Wednesday, March 28, 2012

In which I confuse BDS with BDSM

As I have probably told you, I am not a political person, nor do I see this blog as a suitable political venue or platform. Not that my opinions are well researched, thought out or formed (and, often, properly spelled) but that I don't think anyone cares about my opinions and no one should. I don't shout my thoughts about the world's politics because politics, in general, sickens me and it just gets me angry. But, occasionally, I find a subject which seems to me to be so inane and worth pointing out that I am moved to do so. If you think that you will disagree with my politics, then leave now. I'll go back to being apolitically brilliant in a couple of days. Today, I'm going to pontificate about the Middle East.

I'm an unapologetic Zionist. Deal with it. This does not mean that i support the Israeli government all the time but I do support Israel's right to exist and defend itself. And I happen to think that the policy of economic sanctions, on any level which is not geared specifically to the government's cash flow are useless.

The current move to boycott Israel is flat out wrong headed, and I'm gonna tell you why. But first, my position on a few key words and phrases.

Palestine: a city in Texas and, I think, Virginia. A term for a general geographic region of the mid-east, similar to the word "North America" in that it covers a geographic expanse but does not point to a particular country, nation or people. Even if we ignore its historical root as an attempt to de-judify the name of Israel, it has never been used as the name of a particular country.

Palestinian: this should refer to people who lived in the region called Palestine before 1948. Thus, you had the Palestine Post which became the Jerusalem Post. Could it refer to people who live in areas which some have slated for a future country to be called Palestine? That's nice but historically, unprecedented. A name indicates existence, not the potential for existence. Americans weren't American until America existed even if they planned to rebel against the British and declare independence.

Occupation: this is a technical term applied when one nation moves in and exerts military and governmental control over the land of another sovereign nation. As there is no sovereign nation of Palestine, areas like the West Bank cannot be said to be occupied, only disputed in ownership.

Apartheid: a political system in which separate laws keep groups from having identical rights and opportunities. Clearly in Israel this is not the case. People outside Israel (i.e. on the West Bank and Gaza) are not necessarily Israeli citizens and thus do not have the same rights. There's more about this but, simply put, the label doesn't apply.

Now, why is boycotting a bad idea? I'll sum it up:

1. Consistency -- there are other countries which actually occupy neighbors and we don't boycott them. Try not buying anything Made In China. The issue of Chinese "occupation" of Tibet is well discussed and explored (and argued) but no one has stopped buying everything made in China.

2. Self-Consistency -- if you don;t want to support Israel by buying anything Israeli, then be absolute and complete about it. There are loads of websites which list ALL the products made in or by Israelis or whose development was forged in Israel. Until a BDSer starts avoiding all of them, I cry "hypocrisy". Avoiding a brand of Hummus and bankrupting a farmer is meaningless if you continue to use a smartphone which was developed in Israel.

3. Fairness -- is there an intent in boycotting to harm Arabs? What about Arabs who live in the West Bank? If someone stops buying a product because it is "made" in Israel, he is harming the employees, many of whom are Arabs who work fields, or work in manufacturing. A boycott hurts a company less than it hurts people. Go ask an Arab who works at PeaceWorks. (from the NYT article about the Park Slope attempt at boycott and the PeaseWorks company which would be subject to the boycott, "Its line of tapenades and pestos uses olives grown in Palestinian villages, glass jars made in Egypt and sun-dried tomatoes from Turkey.")

4. Real influence -- does a potato farmer in Idaho have any influence on a congressman? Even if one were to boycott ALL the potato farmers in Idaho, would that make a difference in the decisions of the US government on the whole regarding foreign policy? The link is tenuous at best. All it does is hurt the individual meanwhile, which radicalizes the individual, polarizes the sides and decreses the chances for dialogue and change.

5. Boycotts against certain countries are illegal.

Again, I'm not in favor of everything Israel has done or does. I'm also not in favor of everything the US has done. But I find that boycotting is a particularly dumb way o get that message across. You want a better way? Follow the traditional path if you want to criticize Israel. Move to Israel and become a journalist.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A new Game

I'm working on inventing a new game. Since Hollywood has rejected my ideas for movies, and I have failed at becoming famous for my other offerings (philosophy, poetry etc.) I will try to break into the sport creation industry. I mean, someone thought of strapping wheels to a piece of wood and hurtling down a mountain and called it a sport -- how tough can this be?

So here's my idea and if you are in the sports industry and decide (as well you should) that this is the wave of the future, please just throw some mad cash my way:

The field is a concrete circle with a 100 foot radius. The walls of the playing court are made of clear Plexiglas (TM, no doubt) which surround the court so the players are standing inside a clear, round plastic tube. The "wall" though, while it extends up about 1 feet, does not reach the ground -- it stops three feet before the ground (held up by thin posts).

The players are equipped with paddles shaped like squash racquets but with a surface like a paddle-ball paddle (plain wood). The ball is a SuperBall -- you know, one of those little ones that bounces like crazy.

The point is to hit the ball off a wall and get it to exit the playing area by going under the wall (but it must hit a wall first). It cannot go OVER the wall or the opposing player is awarded a point.

It also might be good if played on motor cycles but I haven't thought that far in advance, yet.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Driving home, a point

We often define ourselves not just by who we are, but by who we aren't. We spend an inordinate amount of time seeing the other as the other and defining and redefining otherhood for ourselves so we can justify why "they" are "them" and we, thank god, are not one of them. I find this process of recrimination to be most acute while driving.

For some reason, everyone is a terrible driver except for me. But as if it weren't enough that everyone other than me is a menace to go-ciety, all those who can't drive are so clearly part of some other group that they couldn't possibly be trusted to drive well. That driver is a (insert race here) and those people can't drive. What? A (insert gender here)...and we all know about them and driving...Did you see that move? It makes sense that he would drive a (insert car model here). Geez what a jerk, of course we can expect that, since he's from (insert other state here). That guy cut me off! Figures, what with that (rag top, bumper sticker, dent, color of hubcaps, toupee)

I think that it is about time that we came to terms with this tendency to label and exclude people. We need to find ways to bring us together and if we want to assume that people are por drivers, we can do so by looking at them as individual poor drivers and not representatives of any group of poor drivers. And to simplify things, why don't you all just get the hell out of my way?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Questions for King Khan

I keep reading about the flipped classroom and the Khan Academy videos and I have developed a few questions. So I fired them off to the Khan Academy. Maybe I will get an answer, maybe not. But I had to ask. Here they are, so if anyone else has answers, I'd love to discuss.

1. Doesn't a static video make it impossible for a student to ask questions during the direct instruction portion?
1a. doesn't this inability to ask questions limit the scope of the instruction? Teaching is a dynamic and flowing process which often engages by pursuing tangents or unexpected areas. Video instruction stifles this, doesn't it?
1b. video instruction can't adapt to a perceived need -- either by rewording, or restructuring content if the used mode of instruction doesn't click, or by moving to a more basic bit of content to reinforce core knowledge if a teacher recognizes the need.
1c. a student who needs to learn cumulatively but has an unanswered question after minute 2 cannot necessarily get through the next 13 minutes, so how can learned be effected? if a classroom has a number of students with different questions unanswered, the teacher ends up losing even more time trying to address all the different needs and then sending the students BACK out to view the video again.

2. Isn't the academy approach limited by the cult of personality of Mr. Khan? As the 60 Minutes piece reminds us, these videos worked because of the ability of Mr. Khan to break things down. Wouldn't it be more useful to teach teachers how to break things down in the same, effective, way, instead of removing the instruction from them and handing it over? What happens if Mr. Khan loses his voice? No new topics can be covered. Maybe, instead of hiring engineers to make for a website, he should be hiring teachers who can branch out in the curricular offerings and maybe even over a variety of versions/approaches to the same content area to address students who don't click with one particular presentation.

3. While (maybe) this method is effective with math and the sciences (though many teachers would be concerned that this approach in these areas is often heavily about process and not about inquiry), it seems as if it would really be useful in the more liberal arts, such as English Language and Literature. What worries me is that History instruction is often more about the critical thinking than about the retention of facts, thus making it less of a Khan-able topic than it seems.

4. While teachers are being taught in their grad school classes to de-emphasize frontal instruction, doesn't the Khan video place the teaching back in the hands of a a lecturer (or frontal instructor) thus denying any of the instructional advantages gained by removing the Teacher-in-center model?

5. Isn't the Khan system simply teching-up the same old discrete curriculum model of education? Shouldn't we be focusing on the cross disciplinary instruction and application to better prepare students for the real world and messy presentations of content?

I can't even draw conclusions

This evening, i stayed after work for a bit to go to a presentation of photography, 2-D and 3-D art and music presented by many of the students in school. I wandered through the rooms, looking at the composition, balance, shading, while listening to jazz and choral presentations. It was quite moving because it reminded me, above all, of my absolute lack of ability and distinction in the fields of the visual and auditory arts.

Thing is, I can't draw. When I make a circle, it looks like a square. And when I make a square, it definitely doesn't look like a square. My stick figures lack figure and my abstract works aren't even abstract. I dabbled in photography as a youngster and still take pictures but my artistic sense, well, never developed. And, yes, I play a bit of music here and there, but on a level that made our garage sue to have his name severed from my genre. I have no talent in these areas.

Then I look at the students, and even some relatives, all of whom can draw a person that looks like a (particular) person, take a picture that says more than the requisite 1000 words, or do something with music other than name the album and artist, plus two bits of trivia about it. I am constantly amazed -- where does talent lie? Can I see it? Can I touch it? Can I borrow a couple of tablespoons of it? I have one child who makes wallets, bags and other accouterments out of duct tape and a child who sings and dances. While I know how to use duct tape to close a box, and can shriek like no banshee's business, these talents do not come from me. So what do I have to offer?

Is there value in being able to write an essay quickly, or come up with a groan inducing pun? Is there any artistic value in being oppositional and defiant? Does everyone have a unique and special gift which allows him to contribute to society? Or maybe some of us just survive by being familiar enough with enough other areas that we can appear to be distinctive in many different fields when compared to people who know nothing, while we are, in truth, still woefully undistinguished. Maybe, to niche his none.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Lesson of Purim

I think that the events in the Scroll of Esther teach a variety of lessons about identity, heritage and faith but possibly the simplest and most powerful lesson may have nothing to do with the acclaimed actions of the heroes.

While Esther's bravery might teach us of the power of a woman's will and character, the scroll includes a more telling anecdote regarding another couple and an insight a woman has which her husband can't see. Haman (boooooo), in chapter 6, sees that he must honor Mordechai the Jew whom he has conspired to kill. He is annoyed and vents to his wife Zeresh. Her answer? "If Mordechai is of the Jewish people, you will fail in your machinations against him." Haman knew that Mordechai was Jewish way back when, in chapter 3! Why didn't Zeresh warn him then that there was this accepted wisdom about plans against Jews not working out? In fact, just the opposite occurs! In. Chapter 5, when Haman vents to his wife and wise friends about Mordechai's not bowing to Haman, and he identifies Mordchai as a Jew, they are the ones who suggest the gallows! So why would Zeresh choose only later to quote the notion that a plan against Jews won't work? What happened in the interim?

There was a subtle but major shift between the two conversations between Haman and Zeresh - the king in chapter 6 had discovered Mordechai's heroic but downplayed behavior from chapter 2 and saw that it had to be rewarded; this is what Haman recounted. Zeresh recognized that Mordechai was not a Jew in name only! Haman could not see the distinction between lineage and personal behavior. This is why Zeresh says "if Mordechai is of the seed of the Jews." This contrasts with Haman's statement that Mordechai simply is a Jew.

Zeresh had an insight into our position as Jews. She understood that it isn't about calling outselves "Jews" which will guarantee any divine aid, but our righteous actions which firmly place us in the chain forged by generations of Jews stepping up and acting like Jews.

This Purim, let's adopt Zeresh's clear perception and step up to act like Jews as part of zera Yehudim, instead of simply applying a label of Jew to ourselves and ignoring the responsibilities which come along with it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Foiled Again!

I was thinking about cursing this morning -- not that I was on the verge of cursing but I was considering the entire concept. I admit, I had a few extra minutes and what else should I think about?

I don't curse. I really try hard not to for a few different reasons. I also don't condone cursing in others. Now, in the interest of full disclosure I have to say that when I was younger I cursed. A lot. I had the mouth of a sailor. I said things like ship and forecastle. A little profane humor for all you salty speakers about there.

But seriously f*lks, why is cursing bad? I have broken it down as follows:

1. it isn't bad -- a curse word is a collection of letters which when strung together make an arbitrary sound. That's it. It has no power over me unless I give it the title of taboo. These words are part of a well-rounded vocabulary and should neither be censored nor censured.
2. Curses discuss personal bodily practices which are best not discussed in public. If one must discuss them, one should use clinical/medical terms or infantile nicknames or euphemisms. If doctors and nursery school teachers were to co-opt certain curses, those curses would lose their value as taboo. If teenagers were to start incorporating clinical words (or new coinages randomly generated or unrelated words defined in context as having those sexual or scatological/biological connotations) into counter-cultural contents, or imbue their use with lascivious overtones, those words would become inappropriate.
3. Curses are an expression of extreme -- extreme objectification and dehumanization, extreme graphic description, extremes in emotions which drive us to yell them when we hit our thumb with a hammer (I have never, no matter how many comics I read, been able to pronounce the # sign in "@#!"). To my mind, this extreme indicates a loss of control, or a lack of mastery over the self and the language which would allow expression even in moments of crisis in a way indicating more self control. Does this mean an inability to allow the self to lose control even when it might be appropriate? Maybe.
4. Cursing is about power and rebellion. It is about the choice to express in a way which others would fain deny. The words are immaterial but the exercise of will is the problem. Once society or whatever the power structure is has decided that certain things are off limits, those who wish to establish themselves as on the fringe or not under the rule of authority will push the envelope of expression. When you come to terms with not feeling the need to rebel (or with the need to find more interesting ways to rebel), you no longer need to curse.

I stopped cursing before my first child was born. I decided that I needed to exercise self control in how I spoke instead of hoping that I could turn on that control when I thought it necessary. Because of the amount of time I spend in front of students, I know that my control of my words has to be all the time and every day so it is best to self regulate consistently than to hope that I can become careful when the need suddenly arises. I also know that my children, had they heard me cursing when they were young, would not understand the distinction between "when daddy is sad because his team loses" and "when I drop my crayon in school." I didn't want my kid to be the one that every parent can blame when 25 other 3 year olds come home yelling expletives with an innocent smile.

So I don't curse because of some bizarre and personal combination of the various factors. Take it for what it's worth.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

On behalf of the silent minor

My daughter is a minor celebrity this morning. By that I mean both that she is under 18 and famous, and that she is really not that famous at all. And I'm angry. Lest you think that this is simply a case of my free floating hatred of humanity, I will explain the connection. You see, she is famous, but for the wrong reason.

A few weeks ago, she was cuddling up to a copy of People (we don't let her date actual people, just magazines) and she called me over. She pointed out that in an article about a woman who started a refuge for abused kids, the article claims that the woman was arrested in 1986 and the mugshot clearly says 1989. Or something like that. Bottom line is, she found an error -- a disconnect between the claim and the evidence. The year seemed important in the flow of the article so this mismatch changed the timing of the events and the entire logic of the story being told. She decided to write in and let them know of their error.

Instead of jumping in with two feet and attacking, she began with a paragraph praising the magazine in general and the article in particular, and then she transitioned beautifully into a paragraph pointing out the mistake. I was hoping that she would get a mention in their correction or even a letter printed in the letters section with a note praising her eagle-eyed reading.

This morning, after hearing from the magazine that they would be publishing part of her letter, we woke up early and drove to 3 stores to find the magazine as it hit news stands. She opened it up and read the letter they printed. They started with the paragraph in which she falls all over herself to praise the article and how it has inspired her. Then they stopped.

They deleted any and all mention of the error!

She is, of course, ecstatic. And I am, of course, livid.

The whole goal of the letter was to show them an error -- to prove that my teenager has more common sense and awareness than their underpaid editorial staff. I can understand if they chose not to print the letter at all, but they kept the part which was pure praise, thus making my child look like some drooling idiot who was inspired to write a letter of praise to a magazine. We don't do that in my house. No one pats you on the back just for doing your job. You are SUPPOSED to write stories about people in People. No kudos for that. But they made themselves look good while never admitting the mistake!

Now, in their defense, they did send the child an email explaining that they don't print corrections of "production errors." I am not in the magazine game and maybe my idea of what a production error is different from theirs, but this is not a "production error." This is an error in logic, writing, fact checking and proofreading. Hiding behind the "we printed the wrong picture" excuse doesn't work because the fact that this picture exists and points to a different date changes the truth value of the article. Journalistic integrity demands that they admit and clarify.

So the child, still overjoyed at seeing her name in print (and yet I can't use her name in a Facebook update...go figure) has been used by the man. And I am left alone, to fight the good fight.