A Country Without Libraries

Charles Simic

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.
—Groucho Marx

“All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations. Detroit, I read a few days ago, may close all of its branches and Denver half of its own: decisions that will undoubtedly put hundreds of its employees out of work. When you count the families all over this country who don’t have computers or can’t afford Internet connections and rely on the ones in libraries to look for jobs, the consequences will be even more dire. People everywhere are unhappy about these closings, and so are mayors making the hard decisions. But with roads and streets left in disrepair, teachers, policemen and firemen being laid off, and politicians in both parties pledging never to raise taxes, no matter what happens to our quality of life, the outlook is bleak.“The greatest nation on earth,” as we still call ourselves, no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend.

“I don’t know of anything more disheartening than the sight of a shut down library. No matter how modest its building or its holdings, in many parts of this country a municipal library is often the only place where books in large number on every imaginable subject can be found, where both grownups and children are welcome to sit and read in peace, free of whatever distractions and aggravations await them outside. Like many other Americans of my generation, I owe much of my knowledge to thousands of books I withdrew from public libraries over a lifetime. I remember the sense of awe I felt as a teenager when I realized I could roam among the shelves, take down any book I wanted, examine it at my leisure at one of the library tables, and if it struck my fancy, bring it home. Not just some thriller or serious novel, but also big art books and recordings of everything from jazz to operas and symphonies.”

Read full article here.


Charles Simic is a poet, essayist, and translator. He has published twenty collections of his own poetry, five books of essays, a memoir, and numerous books of translations. He has received many literary awards for his poems and his translations, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Griffin Prize, and the MacArthur Fellowship. Voice at 3 A.M., his selected later and new poems, was published in 2003 and a new book of poems, My Noiseless Entourage, came out in the spring of 2005. His new e-book is titled Confessions of a Poet Laureate.” (From The New York Review of Books)


How to Have a Rational Discussion

Editor’s Note: Brandon Scott Gorrell, who created this graph, admits that “perhaps it is mere wishful thinking, this diagram; perhaps reasonable discussion is altogether impossible (esp. on the internet), and we only hope in vain to one day live in a world where people are ready and willing to, you know, talk it out reasonably.”


The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries

Here’s a great article in the New York Times about teachers, by Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari:

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries

It turns all the conventional wisdom of the last several decades completely upside down, and challenges all the rhetoric about “teacher accountability.” And it asks us to decide what sort of a nation we want to be, and with what sort of priorities. These are the right questions to ask.

In the end, the answers are unsurprising. There are successful models elsewhere in the world for what works well in education.

These are models we must follow if we are ever to achieve greatness in education.

Excerpts from the article:

“WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

“And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

“Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.

” … So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again.

” … every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year.

” … The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.

“Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.

“And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.”

Read the full article here.

Here’s the trailer from the documentary, American Teacher:


Kudos to The Union for its Library Coverage This Week

Kudos to The Union for its series of articles and fundraising campaign for the Nevada County Library system this week, which is — which was, after all — National Library Week!

Shame on us local bloggers, who sat on our butts and didn’t say a word about National Library Week.

I count myself at the top of the Hall of Shame list, because I was in the forefront of the campaign last year to oppose privatization, having written several dozen articles on the subject at that time.

Starting last Saturday, April 9th, with an article by Madelyn Helling, The Union featured articles every day on various aspects of the local library system.

In the preface to Madelyn Helling’s kickoff article last Saturday, the Union Editor said, “National Library Week begins Sunday. The Union will begin a series of stories on Monday spotlighting our libraries and the challenges they face. The series will culminate Friday with a request for donations through Friends of Nevada County Libraries.”

Here’s a list of the articles in the series:

Liberty and Libraries for All,” by Madelyn Helling (Saturday, April 9th).

Tradition meets the future at county library,” by Ingrid Knox and
Dian Schaffhauser (Monday, April 11th).

Foley Library: It’s all about the history,” by Ingrid Knox and
Dian Schaffhauser (Tuesday, April 12th).

A dual-purpose branch: Bear River Library Station,” by Ingrid Knox and Dian Schaffhauser (Wednesday, April 13th).

Storefront serves patrons of Penn Valley Library,” by Ingrid Knox and Dian Schaffhauser (Thursday, the 14th).

Nevada County residents support their libraries,” by Ingrid Knox and Dian Schaffhauser (Friday, April 15th.

Library budget continues to shrink,” by Kyle Magin (Friday the 15th).

Historic library shares digital-age resources,” by Ingrid Knox and Dian Schaffhauser (Friday, April 15th).

Big business at small-town libraries,” by Mary Ann Trygg (Saturday, April 16th).

State library funds more than $8,700 for local services,” by Union staff (Saturday, April 16th).

Nevada County Library holds volunteers in high esteem,” Mary Ann Trygg (Saturday, April 16th).

Big thanks to The Union for its steadfast and energetic support of a vital institution in our local community.


Can Avatars Change the Way We Think and Act?

Reprinted from Stanford News Service

Experiences in virtual worlds such as video games and online communities can influence our behavior in the real world, says Stanford researcher Jesse Fox. Avatars can change the way we exercise or eat, or the way we view women.

By Christine Blackman

If you saw a digital image of yourself running on a virtual treadmill, would you feel like going to the gym? Probably so, according to a Stanford study showing that personalized avatars can motivate people to exercise and eat right.

Moreover, you are more likely to imitate the behavior of an avatar in real life if it looks like you, said Jesse Fox, a doctoral candidate in the Communication Department and a researcher at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab. In her study, she used digital photographs of participants to create personalized avatar bodies, a service some game companies offer today.

To escape to the virtual realm, you simply slip on a helmet with screens attached in front of the eyes. You are instantly immersed in a digital room and fully surrounded by a new world, as if you are inside a video game. Cameras in the lab track an infrared light on your helmet so that images on the screen move with your head.

Participants respond to avatars that look like them

In Fox’s first test, some participants put on the helmet and saw their avatar running on a treadmill. Others saw themselves loitering in the virtual room or saw a running avatar they didn’t recognize.

Fox contacted participants a day after the study and found that the people who saw their own avatar running were more likely to exercise (after they left the lab) than the people who saw someone else running or saw themselves just hanging out in the virtual room. In fact, those who watched themselves running were motivated to exercise, on average, a full hour more than the others. They ran, played soccer or worked out at the gym.

“They had imitated their avatar’s behavior,” Fox said.

In another test, some participants ran in place while watching their avatars become thinner, other participants stood still and watched their avatars become heavier, and others saw an unfamiliar avatar either slim or fatten. Participants who had witnessed their own avatar change – whether becoming thinner or heavier – exercised significantly more than those who had seen an unfamiliar avatar.

Seeing their face on an avatar was the driving factor. “If they saw a person they didn’t know, they weren’t motivated to exercise. But if they saw themselves, they exercised significantly more,” she said.

Participants also responded to personalized avatars whose bodies slimmed as they ate carrots or grew heavier as they ate candy. Male participants mimicked the avatar and ate more candy, but because of the gender differences associated with eating, female participants ate less candy.

Fox thinks personalized avatars could be used to motivate healthy behavior. For example, someone on a long-term weight loss schedule could pull out his or her cellphone and track progress by watching the avatar body slim down onscreen.

Female avatars change participants’ view of women

In a separate study, Fox tested the influence of avatars on attitudes and views toward women. She showed participants two types of female avatars: a suggestively dressed woman in revealing clothing and a conservatively dressed woman in blue jeans and a jacket. Both types of avatars demonstrated either dominant behavior such as staring at the participant or submissive behavior such as staring at the floor and cowering.

Both male and female participants exposed to the suggestive avatar showed higher rape myth acceptance when answering a questionnaire afterward. This is the view that women deserve to be raped if, for example, they wear suggestive clothing or are out alone at night. These participants were also more likely to agree with statements such as “women seek to gain power by getting control over men” and “women are too easily offended.” Even when Fox ran a similar test with women whose own faces appeared on the sexualized avatars, participants still showed higher rape myth acceptance.

Video games almost always portray women in a stereotypical manner, Fox said. “If all it takes is five minutes of exposure in an immersive virtual world to one character, we really have to ask ourselves about exposures and interactions in video games like Grand Theft Auto,” Fox said. The female characters in Grand Theft Auto are often scantily clad victims of violence.

On the other hand, the influences of body image in the virtual world may also help women. For example, an anorexic woman with a poor self-image might embody a healthy-looking avatar. She might become comfortable in her new body as she interacts with others in the virtual world and experiences acceptance and approval. Learning the benefits of being healthy may motivate her to adopt a healthy diet or seek help in real life.

After studying the influence of avatars, Fox is sure about one thing: the need for media literacy. “The bottom line is that we have to have more education in society, particularly showing students stereotypes that exist in media and why they exist.”

Fox’s research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Christine Blackman is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.

Related information:

Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Virtual self-modeling: The effects of vicarious reinforcement and identification on exercise behaviors,” Media Psychology, Vol. 12, Issue 1

Virtual experiences, physical behaviors: The effect of presence on imitation of an eating avatar,” PRESENCE: Teleoperators & Virtual Environments, Vol. 18, Issue 4

Virtual virgins and vamps: The effects of exposure to female characters’ sexualized appearance and gaze in an immersive virtual environment,” Sex Roles, Vol. 61, Issue 3-4

Tired of Reality? Virtual Reality Training Seminar — September 7th – September 17th, 2010


Education is the Husband That Will Never Let You Down

Here’s a nice clip from a New Scientist story about the TED2010 Conference:

Wishes do come true – as evidenced by Daphney Singo, an African nuclear physicist who took the stage in colourful African garb to talk about her experience at AIMS, the African Institute for Mathematics and Science, one of many such schools founded by physicist Neil Turok after he won the TED Prize in 2008. As a woman from a small village in South Africa, Singo never thought she could make a career for herself in physics. “But my mother told me, education is the husband that will never let you down.”

What is TED?

Check it out here.


Universities, Dead-Tree Newspapers Face Similar Issues with Online Content

yale_schmaleA recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Online Courses: Free, but Oh, So Costly,” by Marc Parry, looks at the high cost to universities of providing free online courses.

Free can be very expensive. Every course MIT publishes costs $10,000 to $15,000, roughly double for those with video. The money pays for back-end stuff users never see: Content collection. Reformatting. Intellectual-property vetting.

So how do you keep the lights on when foundation grants run out?

Lower production costs, some respond. Ms. Casserly tells the story of a Korean university where students competed to produce open lecture notes. The prize was an iPod and lunch with the university president.

But student scribblers aren’t a realistic solution for a juggernaut like MIT OpenCourseWare, with its 1.3 million monthly visits and $3.7-million annual budget. MIT is banking on NPR-style fund raising. This was its recent e-mail appeal: “Though MIT will continue to support about half the cost of the program, our challenge is to offset the loss of grant funding with substantial increases in corporate sponsorships, major gifts, and donations from site visitors and supporters.”

Carnegie Mellon is trying a different model. When its courses are good enough, with other colleges assigning them as e-textbooks, it asks students to pay a fee as low as $15, says Joel M. Smith, vice provost. “That would be a very, very, very cheap textbook,” he says. “If it were used by a large number of colleges and universities, it could sustain the project.”

Yale has no ambition to award credit for the free online courses at the moment, says Ms. Lorimer, citing the “additional burdens” for professors. Sustainability options include university or foundation support, plus commercial partnerships. Corporate sponsorships are now common for museum exhibits, she notes.

Universities — like dead-tree newspapers — are looking for a costing model for online content. And, as with newspapers, some observers are not optimistic about the future.

More free programs may run aground. So argues David Wiley, open education’s Everywhere Man, who set up the Utah venture and is now an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. A newspaper once likened him to Nostradamus for claiming that universities risked irrelevance by 2020. The education oracle offers another prophecy for open courseware. “Every OCW initiative at a university that does not offer distance courses for credit,” he has blogged, “will be dead by the end of calendar 2012.”

In other words: Nice knowing you, MIT OpenCourseWare. So long, Open Yale Courses.

“I think the economics of open courseware the way we’ve been doing it for the last almost decade have been sort of wrong,” Mr. Wiley tells The Chronicle. Projects aimed for “the world,” not bread-and-butter clientele like alumni and students. “Because it’s not connected to any of our core constituencies, those programs haven’t been funded with core funding. And so, in a climate where the economy gets bad and foundation funding slows, then that’s a critical juncture for the movement.”

In this short video, Parry talks to Steve Ziegler about his online coursework at Yale and MIT.

Parry asks Ziegler “how a high-school dropout with three kids and a stressful job ended up studying literature at Yale and biology at MIT?”

See also:

Yale Online Courses

MIT OpenCourseWare

Carnegie Mellon OpenLearningInitiative

Peer 2 Peer University

Online Education, Growing Fast, Eyes the Truly ‘Big Time’


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