Thursday, August 30, 2007

Beautiful sentiments about programming

Wrapped up in grad school as I am, it's easy to lose sight of the big picture, and why I got involved in this career path in the first place.

For my classes in Software Engineering and Management, I have to read The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick Brooks. I know the book by reputation; as it was first published in the 70's, I presume that the material is very old news to many people who share my interest in programming. Even so, this is new to me, so I wanted to share a passage from the book that I personally found very inspiring.

"The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures.

Yet the program construct, unlike the poet's words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separate from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces sounds, moves arms. The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.

Programming then is fun because it gratifies creative longings built deep within us and delights sensibilities we have in common with all men."

Oh yeah.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Speaking of schooling...

Ben started kindergarten today. Ginny and I have very different feelings about it. Ginny has had Ben staying at home with her for the last five years, and she's undergone some separation anxiety. She's worried about whether he'll adapt to the new environment, whether he'll behave, whether he'll eat well when he's not at home, and whether he'll be homesick.

I have different feelings about it: I'm really excited. Of course that's easy for me to say: I work all day, and I'm used to not having him constantly there anyway. So I mostly only see the good side of this new milestone in his life. I mentioned most of the reasons for my positive feelings in my earlier post about homeschooling. He'll be expanding his horizons, meeting lots of kids his own age, having a teacher with a different perspective on the world than ours. He'll spend time learning to read and draw and use numbers (which he's already very good at for his age). He'll have his time divided between two very different environments, and have raised expectations about how he spends the weekdays.

I met his teacher and some classmates last week. They all seem great. Mrs. Snyder struck me as a very cheerful and sweet young lady with a lot of teaching experience. We watched him go in this morning, and she took charge of the class right away.

I talked to him on the phone when Ginny picked him up. He sounded very tired but said he had had lots of fun. He couldn't be even a little bit specific about what kind of fun, so I had to pry it out of him with leading questions. :) But overall, I think it was a positive experience.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A parable

Hapless Citizen: "DARN IT! Oooo, curse my AWFUL luck. This rotten dagnabbertiblabbit car of mine will not start. Again! I'm going to be late for work."
Masked Superhero: "Fear not, Citizen!"
Hapless: "Who are you?"
Hero: "I'm the Ayn Rand Crusader!"
Hapless: "Are you here to solve my problems?"
Ayn Rand Crusader: "No, even better! I'm here to motivate you to solve them yourself!"
Hapless: "Well that does sound useful, I guess."
ARC: "Now, what seems to be the trouble?"
Hapless: "Well, it's this stupid car of mine. It's got some years on it, it doesn't run very well, and I've had to spend a fair bit of money on a regular basis to keep it in running condition."
ARC: "Aha! This looks like a job for... the Ayn Rand Crusader! Citizen, your problems are as good as ended. Observe!"
[ARC whips out a comically large sledgehammer from the pockets of his colorful tights.]
Hapless: "You're going to solve my problems with a hammer? What are..."
[ARC brings down a mighty blow on the car, proceeding to pulverize it into a metal pancake.]
Hapless: "OH MY GOD, what the fuck??? You just totally smashed my car!"
ARC: "Yes, and now all your problems will be solved!"
Hapless: "...Oh. Really? Does that mean you're going to get me a new car?"
ARC: "Of course not! I don't do handouts! But fear not, you will have a new car soon enough."
Hapless: "I don't follow you."
ARC: "Well, now that your old car has been destroyed, I have created a market demand for a new car. Before you know it, the Amazing Free Market will surely be knocking on your door, begging to replace it with a much better car."
Hapless: "But... there aren't any decent car dealerships around here for miles. And it's going to cost me a lot more to get a new car than it did even to keep my old car in working order."
ARC: "Never fear! Thanks to the Incredible Free Market, new car dealerships will soon open up within walking distance! And not only that, they are sure to make you a car that is both excellent and affordable! And besides, even if that doesn't happen, you can easily make a new car for yourself that is just as good."
Hapless: "But I'm a software engineer. I don't know how to make a car."
ARC: "What are you, lazy? You said your old car was bad. Anyone can build a car that's better than a bad one! Get off your butt and learn how to do it properly."
Hapless: "Let me get this straight. You 'helped' me by destroying my old car, and now you're just going to leave me with nothing."
ARC: "LIAR!!! Have you not heard a word I've just said? Why do you misrepresent my position so egregiously? As I have been trying to explain to you, the Magnificent Free Market will replace your car for you."
Hapless: "But right now I don't even have the car I did before. How am I supposed to get to work?"
ARC: "Perhaps some enterprising private charity will come along and give you a lift."
Hapless: "Thanks for nothing."
ARC: "No need to thank me, citizen, I'm just doing my job. Thank the Incomparable Free Market for the generous bounties that will soon be yours. Ayn Rand Crusader, AWAY!!!!!"

...and as for the rest of Johngalt666's "points", I'll have to get back to those a bit later.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Continuing the homeschooling discussion

Some people may not be following the active discussion that was going on for a week or so in the comments section of my post about homeschooling. I've been planning to reply to johngalt666's last comment, but as I mentioned originally, it takes me a while to keep up with a long discussion while I'm also in school. Since the conversation is now buried under two months worth of posts, I thought I'd take this opportunity to start a fresh thread. Be warned, this is going to jump around a bit, as I try to organize a fairly disjointed conversation.

When I suggested that Johngalt666 was looking to replace public schools with private school vouchers, he wrote:

Here is where I get really confused. You list two issues that I am bringing up and yet I did not bring up either of the issues you name. I never said homeschooling was a superior alternative for most students. I also never said anything about vouchers. So though it LOOKS like you are responding to me, I find myself looking around for the person you are actually talking too.

I apologize for making this unwarranted assumption. I have spoken to several advocates of abolishing public schools, and most at least claim to want to put in temporary measures to fill in the gap, in the form of vouchers. Perhaps most of them do, ultimately, want to eliminate the public funding of schools entirely, but most couch the discussion in terms of private vouchers in order to mask that intention.

Johngalt666 then wrote:

But right now, where I live, there are no better alternatives to homeschooling. There are no excellent public schools near me. There are no excellent private schools near me. I know at least one school that would be an excellent choice for my children but I can not move several states over to enroll them.

Followed by:

Further, the facts remain that: (a) most parents are effectively compelled to send their children to public schools, since they are taxed to support these schools and cannot afford to pay the additional fees required to send their children to private schools; (b) the STANDARDS of education, controlling ALL schools, are prescribed by the government; (c) the growing trend in American education is for the government to exert wider and wider control over every aspect of education. Well, by now the government basically does control every aspect of education.

So now, taking all of the above into account, let me try to make sure I understand you correctly.

You don't like public schools, that much is clear. You seemed downright offended that when I presumed that you would support vouchers, which is the commonly suggested alternative. You also acknowledge that homeschooling is not the right choice for everyone. You wish that there were more and better private school options in your area, but there are not.

Essentially, your solution to the issue of public schools is to eliminate them altogether. And then you propose to replace them with...

Nothing. Nothing at all.

Your position is that "government" should be out of schools entirely: no funding, no standards, no support whatsoever. Parents who can afford private schools will send their kids to private schools. Parents who have the time, inclination, and ability to homeschool will do so. All other kids are left to fend for themselves.

Really? I want to make totally sure I'm not misstating your position, but I can't wait around for the conversation to synchronize, so let me just work with the assumption that this is what you mean.

Clearly this goes way beyond your issue with how public schools are performing. If the problem were simply the fact that kids aren't getting a good enough education, then your solution might have involved doing something to improve it. But instead, you are apparently advocating a system that eliminates many existing schools entirely, thereby ensuring that large swaths of the country have access to no education whatsoever.

By your own statement, there are no quality private schools in your area, and therefore you are forced to homeschool. So under your plan, you wish to essentially nuke funding for the public schools so that other parents who already send their kids there will now have no recourse apart from choosing from the private schools -- which by your own claims are evidently just as bad in your area -- or devoting the same amount of time that your family does to homeschooling. I suppose we'll have to assume that those people don't all have jobs or anything.

I'm just stumped about how you think this will improve the overall state of education in your area. Surely there are quite a few parents who will wind up opting not to bother with education at all -- I mean, if the oppressive government isn't to be involved in education, then there are no longer any educational standards or requirements. That doesn't worry you? Having a new generation of kids growing up who, instead of receiving below standard education, will now be completely lacking in any education whatsoever?

When you talk of public schools you seem to want to throw out studies of the nation as a whole and when you talk of homeschoolers you only seem to want studies that include the whole nation. If national studies of public schools leave you unsatisfied, why would national studies of homeschoolers be more satisfying?

I didn't throw out the studies; I accept and agree with your claim that public schools are not doing as well as they ought to be doing (and, based on the examples provided by other countries, could be doing). This is a point where you seem to think we disagree, when in fact I'm letting you know that we don't.

The problem I have is that you seem to have jumped from a premise: ("public schools are not doing well") to some kind of conclusion. Either that conclusion is: "Homeschooling and private schools are an adequate replacement for what they actually do" or: "Maybe there is no adequate universal replacement for public schools, but I'm willing to eliminate the benefit that those schools do provide so that I don't have to pay any taxes towards them." Neither of these conclusions seems to follow naturally from the premise, nor from the sparse and sketchy studies that you've provided (about which I'll say more shortly).

You said:

Look back again, Kazim. I do not state or imply that all these students would be better served by homeschooling. Later I even list four options for parents (not intending it to be an exhaustive list) and then state that ANY CHOICE can be correct.

As I read it, your four choices were:

  1. Public school.
  2. Private school.
  3. Move somewhere where there are better public and/or private schools (how is this a different option from the first two?)
  4. Home schooling.

But of those four, you've expressed a desire to sandbag one of them, so that leaves three, or perhaps two since option 3 is really just another angle on 1 and 2. Not only that, the one that you'd get rid of is the choice that most parents choose. My parents both worked, and they chose the place to live where they could get the best jobs. Roughly 3/4 of my education took place in public schools, as did the vast majority of other professional adults I have met. Why so eager to eliminate this system entirely?

Now, let me turn to your studies on homeschooling.

While I am starting to doubt seriously that any study by any source will satisfy you if it doesn’t agree with you, I will point you to some more info you may not have seen here. Though it seems you didn’t follow the link to the national studies of public schools above (based on your writing), I hope you will follow this one and read it. Google the articles sources and that sort of thing. I won’t spoon-feed it to you, as I don’t really think it matters too much. See below.

I did follow your studies on public school performance earlier, and my comment about them still stands. As I said, I simply don't disagree with you that public schools underperform their stated goals, but that it doesn't make the case for the argument you're trying to make -- i.e., it is worse than no public school at all.

I've now gone through the article you linked. At first glance, it appeared to contain a whole lot of references to independent studies. On further examination, it seems to me that it contains just two original studies, followed by numerous other articles that merely cite those studies. The first one was performed by the president of the "National Home Education Research Institute." The second one was published and underwritten by the "Home School Legal Defense Association," which is also the source of the original post you submitted gathering all these different studies in one place. Those are a useful place to start, but difficult to take seriously as an unbiased source.

Looking further into these articles was even more troubling. For instance I found that Lawrence Rudner's study was in fact published in the peer-reviewed educational journal,
Education Policy Analysis Archives, which is a good sign. But it was shortly followed by a related article that neatly underlines the overall issue surrounding the way these studies are conducted.

This article, entitled "Contextualizing Homeschooling Data: A Response to Rudner", looks at article published by Lawrence Rudner and points out some serious flaws in his methodology. What they agree on is the premise of the article: among students who took a test administered by Bob Jones University, the homeschooled kids who were picked for the study performed better than the private and public schooled kids who were picked for the study. However, they then go on to highlight a number of reasons why this is not nearly as relevant as it sounds:

  • Participation in the testing is voluntary. That means that the only homeschooled students who worked on the tests were those whose parents emphasized tests, while students who are "unschooled" or otherwise opposed to testing are excluded from the sample. In other words, this is a very specific and unrepresentative cross-section of all home schoolers. This point can't be understated: The author of the article admits that it wasn't a scientific sample. The response to the article highlights just how much that lack of objectivity undercuts the main point.
  • The testing was performed by Bob Jones University. I mean, come on, those guys weren't even accredited until last year, and before that point they were well known as a weird racist fundamentalist outlier. As an atheist (I think you said?), I'd be surprised if you took anything seriously that comes out of Bob Jones University.
  • As I noted before, Rudner's being paid by something called the Home School Legal Defense Association, which is a homeschooling advocacy group. That fact in itself does not make their study wrong, but it does call into question their status as a group conducting an objective, impartial study.

Interestingly enough, I tried to find out more information about HSLDA, and found to my somewhat distaste that they are themselves an explicitly fundamentalist group. HSLDA supports Christian Dominionist causes such as, for example, working to outlaw gay marriage, and they also advise parents on how to get away with beating their kids without getting in trouble. Again, this in no way invalidates the study, such as it is, but it still seems to me a poor choice to use as an authority on the efficacy of homeschooling.

Later, you write:

Personally, I don’t really care if homeschoolers outperform public schools or not. There are many indicators that they do but that is irrelevant to why I don’t want public schools.

Ultimately, this is exactly my point. You want to demonstrate that homeschooling is more effective than public schooling, but that is a side issue for you, because the bottom line is that you don't really care whether the end result is kids being better educated. That's the difference here: I do care about what is the most effective strategy for getting kids educated. That's my bottom line. It so happens that I also disagree with your political viewpoint that government involvement is nearly universally evil, but that's beside the original point that I was making.

My previous post was about the remarkable lack of serious, comprehensive, and unbiased data on how well homeschoolers perform as a whole. There is almost nothing in the way of regulation or standards when it comes to homeschooling. Some parents do a great job, absolutely, but there isn't any rigorous analysis on the success rates. Mostly, support for homeschooling just seems to take the form of public school bashing.

Please understand that I am not meddling in your business and telling you that you need to stop homeschooling your own kids. I have no reason to doubt that you are one of those families that teaches your kids well and holds them accountable for learning some amount of necessary material, and provides them with an enriching environment. But as for your belief that we should therefore apply your experience across the board and pull support away from those kids who do partake of the public school system -- which will include my son, beginning in about two weeks -- I'm afraid I must respectfully disagree.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Happy class day

It's here already: the first day of the last semester. I have roughly three months to finish my master's thesis -- about which I probably write more pretty soon.

I'm taking "Introduction to Software Engineering" and "System Engineering Program Management and Evaluation." This is the only semester when I've taken two classes that are both "concepty" rather than "mathy" or "programmy." However, since my thesis is both mathy and programmy, that more than fills this particular void in my life.

Anyway, here's my term paper from summer. The professor mailed me an evaluation, writing simply:

The paper describes issues in web tagging with several examples. The paper
is in the form that it can be submitted to a computer magazine with
little effort.

That sounds pretty complimentary. Anyone out there who works for a computer magazine? :)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cargo cult comedy canned

The cargo cult comedy show, "The 1/2 Hour News Hour," has been canceled.

All together now: "Awwwwwwww."
Of course, I wouldn't even know this if it hadn't been for liberal radio, since lately it hadn't even occurred to me to wonder whether it still existed.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Two movies

I just wanted to share a couple of funny movies I ran into. Not all audiences will get them, but I think they're both brilliant.

Minesweeper: The Movie


If you've seen the movie AND the commercials, you should get it; if you haven't then you'll probably be confused.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

What's in the pipeline

This is just a "what's going on" type of post, because I'm trying to blog more often but I have this bad habit of starting big, long posts and then letting them languish for weeks, not willing to pull the trigger until they're complete.

For the last month or so I've been dividing my time between writing a twelve page term paper on the topic of Web Tagging (due by email tonight) and a program for my thesis project (which is due in November). It's a wee bit scary. My stepdaughter Caitlin has moved to Colorado to live with her aunt on a ranch and train horses for a year. I've turned her bedroom into a makeshift "office" by plugging a wireless adapter into my computer and setting it up on a card table. The main advantage of this is that the door locks and I can hide from my very demanding five year old. And if I'm pulling a most-of-the-nighter, I can go to sleep on the bed in here without disturbing Ginny in the middle of the night. It's a good arrangement, but it makes my family miss me and vice versa. This is grad school crunch time -- doubly so when the fall semester starts -- and will likely remain so until December. Wish me luck.

I'm also getting a new laptop soon, maybe this weekend. I might go work at a coffee shop more often, once I have worked out the best scheme for keeping my project synced.

I do have a few posts in the works, namely:
  1. I'll post my term paper after it's turned in, and nobody can accuse me of helping anyone else cheat.
  2. I've been meaning to go back and reply to johngalt666 on the homeschooling thread comments. This would be an example of me starting a long post and letting it sit for a while.
  3. I've been kicking around the idea of writing something longish on the annoyance of those 9/11 Truth disciples who are always calling in to the Atheist Experience, C-Span, various Air America shows, and everything else. I have a few things in mind to say, but not much written yet. Short version: The notion that there is a massive cover-up of the U.S. government personally organizing terrorist groups or firing missiles into the World Trade Center or whatever, for me ranks pretty close to Scientology in terms of credibility. More later.
Anyway, sorry I'm not more talkative lately; stay tuned.

Friday, August 03, 2007

I loves me some Chris Dodd

Hmmm, never cared about him that much before, but I gotta give Chris Dodd props for his utter smoothness in facing down Bill "O'Really?"

If you haven't been following this wacky controversy, Bill's been looking for ways to smear the political blog Daily Kos, and hit on the brilliant strategy of highlighting a bad photoshop image posted in the one of the thousands of comments they get every day. Now he's trying to intimidate presidential candidates into staying away from the Yearly Kos convention. Dodd wasn't having any of it.

To me, the funniest part of the video is when Dodd calls O'Reilly to task for saying hateful things on his own show, like talking about al Qaeda bombing San Francisco. Bill loudly denies that he EVER SAID ANY SUCH THING: "You don't know what the hell I said! You got it from Media Matters!!!"

Well, of course, that story is on Media Matters, among other places. There's also an audio clip of him saying it. So in addition to all the other "smearing" that Media Matters does, they apparently have an incredibly convincing Bill O'Reilly impersonator on the staff!