Lazy Saturday Reads: A Little Bit of This and That

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Good Morning!!

I have a mixed bag of reads for you this morning–a little bit of politics, education, historical mystery, and science. The paintings and drawings included in this post are by Vincent van Gogh.

Last night President Obama announced that he’s sending 1,500 more troops into Iraq, supposedly  to serve as “advisers” who will train troops to fight the Islamic State. The Independent reports:

Barack Obama has authorised the US military to send up to 1,500 more troops to Iraq on top of the current total of around 1,400 to bolster efforts to combat Isis.

American soldiers would not take a frontline role, the White House said, but conduct “training missions” with Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers around Baghdad and Erbil.

The move comes less than a fortnight after the last British and American troops left Afghanistan and despite international condemnation of Isis’ atrocities, the public are still wary of another interventionist war.

The announcement had nothing to do with Tuesday’s election, according to “White House officials.” From the New York Daily News:

“It was really not driven at all the political calendar,” a senior White House official told reporters.

The official said that the decision to escalate the U.S. mission followed requests “over the last several weeks” by Pentagon officials, and political developments in Iraq.

Administration officials said the new deployment will expand the U.S. mission by placing American military advisors and trainers in western and northern of Iraq, where Iraqi and Kurdish forces are directly fighting ISIS extremists.

Until now, U.S. troops have been mostly confined to Baghdad and the Kurdish city of Erbil.

The White House emphasized that American soldiers will not directly engage ISIS fighters.

And so, the endless war continues.

Old-Man-Reading

Today President Obama will officially announce his nomination of US Attorney Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as Attorney General. From NPR:

Lynch, whom the White House describes as “a strong, independent prosecutor who has twice led one of the most important U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the country,” will be introduced at the White House Saturday, alongside current Attorney General Eric Holder.

The plan comes after NPR’s Carrie Johnson reported Thursday that Lynch, a lead federal prosecutor in New York City, could be nominated within days.

“Lynch, a graduate of Harvard Law School, worked her way up the ladder in Brooklyn,” Carrie said, “a huge office that handles everything from old-school Mafia busts to new forms of cybercrime.”

And from the LA Times, Attorney general pick Loretta Lynch would be first black woman in post.

President Obama will nominate Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, to replace Eric H. Holder Jr. as attorney general, the White House said Friday, a historic choice that would make her the first black woman to hold the post….

Obama will make the official announcement Saturday with Lynch and Holder at the White House before he leaves Sunday on a weeklong trip to Asia. The White House had originally planned to wait until Obama returned to Washington, but apparently changed its plans after numerous news organizations reported she was the likely pick.

The choice of Lynch reflects a typical middle-of-the-road path for Obama; she is a nominee who might be confirmed without great controversy if no fault is found in her resume. Liberals had pushed for Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, but he is unpopular with Republicans. Many in the legal community had hoped for scholarly Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr.

Let’s hope she gets confirmed quickly, while Democrats still hold the majority in the Senate. A little more about her:

Lynch is the rare U.S. attorney who has not sought the limelight in what is normally a high-profile job with political potential. She rarely gives news conferences or interviews and recently ducked a gathering with Justice Department reporters in Washington. Her reputation in liberal legal circles is as someone who is not politically sophisticated.

A relative unknown outside her district, she came to prominence in New York in the late 1990s as the supervisor of the team that successfully prosecuted two police officers for the sexual assault with a broomstick of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Three other officers were acquitted.

More recently, she has spent time in Washington as chairwoman of the attorney general’s advisory committee of U.S. attorneys, an The Novel Reader Van Goghinfluential job that brought her in close contact with Holder.

Diane Ravitch has an interesting piece at The New York Review of Books, The Myth of Chinese Super Schools. It’s a review of a new book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World, by Yong Zhao.

On December 3, 2013, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced yet again that American students were doing terribly when tested, in comparison to students in sixty-one other countries and a few cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. Duncan presided over the release of the latest international assessment of student performance in reading, science, and mathematics (called the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA), and Shanghai led the nations of the world in all three categories. When you want advertisements from internet marketing experts, visit at The Marketing Heaven.

Duncan and other policymakers professed shock and anguish at the results, according to which American students were average at best, nowhere near the top. Duncan said that Americans had to face the brutal fact that the performance of our students was “mediocre” and that our schools were trapped in “educational stagnation.”

He had used virtually the same rhetoric in 2010, when the previous PISA results were released. Despite the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which mandated that every child in every school in grades 3–8 would be proficient in math and reading by 2014, and despite the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, the scores of American fifteen-year-old students on these international tests were nearly unchanged since 2000. Both NCLB and Race to the Top assumed that a steady diet of testing and accountability, of carrots for high scores and sticks for low scores, would provide an incentive for students and teachers to try harder and get higher test scores. But clearly, this strategy was not working. In his public remarks, however, Duncan could not admit that carrots and sticks don’t produce better education or even higher test scores. Instead, he blamed teachers and parents for failing to have high expectations.

Duncan, President Obama, and legislators looked longingly at Shanghai’s stellar results and wondered why American students could not surpass them. Why can’t we be like the Chinese?, they wondered. Why should we be number twenty-nine in the world in mathematics when Shanghai is number one? Why are our scores below those of Estonia, Poland, Ireland, and so many other nations? Duncan was sure that the scores on international tests were proof that we were falling behind the rest of the world and that they predicted economic disaster for the United States. What Duncan could not admit was that, after a dozen years, the Bush–Obama strategy of testing and punishing teachers and schools had failed.

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Like many other failed policies, the obsession with testing began under Ronald Reagan.

P0licymakers and legislators are convinced that the best way to raise test scores is to administer more standardized tests and to make them harder to pass. This love affair with testing had its origins in 1983, when a national commission on education released a report called “A Nation at Risk.”

President Ronald Reagan had hoped his commission would recommend vouchers and school prayers, but that did not happen. Instead, the report recommended a stronger curriculum, higher graduation requirements, more teacher pay, and longer school hours, as well as standards and testing at transitional points, like high school graduation. The main effect of the report was caused by its alarmist rhetoric, which launched a three-decade-plus obsession with the idea that American public schools are failing and that the way to fix them is to raise test scores.

And succeeding presidents have continued the “testing mania.” Ravich writes:

At this juncture comes the book that Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, members of Congress, and the nation’s governors and legislators need to read: Yong Zhao’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. Zhao, born and educated in China, now holds a presidential chair and a professorship at the University of Oregon. He tells us that China has the best education system because it can produce the highest test scores. But, he says, it has the worst education system in the world because those test scores are purchased by sacrificing creativity, divergent thinking, originality, and individualism. The imposition of standardized tests by central authorities, he argues, is a victory for authoritarianism. His book is a timely warning that we should not seek to emulate Shanghai, whose scores reflect a Confucian tradition of rote learning that is thousands of years old. Indeed, the highest-scoring nations on the PISA examinations of fifteen-year-olds are all Asian nations or cities: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Singapore, Korea, Macao (China), and Japan.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Will the book make a difference to U.S. political leaders? Probably not, but Ravich’s long review is well worth reading.

Vanity Fair has a fascinating article by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, authors of a 2011 Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography of Vincent van Gogh. In an appendix to the book, Naifeh and Smith included a summary of their research on the death of the famous painter. After years of study in the van Gogh archives, the authors suspected that the artist did not commit suicide, as is commonly believed, but was very likely killed accidentally by a teenage bully named René Secrétan.

Man reading van gogh

In 1890, René Secrétan was the 16-year-old son of a Paris pharmacist whose family summered in Auvers. In Paris, René’s lycée education admitted him to bourgeois society. In Auvers, it gave him license to bully. He said he modeled his behavior on his hero, Wild Bill Cody, whose Wild West Show René had seen in Paris the year before. He bought a souvenir costume (fringed buckskin, cowboy hat, chaps) and accessorized it with an old, small-caliber pistol that looked menacing but often misfired.

He found an easy target in the strange Dutchman named Vincent. By the time René arrived for the summer, Van Gogh was already the object of rumor and ridicule. He trudged through town with his mangled ear and awkward load, setting himself up to paint anywhere he pleased. He drank. He argued fiercely in an unintelligible tumble of Dutch and French.

Unlike René, whose father was a powerful figure in the summer community, Vincent had no friends. Using his brother Gaston, an aesthete, as his front man, René artfully slipped into the vacuum. He cozied up to the lonely painter at his café conversations with Gaston about art. He paid for another round of drinks. Afterward, René would mock the strange Dutchman to amuse his merry band of mischief-minded summer boys.

René let Vincent eavesdrop on him and his friends when they imported “dancing girls” from Paris. He shared his pornography collection. He even posed for some paintings and a drawing. Meanwhile, he conspired with his followers to play elaborate pranks on the friendless tramp they called Toto. They put hot pepper on his brushes (which he often sucked when deep in thought), salted his tea, and sneaked a snake into his paint box.

There it was, all in the files: the details mostly in a late-life narrative from the cowboy himself, René. But every detail checked out with the other eyewitness accounts from Auvers. And it didn’t say anything new, really. Vincent had faced similar bullying and ridicule in every place he ever painted.

And there was this: a long-neglected account by a woman from a distinguished Auvers family who had broken with the community omertà to say that Van Gogh was far from the wheat field at the time the fatal shot was fired. He was, according to her, on the road that led to the Secrétan family villa.

Of course the “experts” (Naifeh and Smith call them the “Flame Keepers”) came out of the woodwork to denounce the new theory. In response Naifeh and Smith asked a well known forensic expert, Dr. Vincent Di Maio, who testified at the trial of George Zimmerman, to analyze the evidence. Read the article to find out what conclusions he drew.

Finally a couple of science stories:

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From Discovery News, 9,300-Year-Old Bison Mummy Found in Siberia.

The still-furry beast is one of the most complete frozen mummies ever found. It literally freezes in time the appearance and anatomy of a steppe bison (Bison priscus), whose species went extinct shortly after the end of the Ice Age.

It’s been named the “Yukagir bison mummy,” after the region where it was found.

“The exceptionally good preservation of the Yukagir bison mummy allows direct anatomical comparisons with modern species of bison and cattle, as well as with extinct species of bison that were gone at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary,” co-author Evgeny Maschenko from the Paleontological Institute in Moscow was quoted as saying in a press release.

The remarkable specimen still has its complete brain, heart, blood vessels and digestive system. Some of its organs have significantly shrunk over time, but that’s to be expected given its advanced age.

The researchers, led by Natalia Serduk of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, conducted a necropsy on the remains. The investigation determined that the bison showed a relatively normal anatomy. A clue to its demise, however, is a lack of fat around its abdomen. This suggests that the bison died from starvation, but the scientists aren’t sure of that yet.

Compared to today’s bison in America, the Ice Age bison sported much larger horns and a second back hump. Steppe bison like this now-frozen one were commonly featured in Stone Age cave art, often shown being hunted by humans.

The Daily Mail article has a number of photos of the specimen and the researchers.

And from The Atlantic, a brief article on The Resurrection of the Dodo.

Alas, the poor dodo. All that remains of this extinct flightless bird’s legacy are a single complete skeleton and a synonym for “dimwit.”

But from those bones, researchers may now be able to recreate the 3-feet tall bird. Using a 3-D laser, paleontologists from the College of Holy Cross in Massachusetts made the first ever full 3-D dodo scans. The team presented the scans for the first time Thursday at theSociety for Vertebrate Archaeology’s annual conference in Berlin.

The scans showed that dodos had kneecaps, which were previously unknown structures within the dodo, Live Science reported. Leon Claessens, lead author on the scanning mission, told Live Science that information gleaned from the scans will help provide insight into how the bird moved. The team will also look at the bird’s large jaw in order to better understand how it worked and what type of prey it caught.

So . . . what else is happening? Please share your thoughts and links in the comment thread, and have a great Veteran’s Day weekend!


Killing Upward Mobility

Obama? Obama? Obama?

There continues to be a total disconnect between the role of  high unemployment and a slow growing economy in deficits.   It appears now to be an excuse to cut programs and experiment on children.   I’ve grown up expecting Republicans to lie.  They lie about science.  They lie about economics.  They lie about people who they’ve assigned ‘enemy’ status. They lie about climate change. They lie about history. They lie about evolution.  They lie about their sex lives.  They lie about being crooks and starting secret wars.  They just lie whenever they feel like it.

What I never thought I’d see is a continued Democratic party led onslaught against programs that have clearly kept people out of poverty and helped them to achieve and stay in the middle class.  They either believe these same lies spun by Republicans or they are acting willfully against the good of the nation in ways that perpetrate those lies.  Either way, this hurts our country.

Recently, we’ve experienced massive privatization of clearly public goods.  This has especially been true in the military since DDay Rumsfeld took over the pentagon.  It is becoming equally true for education.  Private companies that feed off government contracts are the worst of the worst.  They messed up Iraq and Afghanistan. They messed up the Gulf Coast after Katrina, Rita and BP.  They’ve messed up our schools, our infrastructure and our recovery down here.  The only thing that was done right was the Superdome and that’s only because it’s part of the bread and circuses pogrom and the big bucks of the plutocrats were involved.  It was also symbolic.  Symbolic was supposed to convince you all that we’re hunky dory down here.  We are not.  Now they want to extend that model to you.  Please, don’t let them.  Save your children.  Save them now.

Hyping cherry picking charter schools while ignoring the vast majority of  underachieving charter schools is only one way this pogrom works.  I’ll get to that in a minute.  I want to focus on the latest design to stop your children from being upwardly mobile first.  We have more clear indications that Obama/Geithner are still willing to bailout any oligopoly that’s a potential political donor while chipping away at policy designed to move working and middle class children to professional salaries.  We’ll still be paying for atrocious foreign and defense policy in Afghanistan and Iraq now while de-funding  Pell Grants and ending interest rate subsidies for all graduate students that need loans for education.

President Barack Obama‘s budget plan would cut $100 billion from Pell Grants and other higher education programs over a decade through belt-tightening and use the savings to keep the maximum college financial aid award at $5,550, an administration official said.

Nearly $90 billion of the projected savings would be achieved through two changes, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of Monday’s release of Obama’s 2012 budget. The spending plan applies to the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

The first edict–if passed by congress–basically means spring semester grants must be used for summer school.  Separate summer school loans will not be available.  The second proposal means that interest will accrue on graduate students taking loans while they are in graduate school.  This would especially impact medical school students who frequently require huge loans to go to school then come out saddled with unbelievable amounts of debt that they must begin to pay while doing low paying, high intensity residency jobs.  Yes, pile more debt on us all individually. Bankrupt us with individual debt while scaring us that the government’s the one that could (NOT!!) go bankrupt.

We’re continuing to see the Obama administration pit the poor, the working class, and the middle class against each other.  They’re already noticeably doing that via an education policy called Race to the Top.  Rather than direct per pupil subsidies for needy students, schools must now compete for federal funds based on some pretty arbitrary and questionable standards.  Poor districts must fight for scraps on the floor and it’s expensive and potentially damaging to fight for those scraps.   They must fight via increases in test scores that have so much statistical variation and resultant margin of error, that you could literally place in a high or low performing school district depending on which side of the error margin you randomly land.

Same deal applies if you’re a teacher.  Frequently the difference between teacher evaluations is decimal places where there is no statistical difference.  But, this competitive game says you have to use those numbers any way.  You have to be willing to evaluate schools and students on test scores to earn race to the top funds. You also have to use test scores to evaluate teachers when most of the education literature shows the majority of factors indicating student success are factors that exist outside of the school itself.  That would be the student’s family and the degree of motivation within the students themselves. That’s even if you accept the validity of these tests. That’s even in question.  What we have is just more shots in the warfare on public workers.  We unjustifiably make more than any one. (Not true)  We have evil unions that grab unreasonable benefits for us. (Less true than ever before.)  We have no work ethnic or else we’d be in the private sector. (Some of us just don’t like the private sector for some pretty obvious reasons.)

Why aren’t we seeing removal of funds for items that clearly aren’t working for students or any one?  I can come up with a few off the top of my head. Say, why don’t we dump abstinence ‘education’ or funds for religion based programs like the ones that pay Michelle Bachman’s husband who claims to be able to ‘ungay’ gays?  Instead, we see a Democratic President pass ‘reforms’ that don’t even fall under the category of triangulation.  Clintonian triangulation would be a giant leap forward compared to what’s happening now in funding our kids’ education. (And don’t tell me Hillary Clinton would be doing this if she were president.  Hillary Clinton worked on education in Arkansas.  She didn’t pull this type of sorry ass policy out once.)

Exactly why do schools with many, many children in poverty have to compete for federal funds?   Why support school in the fall but not in the summer?  Why start tacking on additional interest to students seeking graduate and professional degrees?  Why not put the taxes back to the Clinton years, end two unnecessary wars, and start a jobs program to end the devastating unemployment that is causing the reduced revenues and need for more government services?

Why do we live in this world were not only Republicans, but Democrats now deny history, data, and theory coming out of decades of study using the scientific method?  Why are they making decisions based on differences within the margin of error and wishful thinking?  Didn’t they learn statistics or take math?  Why is a Democratic president enacting failed policies that have only worked in the minds of a few Reagan worshiping right wingers?  Do you notice that the worst policy appears to come when Geithner is standing next to Obama?

There has been this horrible experiment forced on children in the name of education reform. This is stealing their future much more than any deficit could.    Test scores indicate that charter schools are not performing better than public schools overall. In fact, the worst schools in places with charter schools  are two times more likely to be a charter school. They are also not creating a ‘competitive’ environment that’s  making public schools perform any better.  All you have to do is look at Wisconsin for a pretty good indication of that.

Well-known education researcher, professor and critic Diane Ravitch plans to tell a crowd at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee tonight that their city’s system for offering poor children publicy funded vouchers to attend private schools has been a failure.

“Everyone has sort of given up on Milwaukee and Cleveland,” she said, referring to the only other Midwestern city that has a similar voucher program. “The studies of vouchers here have proven they don’t make a difference. The researchers used to have a huge debate … and now there seems to be a consensus on both sides: no bigger gains in voucher schools than in public schools.”

And about those reforms that the state’s largest teachers’ union just embraced? Performance pay and student-assessment driven teacher evaluation systems, which are also being championed by reformers around the country?

Ravitch, 72, thinks those efforts are pretty futile, too.

There’s no extra money to fund extra pay for teachers, she said. And test scores used as accountability for teachers rather than diagnostic tools to help kids improve only make educators teach to the test.

Ravitch’s Milwaukee stop is part of a nation-wide tour she’s been on for the past year to promote her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. In it, she denounces her previous support for school choice, accountability and the No Child Left Behind law. She spoke to School Zone during an afternoon interview at Hotel Metro, before heading over to UWM Thursday.

In a highly publicized flip-flop, Ravitch’s now advocates for a national curriculum and a holistic education program that includes more arts and less standardized testing. She also now supports children attending their neighborhood schools.

“Public services shouldn’t have to compete for customers,” she said. “You should be able to have available for you high-quality schools. That’s the obligation of government.”

Ravitch spoke to a group of New Orleans educators recently.  Her speech is being broadcast here on our ETV.   I wish I could send it to you.  You may know that they’ve basically used New Orleans as an incubator for privatization schemes. She supported the charter school movement until she did research on it.  This is similar to what economists who were the earlier buyers of Reaganomics–like Bruce Bartlett–have done.  They supported it until the data proved it wrong.

So, why are we running our school systems with the same policies that failed in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why are funding Halliburton and KBR and their university and public school counterparts while defunding university students and public schools?

I understand why Republicans are still clinging to lies because that appears to be what the new brand of Republicans do.  They lie about climate change.  They lie about evolution.  They lie about deficits both ways, depending on who is president.  What I want to know is why is a Democratic administration buying and selling these kinds of lies using the futures of our children?  Some where there must be a way to do a naked short sell on this so that a group of hedge fund masters will make a bundle when the bubble bursts on these privatization schemes.   In the interim, a bunch of fee sucking no bid contractors are eating up the proceeds from offering no succeed services.

Why is the Obama Administration leading a war on students and education?