Monday, April 28, 2008

Chinese Oops

Your "Free Tibet" flag may have been made in the People's Republic of China.The revealing part of this story is that despite the economic liberalization of the past decade-plus, the Communist government's controls on the media are strong enough that the workers didn't know what the flags represented.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Math Pedagogy

Here's an interesting article from last month about an elementary school in L.A. that's shown stunning levels of improvement in its math test scores from using a set of textbooks from Singapore. Here is a website where you can buy them. I think it would be fantastic if this sort of thing caught on and proved successful on a large scale.

I've long thought that students were capable of better achievement if they were taught in more intelligent ways. Some number of years ago I had a co-worker who was struggling in the Algebra classes she was taking to fulfill her general education requirements at a community college. I tutored her for a few sessions and was pleasantly surprised to see that she was able to grasp the concepts quickly when we got past the memorization of techniques and instead moved into actually understanding them. She was able to perform well on her finals and is, I believe, some kind of teacher today.

Actually, I've had offhand thoughts about doing extra work as a math tutor... would any of you have any advice on how to approach this?

ALSO: Science, too. A while ago it struck me that until high school, science was taught to me in a very scattershot kind of way. Instead of one concept methodically building on another, you'd learn about concepts in isolation from each other. One week you'd be learning about the solar system and the next you'd be learning about how plants grow. Maybe some of that is necessary in the younger grades--- you need to expose children to a lot of different things in the world because it's all new to them and perhaps it's best for them to get a faint grasp of things first before moving on to more thorough explanations.* You get more breadth that way, but less depth. I think it would be good to develop a science curriculum that was at least somewhat more coherent than what we see now, but I think it probably gets short shrift these days because they don't do much (any?) standardized testing on science and, like math, a lot of teachers are probably not particularly confident in their abilities to go deep into the subject.

*Come to think of it, though, that's kind of how I do a lot of my learning these days as an adult. I'll come across a mention of filtration trenches in a document at work and spend some time on the internet learning what they are and how they work. I'll learn history by visiting a historic site and getting a snapshot of history there. I'll find out somebody owns a screen-printing shop and learn how that business works by chatting with them. Other things I'll learn in more depth by reading books on the subjects, but very rarely books specifically written as textbooks. One advantage with textbooks, I think, is that by making the reader do exercises or answer questions, the information sticks better. They do seem well-suited to learning the basic concepts one learns in K-12 school, as well as highly-structured subjects like math.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

LBJ Orders Pants

This is an oldie but a goodie from the Lyndon Johnson White House tapes. President Johnson calls up the head of Haggar Pants and goes into great detail on how he wants them tailored.
President Johnson: Yeah. Now, another thing: the crotch, down where your nuts hang, is always a little too tight. So when you make them up, give me a inch that I can let out there, because they cut there. They're just like riding a wire fence. These are almost—these are the best I've had anywhere in the United States.
Haggar: Fine.
President Johnson: But when I gain a little weight they cut me down there. So leave me... You never do have much margin there, but see if you can't leave me about an inch from where the zipper [belches] ends around under my—back to my bunghole.
Haggar: All right, sir.

Best Candidate Hair

Hair enthusiasts lamenting the suspension of John Edwards' campaign will be happy to know there's a gubernatorial candidate, also from North Carolina, with even better hair:That's Michael Munger. He's a professor at Duke and a Libertarian candidate for governor there. He even compares his hair to William Katt's on his own blog. Not that I'd vote for him, but hey, if hair issues are important to you, Munger's your guy.

UPDATE (4/28/08): Check out Munger's comment below; he actually had a very good reason for growing his hair out. I hadn't realized that before and hereby apologize, although it seems he kept a good sense of humor about his hair.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


My enthusiasm for Barack Obama just dropped a notch, as he's done some pandering to the people who think there's a link between autism and vaccinations (McCain's doing it, too). It's not just bad science, it's bad science with direct, easily-foreseen harmful consequences.

Last Week's Debate

James Fallows has a good takedown on what was fundamentally so bad about last week's Democratic presidential debate, which was almost an hour old before any of the moderators asked a question about a policy issue, and which featured Charles Gibson pointedly asking Barack Obama, "Does Reverend Wright love America as much as you do?" as if it were a legitimate question.
When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public's representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about.

Your Wives and their Fashion

CNN ruminates on the fashion implications of the FLDS polygamists in Texas:
"I can see the Brooklyn hipsters rocking a French braid, but not in a serious way. Maybe ironically."

Monday, April 21, 2008

What I've been up to lately

I know I rarely share personal details on the blog, so here are some glimpses into what I've been up to lately and what's coming in the future.

I was busy pretty much the whole weekend:
  • I participated in a Quiz Bowl tournament.
  • I saw a great band, Silversun Pickups, at an in-store concert at Fingerprints record shop in Long Beach.
  • I helped my brother-in-law Lance silkscreen some tablecloths for my grandfather's 90th birthday party, which is next weekend.
My wife is back in Indianapolis these days. I went to visit her a couple weekends ago, but my camera is busted right now, so I didn't take any pictures. We visited Parke County, which says it has the most covered bridges of any county in the country. They have a handy system with five color-coded marked routes to help you find the covered bridges.

Jen has a good job lined up for when she finishes her degree in the summer. She likes what she's seen of the company, they like her, the work is right up her alley, and they pay well. Yay! We'll have to move to the San Fernando Valley, though. But if we get a place close to the Orange Line, which is a bus that rides on its own busway, thus working more like a light rail line, it shouldn't be any problem getting into work for me.

In the meantime, she has a conference in Toronto early in May, so we'll both be heading out there for about the first week of next month. We'll catch Niagara Falls, too (we saved hundreds of dollars by booking flights into Buffalo, New York, instead of Toronto itself). I've never been to Toronto; do any of you have any particular recommendations beyond the obvious as to what to see or places to eat at?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Big Roundup of Links

Busy weekend! Almost no time for blogging. Here are a bunch of articles and other links that have piqued my interest lately:
  • Jonathan Chait on conservatives' political correctness:
    Bill O'Reilly's or Tim Russert's endless invocations of their working-class backgrounds are the equivalent of the campus activist who introduces every opinion by saying "As a woman of color . . . ."
  • Similarly, Paul Waldman writes on big media figures' desperate grasps at working-class credibility in "How Blue is Your Collar?"
    [quoting Michael Kinsley]'s the only kind of snobbery with any real power in America today: reverse snobbery.
  • April is National Poetry Month. At, you can sign up to get a new poem in your mailbox every day for the rest of the month.
  • Here is an interesting blog on science denialism.
  • A couple weeks ago Ilya Somin made his case that Warren Harding wasn't as bad as he's generally thought to be. Meanwhile, Wikipedia has a pretty good roundup of various surveys of historians and the public as to the presidents' relative merit.
  • A site called The Fielding Bible has announced its awards for the best and worst fielders at each position in Major League Baseball. Read up on their interesting quantified "plus/minus" system of evaluating fielders.
  • Drake Bennett writes some interesting thoughts on how we may want to re-think some of our basic economic assumptions to explain how poverty influences behavior, comparing severe poverty to being stung by a swarm of bees.
  • On a site called 2 Blowhards, architects are criticized for still clinging to bad, soul-sucking, modernist "Towers in the Park" planning that was discredited back in the 1960s by Jane Jacobs.
  • Leonard Pitts, Jr. notes the absurdity of the "Obama is only successful because he's black" idea.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Be a Mind-Sticker

Andrew Sullivan featured this bizarre Tab commercial from, I guess, sometime in the late 1960s. Not only does it have a downright unappealing tagline ("Be a mind-sticker") and the aesthetics of a Massengill commercial, but it just kind of boggles my mind that there was a time 40 years ago when an ad this blatantly sexist seemed like a good idea. (Nowadays, of course, the sexism in ads is more subtle.)

4/15/08 UPDATE: Here's an editorial about how men are frequently portrayed as buffoons in advertising. I do agree with his basic premise, though not all of his specifics; the ad above came from the writer's so-called "golden era" of advertising, so take that for what it's worth. I certainly agree that, more broadly speaking, advertising seems to be a lot more obnoxious than it used to be. Sometimes it seems almost every ad these days is somehow intended ironically, telling us that they're too cool to appeal to us in a straightforward manner. Now, some of those ads are genuinely witty --- Jack in the Box should be commended in this regard --- but for each one of those, how many dumb variants on the "here is a person who will go to absurd lengths to consume our product" theme do we see, or how many like Carl's Jr's do we see where they make a blatant appeal to the gutter, but we're supposed to think it's OK because they're winking at us, as if acknowledging the gutter makes it OK? Or how many succeed in creating an entertaining 30- or 60-second comedy or drama, but fail utterly in associating their product with the ad?

Environmental Sustainability and Economic Sustainability

Here's a good article by John Quiggin on how reducing greenhouse gas emissions needn't mean economic collapse. He notes how the "Deep Green" environmental pessimists and "Deep Brown" polluters are both arguing that there is inevitably a "fundamental conflict" between the environment and the economy. Quiggin says this notion is false, and I agree. I've seen this in my own work reviewing Environmental Impact Reports for the City of L.A.; there are actually a lot of things developers can do to make their projects more energy-efficient and thus environmentally sustainable that really don't add a whole lot to the cost of the project.

Check out the U.S. Green Building Council for some examples of what I'm talking about and note that they're not some fringe group; we're seeing a lot of projects these days that are aiming for LEED certification or its equivalent. Big utilities are investing in alternative energy: locally, Southern California Edison recently announced a 500-MW solar thermal energy project as well as a 250-MW solar roof project, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is building massive wind farms. Compact fluorescent bulbs are becoming quite common; we bought a couple of packs a while ago at Costco and have been gradually replacing all the lighting in our apartment. And of course, it's not like the cost of these things is going into a black hole; not only does it lead to lower operating costs for buildings, but the investment in alternative energy is feeding innovation. Check out some of these new flexible solar panels; the days of solar power being a clunky eyesore with a big initial outlay are in the past.

Also, it's nice to see a blogger (Quiggin) actually respond to the comments in his posts.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Scrutinizing the Easter Egg

On Easter, my brother-in-law took pictures of everyone with their Easter eggs. My photo is shown below.

The Lonely Aleutians

A while ago Jon Lange had wondered about the population distribution among the different time zones of the United States. Obviously the Eastern Time Zone has the biggest U.S. population, and the Mountain Time Zone has the lowest population of the four time zones in the contiguous United States.

But what about the other U.S. Time Zones? The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 49, Part 71 defines nine different time zones for U.S. states and territories, including the four familiar time zones plus the Atlantic Time Zone, Alaska Time Zone, Hawaii-Aleutians Time Zone, Samoa Time Zone, and Chamorro Time Zone (in Guam). Oddly enough, they don't define the time in the minor outlying islands; probably those use nautical time.

Let's take a closer look at the Hawaii-Aleutians Time Zone, which is two hours earlier than the Pacific Time Zone. The State of Hawaii doesn't use Daylight Saving Time, so right now people in Hawaii are three hours earlier than I am here in California. But what about the West Aleutians? They're in the same time zone as Hawaii, but they do use DST, so they're two hours behind me here, the only part of the country that currently uses the UTC-9 time offset.

Now let's think back to the original question about population distribution. How many people in the United States are currently two hours behind Pacific Time? This took a lot of poking around on the Census's American Fact Finder. Conveniently, all of the territory in question is in the Aleutians West Census Area (AWCA), but I had to separate out the parts of the AWCA that use Alaska Daylight Time (AKDT) from the parts that use Hawaii-Aleutians Daylight Time (HADT). The time zone boundary is at the 169°30' W longitude line, in Samalga Pass between the Fox Islands and the Islands of Four Mountains, but only in the Aleutian Islands themselves.

There are seven Census-designated places or cities in the AWCA. One of them, the city of Unalaska, forms its own Census tract (Tract 2, population 4,283), but everything else is in Census tract 1, which totaled 1,182 persons in 2000. The Tract 1 towns have the following populations:
Subtracting 1,151 from 1,182, that means there are 31 people in Tract 1 of the Aleutians West Census Area that don't live in a town or Census-designated place. But on which side of the time zone boundary do they live? For that, I dug through the block-by-block data and reference maps, and discovered where the Mystery People live:
All three of these locations are west of the 169°30' W longitude line, so they're in the Hawaii-Aleutians Time Zone. Adding the 31 Mystery People to the populations of Adak, Atka, and Attu Station brings the total U.S. population within that time zone observing DST to only 459 persons. Since most islands in the Pacific don't observe DST, the only other populated place in the world observing UTC-9 time right now is the Gambier archipelago of French Polynesia, which has a population of only 986!

Note 1: It would tickle me pink if there were a social club or something like that in Unalaska called the House Committee on Unalaskan Activities.
Note 2: I'll calculate the populations of the other time zones later.
Note 3: We're late enough in the decade now that the results of the 2000 Census are getting out of date. Just 2 more years to go!
Note 4: I had to go in and correct the Wikipedia page on Nikolski, which somebody had mistakenly put in the Hawaii-Aleutians Time Zone.
Note 5: I'm not that experienced in Wikipedia editing, so I don't think I made the references in the most efficient way possible. Specifically, I'd like the reference list to just put the link on the reference, instead of after it as another reference. I'm not sure how to do that, though. If one of you has more experience and could show me, I'd appreciate it.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Court Reporter of the Day

Stenographer Ron Tolkin of Brooklyn, New York helped subdue a defendant who had attacked a female federal prosecutor and then dutifully transcribed the rather salty exchange from a tape recording:
COURT REPORTER: I will beat the shit out of you, you motherfucker. You cock sucker. Who the fuck do you think you are?
COURT REPORTER: Try it on me, man. I'll kick you in the fuckin balls.
U.S. MARSHAL ALVAREZ: Get off her.
THE DEFENDANT: I apologize.
COURT REPORTER: You apologize, you piece of shit.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Behold the Vern

The incomparable Vern has created pretty much the best April Fools' Day page ever.