Bright Yellow and Persistent

Feb 18

[video]

Feb 11

[video]

Jan 30

I wrote a book review.

This is the mostly final draft. I wrote it for a friend. Buy his book (and watch the short film) here: americanspaz.com

Greg+Henry=Spaz. 

Greg Kieser is such a spaz he wrote a memoir, spelled his name wrong and called it a novel. He thinks he can admit everything and nothing at the same time. Spaz. If you don’t believe me, or him, go check out the newspaper article on his dad. Or watch the short film. Dude is not kidding around. There are jean overalls involved.   

This isn’t a sob story. Sure there are some sad parts and some touching parts and some gross love stuff, but there is also a lot of cow poop and general angry teen stupidity. Sure, not everyone got their face smashed on a kerosene heater in high school or actually had to scoop out a waist-high pit of liquid cow poo. But pretty much everyone made an ass out of themselves in front of the opposite sex (don’t lie) and lived to regret it. And pretty much everyone got a perm. Ok, maybe not everyone.   

But the thing is, the most spaz like part of the book is not all the stuff that our protagonist gets himself into. It is the fact that all these years later he sat down, put it on paper and is sharing it with us all. If pop culture hadn’t sucked the meaning out of the word ‘honest’, it would be an appropriate word to describe the 10 years of life crammed into the 241 pages of American Spaz. 

The pre-pubescent and teen years are largely unflattering and universally brutal, even when both your parents are alive and sane. But those years become rosier as you decay into adulthood. So it’s refreshing to see those years captured in all their flailing, frantic, directionless energy. At that age, you don’t know what’s going on. You can’t really control the urges that propel you forward. Your wants are vague - out of this place, into this crowd, out again, sex. The adults in your life might yell and argue and repeat again and again that you need to use your brain - but you can’t listen. You’re barely out of the primordial soup, how are you supposed to comprehend life? Most states don’t try kids as adults for serious crimes because kids legitimately don’t know what they are going to do until they’ve gone and done it. Kids are spazzes.

Death also makes you a spaz. You can understand it, but it never makes sense. As evidenced by the presence of religion, and perhaps scientific theory, our brains will do pretty much anything to find a structured explanation of the unexplainable. If you are knocked free of that structure, as happens to our young protagonist and to a different degree, his father — your brain ends up like a deer that unknowingly steps onto a pool cover and into a world of utter confusion. (Youtube it.) How is anyone supposed to react in a rational way to something that exists outside of their rational world?  

But really, what is a spaz?  

If your therapist were to walk in on this, your therapist would say in her/his soft measured psychotherapist voice, “Well, what do you think Greg is achieving by calling himself a spaz?” You, being in therapy for a reason, would probably say “well, uhm, his childhood was wack and he was kinda nuts…” And your therapist, calculatingly but casually, says, “That is true, he has gone through a lot more than most. But we all go through trying times. Do you think his behavior was maybe just a natural reaction? Maybe a way to protect himself from emotional pain?” And you, sensing danger, say “yeah…?” And your therapist, moving in for the kill, says “Do you think sometimes your reaction to events is driven by you wanting to protect yourself from emotions that are hard to process?” You, trapped, “well, sometimes it’s better to feel in charge than sad…” And so on until your therapist finally gets you to cry at which point, match point, session over. Anyway, that’s why therapists ruin books instead of writing them. 

By writing this book and facing his past, maybe Greg isn’t a spaz anymore. Or is the memoir as novel, everything but nothing, a protection? Maybe he is a spaz after all.  

If that isn’t enough to convince your inner intellectual snob to investigate further, and your therapist hasn’t already given you a copy as part of the patient loyalty program, here are a few alternate, very good reasons to read American Spaz:

- You like anything that might involve MC Hammer. (Don’t lie, you know you had those pants.)

- You have or are about to have a child and would like to be reassured that it will probably come out ok. 

- You are less than 22 and really want to know what people did with their lives before cell phones and the internet. 

- You have been to enough therapy that you can admit that you like reading about other people’s lives because it makes you feel like you aren’t alone. 

- You were a giant nerd as a child and would like to live vicariously. 

- You are in the market for a super cool hairdo (read the book, watch the short movie).

- You love cows. 

Jan 28

[video]

Jan 26

Awesome, good books on SCIENCE -

Mark Kurlansky wrote Cod and Salt. I haven’t read either because I am not great at reading books in a timely manner, but when I was posing as a librarian both his books got rave reviews from those who read and the excerpts that I read were great.

At the end of the interview (see link in title) he makes the comment that most scientists can’t write. Anyone who has ever seen an academic paper would probably have to agree with that. (Although, I would argue that it is because scientists are trained to write in the terrible dry academic way. If they were trained to write in an accessible way, I think you’d see a lot more good science writing.) 

I would also like to add that a lot of “reporters” do a horrific job writing about science because they don’t understand it. 

Business idea: be actually science literate in that you know how to be skeptical and ask the right questions and then make friends with some science nerds and write about what they are doing. Then uhm somehow get paid for that. I think there is definitely room for something in between giant science novels and the New Scientist’s brief overviews (which are awesome don’t get me wrong).

(My personal bias here is that I love @longreads type length and want more science nerd stuff to read.) 

Jan 22

Better testing, not none.

My response to NYTimes SchoolBook Parent Letter: “Dear Governor: Lobby to Save a Love of Reading” in which two parents suggest boycotting tests to protect and encourage a love of reading. 

I’m no fan of pointless and poorly constructed standardized testing. It is ridiculous that we accept standardized tests that do a mediocre, at best, job of measuring what is important. But we need tests. This isn’t 1912 - this 2012 and we are sticking our heads in the sand if we ignore the fact that we have come a long way (and have a long way to go) in terms of figuring out how to use data to make our lives better. 

The authors fail to appreciate that Fountas and Pinnell allows them and, more importantly, their children’s teachers a way to track and monitor each students progress in reading. Fountas and Pinnell is not ‘standardized testing’, it is systematic way to ensure that every child is learning the basics and to catch them if they begin to struggle. We need that for every child - particularly for those children whose parents either don’t have the ability or the time to monitor their children’s progress themselves. 

Why? Because you aren’t going to learn to love reading if you never learn to read.

Yes, schools should be concerned with getting children to learn to love reading, but first they need to be successful at getting all children PROFICIENT in reading. Right now, they are struggling to do that. Boring texts don’t help, but they don’t make the difference between learning to read or not. If a student doesn’t understand half the words on the page and doesn’t have strategies for figuring out what those words mean, he isn’t going to know enough to have an opinion on what is interesting or not. And have you seen what children and many adults love to read in their free time? It isn’t Tolstoy. Sure it would be great if all teachers customized each year’s curriculum for each student with high quality reading that each student will love, but that isn’t feasible. 

Why? Because we don’t have the data or the systems in place. A regular public school teacher would need close to super human powers to create an adaptive reading curriculum customized for each student in their class of 25-30 students (more if it is middle school) - while still staying on top of regular lesson planning and keeping track of student progress. 

If we want to give students a great education - literacy plus a love of learning - we need to give our teachers the super human powers to do so. This means better data and better testing. There are many promising programs and tests (School of One and NWEA to name just two), but those programs and tests still have a lot of growing to do. That growing will happen much faster if there is additional pressure from parents. With good data and smart systems, teachers may finally gain the super human powers to get kids to read AND to love learning. 

It is a shame that the authors of the SchoolBook post, who appear to be well-educated, were so intellectually lazy that they were willing to jump to the conclusion that the solution to our larger education woes is as simple as a boycott of testing. Ron Paul-esque policies are quick and easy but we all know that nothing is quick and easy, with the exception, perhaps, of political grandstanding.

If these parents truly wanted to see a better school system for their children, their children’s classmates and all NYC children (poor and not-poor), they would ask parents and citizens alike to join them in demanding BETTER data and BETTER standardized testing.