2011 - %3, March

The Tea Party Allies' "Chinese Professor" Ad (Video)

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 12:51 AM PDT

Though it's actually been on YouTube since last October, this tea-party-friendly ad by Citizens Against Government Waste, titled "Chinese Professor," has been quite the cyber-cultural lodestone for a couple of weeks:

First, some observations.

1) Critics have alleged that the ad is racist. Is it? CAGW calls the ad "Chinese Professor." But hey, I'll let you judge.

2) More important, the ad's argument exhibits all the logic of a purple-specked sea urchin trying to explain the relevance of Nash equilibria to international trade-regimes' behavior with some tin foil, a stick of spearmint gum, and an egg noodle. Let's think this one out: According to CGAW, Communist China...will take over the United States...after the latter has been weakened irreparably by...its universal health care coverage, stimulus spending, and "government takeovers of private industries." So we will lose to the commies by being too...commie. Eh?

Somewhere in Tallahassee, Florida, my International Relations Theory 101 professor is having an aneurysm.

Now, to be fair, CAGW has been around a lot longer than the tea partiers—since 1984. And the group seems more interested in helping Big Business than Joe Average, considering how much money it's raked in from the Tobacco Institute, Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco, ExxonMobil, and Merril Lynch, among others. (All-around fun-guy Republican and perennial presidential candidate Alan Keyes ran CAGW from 1989 to 1991.) And to hear the organization's president, Tom Schatz, tell it, the ad was supposed to be about the US's foreign debt, not Chinese people or political economy. "A 60-second ad cannot include all of the information needed to support its premise," he wrote on CAGW's blog last week. "The ad presents a possible, but preventable, future for the U.S." He adds:

The ad is not about China or its economy or its political  system; or any nation other than the United States.  If France held the largest portion of foreign-owned U.S. debt, the ad would be in French...Again, it's not about China, it's about Washington’s long-standing failure to take the steps necessary to prevent a national catastrophe.  All of the bloviating and cursing and wishing for our immediate and painful demise won't change anything; a more productive use of that energy would be to help prevent the "Chinese Professor" from being fact rather than fiction.

Okay, observations again: 

1) France? Really? Another great power that seems to be doing not so badly with universal health care and high taxes and spending? Dude.

2) It's not about China. But if we don't act, the Chinese takeover will be fact. Take that to your logic professor!

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What's Next, Hello Kitty Chainsaws?

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 11:50 AM PDT

A week ago I traveled down to Compton, Calif. to report on a community fight there over the future of a public school. (Stay tuned for more on that front.) As I waited to meet with parents in McKinley Elementary's PTA room, Compton School Police Officer Lorenzo Gray came in and pulled out a thick, black binder filled with pictures of colorful guns—pink guns, yellow guns, guns with American flags, guns with white bunnies on them.

"Is this gun real or fake?" he asked six Latina mothers at the PTA room. "Fake," the six mothers responded after they consulted with each other.

After 20 images, the officer then passed a heavy, gray, metal gun around the room. I am actually used to holding real guns—my father and I used to shoot pinecones and bottles during our country summer vacations when I was growing up in Latvia—so I was curious to see how an American handgun compared to the Soviet ones my father used to own. The weight was similar, it was cold to the touch, and it felt rough around the edges. There was a small sign that said, "Made in Japan," and it had serial numbers on it. "Fake or real?" the officer asked me, as I turned to him. "Don't point it at me!" he laughed. Turns out the one I was holding was a toy, and those pink and patterned ones (like the ones shown here) were real.


Guy Kawasaki's Advice for Job Seekers

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 12:30 AM PDT

Recently I interviewed Guy Kawasaki, the author of "Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions" and Apple's former chief evangelist. (Read the Mother Jones interview here.) Kawasaki, aside from having a million-watt smile, also has some solid advice for new college graduates that's equally useful for high school students looking for a summer job or internship, (or any jobseeker, really). Here it is below:

Mother Jones: How would you describe the art of (and need for) enchantment to a college student about to enter a challenging job market?

Guy Kawasaki: There are two ways to approach the application process: trying to hit a home run by getting an immediate "yes, here's an offer" or trying not to be eliminated. I recommend the second approach. Step one is to avoid elimination at the cover email/letter and resume stage. This means that your cover email is customized for the particular company and the particular job within that company. To do anything less means that you are lazy.

Assuming you're not eliminated at this stage, then you're on to the interview. This is when a student can truly apply the skills of the book. First, you need to convince the interviewer that you are likable and trustworthy. These are the cornerstones of good relationships with people. The judgement begins with the very first impression: are you smiling? Are you dressed appropriately? Not too high for a tech company. Not too low for a consulting company. How is your handshake? It should be communicate that you are solid, dependable, and friendly person.

You have two jobs in the interview: first, to convince the interviewer that you can do the job; second, that you will "fit in" at the company. Think of this as a 2 x 2 matrix:

Competent    Not Competent

Fit     X         Doesn't fit

X marks the spot. The most powerful way to convince the interviewer that you can do the job is to show how much you already know about the industry, the company, and the products/services of the company. In other words, enchant the interviewer with how much you already know. For example, if you're interviewing with Apple, you probably won't score points if you ask, "Have you guys got a Verizon version of the iPhone yet?"

If you can, try to find out who you are meeting with before the interviews. Then use a service like Spokeo.com (disclosure: I advised the company) or LinkedIn to learn about these people. Don't creep them out by telling them you saw the Flickr photos of their kid's birthday party, but finding out that you went to the same school or share the same hobbies with you is very useful.

After the interview, be sure to send an email to everyone you met and do this within twenty-four hours of the interview. This means that you should be smart enough to have asked for everyone's email that you met. Of course you'll thank the person and tell them how much you'd like to work at the company—assuming this is true. But a truly enchanting candidate will remember the personal things. Perhaps you found out that the interviewer likes hockey or photography, then mention a hockey news story or the review of a new Nikon.

If nothing happens for a week, email the primary contact. Don't be a pest, but don't disappear either. Let's face it: you're selling. The company is not buying. Hopefully, there's another round of interviews, and the enchantment begins again. Just keep thinking: you need to move the company from ignorance (not knowing you exist) to awareness (your resume) to engagement (interviews) to enchantment (an offer).

Book Review: The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 12:19 PM PDT

As the British journalist Ian Thomson sets out to capture the essence of modern Jamaica, an elderly woman in the nation's capital of Kingston scolds him: "Do we really need another book on Jamaica?" she asks pointedly. "You visitors are always getting it wrong. Either it's golden beaches, or it's guns, guns, guns. Is there nothing in between?"

In The Dead Yard, Thomson searches for an answer to that question. He traverses the island's violent ghettos and plantation outposts, and visits Jamaican emigrants back in his home country. He reveals a nation that has "slipped painfully and not entirely from British rule" since its independence in 1962, "onto a path dictated by the crime and business interests of the United States and its Caribbean neighbors." (The US values Jamaica's sugar, bananas, and bauxite, and considers the country important in the battle with China over economic control of the Caribbean.)

The history of the West Indies sugar and slave trade has left an indelible mark on Jamaican society. The island's 3 million inhabitants, mostly black, remain sharply divided along racial and economic lines. The Chinese, who arrived as indentured servants in the 1840s (after Britain abolished slavery on the island) then left the plantations to open up shops, are scapegoated as "economic oppressors" and derisively called "dog-eaters." Affluent white landowners lament the nation's state of disrepair with an air of detached colonial superiority. A post-colonial reform effort by the white socialist Prime Minister Michael Manley, Thomson notes, ended eight years after his 1972 ascent to power in a violent election that claimed 800 lives.

Education Roundup: DC Cheaters Sometimes Win?

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 9:00 AM PDT
  • Meanwhile, Philadelphia Inquirer investigates violence in the The City of Brotherly Love's school district; 4,541 assaults were recorded during the 2009-2010 school year alone (that's 25 violent assaults a day). With video.
  • Naturally, Obama thinks standardized tests need to change. Not so naturally, one teacher made a catchy song about it. Chorus: "Test teacher/test teacher/ teaching to the test. Work on math and English and forget about the rest."
  • Last, check out GOOD's story on the California principal currently selling her entire collection of shoes to stave off the Golden State's school lay-offs.

What Happens To A Facebook Page When Someone Dies?

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

I recently had a college friend pass away and I found out through Facebook (weird) wrote on the memorial's Facebook event page (weirder) and subsequently received more than 10 new friend requests from people we mutually knew but with whom I had no contact. To be honest, I want to delete the dead guy's profile. I don't want to be tempted to stare at my dead friend's photos every time I'm feeling like an emotional prune. Same thing happened with a MySpace friend of mine back in the day, except someone took over said dead friend's account and would occasionally post weird shit from it, so it was like having a dumb internet ghost speak to you from the beyond. Dead friend would be all, "Hey guys! Miss you!" Creep deep. What should I do with dead Facebook friends? Leave them, delete them, report them as deceased, etc. I seriously have no idea what the etiquette is.

~Friends Till The End

Super creep deep. MySpace had such a problem with deceased users that sites like MyDeathSpace.com were created to try to match obituaries with neglected user profiles. Thankfully, MySpace has mostly gone the way of the dinosaurs and Friendster. Dealing with the digital footprint of the deceased is a sensitive issue, to be sure, but there are a few routes you can take. One is to turn the deceased person's profile into a memorial page. Here's the form to do that. Facebook will memorialize the profile of a deceased user no matter who sends the request, and proof of death, while helpful, is not required.There's not an option to request that a deceased user's account remain active. However, since nobody's profile is ever removed for inactivity, if no one notifies FB, then their account will stay as it is until someone takes action.

If you turn someone's FB profile into a memorial page, it removes their wall posts, contact information, and status updates, so no one has to be reminded about how often you shared that "Total Eclipse of the Heart: Literal Video Version" video. (Since I'm only dead inside, here it is again!)

Read the rest of my online etiquette column at SF Weekly

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A Goodbye to Bluesman Pinetop Perkins

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 4:00 AM PDT

New Orleans is connected to the small city of Wyoming, Minnesota, by 1,400 miles of road known as Highway 61. The highway, which passes through Clarksdale, Mississippi, the heart of Delta blues country in the early 20th century, is central to the stories we tell today about many of the region's musicians. It is where Robert Johnson is said to have made his deal with the devil, and where Sonny Boy Williamson II played at the King Biscuit Time radio show, the longest running American broadcast in history. Later, musicians like Muddy Waters no doubt took Highway 61 north on their way to Chicago, where they would electrify the delta sound. And this Saturday, Highway 61 will have one more claim to its title as the "Blues Highway" when 97-year-old bluesman Pinetop Perkins, who died on March 21, will be buried alongside it.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [8]

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 5:29 PM PDT

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

Education: Standardized Tests, Explained

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 10:00 AM PDT

Let's face it: Jargon happens. And in education circles, it happens a lot. Curious what a buzzword actually means? Or how a seemingly unrelated concept migrated into discussions about kids and schools? Let MoJo's education team research it so you don't have to. Help us decide what lingo to look at next by leaving suggestions in comments.

This week's education primer: "STANDARDIZED TESTING."

It's springtime in the U.S. of A, which for millions of kids and teachers means just one thing: Standardized tests. Be prepared for acronym soup.

What are "standardized tests," and when did they become required in the American public education system? When teachers talk about high school "standardized tests" these days, they're not talking about the SAT. They mean federally mandated, timed, 'one set of multiple choice questions fits all' tests designed to measure students' performance in basic subjects like math and reading. Each state decides how to define educational proficiency, and tests use a minimum of three scores: Below Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Some governmentally required standardized testing isn't new: Since 1969, the federal Department of Education has given the National Assessment of Educational Progress test to American students to monitor their educational achievement. The feds didn't start requiring states to develop their own standardized tests, however, until 1994, when the Clinton administration changed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. (President Johnson created ESEA during the War on Poverty to reduce achievement gaps in public K-12 education.) What the Clinton administration did in 1994 was start requiring that every state receiving federal money for high-poverty schools (i.e. Title 1 funds) begin testing third through eighth graders annually in math and reading. President George W. Bush subsequently moved the testing ball down the court with the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to test fourth and eighth graders in math and reading every two years. Tests in subjects like science and writing are optional. Other than the NAEP test and state math and reading assessments, NCLB requires states to give science assessments at least once during grades three to five, six through nine, and ten through twelve. For these assessments (such as California's Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test, Maryland's School Performance Assessment, and Georgia's Iowa Basic Skill Test) each state designs the questions on its own test. If you're thinking that students are now getting tested more than ever, you'd be right.

What happens to test scores once they're collected?

Once state test scores are in, NCLB requires states to separate scores based on students' ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status. Then the district sends a report card of these results to parents, teachers, and the media.

How are students directly impacted by their scores?

It depends on the school, but they're frequently not. Some states, like Massachusetts, require students to pass state assessments to graduate from high school. In Utah, teachers can also use standardized test scores to grade students. But like several Mission High students have noted, college admissions don't depend on the STAR test. Thus motivation to improve school test scores can take creative forms.

How are teachers and schools impacted by student scores?

It depends on the state. If Florida Gov. Rick Scott signs the 'merit pay' bill currently on his desk, teachers in Florida will get raises depending on whether their students score well on standardized tests. In Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver, schools were shut down or sold to charters because of repeatedly low standardized test scores. Whole teaching staffs in Nevada, Ohio, and Rhode Island have been fired because of test results. School, district, and state funding are tied to standardized test scores.

States are required to make sure schools tested make what's called "Adequate Yearly Progress" each year so that by 2014, 100 percent of students will be labeled proficient. If schools don't make Adequate Yearly Progress, states are required to take certain steps.

Let's say third graders at Any School USA don't score higher on their standardized tests than last year's third graders. Then Any School USA is put on a watch-list and could get labeled "in need of improvement." It could also get money to raise test scores. If next year's third grade class scores lower than last year's third graders, Any School USA gets publicly labeled "in need of improvement" and now its required to develop a two-year improvement plan for the subject kids are scoring low in. At this second strike, Any School USA students are given the option to transfer to a better school within the school district, if one exists. If Any School USA misses its AYP for a third year in a row, the school has to offer free tutoring and other supplemental education services to struggling students. If a school misses its AYP target for a fourth consecutive year, the school gets labeled as requiring "corrective action," which might involve the wholesale replacement of staff, introduction of a new curriculum, or extending the amount of time students spend in class. The fifth year of low AYP scores at Any School USA results in plans to restructure the entire school; the plan is implemented if the school misses its AYP targets for the sixth year in a row. This means Any School USA may get closed, turned into a charter, or handed over to a private company or the state office of education to run.

Why are some people unhappy with this system?

Schools are cutting back on teaching science, social studies, and art to become proficient in math and reading tests by NCLB's 2014 deadline, The New York Times' Sam Dillon reports. This is the reason the US lags so far behind other countries when it comes to science proficiency, researchers told The Hechinger Report. Also to make the goal, more than half of states have lowered their standards to redefine "proficient."

Last year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said standardized tests "rely mainly on multiple choice items with fill-in-the-bubble answers. They generally provide time-sensitive data and results months later, when their instructional usefulness has expired. Typically, students take a state assessment in March or April—and get the results mailed to them after school is out." A Pennsylvania mother decided not to let her two kids take the Keystone State's two-week-long standardized test, CNN reports. Standardized tests don't accurately measure accomplishments and they're used to punish schools, Michele Gray, the mom of a 9 and 11-year-old boy, told CNN. Duncan agrees. "It is no secret that existing state assessments in mathematics and English often fail to capture the full spectrum of what students know and can do," Duncan said last year. While advocating a new generation of math and English tests for the 2014-15 school year, Duncan added: "Schools may give lots of tests—often too many—but the assessments aren't always testing important knowledge and skills." On the other hand, Duncan said the new tests for the 2014-15 school year will assess students' ability to read complex text, incorporate technology to simulate problems, and better measure growth in student learning.

Does America Put "Illegal Aliens" to Death?

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 1:01 AM PDT

Q. What does the U.S. do with illegal aliens?

A. The U.S. puts them to work in the army.
B. The U.S. shoots them into outer space.
C. The U.S. puts them to death.
D. The U.S. sends them back where they came from.

This was one of the multiple-choice questions on a homework assignment, a story entitled "What Is an Illegal Alien?" recently given to a bunch of third graders at Chesney Elementary in Duluth, Georgia. (The teacher, by the way, was hispanic.) Apparently, nobody noticed how inappropriate this was until Kelly Avalos, the elder sister of one of the third graders, alerted a local TV station.

Some of us, apparently, have never recovered from our own experiences on the playground.

Okay, trolls. Have at it.