Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Dawn Patrol

Last Thursday morning, on my way past the Russian cathedral, I thought I heard singing. This surprised me, for it not yet 7:10. I paused to be sure I heard the choir, then checked the bulletin board beside the parish hall. It was "Procession of the Holy Wood of the Life-Giving Cross of the Lord. Holy Maccabean Martyrs." The liturgy had begun at 6:40. This Tuesday morning, the choir was back for The Feast of the the Transfiguration, and next week they will turn out early for "Dormition of the Most-Holy Theotokos", what Latins call the Feast of the Assumption.

I am impressed at their devotion. It is not difficult to find a 7 am Roman Catholic Mass, and I think that St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom even has a 6:30 Mass on weekdays. But if you want a Catholic choir before 10 o'clock, you might have to find a convent or monastery.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Scientific Terms

At the beginning of the week, I noticed a headline in The Washington Post:
After 40 Years, Nixon's Vitriol Still Resonates
This is pretty standard headline writing, but it distracts those who remember that vitriol means "sulfuric acid". We imagine waves dashing back and forth in a beaker.

Later in the week, I found, in a most interesting and learned book, that
At the epicentre of the deepening opposition to the crown was the Serbian army.
I think not. The epicenter is the point on the surface above an earthquake. The author does not suggest that Serbian society shook, and the army fell on the king. Rather, officers of the army were leading conspirators. I think that the author has fallen into the bad habit of taking "epi" for an intensive.

And steadily we have"implode". Marriages implode, families implode, states implode. I believe that most of the entities said to have imploded simply failed. They might be said to have collapsed, from weakness in their structures, but generally they did not fail through sudden overwhelming pressure from without. Still, "implode" acquired a prestige at Los Alamos that it hasn't lost yet.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Reading John Dewey

A few weeks ago, I happened on a slim book called Dewey on Education, edited by Martin S. Dworkin. Never having read any of John Dewey's work, I thought it worth reading. Having now read it, I'll say it is. Dewey served for me as a name for a school of pedagogy spoken badly of by many of the teachers and writers I respected: Santayana, Jarrell, and Flannery O'Connor come to mind. Jacques Barzun in his mentions of Dewey distinguished the man and his writings from the work of those who thought of themselves as Dewey's followers. It was in part Barzun's remarks that made me curious to read Dewey.

Dewey raises a question that may never have occurred to some who speak poorly of him: Shall these bones live? Less poetically, how shall we take the dead matter on the textbook page and make it into live learning? The question only intermittently occurred to me for a good deal of my life, and I think that many persons, particularly many of the well educated, haven't bothered to ask it much. I arrived in elementary school from a household that had books and parents that read them. My parents were comfortable with numbers. When I encountered history and geography in the classroom, I knew something of them. It really didn't matter that much for me, and for the students from similar families, that there were fifty or more students in the first-grade classroom. It did not occur to me, and probably didn't occur to my friends, to wonder what impression the school made on children from different backgrounds.

Dewey did not anticipate the excesses of those who thought of themselves as his followers. He writes in "The Child and the Curriculum"
Just as, upon the whole, it was the weakness of the "old education" that it made invidious comparisons between the immaturity of the child and the maturity of the adult, regarding the former as something to be got away from as soon as possible and much as possible; so it is the danger of the "new education" that it regard the child's present powers and interests as something finally significant in themselves.... It will do harm if child-study leave an impression in the popular mind that a child of a given age has a positive equipment of purposes and interests to be cultivated, just as they stand.
Yet Dewey's influence was not on the whole positive, I think. He became regarded as the leader, respected, maybe read, probably not quite understood, for the progressive schools movement. He inspired with enthusiasm those who did not correctly understand him. He did not overlook this efffect. After years avoiding association with it, he eventually accepted an honorary presidency from the Progressive Education Association, which he then addressed with a lukewarm speech.

Partly the problem arose from Dewey's writing. Dworkin writes that
Dewey wrote badly. His style was often opaque, his terminology ambiguous.... in a way, Dewey may be said to deserve whatever confusions came to be associated with his name. It may be no compliment to professional educators that they so easily understood Dewey while professional philosophers shook their heads.
Diane Ravitch writes of Dewey's prose as "dense and difficult", which is charitable, for the density is not that of semantic content: Dewey multiplies expressions without making his point clearer. He is apt to reach for a phrase that sounds good, as
Just as two points define a line, so the present situation of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction.
which recalls Euclid only to confuse: several pages later is a more sensible passage distinguishing the logical and psychological approaches:
We may compare the difference between the logical and the psychological approaches to the difference between the notes which an explorer makes in a new country, blazing a trail and finding his way along as best he may, and the finished map that is constructed after the country has been thoroughly explored.
And there are judgments that are just odd, as in this sentence from "School and Society":
Literature would contribute its part in its idealized representation of the world-industries, as the Penelope of the Odyssey--a classic in literature only because the character is the embodiment of a certain industrial phase of social life.
Dewey's description of the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, a large portion of the book, may be mostly accurate, but I think misleads.  First, to the extent that teachers and students thought of it as experimental, it would have suffered from the Hawthorne Effect. Second, to the extent that the students were recruited from faculty families and from others interested in the experiment, the school had a considerable advantage: all that weaving, cooking, and drawing would not distract them from learning what they would have learned elsewhere.

There is a sentence in Santayana's The Last Puritan that I remember as "Learning, traced to its sources, was as fresh as sensation." On this, Santayana and Dewey are in agreement. The point lost, not by Dewey, was that learning was necessary. Teaching in the manner Dewey had in mind must be harder, not easier, than following a textbook, and the teachers must have mastered the subject well enough to set the textbook aside. This was not the message that those who claimed to be his followers understood.

Monday, July 28, 2014

When Almost Doesn't Work

We are having the basement renovated. Most of the work is in the hands of the contractor, but we are cleaning up the windows, which is to say sanding them down, moving and replace broken panes, removing and replacing old brittle putty, and someday painting them. We are old hands at the work, having done even more elaborate restoration of the first and second floor windows. The experience doesn't mean that the work is faster or more entertaining.

On Sunday I was trying to get the first of the cracked panes out. I scraped away as much as I could of the bits of old putty that obstructed its way, pulled the glazier's points, and used the scraper to dig out the putty beside it on both sides. I then started gently pressing up on the bottom of the pane. I thought I pressed gently, but maybe not. There was a Bang!, and about half the pane bounced off my chin on its way elsewhere. It may have been the same piece that grazed the heel of my hand. I took time off to clean up. The cuts were tiny: had I not been continuing with the work, I'd have skipped the bandages. The other broken panes came out less dramatically. Still, it reminded me that glass has very little flexibility, and that partly stuck can be as bad as wholly stuck.

We are also replacing the old hinges on the windows. As far as we can tell, nobody now makes quite the same pattern: the holes in the leaves don't line up. My wife says, Well they almost line up. I say, That's even worse: you would have to drill into the side of the original hole and enlarge it so that the screw won't hold. I guess we'll putty the holes and let the contractors figure out a new placement.

Friday, July 25, 2014

SysAdmin Day

Today, the last Friday of July, is SysAdmin Day, a day to celebrate the labors of systems administrators, which, if successful, are never otherwise noticed.* Systems administrators are the men and women who keep computer systems running. Anyone who has ever used a computer used by more than one person at once, or connected to a network, let alone blogged about cats, has benefited from the work of a systems administrator.

Many of us no longer see our systems administrators, for our systems are out there in the "cloud" rather than in a glass room in our buildings. But the sysadmins are out there, keeping the systems running, keeping the data backed up. If you can't buy any of them a beer, think good thoughts about them.

(Thanks to The Register for reminding me of the day.)

*Some months after the computers in a limited part of the University of California campus were networked together, in the 1970s, the administrators found it necessary to bring the network down for some changes. At once the halls were full of persons complaining that they couldn't get any work done. Or so I have read.

The Ad Council Tells Me

I walk to work some mornings, passing many bus shelters. Over the last several months, maybe two years, I have been seeing many advertisements on them with an "Ad Council" mark near the bottom. I learn from them that

  • We should save money.
  • We should set examples for our children.
  • We should listen to our children.
  • We should talk to our children.
  • We should give our children healthier snacks. ("Change Your Child's Snack for Good": I think the item shown was a mango.)
  • We should become teachers, make a difference, and make more. Alternatively, we should become a teacher since there is no reason to be anyone when we could be someone.
  • We should not drive under the influence of alcohol.
  • Avoiding eye contact is a sign of autism.
  • We should do more to keep high school students from dropping out.
  • We should save energy.
I don't necessarily disagree with any of these, though I bet that most of those avoiding eye contact around bus shelters and on buses are attractive women who are not even slightly autistic. But I do wonder

  • Whether the firms advocating thrift had any part of Citbank's "Live Richly" campaign some years ago, the one that was going on even as the banking industry was lobbying to make personal bankruptcy harder.
  • Whether the firms that want us serve our children mangoes have any snack food accounts.
  • How many of the designers at the firms would really care to work at a teacher's salary.
  • How much the ubiquity of these public service advertisements has to do with a depressed market for outdoor advertising.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Noted a couple of days ago in Little Wilson and Big God, by Anthony Burgess, the first volume of his autobiography:

There is something desperately wrong with our remembering mechanisms. The trivial, especially if it is in verse, sticks. Great thoughts and great expression of great thoughts vanish. I have repertory of about a thousand popular songs and only one line of Goethe. From one of the 'Little Tales' in Punch, I remember this: "He said I love you, and she said I love you too. Then they went in to tea and he made jokes about the jam sandwiches.' What the hell is wrong with us? The greatness of James Joyce lies partly in his recognition of the importance of the trivial, but it is not his responsibility to explain the importance. Flaubert's Felicite dies seeing a parrot flutter over her head. I shall die on the memory of the HP Sauce bottle from which I first learned French:  'Setty sauce, de premier choyks. . .'
(I think that I have the advantage of Burgess in the matter of Goethe: I can remember three or three and a half lines, probably somewhat mangled.)

I suspect that the sticking power of the trivial verse comes in part from the age at which it is encountered. The lyrics of John Lennon or John Denver are remembered because encountered in childhood or adolescence, ages of energy and hope.  And I think that the same process works for much better verse. The Athenians captured at Syracuse could recite Euripides at great length; Eugenia Ginsburg, on the train to Siberia, could recite Pushkin for half an hour by the watch; I'm sure that they learned the verse young.