Archive for April, 2008

Conundrum: Death of the Author

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

One of my favorite pieces of trivia is that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day. What’s truly remarkable about this is that it happened on July 4, 1826, which was the 50th anniversary of the famous signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams’s last words are reported to be “Thomas Jefferson survives” – he did not know that his long-time friend and rival had died a few hours earlier. For us, then, knowing that Jefferson died first is an essential part of the story of these great founding fathers.

But what of the founding fathers of Western literature? Recently, we celebrated April 23 as Shakespeare’s birthday, but we also know it as his death day. Shakespeare died in Stratford on April 23, 1616. We do not know the time of his death, or his last words.

Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, might likewise be considered one of the founding fathers of Western literature. Cervantes died in Madrid on April 23, 1616. We do not know the time of his death, or his last words.

And yet, it is possible to say, with some degree of certainty, which of the two authors perished first. And that, dear readers, is today’s Conundrum.

Who died first: Shakespeare or Cervantes? How do you know?

Feel free to speculate as to last words too, if that sort of thing amuses you.

UPDATE: Question answered by Neel Mehta. See comments for answer.

Hooray for Captain Spellings!

Monday, April 28th, 2008

This morning, I read an editorial from the New York Times editorial staff in my pajamas. How they got in my pajamas, I don’t know:

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 was supposed to create clear, reliable data that told parents how local schools stacked up against schools elsewhere in the nation. It has not worked that way, thanks in part to timidity at the Department of Education, which initially allowed states to phony up even the most basic data on graduation rates. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings took a welcome step in the right direction by issuing new rules for how those rates are calculated.

By the 2012-13 school year, states will have to use the generally accepted way of computing their dropout rate. That means tracking students from the day they enter high school until the day they receive regular diplomas, counting as nongraduates those who leave without the diploma. This method was endorsed three years ago by the National Governors Association, which realized that accurate graduation rates were a vital indicator of how well the schools were doing.

Had the federal government led the way on this issue instead of waiting to see how the wind was blowing the country would already have built a sound data collection system.

Were they waiting to see how the wind was blowing? Or were they simply waiting until they were almost out of office?

Let’s be clear. The Bush administration did not simply “allow” states to falsify their dropout rates; they led the charge. George W. Bush ran in 2000 on the “Houston Miracle” in education, where Superintendent Rod Paige was able to raise test scores and lower dropout rates. Paige became the first Secretary of Education in the Bush White House.

Unfortunately, the “Houston Miracle” turned out to be a scam, which was eventually debunked by, among others, Bill Moyers and 60 Minutes:

All in all, 463 kids left Sharpstown High School that year, for a variety of reasons. The school reported zero dropouts, but dozens of the students did just that. School officials hid that fact by classifying, or coding, them as leaving for acceptable reasons: transferring to another school, or returning to their native country.

“That’s how you get to zero dropouts. By assigning codes that say, ‘Well, this student, you know, went to another school. He did this or that.’ And basically, all 463 students disappeared. And the school reported zero dropouts for the year,” says Kimball. “They were not counted as dropouts, so the school had an outstanding record.”

Sharpstown High wasn’t the only “outstanding” school. The Houston school district reported a citywide dropout rate of 1.5 percent. But educators and experts 60 Minutes checked with put Houston’s true dropout rate somewhere between 25 and 50 percent.

“But the teachers didn’t believe it. They knew it was cooking the books. They told me that. Parents told me that,” says Kimball. “The superintendent of schools would make the public believe it was one school. But it is in the system, it is in all of Houston.”

The political ramifications of this should be obvious. The school system is pressured by the politicians to fake the numbers, and the very same politicians get to run on an excellent record of educational reform.

So what happens when the fraud is finally elimated and the statistics start to reflect reality? We’re going to see a massive rise in high school dropout rates. This will not reflect actual high school students dropping out in larger numbers, but rather a change in the way such things are measured. And it’s all set to happen by 2012, when the next president, likely a Democrat, is running for re-election. And the story will be about that president’s dismal record on education, with a chilling statistic about rises in high-school dropout rates during that president’s term.

I agree that the formula needs to be fixed, and the Times is correct that the administration waited too long to do it. But I don’t think the Times editorial goes far enough in outlining the true consequences of the timing, appearing even to praise Spellings for taking this “welcome step in the right direction” which will cost her and her boss a total of nothing, and will likely help the Republican candidate in 2012.

Cognitive Surplus

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Clay Shirky has a posting well worth reading about the changing nature of how we spend our time. You should really read the whole thing, but I think his point is well summed up by his reaction to a television producer when he was explaining to her how Wikipedia works:

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

The producer still just thought it all a fad, but Shirky would soon have an experience that’s hard to dismiss.

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she’s going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn’t what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, “What you doing?” And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, “Looking for the mouse.”

Here’s something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here’s something four-year-olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for. Those are things that make me believe that this is a one-way change. Because four year olds, the people who are soaking most deeply in the current environment, who won’t have to go through the trauma that I have to go through of trying to unlearn a childhood spent watching Gilligan’s Island, they just assume that media includes consuming, producing and sharing.

The thing is that this change in our culture is more than just about our attitudes towards media or technology. Students are going to be coming to school expecting a more self-directed, interactive form of learning than we’ve been giving them. They won’t wait to be given permission to publish their writing or participate in their democracy. We need to make sure that school is a place where they can learn to acquire information more efficiently and express themselves more effectively, not a place where they are stifled in their attempts to do so.

I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

Shakespeare Anagram: The Tempest

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

From The Tempest:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Pure fans feel let down.

Will’s famous theatre adieu reduces histories and drama.

UPDATE: A clarification anagram.

Who Among Us Doesn’t Love the WWE?

Friday, April 25th, 2008

Thursday Morning Riddle

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

I’m one side of a ship; or its windows in line;
I’m the place where it docks, or its city assign;
I’m a slot for your flash drive; Iberian wine;
And when caught in a storm, any one of me’s fine.

Who am I?

UPDATE: Riddle solved by Annalisa. See comments for answer.


Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

Today is Shakespeare’s 444th birthday.

This means that if Shakespeare were alive today, he would be the world’s oldest human. In fact, he would be the oldest human who ever lived.

The number 444 makes me think of the Iran Hostage Crisis. The hostages were held for 444 days.

444 is a Harshad number. It is also a palindrome.

The year 444 AD was precisely 1564 years ago. What year was Shakespeare born? 1564. Believe it or not!

Gitmogarry Gitmo Ross

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

Company retreats and team-building exercises often get a bad rap. I actually have quite a bit of experience doing team-building exercises at retreats, and the most important thing is to create a space where people feel safe. I never do pure “trust” exercises, such as having people fall backwards or the like. I generally start with having participants do activities where they learn new things about one another, and we work our way into role-playing activities that allow us to workshop some of the more common situations that we encounter in our jobs.

It certainly never would have occurred to me to use waterboarding:

PROVO, Utah – No one really disputes that Chad Hudgens was waterboarded outside a Provo office park last May 29, right before lunch, by his boss.

There is also general agreement that Hudgens volunteered for the “team-building exercise,” that he lay on his back with his head downhill, and that co-workers knelt on either side of him, pinning the young sales rep down while their supervisor poured water from a gallon jug over his nose and mouth.

And it’s widely acknowledged that the supervisor, Joshua Christopherson, then told the assembled sales team, whose numbers had been lagging: “You saw how hard Chad fought for air right there. I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales.”

Hudgens is filing a lawsuit, which has brought to light some of the other motivational practices of his supervisor.

Hudgens alleged that if the 10-person sales team went a day without a sale, members had to work the next day standing up; Christopherson took away their chairs. The team leader also threatened to draw a mustache in permanent marker on the face of sales people for ‘negativity,'” Hudgens said. Christopherson kept on his desk a piece of wood, ‘the 2-by-4 of motivation,’ he said.

Make no mistake – this is not about motivation. It’s about power, and the abuse of it.

“We don’t know what he was thinking, but we know that he wasn’t thinking waterboarding, or torture,” Brunt said. Christopherson, suspended for two weeks while the company investigated the incident, is back on the job. The company declined to allow interviews with him or other employees.

I’m glad the guy is filing a lawsuit, but this goes way beyond workplace harrassment. There really needs to be a criminal investigation, and the people involved should be held accountable. This goes not only for the wolf who poured the water on Hudgens, but also for the sheep who were holding him down.

Thursday Morning Riddle

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

I am Soviet Russia; and Civil War Yanks;
I am organized labor; investor shared banks;
I’m the homeland of euros, not lira nor francs;
And a place where the students assemble their ranks.

Who am I?

UPDATE: Riddle solved by Brian. See comments for answer.

Shakespeare 24

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Via News on the Rialto, we learn of an international event called Shakespeare 24:

Shakespeare 24 (S24) is an exciting worldwide Shakespeare performance event. Beginning in New Zealand and ending 24 hours later in Hawaii. 60 youth groups will stage 30 and 45 minute adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays at 7pm, local time on Shakespeare’s 444th birthday, April 23rd 2008.

It all sounds very exciting, but I have to admit that when I first saw the title of the post, I had something else in mind entirely…



In a prologue, Jack Bauer asks for the audience’s generosity in accepting the extremely contrived plot in the season to come, and informs them that the following events take place between 8am and 9am.

8:00am – 9:00am: On his way home from a mission, Jack is stopped by three witches, who offer cryptic prophecies of a terrorist attack to take place in the next 24 hours. After he threatens them with a belt sander, they agree to get more specific. The attack will come in the form of a virus that makes the infected people seem like they are dead for a short period of time, after which they will be perfectly fine. Jack doesn’t think that sounds so bad, but the witches assure him that it can actually cause quite a bit of trouble.

9:00am – 10:00am: In the White House, Sandra Palmer is now president. She is having drinks with a group of community activists, when she realizes that one of them is Richard Heller, long lost son of the former Secretary of Defense. She immediately welcomes him into her cabinet as the new Secretary of Defense.

10:00am – 11:00am: Richard is installed as the new Secretary of Defense. He makes a phone call and tells the person on the other end that the plan is working and that he will be president by the end of the day. Sandra Palmer mysteriously dies of a poisoning.

11:00am – Noon: The vice president is sworn in as president. The Speaker of the House, suspicious of the poisoning, leads a campaign against him.

Noon – 1:00pm: Jack is visited by the ghost of his father, who tells him there is a mole in CTU, and that Jack shouldn’t trust anyone. Jack appoints his most trusted lieutenant, Agent Iago, to head up the investigation.

1:00pm – 2:00pm: The president is impeached, and the Speaker of the House is sworn in as president. The former president is imprisoned and is later killed by henchmen working for Richard. Iago puts a suspicion in Jack’s mind that Chloe is the mole.

2:00pm – 3:00pm: The president is alerted to the terrorist threat, and must cancel his trip to the Holy Land. He asks Jack to track down the leader of the cell. Jack traces the money trail to a Jewish moneylender near Venice Beach.

3:00pm – 4:00pm: Jack arrives at the moneylender’s place, and tries to interrogate him, but kills him accidentally. He finds three caskets, and knows that two of them are rigged with explosives, and he must select the correct casket to find out the location of the terrorist base. With some help from the moneylender’s daughter, he chooses correctly.

4:00pm – 5:00pm: The president is assassinated by a sniper, hired by Richard. The president pro tempore of the Senate is sworn in as president. He gives a rousing speech and then orders an air strike against the terrorist base located by Jack, but the terrorists are tipped off by Iago – the mole in CTU. During the phone call, we finally see the leader of the terrorist cell is Jack’s nephew, Josh Bauer. Josh escapes with his top henchmen before the air strike hits.

5:00pm – 6:00pm: The president is killed by a bomb planted by Richard, and the Secretary of State is sworn in as president. Jack learns from aerial surveillance footage of the strike that his nephew is involved in the terrorist plot. The new first lady discovers that Richard is a terrorist and tries to warn everyone, but she is dismissed as mentally unstable. She puts a curse on Richard, and calls Jack to tell him of Richard’s involvement. Then, she disappears.

6:00pm – 7:00pm: The president dies in what appears to be an automobile accident. The Secretary of the Treasury is sworn in as president. Jack goes to the White House to stop Richard.

7:00pm – 8:00pm: The president is killed. Jack is framed. Richard is sworn in as president. Jack is sentenced to death by a secret military tribunal.

8:00pm – 9:00pm: Chloe pleads to Richard, who is now the president, for Jack’s life. Richard agrees to sign a pardon for Jack if she will sleep with him. She agrees, planning to substitute a double, but the only match in the CTU database is Jack’s daughter, Kim Bauer. At first, Jack refuses to allow her participation, but when he realizes he will die otherwise, agrees to go along with the plan.

9:00pm – 10:00pm: Before she can follow through with the plan, Kim appears to die of the virus. Richard has her put in a trunk and dropped into the ocean.

10:00pm – 11:00pm: Kim washes ashore and is recovered by the owner of a brothel and his wife. Some other stuff happens, but nobody really cares. Josh gives a canister of the virus to a mercenary and asks him to attach a timing device set to release the virus at 7am.

11:00pm – Midnight: Not knowing who she can trust, Kim tries to make her way to CTU disguised as a boy, which makes her look exactly like her cousin Josh.

Midnight – 1:00am: Kim is approached by the mercenary who has completed the timing device. He gives it to her, believing she is Josh. Kim returns to CTU with the canister where she is again mistaken for Josh and arrested immediately.

1:00am – 2:00am: Jack escapes custody and heads back to CTU disguised as a bedlam beggar. Kim is interrogated by CTU agents who still believe she is Josh. The mercenary finds the real Josh, and demands payment for the timing device. Josh refuses, insisting he never received it. Hilarity ensues, and then Josh kills the mercenary.

2:00am – 3:00am: Jack and Kim reveal their disguises. Mischievous fairies put a spell on Chloe, who falls in love with Iago. Jack leaves to confront his nephew.

3:00am – 4:00am: Jack captures Josh, and discovers evidence on Josh’s cell phone that proves the mole inside CTU is Iago. He calls Chloe to tell her Iago is the mole. Chloe goes mad, sings a song, and drowns herself in a river.

4:00am – 5:00am: Jack returns to CTU to confront Iago, who at first refuses to speak until he is given immunity, but then confirms that Richard has been responsible for the day’s events. Josh reveals that Jack is his real father, and it was his bitter resentment over his bastardy that made him turn to a life of crime.

5:00am – 6:00am: Kim learns that Josh is not her cousin, but her half-brother, and goes to see him. Josh, moved by his half-sister’s compassion, repents. Jack goes to the White House and slips past Secret Service to confront Richard. Jack and Richard fight, and Richard is slain. Before he dies, he not only confesses to his crimes, but also provides a recap of the entire plot for the season.

6:00am – 7:00am: Messengers from CTU arrive at the White House and report that Josh has had a religious conversion, and has revealed the location of all of the canisters, except for the one he gave the mercenary. Jack realizes that the canister Kim was carrying is equipped with a timing device, and rushes back to CTU. The Attorney General is sworn in as the eighth president in the last twenty-four hours.

7:00am – 8:00am: Jack gets to CTU, but it is too late. Everyone at CTU has fallen to the virus. Jack, believing he has failed, delivers a monologue on the meaningless nature of brief life and commits suicide. After he dies, everyone wakes up from the virus and, seeing Jack dead, kill themselves. The new president arrives at CTU to give Jack a medal. He sees all of the bodies and laments the tragic events of the day. He then pledges to restore peace to the nation.