time to follow through with applying to them, finances, and their children's academic performance and behavior.  (Not too many parents in western Pennsylvania, for example, will "choose" to send their children to the Bronx High School for Science).
Public school, by definition, must take everyone who lives in their district.  Private schools can cherry-pick based on student ability, family finances, lack of behavioral or emotional problems, parental involvement, etc.  At least one yeshiva, for example, turned us away because I had taken out an order of protection, and I'm sure more than one turned us away because I came in as a single mother.  So all that lovely school choice comes down to the schools doing the choosing.  And this is in urban areas, where there are actually many schools.  What happens in a rural area where the only remaining public schools convert to Christian-run charters?  What about Jewish children?  Or children whose parents are openly gay?  What sort of "choices" will be available to them?

IDEA--Federal Protection Left to the States:  During the confirmation hearings, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), asked Ms. DeVos about the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  Ms. DeVos stated that this was best left to the states.  I will repeat this.  A federal law to protect children with disabilities is best left to the states.
IDEA is already problematic because it is an "unfunded mandate."  Schools have to comply, but are not given the funds to do so.  Moreover, students with disabilities are routinely stigmatized against, the idea being that they take time and attention away from "the kids who can learn."  This leads, in part, to educational triage.  Only students with the severest and most glaringly obvious disabilities receive assistance at all, while those with milder issues are left to flounder in classrooms without assistance.  Moreover, attempts to "mainstream" often mean that students with disabilities are placed in regular classrooms with teachers that have no training in special education and a hostility to the disabled students.  These children are then pegged as "unable to learn," "unmotivated," "lazy," or "behavior problems."
What will happen if this law is left to the states?  Will some states choose to ignore it altogether?  Will children with disabilities be excluded from the classroom altogether, at a point in history when they are only beginning to progress?  Will they be shunted into "special education classrooms" that are little more than warehousing?  Will geography determine access?

Curriculum Questions: I live in NY State, which has some of the strictest regulations for homeschooling in the USA.  And I agree with many of them.  Children have a right to be educated, and I believe that, at a minimum, the parents should be accountable for ensuring their children stay as close to grade level as possible.  Imagine my shock, then, when dealing with the yeshiva system.  My older daughter's social studies textbook in the second grade listed Ronald Reagan as "the current president" (this was in the 2014-2015 school year, so a bit outdated?).  Their yeshiva teaches next to nothing in the way of history or science.  (They get a science teacher every two weeks for an hour.  That's 90 hours, or only 1/12 of the school year). 
The lack of national curriculum prior to No Child Left Behind is not well-known.  School boards have enormous power to decide curriculum.  For example, in Massachusetts, I learned that Jamestown was the first European settlement in what is now the United States (it was actually St. Augustine), and in Nebraska, it was implied that FDR was evil incarnate.  Once curriculum choices are left entirely to the schools, what will happen?  Will schools decide not to teach algebra anymore?  Will evolution be taught as scientific theory, or as mythology? 

Looking Past K-12:  When we think of "education," we often think of our neighborhood public schools.  But public education includes publicly funded Early Intervention programs, Head Start, and public colleges and universities.  Since Early Intervention is a program to assist infants and toddlers with developmental delays "catch-up" to their peers, the questions about that fall under my discussion of IDEA.  But what about Head Start, UPK, and college?  What happens to their funding?
Not every parent gets the luxury of staying home with their children during the pre-kindergarten years.  I did, and it was a wonderful experience.  But there are many parents who are working two and three jobs just to keep a roof over their families' heads.  They can't read their children picture books, teach them the ABCs, or take them to parks and museums on a daily basis.  For more affluent families, private preschools have been around for years.  In 1965, Head Start was created as a means to provide some "catch-up" to the children of impoverished families who couldn't afford private preschools.  The program was expanded in 1981, and today serves over 1 million impoverished children, who might receive no pre-school preparation otherwise.  In an age of academic-based kindergarten, this preparation is crucial for success.
And then there is college.  Funding for public colleges and universities has been drying up for years.  The result is rising tuitions and a dearth of full-time professor positions, as retiring professors are replaced by poorly-paid adjuncts.  Adjuncts hold the same degrees as professors, but are hired on a class-by-class basis with no benefits or job security.  Many have to teach seven classes at three or four colleges just to survive.  The real losers here are the students, who don't get any real attention from their overworked instructors.  (It doesn't help that they have to juggle academic courseloads with one or more jobs.)  As professor positions dry up, enrollment will decline at the graduate level.  (This is already happening in law schools, as high tuitions are a dearth of jobs are leading people away from the legal profession).  Moreover, as tuitions rise with limited return, how many students will even go to college anymore?  What will happen to public funding for Head Start, college, and Early Intervention?  And how will that affect education as a whole?

Friday, February 3, 2017

Religion, politics, and math

Recently, I saw an article about Google, Apple, Facebook, and other tech companies protesting Trump's executive order regarding immigration.  These companies are upset because so much of their workforce comes from the Middle East and South Asia.  Queen Mom remarked that she agreed with the idea that tech companies should hire Americans, and stop importing their talent.  My response?  "You couldn't find enough people in this country who could do the work."
Since the proliferation of personal computers and the Internet in the 1980s and 1990s, tech jobs have held a certain panache in the public's mind, and the increased emphasis on the need for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has become a major educational issue.  However, we as a society will never accomplish this in any meaningful way for one reason--it is socially acceptable to hate math.
I am currently studying for a second bachelor's degree in actuarial mathematics, and I run across this a lot.  Here's how the conversation usually goes:
"What are you studying?"
"Actuarial mathematics."
"What do you do with that?"
"Assess and manage risk for financial institutions, banks, insurance companies, etc."
"Sounds fascinating.  I could never do that, though.  I hate math."
End conversation.
Being a math major is a lonely life.  You can't discuss your coursework with anyone, because they get bored with it.  If I accomplish something, like properly negate a statement, or remember a Taylor expansion, I can't tell anyone because they'll laugh at me.  But if my artist friends paint a piece, or get cast in a role, or write a story, they can show it off without risking public derision.  I've started joking that the three taboo subjects for mixed conversation are religion, politics, and mathematics.  Religion and politics, are of course, invitations for controversy.  Math is not controversial.  It's just all but universally hated.  Even educated people with advanced degrees feel this way.  Donald Trump has a higher approval rating than math does.  Most people I've run across outside of my math classes would rather spend a day with their most hated political figure than take a calculus class. 
The sad irony is that math isn't even that hard.  I consider myself a mediocre mathematician at best, and yet I still grapple with differential equations and proofs as part of my coursework.  Math is more about perseverance than raw talent.  But so many people shrug it off as boring and useless.