Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Castle

I drew this for a friend of mine. It's a castle, a fortress. It protects everyone inside it.

It has a moat, too deep to wade across, with steep banks on one side and sheer walls on the other, and probably full of man-eating creatures. There's no way the enemy is getting across that.

It has thick stone walls. An enemy once tried to break the walls down by heaving boulders at it. You can see on one turret that the boulders did nothing but chip the stucco.

The tall, thin windows you see are ports for the archers. They are too narrow for an attacker to climb into, but they give the archers a great view — and great protection while they rain arrows down on the enemy from above.

On top of the turrets, and along the walls, you see the crenellations or battlements.These give protection to the defenders while they roll their catapults, onagers, pots of boiling oil, and ... okay, Gatling guns ... into the openings and pour death down on their attackers.

The only way in and out of this fortress is through the drawbridge at the front of the castle. There is a portcullis behind the drawbridge, but of course you cannot see it. The tracks on the road indicate that there is a great deal of traffic in and out of the castle during times of peace, when the drawbridge is down. But when the drawbridge is up, the castle is protected, invulnerable.

But what's that on the right, towards the rear of the castle? It's a tiny door, and a dock just the right size for a small rowboat. This is a secret entrance, used by the king to sneak out at night and do un-kingly deeds in secret.

For all of its strength, and all of its offensive and defensive features, that secret entrance is the castle's (and the king's) downfall. For, just as the king can sneak out of that door by night, so his enemies can sneak in at night, stealing silently through the castle and capturing or killing all of its defenders.

In your life, you have built up strong defenses to protect you from evil and from attack by your enemies. What is your hidden weakness, the one that you don't think anybody knows about? When will your enemy discover it and use it to conquer you — or, at the very least, to hurt you badly? Don't you think it's time to tear down that dock and wall up that door?

The castle image is © 2014 Ray Depew. Unauthorized use is prohibited.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ladies! Learn How to Take a Compliment!

Here is some seriously important advice for all of you ladies out there. Listen carefully.

You've got to learn how to accept a compliment.

When a man pays you a compliment, ... Nope. Let's start again.

In the course of your life, many men will pay you compliments. Some are flatterers, and you can ignore them. Some are manipulative little [deleted]s, who want to use you as their private sex toy. But the vast majority of compliments you will receive are from men who know you well, who admire you and respect you - maybe even some who love you.

These latter groups are sincere and selfless in their compliments. You've got to learn to stop blowing them off when they compliment you. Do you know why?

When you ignore a compliment, brush it off, deny it, argue with it, roll your eyes, give an exasperated sigh or give any other negative response, you are basically telling the man that he is wrong. That his judgment is flawed. That he has poor taste. And that you don't appreciate his attentions.

Now, with some men, that may be the message you're trying to get across. But if it's someone who loves you, then DON'T BE SURPRISED when time goes by and you realize that you haven't gotten a compliment from him for years. YOU REJECTED HIS OFFERING. He accepted your judgment, swallowed the rejection and the hurt, and vowed to honor your wishes by never complimenting you again. YOU DID IT TO YOURSELF.

Ladies, it's really not that hard to gauge the sincerity of the compliment and respond with an equally sincere smile and simple "Thank you!" That's all you need to do. Practice it now. Make a habit of it. And give the men in your life a break. Years from now, you will be glad you did.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Will the real Common Core please stand up?

I've done some more research, and I think I found one of the reasons for all of the confusion.

This is NOT Common Core. This is Common Core, Inc. According to their website:

"We are a Washington, D.C. based non-profit 501(c)3 organization that seeks to ensure that all students, regardless of their circumstance, receive a content-rich education in the full range of the liberal arts and sciences, including English, mathematics, history, the arts, science, and foreign languages. Since 2007 we have worked with teachers and scholars to create instructional materials, conduct research, and promote policies that support a comprehensive and high-quality education in America’s public schools."

This is an organization that promotes itself as "a noted provider of CCSS-based curriculum tools. "

You can tell that they're not the REAL Common Core because:
(1) They"provide ... curriculum tools" based on the Common Core State Standards
(2) Their website promotes three commmercially-available curricula, namely Eureka Math, the Wheatley Portfolio, and the Alexandria plan.
(3) Their website also covers history and art, which are not part of the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core State Standards only cover mathematics and language arts.

I don't care what they call themselves, they are not COMMON CORE. They are Common-Core BASED, as far as that goes.

Let me add a qualifier here, and say that I've looked at their website, and I've looked at their offerings. Most of it is good stuff. These people know what they're doing. But some of them are not stuff I would use. And your child's teacher isn't being forced at gunpoint to use these materials.

This IS Common Core. This is the Common Core State Standards Initiative. According to their website:

"The state-led effort to develop the Common Core State Standards was launched in 2009 by state leaders, including governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia, through their membership in the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). State school chiefs and governors recognized the value of consistent, real-world learning goals and launched this effort to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life."

These standards are the ones that are being voted upon in state legislatures and school districts, and the ones being promoted rather cackhandedly by the federal government. Nobody makes any money on this website or from these standards. Thousands of teachers have worked tirelessly over the years to bring this effort to fruition.

The Common Core State Standards are a good thing, a very good thing, as you will decide after you read the information on their website.

So, why the confusion? And who started using the term "Common Core" first? And why is allowed to continue using that name, which only adds to the confusion and the rancor on both sides?

I don't have a good answer to those questions. Part of the problem is that the CCSSI doesn't have a very strong branding, trademark or copyright policy. But one thing that needs to be clear is this: The CCSS and Common Core, Inc., are two separate and independent entities. A state or school district can adopt the CCSS and not buy a single thing from Common Core, Inc.

More about Common Core, Number Lines and the "Frustrated Parent" Bullshit

Well, the Independent Journal Review has resurrected the story of the Frustrated Parent and the Common Core math problem. The writer, Caroline Schaeffer, writes the story as if this were new news, ignoring the fact that the story is already seven months old.

The IJReview has an axe to grind with Common Core, as this Google search illustrates. The problem is that all of the examples they cite are NOT examples from Common Core. They are straw men. We've been through this argument before: Common Core is not a curriculum; it's only a set of standards. The IJReview, like so many other CC opponents, ignores this fact. They build up their own straw men, knock them down, and say "See? Common Core is bad."

If the writers (and the editors) at the IJReview would read the real Common Core stuff at the official CC website, they would understand. A little research with an open mind can dispel an awful lot of ignorance.

But enough of that. Right now, I want you to remember way, way back to your grade-school and middle-school days. You were pretty good at learning all of that addition and subtraction stuff. Do you remember the kids in class who weren't all that good? They were labeled "dumb" or "slow." They ended up sitting in the back of the room. When they got frustrated and acted out, they were labeled "problems."

Education research has come a long way since you were that young. Since then, researchers have discovered that different children learn in different ways, which they call learning styles.  Students with a strong logical or mathematical learning style pick up the vertical method of subtraction (the way you do it) very easily. Students who are weak in this area, but who have a strong visual or spatial learning style, such as artists, or who have a strong physical or kinesthetic learning style, like dancers and athletes, may not understand the vertical method at first.

These visual and kinesthetic learners, however, will understand the number line immediately. They can use it as a crutch, or as training wheels on a bicycle, until they get the idea well enough to move on to the vertical method.

Or would you rather that teachers did NOT use all the tools at their disposal to help their students learn? Should we abandon this number-line method, as Frustrated Parent and all of  his fans loudly proclaim? Would you rather go back to the days when the dumb kids and the slow kids were relegated to the back of the room, where they could be safely ignored? God forbid we should allow our teachers to use the tools that might make them successful!

I recently had lunch with one of my former students, now 20 years old and a junior at college. Before she came into my 7th grade math class, she didn't like math. She was one of the "slow" and "dumb" ones. In my class, we used a number line and a marching Gummy Bear to learn about addition and subtraction — of both positive and negative numbers. She tells me that she remembers that lesson  (even though she no longer uses a number line). It was a turning point for her, and the confidence she gained from that one exercise changed her life. She ended up taking advanced math classes in high school, and she will be graduating from college with a minor in mathematics.

Her major is education. She wants to be a teacher.

One final note. If you think that it's simple and easy to teach the vertical method of subtraction to children, including the very difficult concept of borrowing, then you probably also think it's simple and easy to teach the vertical method of multiplication (also known as "long multiplication"), don't you? I know you do. I've seen some comments in the anti-Common-Core articles decrying the "box method" and other modern methods of teaching multiplication, and demanding that teachers teach it "the way we learned it."

So let's watch the Animaniacs demonstrate the simple and easy vertical method of multiplication — the way you learned it. Click here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fusion Energy: It May Actually Happen

Thirty years ago, fusion was going to be the clean-energy source that powered the future. Big names and big institutions were involved in fusion research. It eventually became clear that unlocking the power of fusion was not going to be an easy thing, nor was it going to be as economical as we were promised.

Fusion was a disappointment, and it disappeared from the public eye; however, it continued to be pursued quietly in laboratories, large and small, around the world. It only made the news when a crackpot would announce his crackpot "breakthrough" and everybody would get a good laugh out of it.

Well, one of those laboratories, where dedicated researchers simply kept hammering away at the problems of fusion, finally has some good news to report. Lockheed's famed Skunk Works, the birthplace of the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, a bunch of other flying machines and the Sea Shadow stealth ship, has announced ... well, here's how a Reuters reporter puts it:

"Lockheed Martin Corp said on Wednesday it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade."

Thomas McGuire, the team leader, says they've been working on this fusion project for four years (only four years?!) and they can build and test a real reactor in less than a year, and have a working prototype sometime in the next five years.


This is the Real Thing. And it's a compact design, too, not the stadium-sized Tokamaks that the big names were dreaming about.

After all the crackpots that have come and gone, this is something worth watching. The Skunk Works (officially known as Lockheed's Advanced Development Programs organization) is not known for its crackpottery. For its revolutionary designs and out-of-the-box thinking, yes. That was part of its original charter. For its solid science and engineering, applied in ways that would turn our perception of reality on its ear, definitely. For its nimble operations, for sure. And for its ability to keep its collective mouth shut and let the results speak for themselves ... well, other organizations (and individuals) could take lessons from the Skunk Works on this rare and precious skill.

Stay tuned. This is gonna get very interesting, very soon.

UPDATE: If you want to read a more detailed and technical article about the Skunk Works fusion reactor, here's an excellent article in Aviation Week and Space Technology.

Why cellular phone voice quality sucks, and what to do about it

I've always wondered why people are ditching their land lines and going to cellular phones. In my article "Telephones: Not Ready to Give Up my Land Line Yet", I gave four good reasons for keeping a landline. The fourth reason was sound quality.

Cellular service providers made a lot of compromises to sound quality in order to fit more channels, and hence more calls, into their networks. Those compromises degraded the quality of the sound to the point that it's become very frustrating to try to hold a decent conversation over a cell phone. Compounding the problem is the fact that the handset manufacturers have forgotten that a "smartphone" is supposed to be a telephone that does other stuff. Nowadays a "smartphone" is a palm-sized computer that also makes phone calls.

And the manufacturers have also built compromises into their hardware. The built-in speaker distorts the voice of the person on the other end. And the microphone, if it picks up your voice at all, also picks up a lot of background noise.

It doesn't have to be this way. You know those interviews on NPR, when the correspondent, sitting in the studio in Washington D.C. or Los Angeles, is having an interview with two people, one in Kabul and one in London, and it sounds like they're sitting right next to them? Yeah. Those are telephone connections, people.

Why are you settling for the tinny, fuzzy, static-filled, crap that comes out of your cellphone? A recent article in IEEE Spectrum tells why cellphone sound quality is so bad, and what can (and should) be done about it. The solutions are practical, and they are available today.

So why aren't we using them? I think it all boils down to money: the same reason that airlines are mashing seats closer together and making them more uncomfortable. It doesn't have to be this way. I'm not sure what to do about it, but I'll keep my landline until the day the phone companies get this mess figured out — and do something about it.