Icons and Metaphors: Three Views of Jesus

January 28, 2009

The same person, place, object, or idea may often be represented in different ways, even when all of the representations are purely visual.

Some images are so “basic” in their meaning that they are said to trigger associations deep within the viewer’s mind.  These are called archetypes.  Examples might include “love,” “war,”joy,” or, as I have chosen, “messiah,” or “Jesus.”

Some images represent generalizations about an entire class of people or things based on limited experience.  They say a lot about our expectations for what that person or thing should be.  These are known as stereotypes.

A third type of image is so overused – and usually lacks meaningful detail – that it has become known as a cliche.

james_caviezel_jesus As an archetype I have chosen a shot of actor James Caviezel dressed as Jesus from the film The Passion of the Christ (found at Internet Movie Database).

The reason for my selection is this portrait looks thoughtful and natural.  The woody brown tone of his cloak and hair are reminiscent of his work as a carpenter.  Maybe he had his hood up because it was cold out.

This is, though glamorized with a handsome actor, something like Jesus might have looked walking down the road, or thinking, in his life.

alejandro_jesusThis is my stereotype image.  The picture comes with text, but I think it is fully a stereotype without the text.

This “Jesus” has carefully curled hair and manicured hands.  And he is standing in a pose that suggests he is blowing a kiss.

This is an illustration of the “nice guy” or “happy therapist” stereotype of Jesus.

stapp_hands_folded I admit, this is not really the image I wanted of Scott Stapp as a Jesus cliche.

The image I really wanted was from Creed’s (Stapp’s old band’s) music video of the song “With Arms Wide Open.” (on YouTube).

Follow the link to the video and pause it at second 0:39 or 3:32.  The arms-spread-open pose is what I was after.

Why is this a cliche?  Only because it is not very expressive or communicative of detail or subtlety.  And even in everyday talk in the past few years “Creed” became synonymous with “commercially popular, slightly sappy Christian band.”

Facebook: So Far A Successful Formula for User-Centered Internet Community

December 7, 2008

It’s Final Essay time!

From my concluding section:

The Facebook social utility has a rich history and a promising future. From its origins in Harvard’s Kirkland residential hall, to its expansion to high school students and working professionals, to its competition for overseas users, Facebook has sought to remain true to its mission statement: “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life…”

Facebook has been rivaled since its inception by MySpace, which allows users more creative control over the design elements of their profiles.  However, Facebook, unlike MySpace, has remained independently-owned and operated, and has exercised great creativity in developing hundreds of Applications, in close consultation with users, which all tend to engage the imagination while promoting enjoyable socialization and play.

In my essay I try to identify which specific elements have made Facebook the world’s most successful social utility, and also explore the bumps and challenges it has faced along the way.

I describe some distinguishing differences from MySpace, including a review of blogger danah boyd’s sociological theory that the one site appeals to “hegemonic” (powerful) youth while the other appeals to “subaltern” (disenfranchised) youth.

I explored these issues by intensively researching the histories of both websites, though particularly of Facebook, as recounted in blogs, mainstream news websites both from the U.S. and abroad, and academic papers.

It is my conclusion, particularly in light of the empirical surveys conducted by Jeff Ginger of UIUC in 2006 and 2007, that one indispensable ingredient in Facebook’s formula for success has been its basis in pre-existing real-life networks such as universities and workplaces.

One problem I outline is the possibility that the site will violate users’ privacy through ad programs or promote comparisons of physical appearance that are demeaning, activating a kind of Social Darwinism that would negate Facebook’s mission statement of openness and sharing.  I suggest that one solution is for Mark Zuckerberg and company to continue to heed user feedback, especially as presented in ad hoc Facebook Groups created by users.

I hope you enjoy!


EOTO Classmate Review

November 11, 2008
U. of Wisconsin doctored photo

U. of Wisconsin brochure doctored to show "diversity"

1. Alex Molaire focused her project — like a trusty camera lens — on the manipulation of digital photos. This modern scandal has a historical context involving the rise of computers, so Alex begins appropriately with some numerical data describing the well-known tendency of readers in “wired” countries worldwide to abandon print media in favor of internet media. She points out that this is a global phenomenon, and that the world’s top ten online news sources hail from the U.S., the U.K., China, and South Korea.

Because of the digitization of photos and the inter-connectedness of the web, Alex says, it is easier for manipulated photos to be passed along and published on many websites before they are corrected or identified as fakes — this is part of the “viral” nature of the internet. A manipulated photo might appear once or twice in a print media source, but it would not receive the same maniacal level of attention or be passed along as many times as is possible over the internet.

I paused for a moment and thought of the Thomas Friedman book we read at the beginning of this course, The World Is Flat. He talks about “the digitization of media.” One technical concept that makes the information superhighway possible is that photos, videos, spoken words, written text, music, and many other forms of information can be “digitized” — represented by a series of numbers in a mathematical language that the computer can read and display and, well, allow users to manipulate.

It occurred to me, and Alex came to the same conclusion, that in the doctoring of digital photos, digitization is both the underlying technical culprit and the hope for technical solution. If software is being developed to make it easier to doctor photos, why not develop counter-software to detect and reveal where doctoring has taken place!

I found this list of 15 (in)famous manipulated photos at http://www.listverse.com. Some of them issued from familiar private sources such as Time Magazine and The University of Wisconsin (see above!), other from state-owned media such as the Stalin photo. It occurred to me that there needs to be a set of checks and balances in place for such photos to be discovered and exposed — the reading public needs to be vigilant. The adoption of formal ethical standards, as Alex suggests, may help, but some news sources may have a strong motive to spread misinformation, and who’s going to hold them accountable to their own professed ethical standards?

Alex’s project was deeply researched and I would like to write much more about it, but I can only scratch the surface here.

Fact Checking the campaigns

Fact Checking the campaigns

2. Betty Dishman wrote about voter information and misinformation. Her project was quite similar to mine, but focused more on getting accurate information rather than the debate and learning aspect. A couple of her fears seemed to overlap with mine — such as basing voting decisions on fear and emotion rather than fact — and I almost shuddered when I read her 5th fear:

“Our country will become [more] divided and polarized than it already is.”

The first website she links to, “Obama Crimes,” currently displays a message that says “upgrading due to interest and traffic” — which could indicate that its readership has increased even since the election, a troubling possibility. Thanks to a Facebook friend who is a vocal right-wing conspiracy buff, I am familiar with the story of Philip J. Berg, who has filed a lawsuit in Federal Court alleging that Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States, and therefore, cannot meet the Constitutional requirements for being President of the United States. That there is such a lawsuit, and that it has been apis fact, not myth, but whether there is any substance behind it is something we have yet to see.

I agree with Betty’s assessment of FactCheck.org and the “fact check” sections of mainstream media sites like CNN.com — they seem generally reliable about specific facts and claims. In response to the questions about Obama’s birth and citizenship status, Factcheck.org staff members actually went to Chicago to examine the Obama birth certificate that the campaign holds there, and they believe it is valid.

One thing that has helped me the most in getting accurate information during this election is listening to each candidates’ broadcasted speeches as much as possible, on TV and YouTube and elsewhere. These are the things that they say about themselves and their own agenda, and are more reliable than 100 blogs or websites. Ideally, every town (or neighborhood!) in the nation would get a lengthy town-hall meeting with both candidates, with the opportunity to hear them speak live and ask questions spontaneously. Short of that ideal, we’ll have to trust that the broadcasted speeches are an accurate presentation of what each candidate actually thinks.

internet censorship in China

internet censorship in China

3. Dick Barron has written an essay about internet censorship in China. We studied specific examples and data about censorship in China in class. For example, we found that the websites of places like the Asian-American Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and key military websites of Western nations and Israel were blocked in China. What exactly the Baptist church has to do with the Department of Defense is unclear to me, but they both seem to be unwelcome to the communist government of China.

Dick is concerned about the selective blocking of web domains that goes on in China, so that anti-American and pro-China resources are encouraged to the exclusion of those that would present a positive image of America or criticize China’s government. Dick is concerned that fostering an anti-American mentality among the population could make the nation more likely to sell weapons or give military support to an anti-American regime like North Korea or to potential terrorists.

Dick offers some creative solutions. One is to promote the development of more counter-censorship software that would allow individual users in China to reach blocked websites. Another would be to create a world Communications Summit where China is invited along with several more open nations such as India, “to show best practices and best results from open and free-flowing Internet use.”

I was slightly surprised that Dick did not use some of the empirical data from our class’s study of Chinese internet censorship. He could have made his case even more strongly with examples of blocked websites and content, and what types of empirically verifiable behaviors or attitudes those types of censorship may have led to among the population. But on the whole his project was well thought out and well stated.

GPS satellite in orbit

GPS satellite in orbit

4. It’s been amazing to see how my classmates have tied the themes of their blogs into the EOTO topics they have chosen to write about. Katie Lowrance is no exception. Her blog is about athletics — marathons — and how to use the internet to find interest and information about running. Now what technology could possibly be more useful to a runner than GPS (Global Positioning System)? See the connection?

Katie lists a couple of the positive things GPS devices have done for her and for our society in general. They help us save time and gas, which is money. They help make travel to formerly unknown areas easier to accomplish. Also, they help “spatially-challenged” people, as Katie put it, find their destinations with assurance — without having to rely solely on clunky maps, confusing verbal directions from gas station attendants, etc.

I was pretty surprised when I read Katie’s fears about GPS. I didn’t know some of the malicious uses that have already been made out of this technology. Apparently the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 used some form of GPS technology to align their stolen plane’s flight path with the World Trade Center. Wow, that’s pretty scary. And I didn’t know that people could steal GPS devices out of cars and use them to find out where that person lives, so as to commit a crime against that person at his home. We all need to be careful about clearing the cache of private information we enter into GPS systems.

I hope Katie will continue to explore this technology, and will write about its usefulness for runners. I would like to see her write more about how runners can plan their paths, calculate distances, and all of the other useful things they can probably do with a hand-held GPS device.

Video killed the radio star?

Video killed the radio star?

5. Kennedy Elliott showed a lot of analytical flair in investigating the Fair Use Doctrine and how it applies to videos posted on YouTube.  Kennedy’s post was a delicious taste of the world of intellectual property rights and internet law, which I hope to explore in the near future, perhaps through another UNC Certificate course.

It seems that the main issue here surrounded the removal of certain McCain/Palin campaign videos from YouTube with just weeks or a few days left until the election.  The tremendous importance of a few days was neglected under the current legal arrangement, which causes videos to be taken down immediately if they are claimed to be in copyright violation by any party; and it can take weeks to effectively appeal a take-down.

This kind of legal arrangement seems like a natural breeding-ground for false accusations, as I believe Kennedy expressed well in her title, “Guilty Until Proven Fair Use.”  There is basically no incentive for people to avoid making false accusations, and every incentive for them to do so.  The video gets automatically pulled down until it can be investigated, while nothing negative happens to the accuser if the accusation was false.  The accuser does not have to provide their personal information, while the remixer of the video does have to give personal information in order to appeal, etc.

In addition to the solutions Kennedy proposed, I would say there needs to be weightier liability for making false accusations.  Kennedy mentioned that YouTube took this into its own hands to some extent recently by suspending the accounts of those who made false accusations about some videos related to Scientology.  I would say these claimants should also be subject to countersuit for damages suffered by the remixer of the video.

I think we will see a time soon when YouTube will not be the only place to share videos.  It is a wonderful video community, but I believe more will come.  Also, tech-saavy members of political parties can start posting videos to their own websites.  Why not?  Obama’s website had some marvel inventions this year with FighttheSmears.com and the Tax Calculator; why couldn’t the McCain campaign respond with a McCain Video site posting all of the disputed videos?  Just a thought.

5 Websites for My EOTO Project

November 7, 2008

Sorry, I am about a week late now, and I just noticed I hadn’t separately listed or described the 5 websites I found most valuable for my EOTO project!  Well, here they are:


Title: Beliefnet Blog

URL: http://blog.beliefnet.com

Description: This blog is a collaboration by several Beliefnet staff writers.  It reflects on the intersections between politics and faith — Christian (Catholic and Protestant), Muslim, and other faiths.  It is a particularly valuable site in this election, as both Barack Obama and John McCain actively sought to gain the trust of religious voters.  Both candidates speak of a high place that faith occupies in their lives, and both are regular church-goers.

One virtue of this site is that it offers a balanced, nuanced take on the candidates’ relationship to issues that are important to religious voters, as in the following excerpt:

I hope you can see from my description that the born alive bill was neither a slam dunk, unconstitutional, boneheaded bill (as the Obama campaign said) nor a clear, black-and-white verdict on whether you care about life. It was a gray-area dispute over how non-viable fetuses brought forth during an abortion should be treated.


Title: Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good

URL: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/index.php

Description: Here is an excerpt from the “Mission” page:

Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good is an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies by making the scholarship of the fellows and affiliated scholars of the Institute available and accessible to a general audience.

What caught my eye about this publication is the consideration given to opposing views.  One day an article will be featured by pro-life Democrat Doug Kmiec making the case that abortions are best reduced through education and the alleviation of poverty; the next day an article called “Obama’s Abortion Extremism” might be featured!


Title: Facebook

URL: http://www.facebook.com

Description:  I had to include Facebook, as it was the starting-point of this process for me.  Some would say Facebook is a place to keep in touch with friends and exchange pleasantries, nothing more.  I can attest that it has been more than that for me.  It has been a place to engage in productive debate that has continued for several days at a time with my friends and acquaintances.

The “notes” feature serves as a kind of blog, where many of my friends have written their political reflections at length.  The “posted items” feature has served, willy-nilly, as a daily news and views source for me, especially on the candidates’ stances on social issues that are important to me.

Through the use of these two features, Facebook has provided an invaluable service of “filtering the web” for me — not just the filtering that unknown blog authors who live thousands of miles away from me do, but the very personal, palpable filtering of friends and family members.


Title: The Daily Dish by Andrew Sullivan

URL: http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/

Description: Andrew Sullivan has supported Obama from day one, been quite open about it, and has advanced rational arguments designed to “swing” undecided voters in Obama’s favor — voters who do not normally identify as liberal or Democratic.  I mentioned in my first EOTO post how this blog ran a very thoughtful piece about “the redistribution of wealth,” making the case that a progressive income tax is a healthy thing for a market economy.  You can agree or disagree with the argument, but it is not being written from a socialist or ultra-liberal perspective, and it shows respect for the ideas of market economics.

This blog usually generates several short snippet articles a day dealing with politics in an intelligent, well-informed manner.  It is pro-Democratic overall, but is sympathetic enough to the G.O.P. that today it featured a link to a G.O.P. website that is seeking to rebuild the party through user-contributed ideas.


Title: Fact-Check.Org: Annenberg Political Fact Check

URL: http://www.factcheck.org/

Description: From the website’s mission statement:

We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.

This website offered “Summaries” and “Analyses” of the claims made by both candidates and their running mates in their speeches and campaign ads throughout the election.  The site was helpful for me in looking up the “Born-Alive Bill” from the Illinois Senate.

5 Biggest Fears for using Facebook as a forum for Political Debate

October 31, 2008
Facebook NewsFeed

Facebook NewsFeed

5 Biggest Fears

My 5 biggest fears about the use of the internet, particularly Facebook, for researching and debating political candidates are as follows:

1. I fear that I will sometimes give in to repeating partisan rhetoric gleaned from partisan websites and blogs as if it was gospel truth.

I actually did this for a while (briefly) in the past few weeks. As I described in the previous post, I made a sweeping conclusion about Obama’s stance on the abortion issue based primarily on one bill he voted against in the Illinois State Senate. At the time, I didn’t even realize it was a sweeping conclusion, and that there were other possible conclusions from the known facts. Unlike my usual self, I took Robert George’s claim that Obama was a pro-abortion extremist at face value, perhaps on the basis of the article’s seeming authorititaveness. I think the problem here was my unwillingness to wrestle with the article. Maybe I was too fearful that my own beliefs would be overthrown by alternate conclusions. I shouldn’t have held my beliefs so delicately. Solid beliefs are not arrived at overnight. I should be willing to criticize and evaluate arguments rather than taking other people’s words as a substitute for thinking about the issue for myself.

2. I fear that political debates online will usually devolve into emotional reactions and will not increase intellectual understanding.

There is a good reason to be passionate about your fundamental beliefs. They are, after all, core convictions, part of who you are, and democratic society depends on people advancing and contending for their own core convictions in public. But there is no reason to get emotional and weak mentally, to the point of shutting out opposing viewpoints. This is mostly a matter of patience.

One of the inherent weaknesses of the internet medium is that you cannot see and hear intangible, personal things like facial expressions and tone of voice when engaging in a debate. All you see are words typed on a page! A lot, therefore, depends on your ability to remain patient and calm in the face of heated debate. Another sensible solution would be to attribute charitable motives to the people with whom you are debating. They are, most of the time, not out to waste your time or debate for the sake of debating; if they are debating with you, chances are it is because they sincerely believe something that conflicts with something you sincerely believe. Thus, you can assume that it is an opportunity for growth in your own understanding.

Another solution is to interrupt public internet debate and send a personal e-mail to the person you are debating with. Midway through my first round of debating on Facebook, the Obama supporter I was debating with sent me an in-house Facebook message. Here is the text from that email:

Hey — perhaps now would be a good time to communicate what body language and expression might convey in a face-to-face conversation. I’m very interested in what you’re saying and am enjoying having the chance to debate with someone whose views are different from but still connected with mine. I’ve enjoyed your frankness on Facebook on these issues, and have merely been attempting to participate in the same wise.

This email, and my response to it, gave me a sense of personal contact, and made me realize that we were, if nothing else, old college buddies who merely had some conflicting opinions!

3. I fear that political bloggers and other political internet content producers will often write dishonestly, publish misinformation, and otherwise try to take advantage of me as a reader, for the purpose of advancing a partisan agenda.

This is a tough one, because it is not directly under your control, as my first two points were. Many bloggers may misinform, and in a free country there is no stopping them. Misinformation may even characterize 9/10’s of all political blogs. Because of the anonymity of the internet especially, writers may publish things they would not even attempt to say in personal conversations. And even if they do not publish anonymously, the internet may encourage this type of behavior because it is less likely that people who read their statements from thousands of miles away will know who they are, or have any personal relationship to them offline.

But it is not impossible to find more balanced, nuanced sources. Again, it takes time, discernment, and patience. A possible solution would be to think over the political statements you have read online, discuss them frankly and in person with a friend, and weigh them before even considering believing them or repeating them yourself.

4. I fear that the “star quality” of a candidate may serve to bias me against that candidate.

I confess, for the past two months or so I have suffered off and on from an irrational bias against Sen. Obama. It has nothing to do with him, his views, or his identity. It has to do with the star quality that surrounds him. He is in fact a star, a rock star of Democratic politics. He is a charismatic individual, appealing to many people on many levels. I have myself called him the Michael Jordan or Nirvana of politics — the one person everybody knows about in a particular field without having to know anything else.

For example, anybody who really knows something about NBA basketball will also know who
Jason Kidd or Carmelo Anthony are. But absolutely everybody will say they know who Michael Jordan is! So I begin to think of “Michael Jordan” as a code word for “I don’t really know anything about basketball.”

But just as Michael Jordan was in fact one of the best, most talented basketball players ever to play the game, so, many times, well-known people also have legitimate merits. Obama’s celebrity does not in any way amount to an argument against his intelligence or his qualifications to serve our country.

The solution here is to realize that star quality comes and goes, and usually says more about a person’s fans and the culture he lives in than about the person himself. If he were just a pop singer or basketball player, I could choose to tune him out. My life has not been any worse for avoiding Britney Spears’ albums. But a politician, especially a Presidential candidate, is much different. If I have a negative gut reaction to a politician simply because a cult of personality seems to surround him, I may be missing out on his real merits and substance.

The solution to this problem is easier. I think the internet is actually well-equipped to help get us past celebrity. Since blogs are a two-way street, it is much easier to talk about the substance behind the real person in a blog than it would be to talk back to the television set about a popular entertainer.

5. Pride, coupled with a well-known internet persona, may bias me against being willing to change my mind publicly.

After I had engaged in debate on Facebook with this old friend for a few days, I began to realize that I was leaving a very public, very readable trail of words — sitting there in the plain sight of all of his friends and all of our dozens of mutual friends, mostly from college. If I ended up changing my mind now, it was a potential embarrassment. I would be recanting on passionately held positions I had advanced no more than a few days ago!

Facebook is a very public medium. In the past I have found out, to my chagrin, about friends’ relationship problems and all manner of dirty laundry through the NewsFeed, so much so that at one point I changed the privacy settings for my Newsfeed to cut down on what gets shown to me.

One solution to this problem is to debate somewhere less public, or under a pseudonym, or in person, where there are not dozens or hundreds of people watching and reading your comments! Another solution is simply to be less prideful and be willing to admit a change of thought undergone through learning new information. In the long run, those heated exchanges will be buried under new material. But they will still be frozen in cyberspace, virtually on the public record, and anyone who wants to embarrass me by digging them up will always be able to do so! How weird! Words in the virtual age can now never be completely unspoken, and can always be dredged up for future use! I’m glad I have no aspirations to run for political office!

Facebook as Catalyst for Improving Thoughts about the Candidates

October 31, 2008

Sen.'s Obama and McCain


In this class, we have discussed the idea of weblogs as a “two-way street” that promotes the aims of democracy by fueling healthy debate. Positions are stated by blogs’ authors, and then comments allow readers to question the positions, poke holes in the arguments, and make counterpoints.

We have also looked at blogs as “citizen journalism.” The goal of citizen journalism is to “read between the lines” of mainstream newspaper and magazine articles. The mainstream media provides a starting-point for bloggers to reflect and analyze what is going on.

I’m centering this project on how Facebook has served as a catalyst for me to develop my own thoughts about the candidates in the 2008 elections. Several of my Facebook friends have used their Facebook pages over the past few months as a kind of personal blog, including a blogroll filled with articles about the candidates and their positions. As you will see, I have undergone a personal evolution in my thoughts about the candidates — including two important stages.

Born Alive

The first stage was when I was debating for John McCain, as the more acceptable pro-life candidate. I wasn’t so much a supporter of Sen. McCain as I was an opponent of Sen. Obama. I debated hotly, mostly parroting existing allegations against Obama that I now regret, and generally embarrassed myself! I used external articles as support for my pre-conceived opinions (no pun on the word “conceived” intended!).

Sen. Obama had voted against the Born-Alive Bill in the Illinois State Senate. This bill, to my understanding, would have given protection and rights to babies who are born alive in abortion clinics after failed abortion attempts. This disturbed me greatly. I linked to an article about this on my Facebook page by a Catholic author named Robert George. This article, and I, interpreted Obama’s vote to mean only one thing: that Obama was more than merely a pro-choice candidate; he was decidedly guilty of supporting infanticide. This was an incredibly weighty charge to make or believe.

Then I began to sense, through debate with one particular Facebook friend who is a pro-life Democrat, that there were holes in my argument — or at the least, that Obama’s vote on the bill did not support the sweeping conclusion I had drawn. I was shown evidence that there were other considerations for Obama’s vote against the bill. First, the bill might have been a deliberate set-up by politically organized pro-lifers to smear Obama as a “pro-abortion” politician.

The bill’s wording was more complex than I had realized, and included a redefinition of fetal viability, criminalizing any doctor who did not provide life support for what he judged to be a non-viable fetus. Some pro-lifers may indeed support this kind of criminalization, but they should admit that it goes beyond merely providing rights to born-alive, viable babies. To vote against the bill, then, is perhaps only a vote against criminalizing abortion doctors, not necessarily a vote to kill born-alive babies.

Secondly, there was a 1975 law already in place to protect born-alive babies, and Sen. Obama thought at the time that this other law was sufficient. Third, I learned that Sen. Obama has since changed his mind and stated that were he to vote again, he would have supported the Born-Alive bill.

Spreading the Wealth

A second plank in my opposition to Sen. Obama was a statement he made on the campaign trail about “spreading the wealth.” A believer in free-market economics, I saw the idea of redistribution as incompatible with economic growth and prosperity. Debate ensued. I was given the opportunity, by the Obama supporters I debated on Facebook, to learn more about progressive income taxes and what they are intended to accomplish.

I was offered a link to an article by blogger Andrew Sullivan making the serious, Aristotelian argument that a free-market democracy requires progressive income taxes to balance outcomes and keep the poor from revolting. Here I was faced with a pro-Obama argument that was based on support for the capitalist system of economics. My friend was not only a pro-life Democrat, I found out, but a free trade Democrat. To make matters even more difficult for me, I was presented with the following words from Adam Smith, the father of free-market economics:

The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. . . .The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. . .It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” [italics and bold text mine]

Now I was in a real pickle! With the 700 billion-dollar financial bailout spear-headed by McCain only a few weeks behind us — a clear example of spreading the wealth from the people to huge corporations — I began to consider, for the first time in my life, that, no matter what the usual rhetoric is about the Republican and Democratic parties and their respective ideologies, the Democrats may be — in a very practical sense — doing more than Republicans to promote the values of market economics that I believe in!

So my thoughts circled and swarmed, and I began to doubt for the first time that I was on the right side of the debate — given my own conservative ideals! To top it off, the online version of the free-market British magazine The Economist came out the next day with a cautious and balanced endorsement of Obama. This gave me even more food for thought.


I have tried to highlight in this story how virtual interactions centering on Facebook but branching out to blogs and the mainstream media allowed me to improve and sharpen my understanding of each candidate, especially of Sen. Obama, getting rid of some irrational biases I held when I started. Specifically, I can now see a believable argument for considering Obama to be the preferable candidate from a traditional, conservative standpoint.

The potential problem with using the internet to research a candidate is that you will amass an army of partisan articles and blogs only to support your pre-existing opinions. There is nothing wrong with partisan articles and blogs as such, especially in politics, where nothing is really neutral. What is a problem is looking at them as a weapon, rather than as an opportunity to learn something new. The hope and promise of internet debate — the two-way street of blogs — is that each person may arrive at a more nuanced, factually-correct understanding of the candidates.

“In The Loop”

October 21, 2008
Bloglines Screenshot

Bloglines Screenshot

By popular demand, the “Filtering the Web” genre now continues! Here are those original three questions:

  • How does technology ease or make difficult the dissemination of information?
  • What problems or issues have you encountered in reading blogrolls on various weblogs?
  • What issues have you encountered in incorporating a blogroll and web filtering into your own weblog?

Dissemination of information

One of the benefits of JOMC 713 for me so far has been the encouragement to dive into the blogosphere — to read opinions and views in blogs as part of my daily routine. I have bookmarked dozens of them and consulted them even on important topics.

I have picked up on some fairly offbeat political stories, generally put forth by partisan sources but still interesting and flying under the radar of mainstream media. One example was the apparent controversy surrounding the construction of the Palins’ home in Alaska, questioning whether Todd Palin inappropriately used state government resources in building his home. This story was put out by “Stef” of DailyKos.

Another story thread came from across the aisle, concerning the fate of author Dr. Jerome Corsi in Nairobi, Kenya as he pursued the nature of the connection between once-Illinois Sen. Obama and Kenyan politician Raila Odinga. Corsi was deported by a not-so-tolerant government for trying to dig up dirt on a Kenyan hero. This story made it to YouTube under the title of “Deported: American author declared persona non grata“.

These stories are attractive because, to me, they’re categorically richer and more detailed than the bland, sentiment-gushing fluff that now constitutes much of the election narrative of the mainstream American media. With the attraction, of course, comes a need for skepticism about the claims. But in the end reading these types of blogs is a win-win situation. If the story’s facts end up checking out, I will have heard of it long before the media picks it up; if it was a fairy tale, I’ll know which blogger to distrust the next time around.

Reading blogrolls

One problem I have faced in exploring blogs and their blogrolls is their grossly disconnected locations on the web. They seem to be sprawled out all over cyberspace, and either isolated on self-contained islands like WordPress and Blogger, or else embedded deep within the bowels of websites of every genre.

At first I thought a solution to this problem of scatteredness might be using Google’s Blog Search feature. This, I thought, would give me a common frame of reference to keep returning to while reading several blogs on the same topic. But I have found one serious drawback to Google’s Blog Search. Because of PageRank prioritizing, the more interesting, spicy, completely personal blogs, such as those maintained by members of my class, almost never show up. The list of results ends up being full of corporate blogs and blogs attached to mainstream media sources.

Luckily, over the weekend, a friend told me about Bloglines. This turned out to be much nearer to the mark! This is an application that allows you to import your blog feeds to one place, where you can create running “playlists” of the most recent posts. I’m just getting started using this service, but already I’m finding that it tends to venture away from the mainstream and into the more flavorful and offbeat. It may turn out to be just what I was looking for: one virtual “place” to organize and read all of my blogs on a daily basis.

Incorporating a blogroll

Incorporating a blogroll into Socratic Questions has been a continual joy for me. WordPress makes it super-easy to create and organize link categories. I have collected and “rolled” dozens of URL’s that lead not only to content on education proper, but also to many areas of my personal, eclectic interest — from inspiring ADHD stories to readable math tutorials to a dissident blogger in Cuba to my classmates’ blogs and back again.

KLowrance Wants You To… Run A Marathon!

October 14, 2008
Eric Liddell, The Flying Scot (image from www.virginmedia.com)

Eric Liddell, The Flying Scot (image from http://www.virginmedia.com)


I recently stumbled onto classmate Katie Lowrance’s blog which is all about marathons, their history both in Greece and in the modern Olympics, why people run them, and how they can benefit organizations like the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Add what Kirk Hathaway said in his recent comment about “the hurdles of the assignment” being “thrown onto my track” — a clear running metaphor — and I knew I had to review Katie’s site.

Running is one of the oldest endeavors known to man. Whether it be for military purposes, or competitive sports and games, or simply for fun and exercise, people have literally been running for millenia.

In her page, Learn About 26.2, Katie mentions the story of Pheidippides. In legend, Pheidippides was an Athenian messenger who ran about 150 miles over the course of two days, initially to solicit the neighboring Spartans’ help in fighting off the invading Persians. After the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon, Pheidippides ran his final 26.2 miles just to announce triumphantly:

Νενικήκαμεν!” (“We have conquered!”)

After he uttered this one word, Pheidippides fell down and died. The verb he used is based on the noun νική, Nike, victory. With one long run and one word, Pheidippides became the inspiration for both the Modern Olympic event of the marathon and the very shoes that runners and athletes everywhere wear to this day!

One question we have not yet addressed in JOMC 713 is this one: With the ease and ubiquity of new communications technologies in the home, on the cell phone, in the car, and everywhere, will people in the future simply become less physically active?

My Dad has a running joke (no pun intended) about how the people of the future will evolve huge eyes, larger brains, and tiny, shrivelled legs because they will sit at their computers all day long being homebodies and keyboard warriors.

Katie’s Blog

Katie’s blog suggests otherwise. She says running a marathon on June 1 of this year was “my biggest accomplishment thus far in my lifetime.” She gives a clue as to her own motivations for running:

I have come to realize that the endorphins of running contribute to a “runner’s high” that is so unique and worthy of the challenge. The more I have pushed myself to work harder and longer, the more gratifying the experience is to cross the finish line.

Katie says there is a joy released when we strive to run, and the harder we strive, the greater it becomes.

Katie seems interested in making her site a kind of depot for information about and for runners. She tells us about the Team in Training program, which trains people to run marathons, half-marathons, and other events to raise money for Leukemia awareness and treatment. A program like this seems easy enough for any of us to sign up for, runners or not.

Kirk Hathaway suggests that by narrowing her focus to regional events, Katie could provide ongoing information about runs in her local area. I second that. I would like to see Katie writing about runs that she attends in the future, telling us the stories of who she meets, why they were there, and maybe even giving us some pictures!

Katie’s design motif is a light tone of pastel colors that is easy on the eyes, warm and friendly. I like the design. Her “About” pages are well-written and are personable. In her “Weblog/Blogroll Questions Answered” article she speaks in an honest, open, first-person voice that tells us about the struggles and successes she has had in adapting to a new technology. She even gives us pictures of herself as a runner and with her boyfriend, a U.S. Marine.

I would only recommend that Katie find a way to list her favorite links higher on her blogroll, as currently her Bottom 5 comes out on top because of WordPress’s bad habit of organizing blogroll categories alphabetically.

About the Picture

Eric Liddell was the 1924 Paris Olympics runner who famously refused to run the 100 meters because of the qualifying heat on a Sunday, which conflicted with his belief in the Sabbath as a day of rest.

Instead, he ran the 400 meters, winning the gold medal. He went on to become a lifelong missionary in China. In the movie “Chariots of Fire,” Liddell says to his sister Jenny, in my favorite quote about running:

“Jenny, I know God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast! And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

The Autodidact and the Web

October 13, 2008
Jackson Pollock painting in his studio, Springs, New York, 1949 © Time Inc

Jackson Pollock painting in his studio, Springs, New York, 1949 © Time Inc

Kirk Hathaway, Jackson Pollock

Many thanks to classmate Kirk Hathaway for his substantial comment on “Checkered Trousers,” my review of Randy Burton’s guitar blog.

It is illuminating and, most of all, educating, to be seen through the eyes of another; and this is what Kirk sees in my blog approach:

… here Ramsey goes into dissecting routine and examining inspiration.

In Math Wars, I examined the routine of how mathematics is taught in the elementary school classroom, searching for the substance of what was being taught. In Faith and Science, I proposed writing about famous scientists and their spiritual beliefs, what made them tick. In ADHD, I looked at swimmer Michael Phelps’ ability to use ADHD to his competitive advantage. Now Kirk is treating me by my own standard, dissecting what I’ve been doing to trace the pattern of my inspiration.

A classroom assignment, such as the one I have been given in JOMC 713 — to read and review at least three of my classmates’ blogs, is a kind of routine, which leads Kirk to ask next:

… and so when the hurdles of the assignment [are] thrown on his track, and he must, for class, produce posts that review other blogs, does he hold true to his artist’s inspirations?

Kirk likened my blogging to artistry, specifically to the painting style of Jackson Pollock.

I like the reference, for two reasons: Pollock’s apparent disdain for tradition and his love for his underlying medium. These qualities allowed him to step back and create something that was wholly his own.

With his “drip method of painting,” Pollock created a kind of beautiful pattern out of randomness. I would aspire to do that with writing about things on the Web, especially on my topic of education, where we find a chaos of information that, with a little artistry, can become a supply of raw material for our own Socratic canvas.

Filtering the Web

So let’s approach the following assignment with a painter’s eye. My assignment for “Filtering the Web” is to write about one or more of these questions:

  • How does technology ease or make difficult the dissemination of information?
  • What problems or issues have you encountered in reading blogrolls on various weblogs?
  • What issues have you encountered in incorporating a blogroll and web filtering into your own weblog?

Technology plays right into the hands of the autodidact, the self-taught person. No one can teach you how to filter the Web; you have to dive in and experience it for yourself. Sure, someone can teach you the nomenclature of blogs, what each thing is called, such as the blogroll.

But the experience has to be wholly your own; and experience is so much more than information. Information can be the raw material – the paint. Through experience, the artist shapes it into an expression of who he or she is, an outgrowth of his or her soul.

In examining other websites and blogs, I have tried to pick and choose which threads may be useful for weaving together the tapestry I have wanted to create, according to my interests.

Technology obviously increases the overall amount and variety of information I can dive into. I have had no trouble finding a plethora of relevant sites and blogs, even by simply Googling the keywords I listed in my Research Plan. At first the sites came pouring in in waves like a Tsunami.

But I am learning to hone my searches by starting with better keywords, using search sites other than Google — such as internal searches on bookmarked blog depots. Finally, I let some of my favorite blogs do the work for me by thoroughly investigating their links and blogrolls. I found a number of good so-called “edublogs” (blogs on education) simply by learning that new piece of vocabulary — edublog — and then searching for it.

My style is eccentric and, at its best, serendipitous. The idea for “Math Wars” actually started several weeks ago when I was on YouTube enjoying some videos about fractals and happened to stumble on the video “Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth.” The video was talking about some of the novel approaches to multiplication and division that I had been exposed to as a student teacher, so I was intrigued; I immediately followed up the video with the responses by James Blackburn-Lynch.

Googling “Blackburn-Lynch” led me to that professor’s personal website at Berea College, where I happened to find a whole mini-site devoted to Faith and Science, which played beautifully into the idea I had already written down for my next blog entry!

This is my own, eccentric, approach, and I cannot prescribe it as a model for anyone else to follow. I have tried to show that by seeking to educate myself on topics of personal interest– autodidacticism — I have gotten surprising results that have influenced the direction and enriched the content of my blog posts.

I would add that even though I have chosen what some may call a “serious” topic, I have not shunned “popular” websites such as YouTube, in favor of only rarefied academic journals. Similarly, when Jackson Pollock embarked on painting with his “drip” method, he tended to prefer cheap household paints because he could drip them better! If I may squeeze out a comparison, I likewise found a popular YouTube video that just seemed to flow!

Checkered Trousers and Guitar Solos: Randy Burton’s “Players and Pickers”

October 8, 2008

My JOMC 713 classmate Randy Burton has written a rockin’ blog on guitar-playing styles called “Players and Pickers.”

Randy’s Blog

On his About page, Randy lists his credentials: he is a self-taught guitar player and picker, with over 30 years of experience in diverse genres: “rock, blues, folk, and jazz styles.” He has played in a number of bands over the years, including playing lead guitar for a blues-rock band called “The Trousers,” who released a self-titled CD in 1997.

I named this post “Checkered Trousers” because when I listened to a couple of songs from The Trousers I was struck by the comfortable, laid-back style, and also the diversity of genres: like a well-worn pair of checkered trousers…

Like other students in JOMC 713, Randy wrote about how he evaluates websites. I agreed with his guidelines, in which he mentioned useful content, appealing design elements, and active use. On the last point, I liked this quote:

There should be evidence of use from other viewers; if there is a bulletin board or forum and only a few people have visited, then the value of the site is questionable.

Evidence of use could include comments, an active discussion board, or links or pingbacks from other bloggers.

I also like how Randy lets you know which websites are trying to sell you some kind of instructional program, like many guitar sites are, versus which others are completely free.

Keep up the good work, Randy!

Are Guitar Solos Dead?

In Randy’s post for last’s Friday’s best and worst links, he links as the best site a blog called “Guitar Licks.”

I enjoyed the post in Guitar Licks called “Is the Guitar Solo Dead?” The post says guitar solos seemed to have “skipped a generation,” as they are completely absent from today’s Top 40. I agree that there is a dearth of good guitar solos in today’s music, even in what passes for rock.

However, I disagree when the author blames the death of the guitar solo on the advent of grunge and alternative rock in the 90’s.

Myles Kennedy and Mark Tremonti of Alter Bridge

Myles Kennedy and Mark Tremonti of Alter Bridge

Some not-quite-top-40 bands and guitarists out there –including those influenced by grunge — are producing excellent-quality guitar solos! One example is Mark Tremonti of Alter Bridge (see picture at left).

Since Mark and the other former members of Creed let singer Scott Stapp go and acquired the more versatile Myles Kennedy, Tremonti has introduced a number of hard-hitting guitar solos into his songs. For example, listen to “Open Your Eyes” on YouTube.

An added benefit is that Kennedy is a stronger guitar player than Stapp, which leads to some better support for Tremonti.

Friday’s Links: ADHD and Michael Phelps

October 3, 2008

Variety is the spice of life.” — proverb

I think this proverb should be amended for those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to read, “Variety is the meat of life.”

I honestly think that ADHD people have so much trouble in school because they are expected to think linearly about one topic at a time, in isolation from everything else.

I have ADHD myself, and I know that I thrive most when I balance two or three things at one time. And when my learning and actions have a purposeful context, and meaning.

This morning I enjoyed an article on swimmer Michael Phelps from the Edge Foundation. It is titled “Michael Phelps is not an Attention Deficit.” His mother says the following about Michael’s childhood:

“In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus.’ I said, maybe he’s bored. The teacher said that was impossible. “He’s not gifted,” came back the reply.”

Not gifted! Let’s look at what really makes Michael Phelps thrive in competition.

First, he listens to music on his Ipod while he’s gearing up for races. This is getting him “in the zone,” actually into a zone of what psychologists call “hyperfocus,” (the real H in ADHD). Hyperfocus is a gift, a special ability to tune out the rest of the world and pour all your energy into one thing that you really care about.

Next, Michael doesn’t just swim one event! He swims relays, sprints, and middle-distance events. I suspect that the variety of those different events keeps him engaged, the energy and enthusiasm from each event feeding into the others.

The other article for today is from WebMD and is called “ADHD Medications and Treatments.”

I’m sure the author of this article, Dr. Richard Sogn, has good intentions and thinks he is helping people. But the article assumes that ADHD is a problem, and goes on to recommend the best medications for how to eliminate the problem.

I was encouraged by the Edge Foundation to look at my ADHD as an opportunity rather than a problem.

The opportunity is to string together interesting combinations that may otherwise go unnoticed. To bounce around from one subject to another, and see familiar patterns wherever you go!

Now I want to do an article on notable scientists who are thought to have had ADHD!

Thursday’s Links: Photoblogs

October 3, 2008

I think a photoblog is a fascinating idea. Rather than let words speak over time, a photoblogger lets photos do the speaking, from one day to the next.

Today I have found two photoblogs that I both like. So I am unable to say that one is bad and the other is good. They both seem good to me.

The first one is called “Beyond Illusion.” I tried to stick the front page image to my blog, but I was unsuccessful. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure how its author would feel about that anyways, so check it out for yourself.

The About section features a quotation from Albert Einstein that begins:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science…”

This was fantastic to find, especially since I had just written in Wednesday’s post that I wanted to explore the spiritual beliefs of prominent scientists!

I also liked the fact that there was a quotation from former Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley. I enjoyed the music of Alice in Chains in high school, particularly the Unplugged performance they did for MTV. Staley apparently said at some point:

“There’s no huge, deep message in any of the songs. It was just what was going on in my head right then. We had good times, and we had bad times. We recorded a few months of being human.”

“Beyond Illusion” does a lot of contrasting of black-and-white with vibrant color, stillness with motion, old cathedrals with young people. The two most common color patterns in the photos are either black-and-white, or bright, luscious greenery.

The blog also gets a lot of mileage out of the contrast between young people and old religious icons, portraits, and statues. One photo is called “Absence of the Sacred,” and features four young men dressed in black, standing inside an old British cathedral, at a sharp angle.

The second photoblog I enjoyed was “Thinking Picture.” The “About” section isn’t as developed (as Beyond Illusion).

“Thinking Picture” focuses on some of the huge, breath-taking landscapes of South Africa. There are several vivid portraits of nature in motion, such as the stunning “Spotted Eagle Owl in Flight.”

There are also several powerful action shots which are apparently from a Seether concert, such as “Shaun Morgan from Seether.”

Wednesday’s Links: Faith and Science

October 3, 2008


My namesake for this blog, Socrates, says in Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus,

Wonder is the special affection of a philosopher; for philosophy has no other starting point than this…” – Theaetetus 155D

Faith and Science. Two ponderous ideas about which much has been said. What is my purpose in lumping these two together?

I think if I look honestly at my own life, I find the seeds of both already implanted in me, and the beginning of them is a mystery.


I want to know the answer to many “how” questions. How do computers work? That’s a big one I’ve picked up lately.

How does my brain work — what happens inside my brain when I have what I call a “thought”?

These, to me, seem to be the domain of what we all generally call science.


At the same time, I am full of “why” questions. Why am I here, fundamentally? And why is there a universe around me at all — something, rather than nothing?

Why do I think? Why am I, unlike other animals (as far as I know), capable of generating and expressing a series of thoughts about my life?

This seems to be a different category of questions, and the domain of what many people call faith/belief. (Many people approach these questions from a secular standpoint not related to religious faith. I am not saying that religious faith is the only way to deal with these questions.)

Thesis and Antithesis

Can we afford to dismiss either the “why” or the “how”?

Some people say they have all the answers to the “why” questions, so they can ignore the question of “how.” They look down on science, suspicious of it, because they think it undermines their faith.

Others look down on the “why” questions. They say that in time science will have all the answers we need, so “why” questions are extraneous.


Yet others say something remarkable. They say that as they learn more about “how” through science, their sense of wonder and awe is reinforced, their perception of mystery becomes deeper, and the “why” questions are nurtured.


So I’ve looked up some websites on this topic. I’ll mention two today.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying a website from Berea College called “Faith and Science: Perspectives on Christianity and Science,” written by professor Robert J. Schneider.

Dr. Schneider says some remarkable and surprising things. Even as I glanced over the Table of Contents, I was intrigued to find an essay called “Evolution for Christians.”

In the first essay, “What the Bible Teaches About Creation,” Dr. Schneider says the following:

I shall take the position, common among most Christian scholars, including many evangelicals, that Genesis 1 is not “a straightforward, historical and scientific account of how God created,” the view espoused by young-earth creationists. Rather, this magnificent hymn-like passage is a theological proclamation, a manifesto, a statement of faith about both the creation and the Creator. [bold text mine]

Elsewhere in the essay we find an interesting quotation from Galileo:

“The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” — Cardinal Baronius, quoted by Galileo.

I give this website a hearty thumbs-up — for being knowledgeable, readable, and thoughtfully prepared, and for defining faith and science in contexts that make both meaningful and valuable.

My other website for today is “Intelligent Design vs. Evolution,” which I found doing a Google search for “intelligent design and evolution.”

I can’t tell you exactly what the current theory of “intelligent design” is, but I didn’t get a good impression of it from this website. The website itself doesn’t seem intelligently designed; it features loud colors and a huge in-your-face banner announcing “Win $10,000 for Proof of Evolution!!!”

I watched the videos on the site. One of them involves a middle-aged man named Ray Comfort asking college-aged kids probing questions about the scientific theory of evolution. The video makes a big deal out of the fact that the kids respond with words like “maybe,” “probably,” and “I’m not an expert.” I guess we’re meant to notice that they don’t understand the theory of evolution very well even though they believe it is true.

A second video claims to feature a scientist asking British biologist Richard Dawkins, “Can you give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome?” Dawkins looks up at the ceiling for a few seconds deep in thought and says nothing. (It is not clear to me that Dawkins was even in the same room with the questioner, because of the way the camera cuts drastically from one person to the other.)  I think the purpose of the video is to try to show an expert being stumped by a basic question, not an approach I find particularly useful because I have made some effort to understand evolution for myself, so I don’t feel the need to either rely on or disapprove of Dawkins.

I don’t think this website really promotes better understanding of either evolution or faith like the Berea College site does. It might have some marginal value in getting people to think through their positions more clearly.  I have read elsewhere, though, that the Dawkins video is a total hoax, which of course would make the website just plain silly to me.

Further Research

The Berea College website got me thinking I’d like to devote a couple of blogs to researching prominent scientists and what we know of their spiritual or religious beliefs. I might start with some great historical scientists like Newton, Pascal, and Einstein.

I remember hearing once that Newton was an alchemist before he revolutionized physics. Pascal, of course, was a mathematician heavily immersed in probability, number theory, and physics before his mid-life conversion to Catholic Christianity. At the time of his conversion, he gave up on math and sciene altogether and devoted his full attention to religious life.

Then I might move to some modern, working scientists. The Berea College website has a Resources section that lists some prominent current scientists who are also interested in questions of theology. I might begin with this list…

Tuesday’s Links: Math Wars part 2

October 2, 2008

Math Wars Continued: “You Cannot Memorize Meaningless Gibberish!”

I promised I would discuss some of the responses to M.J. McDermott’s traditionalist video “Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth” (see Monday’s Links).

My favorite response is by a professor of mathematics at Berea College, James Blackburn-Lynch. Part One of his video response is about 8 minutes long; please watch it now:

Different assumptions

Ms. McDermott begins her video with an assumption: The purpose of elementary math education is for all children to be able to multiply and divide using the standard algorithms by the end of 5th grade. This is the traditionalist point of view: basic skills are to be mastered, through rote memorization and repetition (practice).

If you read my Research Plan, Ms. McDermott represents the Tabula Rasa philosophy of education: fill ’em (with knowledge) and drill ’em (on skills). Not necessarily a bad approach, but we should note that it is just one approach among many, and just one camp in the Math Wars.

If you watched today’s video, you saw James Lynch question Ms. McDermott’s assumption. “Why? What is the big picture here?” he asks.

He says Ms. McDermott and many parents “want math to be what it was for themmemorization of formulas.” So when their child comes home with a cluster problem or an assignment to use the lattice method of multiplication, they balk.

But what is the purpose of those types of assignments? Mr. Lynch suggests it is to make meaning of math.

Different Diagnoses

Ms. McDermott says the fundamental problem with math education today is that students don’t master the basic skills anymore. The solution? More drill and practice.

Mr. Lynch says spending so much time on drill and practice was itself the problem! Students learned to think of math as “a bunch of arbitary rules,” without making meaning of it for themselves.

See why this is a War? Each camp’s solution is precisely the problem, for the other camp.

I give a thumbs-up to Mr. Lynch’s video, for pointing out the shortcomings of Ms. McDermott’s position.

As my other website for today, I recommend the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Curriculum Focal Points website.

The NCTM is probably the best, most organized voice in the Constructivist camp of the Math Wars. This camp believes, with Mr. Lynch, that “you cannot memorize meaningless gibberish,” and that, to best make sense of math, you may need to take a round-about route that involves things like cluster problems and strange algorithms.

I give the NCTM a thumbs-up for its easily navigable, grade-by-grade listing of curriculum points.

I give it a thumbs-down for requiring that you become a paid member before you can interact with the website — i.e., leave comments, ask questions, etc.

Monday’s Links: Math Wars part 1!

October 2, 2008

Day 1 Website Review: Math Wars and Singapore Math

I apologize for getting this up late in the week. I actually did the legwork for this on Monday, but have been unable to get around to posting until today.

Today’s exploration takes us into the red-hot battleground of Math Wars. Venturing onto YouTube, we find a series of videos, starting with one by Seattle meteorologist M.J. McDermott called “Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth.” A take-off on the title of Al Gore’s bestselling book, this video is about 15 minutes long; please watch it now before you read on…

Wow! New-fangled textbooks are failing to teach basic skills, and kids are no longer learning how to multiply and divide (in the state of Washington) by the end of 5th grade! They arrive at college totally unprepared, and much of their college experience has to be spent as a kind of remedial camp.

That’s the impression one gets from this video. But we must back up and recognize that this is an ongoing debate. Ms. McDermott is really espousing a party line in what has become a math war – the philosophy of traditionalism.

Traditionalists, says The Irascible Professor, “favor a return to more traditional methods (direct instruction) that include greater emphasis on … multiplication tables, repeated drills…, and traditional word problems.”

Watching Ms. McDermott’s video, we get a demonization of the new math textbooks. Reading from the Irascible Professor, we realize this is a political-type of argument, and there is more than just one side to the story.

The Irascible Professor goes on to talk about Singapore Math — the approach taken to learning math in materials prepared in Singapore, the country that consistently ranks first in the world in its students’ average math preparation and test-taking abilities.

For today, I give the nod to the Professor for letting us know that there is more than one side to this story. I also appreciate Ms. McDermott’s contribution, if only for giving others the opportunity to respond to her on YouTube, which we will look at tomorrow!

But I also hold Ms. McDermott accountable for her decision to demonize her opponents and present this as a one-sided issue.

Open House Notes!

October 1, 2008
Pat, Tyler, Deb, Dick, Bobby, and Kirk represent JOMC 713 at the Open House in Chapel Hill

From left: Pat, Tyler, Deb, Dick, Bobby, and Kirk represent JOMC 713 at the Open House in Chapel Hill

Parking — What a nightmare!

So, I pick up my friend L.T. in south Durham at 9:30 and say, “There’s plenty of time for us to get to this Open House thing in Chapel Hill by 10:00.” How wrong I was!

First, my printer only produced about a fourth of the map nicely provided on the Web by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The only road clearly showing on my map-segment was Franklin St., which everybody knows about anyways! I had to ask about the rest.

Once we were parked, we stumbled (in the rain, of course) upon Carroll Hall itself — which is a veritable labyrinth of floors and hallways to the uninitiated. Making it necessary to ask our way around the building.

So we arrived to the conference room half an hour late. But just in time, it turns out, to hear all three of the professors give their presentations! (and get free coffee!) — and meet Deb, Tyler, Pat, Kirk, Dick and Rachel Lillis when it was all over.

Deb Aikat

Deb began his presentation with a slide from News University. The slide showed statistics for how people retain information. According to the figures, people retain only 10% of what they read! Ugh! We retain 20% of what we see, and 30% of what we hear.

Now consider the more active forms of participation. We retain 70% of what we collaborate in, and 80% of the information related to things we do.

Deb showed a slide of an artist’s illustration of cyberspace, which involved some people with 80’s-looking haircuts standing in an urban environs with Japanese and Chinese writing characters on neon signs behind them.

Then Deb talked about JOMC 710, which he teaches and which has a lot to do with computers (of course!).

After this, he praised this year’s JOMC 713 even more, calling it his favorite group of students of all time. He borrowed a phrase from John McCain in the Presidential debate, saying that he admits he “muddles through” 710 (Afghanistan) just to get to 713 (Iraq), which is the true battleground for the War Against Internet Ignorance. (Just kidding on all of this!)

No, but he did say something about deadlines. He said deadlines are important for online classes more than anything, because, quote, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” (Parkinson’s Law) (There ought to be some kind of corollary about sleep doing that as well…) So Deb gives us deadlines, not because he is trying to push us around or something, but, quite the contrary, because he wants us to succeed in the course.

I would like to applaud Deb for the way he ended his speech, “I’m done now.” If only every professor would do that…

Brian Carroll

Brian teaches JOMC 711, “Writing for Digital Media,” which he called “the 7 to 11, open 24/7!”

Brian used the metaphor of music for most of his talk. He called the textbook “the sheet music,” which gives every student in the class a common reference, from which they can learn to jam together and each student can find his/her own rhythm.

Brian has each of his students write a blog; indeed, his motto for the course is Blogito, ergo sum (Silly-Latin for “I blog, therefore I am.”)

What I enjoyed most from Brian’s talk were the six tips for success in his course:

1.Budget your time. (see Deb and deadlines)
2.Find a rhythm. (Find your own personal groove and niche in the class.)
3.Get in on the discussion early.
4.Find your role or niche. (similar to point 2, but he gave examples of specific class roles)
5.Ask for help.
6.Pass the potatoes. (Think: Classroom as family around the dinner table. Each person has a unique role, and brings their own perspective to the class.)

Serena Fenton

Serena teaches JOMC 712 – Visual Communication and Web Design.

I just have to say, she has a very pleasant subject to teach!

She showed us an appealing textbook about web design, which she called “internet architecture.

She put up a slide called “Learning from Las Vegas,” which made the point that we innately have these good ideas about how things should look; we just have to learn the vocabulary for those ideas and apply it. She also made the point that people want design to be useful; in Las Vegas, the signs are conveyors of useful information.

Some of the key principles for internet architecture, she said, are:

  • predictability
  • consistency
  • simplicity
  • transparency

This ties in to the whole Las Vegas thing. The signs in Vegas tell you what you need to know, in an attractive, clear, predictable format.

She also talked about the “Gestalt” of a good web page/site; you can visually get a good sense of the whole product from eyeing the page. Then, as you dive into the parts of the page or site, you expand on your knowledge, and each of the parts ties back in to the organic whole.


After the talks, the professors opened up the floor to questions. Mostly, in my flawed memory, it seems like it was this one prospective student asking about the technical requirements of the Certificate Program and whether or not a Certificate student also needed to be an expert in computers.

This prompted Brian to actually show us some of the current posts from his 711 discussion board. He read through a couple of the posts outloud, and tried to show this fellow what Blackboard looks like from the inside.

Brian also used this opportunity to voice his overwhelming preference for Macs over PC’s, which drew a nice laugh from the crowd of 25-or-so people. Deb quickly stepped in and clarified that it is not necessary to own a Mac to participate successfully in the Certificate program!

At which point, we adjourned and I had the chance to meet Tyler, Kirk, Dick, and Pat, and to speak more at length with Deb – oh, and to get a really cool group photo with the whole group of us from 713 (see above)!

I hope these highlights have been at least semi-useful for the out-of-town crowd in this class, which is the majority!

My Research Plan!

September 19, 2008
Alexander's Empire


Welcome fellow students of JOMC 713, Deb, and whoever else may have stumbled upon this, my blog on education!

This welcome page is my Research Plan, so let me get right to it.


Aristotle once said or wrote,

All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth. (www.bartleby.com)

Aristotle put this into action by tutoring the young Alexander of Macedonia at the tender age of 13. The student Alexander went on to conquer most of the known world, transmitting Greek ideas and values wherever he went.

Both sides of the Aristotle-Alexander coin were important. Without Aristotle’s humane influence, Alexander may have been just another brutal tyrant, ruling men by force of arms and will. And without Alexander’s ambition and strength, Aristotle’s ideas may have never reached and transformed a larger audience.

We can learn from this history that education is a give-and-take, a form of social interaction. Both the student and the teacher have to be involved. As John Dewey would say, education is about real-life experiences, not mere preparation for some future action.

Research Questions

In my blog preamble I raised the question, “What does it mean to learn?” There I discussed education as an exchange between the teacher and student, with the ideal teacher showing genuine interest in the context and needs of the student. I would like to continue to research this basic question.

An extension of the first question is “Do we primarily want to teach rote skills such as the standard algorithms for multiplication and division, or should we instead focus on teaching the understanding of concepts? Or are both possible?” There is a fascinating debate about this on YouTube dealing with the use of certain contemporary textbooks for elementary math education (see both the original video by M. J. McDermott and the response by James Lynch.) Ms. McDermott argues for abandoning the new textbooks altogether and going back to teaching “basic skills” (which she defines as mastery of the standard algorithms for multiplication and division by the end of fifth grade). James Lynch wants to teach skills also, but “in the context of conceptual understanding.” He mentions the terms “number sense” and “understanding mathematics as a whole.”

Lastly, a related question is “How can we best accomodate education to the specific needs of each learner?” This question brings in the whole subject of classifications of students as “gifted and talented,” “specific learning disabilities,” autism, ADHD, and so on. This question focuses on how to teach real people who are not statistical averages or blank slates.

I know I bring a unique perspective to this research, for a couple of reasons. I have attended public and private schools, been in huge lecture classes and small discussion classes, and have learned from rote memorization as well as from open-ended discussion. As an undergraduate I attended St. John’s College, where there are no majors or minors, no tests, no grades, and no professors per se. Everyone reads a common list of great books, which are some of the most profound books ever written. Students learn to see these books as being engaged in a “Great Conversation” with each other, and we enter that discussion through Seminars and tutorials led by “tutors.”

In addition, I have taught and tutored mathematics for several years (see About Bobby), and I have been diagnosed at various times as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder myself.

What the Audience Wants to Know

I think people will want to know what practices and policies are the best for teaching people as real people, and for teaching them tools to help them understand concepts. Some audience questions might be, “What’s the earliest age at which a child can benefit from a Socratic discussion?” “How can we get American kids more interested in math and the sciences?” “What motivates gifted and talented students, as well as students with learning disabilities, to develop and unfold their own unique talents?”

Key Words

My keywords for research will include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • Socratic method, the
  • John Dewey
  • Aristotle on Education
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • Constructivism
  • Gifted and Talented
  • Specific Learning Disabilities
  • ADHD
  • Number Sense
  • Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome


Again, this list is not exhaustive; I’m always on the search for good resources. If you find some, send them my way.

Title: “Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth,” by M.J. McDermott; and “Responses” parts 1 and 2 by James Lynch.

Web Address: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=Tr1qee-bTZI

Description: Seattle meteorologist M.J. McDermott examines some contemporary math textbooks used in the elementary grades, and she finds them inadequate to teach “every child how to multiply and divide by fifth grade.” College mathematics professor James Lynch responds that the basic idea of the textbooks is good — to foster a conceptual understanding of mathematics and number sense — but that the effectiveness of the books is limited by other factors in the education system.

Title: “What’s Wrong with Math Education in the USA?,” by James Lynch

Web Address: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=2nYyJNEwDH8

Description: College mathematics professor James Lynch discusses some of the core problems with math education in the United States, as compared with other countries. He mentions 1) the unequal nature of the comparisons and 2) some cultural values in America that work against the goals of math education.

Title: CEC (Council for Exceptional Children) Blog: “Reality 101 for the New Teacher”

Web Address: http://www.cecblog.typepad.com

Description: Experienced and award-winning teachers and administrators share their wisdom with new teachers who have taught in a school for only 0 to 3 years. Topics range from reading student body language and behaviors (“Behavior is Language”) to finding Web resources that teach subjects through the use of games and fun.

Title: “What is the Socratic Method?”

Web Address: http://greatbooksacademy.org/html/what_is_the_socratic_method_.html

Description: This site describes what the Socratic Method is, its origins in Plato’s dialogue Meno, and why the method is useful for promoting understanding of core concepts. It has a homeschool-oriented perspective.

Title: “The Informal Education Homepage”

Web Address: http://www.infed.org

Description: This site deals with “informal education,” which it defines as lifelong learning and education tied to social action. It features an “Encyclopedia of Informal Education,” full of pages on thinkers from Aristotle to John Dewey. It also has an “action” section devoted to ideas on civic participation and community.

Title: “The British Journal of Special Education”

Web Address: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/117989206/home?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

Description: This is a peer-reviewed journal on issues in special education, dealing with topics from interventions for Asperger’s Syndrome to reading materials for adults with intellectual disabilities. This is pretty cool because it’s a professional journal but you can read the article abstracts online for free.