Thursday, February 27, 2003

A number of unrelated sightings today:

An amusing video by an exAmerican on moving to Canada

A couple of interesting items on blogging forwarded by Randy Reichardt
Blogs and Research

Blogging Comes to Harvard

Here is an item that fits in well with discussion with my Social Studies Majors re the difference between information, entertainment, and propaganda, forwarded to me by colleague Rick Hesch, from the global village maillist:

"..."Profiles From the
Front Line," the latest in a long string of reality shows. The show, which
airs Thursday, will feature footage of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and other
locales. There are at least two other such shows in the works on other
networks. Read the text at the links below to get a sense of the disturbing
nature of the collaboration between the entertainment producers and the
Pentagon. There is some overlap but you'll find a bit of new, disturbing
information in each article.,3858,4418509,00.html

Tanya Barber
Global Village School

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Here is an interesting alternative view on the USA and "old Europe:"

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Tuesday, February 18, 2003


My wife nominates this one as the best emailled joke of the month:

A guy asks an American, "What proof do you have that Iraq has
Weapons of Mass Destruction?" and the American replies "We kept the receipts."


Great Examples of Bad Test Questions

As an evaluation instructor, alumni often send me examples of atrocious examinations they encounter in their subsequent courses. (Most of our alumni go on to a second undergraduate degree or graduate work.) Graduates of my exam-making course generally do very well on other people's exams, because once one knows how to write good examination questions oneself, it is easy to spot the errors in poorly written questions, and so be able to work out the answers. (See for examples of what I mean.) On the other hand, my graduates also become hypercritical of sloppy exam-writing, and are often offended by the poor evaluation technique of otherwise excellent instructors. And thus my collection of really bad examinations continues to grow as alumni mail me the poor examples they encounter in other programs.

This week a former student sent me a wonderfully awful test from which I have drawn the following examples. (I won't, for obvious reasons, identify the campus that that student is now on, but suffice to say, this is from an experienced instructor at a legitimate North American university of some little repute, and not in any way an exceptional or unusual case.)

Mummification is first mentioned in 2nd Dynasty texts.
A) True
B) False
C) Maybe

Okay, ignore for the moment the embarrassment of a university instructor using true and false questions, how can one have a "maybe" category in a true/false items?! The whole point of true/false is that they address absolutes. The maybe category is invalid because a case can always be made for 'maybe' -- in this case, that there may well be other texts that have yet to be discovered. Since some questions on this test are true/false and others true/false/maybes, I would suspect "maybe" as the correct alternative anyway, since the instructor probably used it in those cases where there is some existing debate in the field (say an ambiguous reference in some earlier text that may or may not refer to mumification) but it doesn't really matter -- given a "maybe" in a true false question, I can always justify it as the correct answer. It will always win any formal grade appeal.

Old Kingdom Kings did no trade with Asiatics.
a) Not True
b) Not False

The classic double negative question! I have been looking for one of these for years! All the test construction textbooks warn against the use of a double negative (negative in both stem and alternatives) but I have never actually seen a real example of one of these before. Evaluation nstructors have always had to make up our own examples, and students always say, "Oh, nobody would really do that, would they?" and now at last I have a real example.

"Despite his reputation as a tomb robber, Belzoni was nevertheless a fine archaeologist".
A) True
B) False

The archetypal "opinion" question, the ultimate taboo in true/false item writing. Again, I have been looking for an example like this for quite a while. True/false questions can only be used for testing absolutes, not opinions, since one can always make the case for the other side (however tenuously) and we do not score people on their opinions in a democracy. In a formal grade appeal, the student will always win.

The rest of the test is of similarly disappointing quality. Every campus has some kind of Teaching Development Center (or at least a Teaching Development Committee, if the campus is too small to afford dedicated staff) that sponsors 'how to' workshops on instruction and assessment techniques, but of course those that need the workshops are never the ones who attend.

The sad thing is that the former student who sent me this test had been absolutely raving to me about what a wonderful professor this was and what a great course and how much the student was enjoying the class, prior to the test. Afterwards, the student was so disappointed with being robbed of the opportunity to demonstrate the deep learning achieved in that class, that their enthusiasm was considerably eroded. The student still considers that professor an all time favorite, but then this is a student motivated by a thirst for knowledge rather than grades, and so perhaps more willing then most to forgive such tragic flaws.

(Not, I hasten to add, that any of us are flawless. My exams may be good, but I could no doubt learn a thing or two about lecturing and motivating students from this instructor, judging by my graduate's enthusiasm for an otherwise arcane subject. But wouldn't it be great if professors could learn from each other, and build on each other's strengths, rather than merely perpetuate the poor teaching and assessment techniques they themselves endured as undergraduates?)

A news bite from John Herbert (current Editor of Under the Ozone Hole):

Here's a little Columbia disaster news blip that came and went under the radar....

I just happened to be watching NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe testifying in front of Congress last week. An American Congressman (whose name I didn't catch but it was no one you've heard of) began questioning O'Keefe by laying out a string of events.

He said (and I paraphrase) that the contract for the glue (or "urea") that held the heat protection tiles in place was originally awarded to a Canadian company in "Fort Sasketchwhichwan, Alberta, Canada."

No company in the United States could meet the specs that NASA required for this urea -- in fact, only one manufacturer in the world could, and it was located in Fort Saskatchewan. Up until five years, this was the only source of shuttle glue tile.
What changed five years ago? This company was bought out by a larger Canadian company that does business in Cuba.

American government agencies cannot deal with companies that do business in Cuba, so NASA could no longer buy tile glue from the only source in the world that could meet its specs.

He then asked O'Keefe to comment and O'Keefe offered none, saying that he was unfamiliar with these events (O'Keefe has only been with NASA a year.)

So it may turn out that the American policy of sanctions against foreign companies operating in Cuba might have played a large role in the death of seven American astronauts.

Bet you won't see this on CNN.
================================end quote============================

Saturday, February 15, 2003

Political Dissent and the Internet

I find it fascinating how much political dissention in the United States is expressed via the Internet. The regular media are obviously the dominate source of information/interpretation for most Americans, but it must be a least a bit harder for the government to put their particular spin on things when one opens one's office email each morning to discover four or five messages debunking the mainstream media's interpretation. Political humor and satire is particularly effective, since people are more likely to forward something funny to their lists of friends than a heavy essay. But compared to the old days when the only anonymous medium for protest was political graffiti scrawled on washroom walls, the internet disseminates these dissenting voices both more quickly and more widely than ever before. This must be frustrating for Bush and company trying to convince the public of increasingly ludicrous threats to American security.

The recent announcement that North Korea may have a missile that could reach the United States is an excellent case in point. Even if one accepted that North Korea had the know how and was prepared to divert the resources necessary to produce such weapons, the more fundamental question is WHY WOULD THEY WANT TO? What would be the point of, say, bombing New York and being labeled the worst mass murderers in history when an hour and a half later North Korea would be reduced to a sheet of volcanic glass? I could certainly understand if the American announced that they viewed the development of North Korean nuclear weapons as a threat to regional stability or a threat to American interests in Asia, but emphasizing that they now have a missile "capable of reaching the United States" is clearly intended to play on 9/11 paranoia. It is strictly laughable. Even if the North Koreans were able to develop one or two such weapons, this threat pales into insignificance to the thousands of missiles aimed at the USA over the last 30 years from the former Soviet Union etc., but no one seems particularly concerned with what happened to all of those warheads.

American allies are having an increasingly difficult time supporting Bush's war initiatives given the increasing public skepticism regarding any of the official White House line on Iraq's connection to external terrorism, and I cannot help but wonder how much of that skepticism has been fueled via Internet humour.

Here, then, a couple of recent examples:

George W. Bush was speaking to a class in Texas when one student put up
his hand to ask a few questions.

"Mr. President, my name is Billy."
"Yes, Billy...."
"I have a few questions for you."
"Go ahead Billy"?

Billy clears his throat, raises a sheet of paper with his questions listed and begins....

"First: Why are you pursuing a war that nobody wants?
"Second question: Wasn't the bombing of Hiroshima the worst war crime ever?
"Third question: Why did you instruct the FBI and CIA to not arrest
Muslim extremists prior to 911, despite warnings from foreign governments?"

Bush's face drained of colour, he gulped, and there was complete silence in the classroom. Just then the bell rang for recess.

After recess the class came back to continue their talk with the president.
This time another kid put up his hand.

"Mr. President, I'm Bobby and I have a few questions."
"Go ahead, Bobby."

Bobby stands, raises a sheet of paper with his questions and begins....

"First: Why are you ignoring world public-opinion and starting a war with Iraq?
"Second: Why have you abandoned international treaties on nuclear weapons?
"Third: If contravening the Geneva Convention is a war crime, doesn't this mean
you, your father and Colin Powell are war criminals?
"And one last question: Where's Billy?"


What follows is an [abridged] transcription of some of the best signs in Washington
> >during the peace march January 18th, 2003.
> >----------------------------------------------------------
> >
> >Drunken frat boy drives country into ditch.
> >Who would Jesus bomb?
> >Bush is proof that empty warheads can be dangerous.
> >Let's bomb Texas, they have oil, too.
> >How did our oil get under their sand?
>>If you can't pronounce it, don't bomb it.
> >Daddy, can I start the war now?
> >1000 points of light and one dim bulb.
> >Sacrifice our SUV's, not our children.
> >Preemptive impeachment.
> >No George, I said Mac Attack.
> >Frodo has failed, Bush has the ring.
> >Look, I'll pay more for gas!
> >He is a moron and a bully.
> >Draft dodgers shouldn't start wars.
> >War is sweet to those who haven't tasted it (Erasmus).
> >Our grief [over 9/11] is not a cry for war.
> >Different Bush, same shit.
> >Stop the Bushit.
> >You don't have to like Bush to love America.
> >Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld: the asses of evil.
> >Stop the excess of evil [gives figures for the multibillion dollar defense budget].
> >$1 billion a day to kill people -- what a bargain.
> >Consume --> Consume --> Bomb --> Bomb --> Consume -->Consume
> >What's the difference between me & God? He might forgive Bush, but I won't.
> >America, get out of the Bushes.
> >Pro-lifers: Wake from Bush's propaganda spell war kills innocent children.
> >Big brother isn't coming -- he's already here.
> >An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind (Gandhi).
> >Mainstream white guys for peace. (Sign held by three mainstream-looking white guys)
> >Hans Blix -- look over here.
> >Let Exxon send their own troops.
> >There's a terrorist behind every Bush.
> >How many bodies per mile?
> >We can't afford to rule the world.
> >War is so 20th century!
> >9-11-01: 15 Saudis, 0 Iraqis.
> >While you were watching the war, Bush was raping America.
> >Don't waive your rights while waving your flag.
> >Sacrifice our SUVs, not our children.
> >Bush is to Christianity as Osama is to Islam.
> >I asked for universal health care and all I got was this lousy stealth bomber.
> >America's problems won't be solved in Iraq.
> >War is not a family value.
> >Picture of the peace symbol: back by popular demand.
> >A picture of Bush saying "Why should I care what the American people think? They didn't vote for me."
> Silver Donald Cameron
> Home page:

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Check out this onion satire on Blix inspections of weapons of mass destruction.


Much of my time in January went to preparing my PAR -- the Professional Activities Report that is the key to a professor's salary and career. Every professor has to document all of their teaching, research, and service activities for the previous two years for review by the Dean. A strong PAR means one or more merit increments, a below average PAR means no salary increase and no promotions. Since there are only so many merit increments to go around, the reports are fairly competitive. To be successful, each professor has to demonstrate they have published more books and refereed articles, given more workshops, presented at more conferences than one peer's. They have to demonstrate they are more loved by and more successful with their students than the faculty average (which in Education Faculty has been running at 4.5 out of 5) and that they have taught more courses, or taught out of town classes or done something to dinstinguish themselves in teaching. And excellent service means serving on more committees, tasks forces, and community Boards than anyone else.

Whenever I fill in my PAR, I always feel terribly inadequate that I haven't done much more, and I always resolve to do more for next time, no matter how much I have actually done this time. Filling in a PAR always puts a lot of pressure on us to do more work. And as I resolved to do another book and more articles and develop new courses for next time, I had to stop myself and ask where the time for all this would come from. I already work more hours than is entirely fair to my family.

And it occured to me, why are we only accountable for work activities? Where is the family equivalent of a PAR? If we had to complete a Family Activities Report (FAR) maybe we would feel equivalent pressure to do more for our families. If I had to record how many times I took my daughter to Ballet or gym class or how many times I remembered to buy my wife flowers or took the family out to dinner or etc., then maybe we would realize we needed to put more time into our families than our careers. When I look around at the top performers in our Faculty, I can't help but notice that a higher than average percentage are divorced. At least one of my colleagues explicitly confessed that his wife left him over his "workaholism". My wife's area of research is work/life balance, so I am perhaps more aware of these issues than most, but even so it is hard to deprogram myself. But really, who cares if I contribute an extra article to a journal no one actually reads. If I really want to contribute to the advancement of civilization, being a better father will probably produce more demonstratable results.

Friday, February 07, 2003

Culling Books

I have, I admit, a serious problem with my books: I cannot bring myself to throw them out. My office is filled to overflowing with various texts, manuals, references, and monographs. In recent months the number of books per square foot of office space has reached crisis proportions, such that it has become increasingly difficult to find space for students to sit when they come to consult with me (all three chairs are piled high with books) or to find clear patches of desk on which to work. The turning point came, however, when I realized I was running out of places on which to pile new books.

I have therefore resolved to go through my office book collection (not to be confused with the much more massive home collection which holds all those books not currently "in use" in my teaching or research activities) and purge all the outdated, redundant or useless volumes that inevitably accumulate over the years. To this end, I decided to assign myself the quota of eliminating one book per working day, so that I could reduce the collection by 50 or sixty volumes by the end of term, which seemed a reasonable initial target. Unfortunately, this has proved a lot tougher than I had anticipated.

First, once I started the task I quickly realized that I had already conducted a major purge about 18 months ago, and that all those books I had pictured as easy choices for the dustbin had already been tossed. I had forgotten about that earlier purge (I believe the phenomenon is referred to as 'repressed memory') when I had staved off the last crisis by throwing everything I could bear to part with. Consequently, I was now down to those books I still wanted to keep. Hard choices had to be made.

The second problem is, I love books. I do not mean merely that I love to read, but that I fall in love with the actual book. Where other people appear content with having cheap affairs with books, returning them to the library after reading their way through them and never borrowing them again, or abandoning them into a used bookstore with never a thought as to their fate, I wish to keep all my books forever. True, books, particularly textbooks, date rapidly and there may not appear to be any point in keeping some text that I read in my own undergraduate days 30-some years ago. But these volumes have tremendous sentimental value for me. Well, okay, not the statistic texts -- those were shown the door as soon as I had graduated the course, but my old humanities and social science texts! Ah, the romance that I had with those! How can I now discard these merely because they are old and their bindings faded? Call that love, would you?

Nevertheless, there comes a time for all of us when we have outlived a loved one and must get on with the burial. I couldn't actually bring myself to simply throw out my old sociology texts, but I did have to recoup the space, so I compromised by throwing most of them out. I took out my trusty exacto knife and cut out all the potentially useful photos (e.g., of the great sociologists) and cartoons, and trashed the rest. That was fairly traumatic, not unlike cutting up a body, but I managed it. By the end of January I had processed about 30 books, well over my daily quota, reducing a couple of boxes of books to a couple of file folders of photos and clippings.

I am currently working on my technical manuals. I have three shelves of Word and HTML and Powerpoint manuals and such like to process, throwing out the versions for older software to make room for the new, but even this is difficult for me. I cannot actually throw the books out, so I have been leaving them in a reading area (Section A 7th floor next to the women's washroom for any students reading this that want free but somewhat dated computer manuals) Today, I think I may have identified and tossed the last of the obviously outdated manuals. And so am faced with the horrible question, what next?

It's like choosing which of one's children to send packing!


Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Decided to take out the Backblog comments feature (no one was using it anyway) and simply go with a "comments" button on the menu on the left. Seems simpler and gives me more control over what gets published.

New Technology and Education

You can't win in this technology race. I introduced a new weblog assignment this term, thinking that I was, if not cutting edge, at least near the front of the pack. Yesterday Holly Gunn, frontline correspondent of the technology wars, sent me an alert on the NEW BIG THING, swikis:
Swiki Swiki

Trying to predict the long term consequences of these emergent technologies on education, learning, and schooling is challenging. But one thing is clear. The Internet has now entered the second phase of technological innovation: in the first stage of any new technology, the new form tries to fill the existing niches; in the second phase it stops trying to pretend that it was another version of some existing technology, and comes into its own. For example, when metalurgy first appeared, people tried to make metal pots look like pottery ones or faked wood finishes etc. It took awhile for people to value metal AS unapologetically metal. Same thing for plastic. Early plastic stuff had to pretend to be metal or wood paneling -- no one wanted a plastic dashboard in their car, they wanted the wood paneling so we get plastic wood. Eventually, plastic stops trying to pretend to be wood or metal and we get the IMac.

Same thing with new communication technology. Up until now, all the on-line courses I have seen have tried to duplicate classroom conditions as closely as possible. There has been a lot of nonsense spouted about creating virtual classrooms, about how listserves and chat rooms can recreate classroom discussion for on-line courses, how using video conferencing can create classroom like conditions for distance learners and so on. This was largely wrong-headed. The technology never REALLY recreated the classroom, because touching a screen is NOT like touching a person. But more importantly, one has to ask what was so great about classrooms we'd want to recreate them? Classrooms weren't doing the job for large segments of the population. There is not a lot of concrete evidence that people learned best in classrooms. classrooms were the industrial era's response to the need for mass education, and as a factory, classrooms worked adequately but may not be the best format for post industrial age. So why all this energy expended to recreate classrooms? I have argued (not that many technology in education conferences wanted to listen) that by trying to recreate the old forms in the new, we were limiting the real potential of these technologies, though I admit I wasn't clear on what that potential might be. But we begin to see in Blogs, and even more with Swikis, how students could work collaboratively to create a community of learners without the need for classrooms, classroom teachers, or schools. What that means for our world in the long run is something for my SF writer colleagues to digest, but it is pretty obvious that the world is changing.

Monday, February 03, 2003

A mildly amusing site on the Iraq situation provides a satirical gaming simulation. Good for a few nervous laughts....