BBC’s Horizon: Intelligent design a threat to science

January 26, 2008

Greg Laden’s Blog noted the program on intelligent design from Horizon, a BBC Two series somewhat similar to PBS’s NOVA, but without political shackles.

A YouTube video exists (below); and the Horizon website has some text and several useful links — and a picture of Bill Dembski doing his best Big Jule routine.

Horizon also reported on global dimming — no, that’s not what happens to intelligence when intelligent design is taught. At least, not yet.

Sheesh! Are creationists in Texas feeling the heat yet?

More but not enough freedom of speech in Turkey

January 26, 2008

Turkey changed its laws that completely forbade criticism of the government. Recent changes promoting freedom of conscience and speech do not change the fact that this blog, and a million others on WordPress, are still blocked in Turkey.

Remember the old Radio Free Europe? We need a Blog Free Turkey; a Blog Free China; a Blog Free Duncanville Independent School District.

National Statuary Hall’s newest residents

January 19, 2008

Po'pay, statue in the Capitol, photo from Architect of the Capital

Pictured at left is the statue of Po’pay, one of two statues of heroes from the history of New Mexico featured in the National Statuary Hall, a collection in the U.S. Capitol. Po’pay’s statue was added to the collection in 2005, one of the two latest additions.

Po’pay was a leader of the revolt against oppressive Spanish rule over New Mexico’s native inhabitants between 1675 and 1681, a century before the American Revolution.

In 1997, the New Mexico Legislature selected Po’pay as the subject of the state’s second statue for the National Statuary Hall Collection and created the New Mexico Statuary Hall Commission, whose members were appointed by Governor Gary Johnson. Four sculptors were selected to create maquettes, and Cliff Fragua was awarded the commission in December 1999. It will be the seventh statue of a Native American in the collection; the others are King Kamehameha I, Will Rogers (who had Cherokee ancestors), Sakakawea, Sequoyah, Washakie, and Sarah Winnemucca.

The seven-foot-high statue was carved from pink Tennessee marble (making it the only colored marble statue in the collection) and stands on a three-foot-high pedestal comprised of a steel frame clad in black granite. It is the first marble statue contributed to the collection since that of South Dakota’s Joseph Ward, which was given in 1963; the other statues given since that time have been bronze. Its acceptance marked the first time at which every state in the Union has been represented by two statues in the collection. In addition, Po’pay is historically the first person represented in the collection to be born on what would become American soil.

No image or written description of Po’pay is known to exist. Sculptor Cliff Fragua describes the statue thus:

In my rendition, he holds in his hands items that will determine the future existence of the Pueblo people. The knotted cord in his left hand was used to determine when the Revolt would begin. As to how many knots were used is debatable, but I feel that it must have taken many days to plan and notify most of the Pueblos. The bear fetish in his right hand symbolizes the center of the Pueblo world, the Pueblo religion. The pot behind him symbolizes the Pueblo culture, and the deerskin he wears is a humble symbol of his status as a provider. The necklace that he wears is a constant reminder of where life began, and his clothing consists of a loin cloth and moccasins in Pueblo fashion. His hair is cut in Pueblo tradition and bound in a chongo. On his back are the scars that remain from the whipping he received for his participation and faith in the Pueblo ceremonies and religion.

Fragua, an Indian from Jemez Pueblo, studied sculpture in Italy, California, and New Mexico; he created his first stone sculpture in 1974.

The other 2005 addition to the collection was Sarah Winnemucca, heroine from Nevada (pictured below, right).

Sarah Winnemucca, in the National Statuary Hall, Architect of the Capitol photo

Sarah Winnemucca
[facsimile of her signature, “Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins”]
Defender of Human rights
Author of first book by a Native woman

Each state may have two statues in the collection.

My work on the Senate staff often required that I walk the Capitol, especially between the Senate and House Press Galleries. I often lamented that it was not available or accessible to students.  This collection of statues is one of the better unsung galleries of history in Washington, D.C. It is heavily influenced by politics and current fashion. Selections illustrate how state legislatures try to make their state’s reputation, and can be very quirky. For example, Pennsylvania’s statues include Robert Fulton, an inventor of the steamboat, and John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg — but not Ben Franklin or William Penn.  Why?  There could be a paper done on the politics of the choices of each of the 50 states.

Read the rest of this entry »

Banksy’s graffiti sells: $407,000

January 15, 2008

A few days ago, via Peoples Geography, I discovered the work of graffiti artist Banksy — rather behind the curve, judging from his history. I posted a particularly provocative work of his in this post within the past week.

Today CBS Evening News and other outlets report some enterprising building owner in London who recognized Banksy’s work, preserved it, and has auctioned it away on eBay. It fetched $407,000 US. (CBS video here)

Banksy art from a London wall

The work, depicting an artist in old-fashioned clothes putting the finishing touches on the word “BANKSY” spray-painted in red, was scrawled on a wall on the Portobello Road in the west London district of Notting Hill.

It was offered for sale on the e-Bay auction site and went for 208,100 pounds after attracting 69 bids.

The winner of the auction may well get the painting and the wall it is on, but they will have to calculate how to get the whole work delivered and pay to replace the wall.

“I am selling the wall because I can’t really justify owning a piece of art worth as much as it is,” said Luti Fagbenle, the owner of the property on which the graffiti is sprayed.

A political cartoon changed the life of one London building owner.

Political cartoons: Powerful if they hit the audience

January 13, 2008

Thomas Nast helped bring down the crooks at Tammany Hall with cartoons. Boss Tweed, the chief antagonist of Nast, crook and leader of the Tammany Gang, understood that Nast’s drawings could do him in better than just hard hitting reporting — the pictures were clear to people who couldn’t read.

But a cartoon has to get to an audience to have an effect.

Here’s one below, a comment on the security wall being built in Israel, that got very little circulation in the west at Christmas time. Can you imagine the impact had this drawing run in newspapers in Europe, the U.S., and Canada?

It’s a mashup of a famous oil painting related to the Christian Nativity, from a London-based artist who goes by the name Banksy. (Warning: Banksy pulls no punches; views shown are quite strong, often very funny, always provocative, generally safe for work unless you work for an authoritarian like Dick Cheney who wants no counter opinions.)


Tip of the old scrub brush to Peoples Geography.

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Designers correct: Font choice affects grades

January 12, 2008

Put your paper into Georgia, a serif font, and your grades may rise.

Some enterprising fellow at Fadtastic did the research, and discovered Georgia-fonted papers tend to get A grades, Times Roman-fonted papers get A- grades, and Trebuchet-fonted papers get B grades (“The Secret Lives of Fonts).

Of course, that’s what the type designers, book designers and web designers have been telling us for 20 years — a serif font is easier to read, and makes the reader feel more at ease. When graders feel good, the paper gets a good grade. That’s logical.

I also discovered that when faxed to news editors, sans serif fonts get better play. If the press release is legible, it goes farther.

And, when I was taking broadcast courses, my grades rose significantly when my IBM Correcting Selectric II arrived, and I started doing all my scripts in Orator font. The teacher, an active newsman at the time, graded higher when he recognized the font more — it was roughly the same font on the teleprompter at his station.

Pick your font and your transmission method accordingly.

The author of this non-scientific study is a web designer, of course.

I’ll bet you’ll find that conclusion, backed with some sort of research, in the book design and web design texts.

Remember when we all used typewriters, and such choices were not options at all?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Graceful Flavor.

Leadership: Why not Bartlett, or Vinick, for president?

January 7, 2008

Often I ponder that there are few, if any, worthy models of bosses in popular media, especially in television. This realization struck me several years ago when a friend and I were working on a book on leadership (never published). Models of action are very powerful things. When people see other people doing things, people copy the behaviors, even unconsciously — ask any parent whose kid suddenly informed the in-laws or PTA of the parent’s ability to cuss in a fashion that would embarrass most sailors.

So, the models of what we see as bosses probably affect what we actually get in the workplace. This should trouble you: There are not a lot of good models of good bosses in any medium.

West Wing, 6th season DVD

In the comic strips, for example, we have Dagwood Bumstead and his boss Mr. Dithers, who wars with his wife, who seems to be an authoritarian despot who physically abuses his workers. Or in more modern strips, we have Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss, who is an incompetent at all human functions, and most management functions as well. Don’t get me going on Beetle Bailey with incompetents all the way up the line from Sgt. Snorkle.

On television we’ve had incompetents and yellers for years. Phil Silvers played Sgt. Bilko. In every incarnation of Lucille Ball’s programs, a boob boss was required — from Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban temper flareups through Gale McGee’s bosses whose manifold, manifest foibles made them great comic foils. Homer Simpson’s ultimate boss, Mr. Burns, anyone?

Generally, even where someone plays a pretty good boss — Crockett’s and Tubbs’ boss on the old Miami Vice, or the lab heads in any of the current CSI series — there is another boss above them who has some massive failing, or a vendetta against the good team.

Exceptions are rare. Some of the Star Treks did better than others. Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: Next Generation, was ideal as boss in many ways. It was particularly interesting to watch him give his “No. 1,” Riker, first choice in missions on foreign planets. The character Picard had a particular way of showing confidence in subordinates, in subtly demanding the best from them. He’d ask for opinions or ideas on what to do next; when someone came up with a workable idea, or even only the best idea of an apparently unworkable lot, Picard would look them in the eye and delegate to the team the authority to make it happen: “Make it so,” he’d say.

If only we could make it so.

Then there was The West Wing. I think it premiered when I was teaching at night. For whatever reason, I didn’t see a single episode until reruns shortly before the second season. I caught new episodes almost never. Read the rest of this entry »

What are you reading for Christmas?

December 25, 2007

Tangled Up In Blue Guy posted Squidmas greetings, and revealed his Squidmas post list.

With one notable exception*, it’s a list of blogs we probably ought to be reading. Seriously, go scan through and see if you don’t find one or two new listings for your bookmarks, if not blogroll.

* The Bathtub, of course.

On the night before Christmas: Untangling the history of a visit from St. Nick

December 24, 2007

Thomas Nast invented Santa Claus? Clement C. Moore didn’t write the famous poem that starts out, “‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house . . . ?”

The murky waters of history from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub soak even our most cherished ideas and traditions.

But isn’t that part of the fun of history?

  • Below: Thomas Nast’s first published drawing featuring Santa Claus; for Harper’s Weekly, “A Journal of Civilization,” January 3, 1863 Nast portrayed the elf distributing packages to Union troops: “Santa Claus in camp.” Nast (1840-1904) was 23 when he drew this image.

Santa Claus delivers to Union soldiers, "Santa Claus in Camp" - Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, Jan 3, 1863 Yes, Virginia (and California, too)! Thomas Nast created the image of Santa Claus most of us in the U.S. know today. Perhaps even more significant than his campaign against the graft of Boss Tweed, Nast’s popularization of a fat, jolly elf who delivers good things to people for Christmas makes one of the great stories in commercial illustration. Nast’s cartoons, mostly for the popular news publication Harper’s Weekly, created many of the conventions of modern political cartooning and modeled the way in which an illustrator could campaign for good, with his campaign against the graft of Tammany Hall and Tweed. But Nast’s popular vision of Santa Claus can be said to be the foundation for the modern mercantile flurry around Christmas.

Nast is probably ensconced in a cartoonists’ hall of fame. Perhaps he should be in a business or sales hall of fame, too.  [See also Bill Casselman’s page, “The Man Who Designed Santa Claus.]

Nast’s drawings probably drew some inspiration from the poem, “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” traditionally attributed to Clement C. Moore, a New York City lawyer, published in 1822. The poem is among the earliest to describe the elf dressed in fur, and magically coming down a chimney to leave toys for children; the poem invented the reindeer-pulled sleigh.

Modern analysis suggests the poem was not the work of Moore, and many critics and historians now attribute it to Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828) following sleuthing by Vassar College Prof. Don Foster in 2000. Fortunately for us, we do not need to be partisans in such a query to enjoy the poem (a complete copy of which is below the fold).

The Library of Congress still gives Moore the credit. When disputes arise over who wrote about the night before Christmas, is it any wonder more controversial topics produce bigger and louder disputes among historians?

Moore was not known for being a poet. The popular story is that he wrote it on the spur of the moment:

Moore is thought to have composed the tale, now popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas,” on December 24, 1822, while traveling home from Greenwich Village, where he had bought a turkey for his family’s Christmas dinner.

Inspired by the plump, bearded Dutchman who took him by sleigh on his errand through the snow-covered streets of New York City, Moore penned A Visit from St. Nicholas for the amusement of his six children, with whom he shared the poem that evening. His vision of St. Nicholas draws upon Dutch-American and Norwegian traditions of a magical, gift-giving figure who appears at Christmas time, as well as the German legend of a visitor who enters homes through chimneys.

Again from the Library of Congress, we get information that suggests that Moore was a minor celebrity from a well-known family with historical ties that would make a good “connections” exercise in a high school history class, perhaps (“the link from Aaron Burr’s treason to Santa Claus?”): (read more, below the fold)

Read the rest of this entry »

Million Dollar Monarch, a glorious film

December 21, 2007

Robert J. Sadler photo of the Million Dollar Monarch of Highland Park, Texas, lighted for Christmas
Robert J. Sadler photo of the Million Dollar Monarch of Highland Park, Texas, lighted for Christmas

Spectacular blend of history, botany and story.

One of a series of short films produced by KERA Television in Dallas over the past few years, this one by veteran filmmaker Rob Tranchin. A lot more details here — and frankly, the video quality is vastly superior at KERA’s site — go view the film there.

I hope it’s available on DVD for classroom use, especially around Dallas, soon.

Hundreds of historic trees grace America’s cities and countryside. We could use a dozen more films this good to tell their stories.

Economics books: Casting light on the dismal science

December 21, 2007

An economics columnist for the New York Times, David Leonhardt, opened the discussions on the best economics books of the year in his column.

His nominee? A book about medical care: Overtreated: Why too much medicine is making us sicker and poorer, by Shannon Brownlee.

Here’s the hook to the story, retold from Brownlee by Leonhardt, and the reason I think economics is so interesting when done well:

In 1967, Jack Wennberg, a young medical researcher at Johns Hopkins, moved his family to a farmhouse in northern Vermont.

Dr. Wennberg had been chosen to run a new center based at the University of Vermont that would examine medical care in the state. With a colleague, he traveled around Vermont, visiting its 16 hospitals and collecting data on how often they did various procedures.

The results turned out to be quite odd. Vermont has one of the most homogenous populations in the country — overwhelmingly white (especially in 1967), with relatively similar levels of poverty and education statewide. Yet medical practice across the state varied enormously, for all kinds of care. In Middlebury, for instance, only 7 percent of children had their tonsils removed. In Morrisville, 70 percent did.

Dr. Wennberg and some colleagues then did a survey, interviewing 4,000 people around the state, to see whether different patterns of illness could explain the variations in medical care. They couldn’t. The children of Morrisville weren’t suffering from an epidemic of tonsillitis. Instead, they happened to live in a place where a small group of doctors — just five of them — had decided to be aggressive about removing tonsils.

But here was the stunner: Vermonters who lived in towns with more aggressive care weren’t healthier. They were just getting more health care.

A good economics book has a story at its heart, making the economics easier to illustrate and much more memorable for students of economics — this story should echo every time a person enters a physician’s office or stops by a hospital for any reason.

Health care is often a clash between good science and economic policies expounded by hard-core fanatics of one hypothesis or another who don’t understand the science; of course, neither do the scientists speak the economics language. And so our health care crises continue, deepen, drain our pockets, defy efforts to solve them and threaten to ruin the nation.

Put this book on the list of every policy maker you buy for, eh?

(No, I haven’t read the book.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Howard Zinn’s blog

December 20, 2007

Did you know infamous historian with a view to the left, Howard Zinn, has a blog?

Howard Zinn, photo:  City Lights Books

And you didn’t tell me?

Actually, it’s more of a website. Many teachers use some of Zinn’s writings, and your library really should include a copy of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Note the on-line collection of essays from The Progressive and ZNet. Links go to audio and video of Zinn lectures and debates, and this series of dramatic readings from A People’s History featuring James Earl Jones, Alfre Woodard, Marisa Tomei and other stars. Students will find his site entertaining.

And notice, revealed in the note about a movie coming from the book, there is a connection between Zinn and Matt Damon. Any mnemonic device will do in a rising tide . . .

Typewriter of the moment: Flannery O’Connor

December 18, 2007

Flannery O'Connor's typewriter at her farm Andalusia, near Milledgeville, GA - NY Times photo

Photo by Susana Raab for The New York Times; caption: “The writer Flannery O’Connor’s desk and typewriter in her bedroom at Andalusia, her farm near Milledgeville, Ga. She was a master of the Southern Gothic.”

From the Travel section article of the New York Times, February 4, 2007, by Lawrence Downes:

I was met at the door by Craig R. Amason, the executive director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation, the nonprofit organization set up to sustain her memory and preserve her home. When the affable Mr. Amason, the foundation’s sole employee, is not showing pilgrims around, he is raising money to fix up the place, a project that is a few million dollars short of its goal. The foundation urgently wants to restore the house and outbuildings to postcard-perfection, to insure its survival. Last year the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation placed Andalusia on its list of most endangered places in the state.

For now, the 21-acre property is in a captivating state of decay.

There is no slow buildup on this tour; the final destination is the first doorway on your left: O’Connor’s bedroom and study, converted from a sitting room because she couldn’t climb the stairs. Mr. Amason stood back, politely granting me silence as I gathered my thoughts and drank in every detail.

This is where O’Connor wrote, for three hours every day. Her bed had a faded blue-and-white coverlet. The blue drapes, in a 1950’s pattern, were dingy, and the paint was flaking off the walls. There was a portable typewriter, a hi-fi with classical LPs, a few bookcases. Leaning against an armoire were the aluminum crutches that O’Connor used, with her rashy swollen legs and crumbling bones, to get from bedroom to kitchen to porch.

There are few opportunities for so intimate and unguarded a glimpse into the private life of a great American writer. Mr. Amason told me that visitors sometimes wept on the bedroom threshold.

Quote of the moment: Housman, “accuracy a duty” in history

December 16, 2007

Poet A. E. Housman, with a book - Bryn Mawr College photo

Poet A. E. Housman in 1910, portrait photo by E. O. Hoppé

. . . accuracy is a duty and not a virtue.

A. E. Housman, English poet (1859-1936), Manilius (The Richards Press, 1930), p. xxii ll. 27 sqq


Google the phrase “accuracy is a duty” plus Housman.* You will get several dozen hits.

Historians are fond of citing it, though I suspect that few have actually read Housman’s version of the line. The idea is that historians should not get kudos for accuracy, because in their trade, accuracy is not a virtue, but instead is the baseline duty. Housman arrived at that conclusion in comparing versions of translations of Manilius, and he made the comment in the preface to fifth volume of his own translation of the works of Roman poet Marcus Manilius. Housman’s five volumes were published between 1903 and 1930.

The full quote lacks the punch of the usual truncations, however. The Housman Society in Britain was kind to track down the precise quote and the citation.

p. xxii ll. 27 sqq. I did not quote Brechart’s accuracy, because accuracy is a duty and not a virtue; but if I could have seen the shameful carelessness’ of Breiter and van Wageningen I should have said with emphasis, as I do now, that he was very accurate indeed.

Admit it — like me you were probably unaware that Housman had ever translated Manilius. Perhaps you were unaware that Manilius existed (don’t ask me to recite anything he wrote).
Historians have this further problem: Housman probably was talking about the accuracy of the translation, not accuracy in recording history.

One more quote that has been dragooned into duty in fields unrelated to its usual use. Got a problem with that?

The statement is good advice in every field I can think of.

Update: Go see Elektratrig’s report of Housman’s send-up of Greek tragedy. Well worth the click, just for edification.

*  And if you check it now, you’ll see the search is skewed by this very post; it’s the Heisenberg Principle of the internet.

Janis Joplin tour invites fans to Texas

April 24, 2007

Janis Joplin in concert

Good News Comes in Small Packages Division: This was the entirety of the article in the Dallas Morning News travel section Sunday:

Come on down for a Janis Joplin tour

Head down to Port Arthur – in a Mercedes Benz, if possible – for a new self-guided Janis Joplin driving tour. The 15 stops include her childhood home, churches, schools and the Museum of the Gulf Coast, which has an exhibit devoted to the rock and blues singer. For the tour brochure, call 1-800-235-7822.

Is there more? Sure — below the fold. Summertime’s a good time to make the tour — but so is spring, fall, and winter.

Read the rest of this entry »

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