Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 in Books


The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis A nice book on the whole of the thing. Gaddis is, it seems, is rightfully praised for his abilities and wraps up the whole affair well, based on the findings upon opening the Chinese and Soviet archives.

The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia Volume Two, Part One by Nicholas Tarling The period of modernization is covered here, the post-Raffles, but pre-WWI SE Asia. Of interest to specialists only, but fairly well-written.

The Theory of the Leisure Class by Torstein Veblen I rather hated this work, and found nothing of peculiar merit in it, whereas there was much to dislike.

Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Education by A.S. Neill Usually it’s found as an ‘Approach to Child-Rearing’. This edition may alter from that – but it is a good guide to child-rearing as well as an introduction to Summerhill. A must read for anyone interested in children or education, in my opinion.

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neal MacGregor With some odd biases this nonetheless presents an intriguing account of the history of the world. One thing to note is that some objects chosen are, themselves, important (such as the Rosetta Stone) while others are symbolic – this hodgepodge is not accounted for, and left me puzzled as to certain symbolic omissions (such as the plough).

The Wolfman and Other Cases by Sigmund Freud I’ve read the Intro to Psychoanalysis, Three Essays on Sexuality, The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents: but to read his actual case studies brought a new interesting perspective on Freud.

The Rebel by Albert Camus Is the best nonfiction by Camus I’ve encountered. I enjoyed the Myth of Sisyphus, if that’s the right word, but this stood out as a superior essay.

The Jewish State by Theodore Herzl Is of mild interest, short, and fleshes out initial socialist Zionism.

The City of Ladies by Christine d’ Pizan Went faster than I expected, and I can’t remember hardly any of it. The frame is interesting and enjoyable, but as a list of good ladies in history I can’t recall their individual meritorious exploits.

On War by Carl von Clausewitz This was quite a slog, since the work is unfinished at 800 pages and only partly edited and revised before death. As such one should brace for a difficult read with some worthwhile insights but much that is extraneous.

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincy Struck me as over-rated. The language isn’t particularly noteworthy, and the section on opium comes only scarcely at the end. The autobiography is not too enthralling, for my tastes.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion Having read ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ many years ago, and being tremendously impressed and influenced by that chapter, I approached this cautiously, not wishing to set my expectations too high. Only the title essay matched ‘Notebook’ in quality, a feat in itself, and the other essays were all of very high quality. Certainly a worthwhile read for those interested in California and/or the counter-culture.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill This I approached cautiously for other reasons. Mill is a very good writer, but not always the strongest logician, and one can accept an argument based on his words rather than the soundness of his reasoning. Slim and easy it was a worthwhile read, although I am not a libertarian from it.

The Civilization of Renaissance Italy by Jacob Burckhardt This is the worst sort of history book – too pedantic for the layman and not saying anything of value for the pedant. A waste of time, regardless of Burckhardt’s status in historiography.

The Book of the Courtier by Baldessar Castiglione A more pleasant contemporary look at the Renaissance, answering a question we’d phrase as ‘What makes a renaissance man?’ The dialogue loses luster after the first half.

Sickness Unto Death by Soren Kierkegaard Less pleasant or coherent than the Fragments or Trembling. I remain totally unconvinced of the premise, and would suggest only to Kierkegaard enthusiasts.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay A surprisingly pleasant read, for its length it still goes relatively quickly, excepting the laundry list of alchemists (but this may be my bias against biographies).

From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp The best nonfiction of the year, and possibly the best book I read. This book will be heralded, I think as a masterpiece in the future. It can be found for free in a PDF online and I can think of only a very few who I’d not recommend it to.

Essays by Francis Bacon Mildly interesting, if you like Bacon’s style, but not as profound, say, as Montaigne.

Nationalism by Rabidranath Tagore An interesting trio of essays, one on the nationalism of the U.S., Japan, and India. Japan’s was particularly insightful, I thought.

The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire Makes consistent reference to a series of works which, if you’ve not viewed them, makes the commentary troublesome. Broad points on modern painting are of some value.

The Observational Approach to Cosmology by Edwin Hubble Enjoyable, easy to read text of modern cosmology and the expanding universe.


A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift Thank goodness for the annotated notes, without which I wouldn’t know what was being satirized. Difficult, certainly an important work but not particularly amusing satire.

The Tower by William Butler Yeats Fine enjoyable collection of poems, meditating on age and change. My introduction to his work beyond single selections.

Outlaws from the Marsh by Shi Nai’An A large epic in the Three Kingdoms style with myriad characters and plot twists, descriptions of combat and morality. Enjoyable and fast-paced classic.

Ubik by Philip K. Dick A nice little story, typical of the best sci-fi and my introduction to PKD. I may read more of his stuff in the future.

Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake The Gormenghast trilogy was very enjoyable, and I liked all three volumes for very different reasons. The language is sometimes repetitive but all in all definitely glad I read it.

Right Ho, Jeeves and The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse These two follow chronologically, and are set somewhere in the middle of the arc. Bertie Wooster and Jeeves are funny in both, although I laughed more consistently and often at Right Ho, which may be the funniest novel I’ve read. However I was already familiar with the characters from the series, which undoubtedly colored my reading.

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford Isn’t the saddest story I’ve ever heard, but is a very good story. This began a string of novels chosen randomly that were on the theme of failed relationships.

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth Isn’t funny to me, as some think it is, but really rather sad. The language isn’t great, and I can see why it was probably more praised when it came out than now. Still I found the guy’s plight a bit moving.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon Was my introduction to Pynchon, and doesn’t leave me longing to try his other works. Not badly written, just not entertaining or thought-provoking.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch A nice little story, with good characters – again on failed relationships and lost time, like Ford. I now judge Murdoch a superior novelist to philosopher.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain A short novella that is pleasant and hard-boiled, and surely at short length isn’t a bad choice for anyone.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles I still don’t know what to make of this book’s back quarter to third. It is well-written, though, and struck me as truthful until the section which I’m still debating.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler Sufficiently different from the movie to lend interest, although the language sometimes got in my way.

Graphic Novels/Comics
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware A deep tragedy, and worthwhile read for all.

There is a Heppy Lend – Fur, Fur Awa-a-ay by George Herriman I like the old Krazy Kat comics, and this is a very good collection of Herriman’s comic.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel Certainly a worthwhile read, an introduction to Bechdel that I recommended to many people after I read it.

King Aroo, Volume One by Jack Kent Since my dad collects rare books I was able to read some little King Aroo as a child – but now they’re finally printing off the collection. Funny and gentle newspaper comic.

Top 5
From Dictatorship to Democracy
Right Ho, Jeeves
Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Education
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in Earth

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Greatest Hits

I have about 60 greatest hits collections and anthologies. Here are my top fifteen favorites, alphabetically:

The American Anthology of Folk Music – Various
Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground – Various
The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic R&B Recordings – Ray Charles
Greatest Hits (1975) – Al Green
Greatest Hits (2005) – Ricky Nelson
Greatest Hits (1970) – Sly and the Family Stone
The Great 28 – Chuck Berry
King of the Delta Blues Singers – Robert Johnson
The Kink Kronikles – The Kinks
Legend – Bob Marley
Portrait of a Legend – Sam Cooke
Substance 1987 (LP version) – New Order
The Sun Sessions (CD version) – Elvis Presley
20 Golden Greats – Buddy Holly
Walking to New Orleans – Fats Domino

I figure I spend so much time on albums that some time on Greatest Hits would be worthwhile. How else can you represent artists like Robert Johnson, Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke? So there it is.

Buy yours today!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Why Read Books...

...when you can blog about them?

The 47 books both the Modern Library and Time Magazine think you should read from the 20th Century (written in the English language):

1. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
2. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
3. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
5. Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
6. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
7. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
8. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
9. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
10. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
11. A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
12. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
13. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
14. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
15. Deliverance by James Dickey
16. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
17. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
18. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
19. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
20. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
21. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
22. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
23. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
24. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
25. Light in August by William Faulkner
26. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
27. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
28. Loving by Henry Green
29. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
30. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
31. Native Son by Richard Wright
32. 1984 by George Orwell
33. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
34. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
35. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
36. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
37. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
38. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
39. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
40. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
41. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
42. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemmingway
43. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
44. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
45. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
46. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
47. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Note that George Orwell gets two (1984 and Animal Farm) as does Nabokov (Lolita and Pale Fire). William Faulkner and Evelyn Waugh get two (Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust; The Sound and the Fury and Light in August), as well as a third from the respective Modern and Time lists (As I Lay Dying for Faulkner – ML and Scoop for Waugh – TM).

Other authors who got three mentions are Saul Bellow (The Adventures of Augie March – both, Henderson the Rain King – ML, and Herzog – TM), E.M. Forster (A Passage to India – both, Howard’s End, and A Room With a View – ML), James Joyce (Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Finnegan’s Wake – ML), Henry James (The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove, and The Ambassadors – ML), and D.H. Lawrence (Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love – ML). Joseph Conrad has four (Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Lord Jim – ML). The Time Magazine list only includes publications after 1923, which explains the lack of Joyce, James, Lawrence and Conrad.

Other authors who got two mentions are

F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby – both, Tender Is the Night – ML),
Theodore Dreiser (An American Tragedy – both, Sister Carrie – ML),
V.S. Naipaul (A House for Mr. Biswas – both, A Bend in the River – ML),
Ernest Hemmingway (The Sun Also Rises – both, A Farewell to Arms – ML),
Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint – both, An American Pastoral – TM),
Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse – both, Mrs. Dalloway – TM),
Graham Greene (The Heart of the Matter – both, The Power and the Glory – TM),
William Styron (Sophie’s Choice – ML, The Confessions of Nat Turner – TM),
John Cheever (The Wapshot Chronicle – ML, Falconer –TM),
John Fowles (The Magus – ML, The French Lieutenant’s Woman – TM),
Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon – ML, Red Harvest – TM),
Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, Point Counter Point – ML),
Ford Maddox Ford (The Good Soldier, Parade’s End – ML),
Edith Wharton (House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence – ML), and
Thomas Pynchon (The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow – TM)

Out of 153 unique books, I’ve read 27. (1984, Animal Farm, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I Lay Dying, The Great Gatsby, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, On the Road, I Claudius, The Grapes of Wrath, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Brave New World, The Ambassadors, Heart of Darkness, The Maltese Falcon, Sons and Lovers, Mrs. Dalloway, The Call of the Wild by Jack London – ML, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski – TM, The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – TM, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons – TM, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – TM, Ubik by Philip K. Dick – TM, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – TM). 126 to go:

From the ML, not already mentioned:

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
The Studs Lonigan Trilogy by James T. Farrell
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
From Here to Eternity by James Jones
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett
Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
Ironweed by William Kennedy
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy
The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

From the TL, not already mentioned:

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth
A Death in the Family by James Agee
Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
Money by Martin Amis
Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
Neuromancer by William Gibson
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
The Recognitions by William Gaddis
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Snow Crash by Neal Stevenson
The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carre
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
White Noise by Don DeLillo

The Time list, technically, has five entries from the 21st Century:

Atonement by Ian McEwan (2003)
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)

As such, really, there are only 148 unique novels for consideration for the 20th century.

Interesting omissions:

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway
The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
City of Glass by Paul Auster
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Anything by Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse or Julian Barnes

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Again

About a month ago the 2012 nominees were announced. They are:

Beastie Boys
The Cure
Eric B. & Rakim
Guns 'N Roses
Joan Jett and The Blackhearts
Freddie King
Laura Nyro
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Rufus with Chaka Khan
The Small Faces/The Faces
The Spinners
Donna Summer

I had to look up Freddie, Rufus and The Faces, but otherwise I knew the folks.

Still, STILL no recognition of Gram Parsons, Kraftwerk, Roxy Music, Tim Buckley, or Jethro Tull. Pleasantly many of the eligible female candidates I mentioned earlier are now represented (Joan Jett, Heart, Nyro, and Donna Summers). Still waiting on the following artists to boost the female numbers:
Richard and Linda Thompson
Janet Jackson
Linda Ronstadt
Joan Baez
Dionne Warwick
Whitney Houston
Sonic Youth
The Bangles
Cyndi Lauper
The Eurythmics
The B-52s
Sinead O'Connor
The Pixies

So since my favorites aren't available let's just give it to the four ladies and...Guns n Roses. Or Beastie Boys.

Neil MacGregor’s 100 Objects

Of Neil MacGregor’s 100 objects in his very nice book “A History of the World in 100 Objects” I tend to agree the vast majority. Yet some critical developments are lacking, or aren’t properly represented, and some are over-emphasized. MacGregor only has the items of his collection, The British Museum of which he is the Director, to work with – the book is as much a tribute to the Museum as it is a history. Cleverly many modern stories are told through ancient objects by proxy of the circumstances of their collection. So we get Napoleon through the Rosetta Stone, and Southeast Asia’s colonization through a stone head of Buddha from Java brought back by English adventurer Sir Stamford Raffles. I think this is fair to a point. The background of an object should be fair game to make sense of it, so long as the object itself describes the background in some way. A Victorian tea set, for example, shows the extent of the British Empire that got tea from China, sugar from the Caribbean, and, being a Wedgewood, touches upon the growing consumer middle class of the 19th Century.

Yet I still maintain some pieces aren’t as valuable to the list’s purpose of being a history. Further – there is a British bias and a Western bias. Two of the more recent objects are Hokusai’s famous Japanese print, The Wave, and David Hockney’s In the Dull Village, a sketch depicting two men in bed from the 1960s. Detail is given about Hockney and Hockney’s life, but nothing about the artist Hokusai. So, too, is there a bit of a British bias. We can’t overlook the Empire, but one out of every ten items is from Britain, which is a bit much.

My final concern is that some object specifically had an important role to play in history while others are symbolic of broader stories and trends. Perhaps one or the other, or some sort of explanation would have been nice. But, like most all lists of things of import, it is personal and reflects Mr. MacGregor’s view of history.
Here are those items which I think are deserved, and the story they tell:

Olduvai Stone Chopping Tool – Tools!

Olduvai Handaxe – Handaxes were critical multi-tools of our ancestors.

French Swimming Reindeer Carving – One of the earliest pieces of decorative art.

Clovis Spear point – Homo Sapiens reach the Americas, kill things.

Papuan Bird-Shaped Pestle – Evidence of cooking, agriculture. Humans outside Eurasia.

Egyptian Cattle Ceramic Figurines – Indicate the importance of domestication.

Maya Maize God – Shows rise of agriculture in Americas.

Japanese Jomon Pot – Ceramics!

Egyptian King’s Sandal Label – Weird, but has depictions of early state-building, and power politics.

Ur Box (Battle Standard?) – Depicts tax collection: More state building.

Indus Seal – India starts to be a state.

Mesopotamian Cuneiform Writing Tablet – World’s first writing as we know it, depicts bureaucratic rationing of beer in lieu of pay.

Nineveh Flood Tablet – Tells the flood story in non-Biblical context.

Egyptian Mathematical Papyrus – Papyrus and Math in one object. Nice.

Egyptian Statue of Ramses II – To rule an empire put your face everywhere (and propaganda is born).

Assyrian Reliefs – Assyrians first carved out the Middle East as we now it. Reliefs depict refugees of territorial war that defined the age of early empire.

Chinese Zhou Vessel – Complex bronze work, indicating advanced society, created for Chinese ancestor worship.

Peruvian Textile – Evidence of complex society and artisanship in the Americas.

Turkish Gold Coin – Money! No more beer rationing.

Persian Chariot Model – Gold model depicts nature of the Persian state, with famous roads.

Greek Parthenon Sculpture: Centaur and Lapith – Classical Greece in marble symbolizing struggle between brutishness and reason.

Indian Pillar of Ashoka – Ashoka is generally the textbook case of benevolent monarchy, and this marks the unification and influence of Buddhism on India.

Egyptian Mummy – Ptolemaic mummy symbolizes influence of post-Alexander Mediterranean, co-opting ancient traditions.

Chinese Han Lacquer Cup – Craft details show influence of the critical Chinese bureaucracy.

Roman Head of Augustus – Emblemic of the Pax Romana.

Roman Silver Cup – Juxtaposition of Roman homosexuality as both idealized and realistic.

North American Otter Pipe – Emblifies the role of shaman animals and tobacco in North America.

Mexican Ceremonial Ballgame Belt – State sponsored religious-tinged sports.

Chinese Jin Dynasty Scroll Painting – One of the earliest paintings, describes Chinese values, on silk.

Gandhara Seated Buddha – Early example of depicting Buddha in physical form.

Iranian Silver Plate showing Shapur II – Shows the role of Zoroastrianism in the Middle East.

Roman Jesus Mosaic – Depicts Jesus as Christ, combined with Classical imagery, found on the outskirts of the Empire in the UK.

Arabic Gold Coins of Abd Al-Malik – The juxtaposition of two coins minted a year apart define the moment when Islam forbade images of people.

Moche Warrior Pot – Symbolizes the influence of ceramics in South America.

Maya Relief of Bloodletting – Portrays the historic importance of blood as the most valuable substance in the Latin American world.

Abbasid Harem Wall Painting Fragments – Represents the power and isolation of court women worldwide, specifically from the Abbasid empire.

German Lothair Crystal – Illustrates the medieval legal attitudes based on the Bible and artistic craftsmanship of the Carolingian Renaissance.

Sri Lankan Tara Statue – Evokes the dialogue between Buddhism and Hinduism in South Asia.

Chinese Tang Tomb Figures – Display the China’s revitalization and Silk Road influence.

Viking Hoard – Vikings plundered Northern Europe.

Syrian Glass Beaker – Demonstrative of Middle Eastern glasswork and trade connections with Europe.

Japanese Bronze Mirror – Displays symbolism of Japanese court life.

Javanese Borobudur Buddha Head – Represents the extent of Buddhism throughout Asia and an era of advanced architecture in Southeast Asia

African Kilwa Pottery Shards – Evidence of African trade with Asia, and the rise of Swahili East Africa due to Bantu migrations.

Spanish Hebrew Astrolabe – Indication of the religious tolerance and scientific advancement of medieval Muslim Spain.

Nigerian Ife Head – Shows a West African terminus of trade routes and metallurgical brilliance.

Chinese Yuan Vases – Blue and white porcelain, China, is invented during the reign of Kublai Khan, depicting the immersion of Mongols into the Chinese legacy.

Taino Ritual Seat – Spiritual object of the Caribbean peoples wiped out by Columbus.

French Holy Thorn Reliquary – Signifies the return of wealth to Europe, tied to the Church, after the Crusades.

Byzantine Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy – Represents the diminishing role of the Orthodox Church and Byzantine Empire, as well as their iconographic heritage.

Indian Shiva and Parvati Sculpture – Demonstrates the Sub-continent's sexual mores and Hindu spiritualism.

Rapa Nui Moai – Shows the extent of the Polynesian settlers.

Ottoman Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent – Ne plus ultra of Arabic calligraphy, Ottoman strength.

Chinese Ming Banknote – Paper money!

Inca Gold Llama – Incas were dependent upon these critters, and the gold it’s made of.

German artist Durer’s Rhinoceros – Symbolizes the emergence of the Portuguese empire and Northern artistic Renaissance.

Benin Plaque – Depicts the interplay of Portuguese traders and African monarchs.

Aztec Double-Headed Serpent – Signifies the wealth, trade networks, and religious symbols of the Aztecs.

Japanese Porcelain Elephants – Indicates the introduction of porcelain to Japan, and the creation of products for European markets via the Dutch during the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Spanish Pieces of Eight – First global currency, indicator of the wealth of the Spanish empire.

Iranian Shi’a Religious Standard – Emblemic of the Islamic split.

Mughal Miniature – Shows the interplay of Islamic and Hindu religion with the former’s introduction to India.

Javanese Shadow Puppet – Depicts the unique heritage of Hinduism and Islam in Southeast Asia.

Mexican Codex Map – Emblifies the Catholic influence in the New World.

German Reformation Centenary Broadsheet – Printing in Europe, Protestant recruitment poster for Thirty Years War.

Akan Drum – West African drum, found in Virginia, representative of the Atlantic slave trade.

Hawaiian Feathered Helmet – Typifies the sophistication of the Hawaiian civilization prior to European contact.

North American Buckskin Map – Territorial negotiating device used between Native Americans and Europeans, in light of their role in the Seven Years War.

Australian Aboriginal Bark Shield – Indicative of 60,000 years of technological development, inter-Australian trade networks, and European contact – being damaged by James Cook.

English HMS Beagle Chronometer – Artifact of the naval importance to the British Empire, the standardization of time.

English early Victorian Tea Set – Shows the extent of the British empire’s trading and overseas industry, as well as a rising consumer middle class.

Japanese artist Hokusai’s The Great Wave – Expresses the influence of Europe after centuries of isolation, wood block techniques.

Sudanese Slit Drum – Representative of the fault line between Saharan Islamic and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as European influences on the region in the ‘scramble for Africa’.

English ‘Votes for Women’ Penny – Exemplifies the Western suffrage movement of the turn of the century.

Russian Revolutionary Plate – Marks the end of the czars and first communist country.

Mozambique Throne of Weapons – Denotes the legacy of post-colonial violence in Africa.

UAE Sharia Credit Card – No money! Plastic! The Middle East’s new wealth.

Chinese Solar Lamp – Sustainable energy for the global poor.

If you want to know which ones I don’t agree with you’ll just have to read the book or find the list yourself.

Friday, September 23, 2011

It was, admittedly, not going to get the Pulitzer for Editorial Cartoon of the Year.

A man stood at a table, with a tree in the background to lend scenery. A line of animals faced him: a cat, an elephant, a seal, a goldfish (in bowl), an ape, a songbird and a frog.

“To ensure a fair selection you all get the same test. You must all climb that tree,” he said, pointing.

While many a nail-biter is on the verge of shredding their cuticles with regards to either the U.S. economy or the U.S. political morass, some of us are looking to U.S. education with the same anxieties and fear. Like the other two, education, at this moment in time, is a deeply divided subject.

Since 9/11 the legislation of No Child Left Behind, co-written by Bush and Boehner amongst others, has been firmly in one camp of thought. This is a school of thought is embraced from the Beltway to Bill Gates. The reasoning behind this camp is so straightforward a child of six could understand it: by standardizing education you can see what areas need attention, get an indicator of success, and can compare results against students, states, school districts, or countries.

But because of the legislation’s implementation she might not actually be able to understand it. NCLB has been widely criticized for its failures: in financing, in achievement, and in coming to grips with reality. (As any teacher can tell you you’ll never get 100% pass rates on anything. They could hand out a test tomorrow for all school children to write their names – and some would still bungle it.) The ideals, however, are different from their execution, would argue proponents, and many still take the basic concept to be worth saving.

This notion of assigning a number to something, and thereby giving special power, is deeply rooted in us (at least since Archimedes). That’s what a standardized test wants to do: put a number on whatever is being measured. Comparing numbers is easy work. Five is greater than two, 93% is more than 56%. Specifically, Americans were one of the first to really go for this concept. Quantifiable data has perhaps always appealed to business-minded, efficiency-driven Americans. Open a magazine and you’ll see numbers and data, whether it’s the Economist, Newsweek, or Cosmo. And let’s not be mistaken: quantifiable data is really, very useful in hosts of ways. Tracking crime rates, pathogens, and census data all leap to mind. Without it we mightn’t know as much about linguistic patterns of New York City or the extent forest loss has on endemic species, or the correlations between price at the pump and voter confidence.

With regards to this standardization vogue I turn to the original test developed by Binet and Terman, the IQ, and Time Magazine, (no shirker on those numbers):

“But the broader and more controversial use of IQ testing has its roots in a theory of intelligence--part science, part sociology--that developed in the late 19th century, before Binet's work and entirely separate from it. Championed first by Charles Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, it held that intelligence was the most valuable human attribute, and that if people who had a lot of it could be identified and put in leadership positions, all of society would benefit.
“Terman believed IQ tests should be used to conduct a great sorting out of the population, so that young people would be assigned on the basis of their scores to particular levels in the school system, which would lead to corresponding socioeconomic destinations in adult life. The beginning of the IQ-testing movement overlapped with the eugenics movement--hugely popular in America and Europe among the ‘better sort’ before Hitler gave it a bad name--which held that intelligence was mostly inherited and that people deficient in it should be discouraged from reproducing. The state sterilization that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes notoriously endorsed in a 1927 Supreme Court decision (with the slogan ‘Three generations of imbeciles are enough’) was done with an IQ score as justification.”

This cuts to the fundamental issue at stake: that standardization is not as democratic as it might seem. Using numbers to sort people has non-beneficial uses, counter to the utilitarian ones aforementioned. We have the luxury of seventy years of research to show that intelligence is not a genetic trait: if it were otherwise then two brilliant professors wouldn’t have the heartache of raising a child with severe Aspergers, and there would be no hyper-intelligent children suffering the complete loneliness of being raised by adults who aren’t as sharp as they are. So we’ve moved on from eugenics to the next best thing: the educational system.

Make no mistake: school is stressful, and often cruel. So too, many would claim, is the life we’ll have after it. But if we’re not going to even engage in optimism or ideals than we might as well just scrap public education altogether. Aspirations should be, and used to be, a fundamental component of that concept, and without them the public school system in America has taken a nasty turn. Most children in this country look back at their school days and have some good fond memories, but these have always been tempered by hard lessons, shameful and embarrassing actions, and regrettable mistakes. These won’t go away – no matter what the over-protective parent might hope. But we can take steps to minimize them. Most critically, we need to move away from standardization.
The allure of ‘data’ is not just for the Republican crowds since “bleeding hearts” such as Obama have fully embraced this concept. The very notion of a “Race to the Top” has some queasy implications, most notably: what’s to be done with the losers? This mindset is fairly sick, when we examine it. In a recent magazine each state’s achievement on standardized tests was compared relative to each other and other countries. Massachusetts was at the top, and the ‘losers’ were at the bottom.

Why should students lose due to where they were born? Why should we delight in the failures of millions, on the grounds that they make our state look better? We’re not betting on horses at the track: education is too important to be a race, and too important for us to see most fail while a few succeed.

Returning to cruelty, as we increase standardization we’ll continue to increase the stakes of our tests, until we end up with a monster: a high-stakes exam that will help determine your entire future. I’m surprised those who think the administration leans towards Soviet Russia haven’t jumped on this. It’s a very old concept (originating in China) and leads to bureaucratic elites (also China). There’s a few reasons for this, which I’ll get to in a moment, but for now let’s really picture what life will be like for this student when they go through school. I’ll use Singapore as an ideal model, one of a number which have chosen to take this road already.

Competitive parents will start young, as they already do in the U.S., with finding the right preschool. Private education is to be considered better than public in more than nine cases out of ten, and so, immediately, you have the origins of real ‘class warfare’. Poor students do worse – literally hundreds of studies have confirmed this over decades of research. So the playing field begins to tilt in one direction if you’re lucky to be born to the affluent, and another if you’re not: at the age of four.

Moving on, the child goes to primary school, and now the bureaucrat steps in saying: we have to test the child sooner or later to see if they’re meeting standards. If you wait too long… well, something bad will happen, is implied. Since primary ends at age 11 in Singapore that’s when they test them, which seems rational since the next year they enter a new school and get a new set of subjects to master (for a new set of tests). Eleven is the minimum age you’re allowed to drop out in Singapore – if you do very poorly on the tests then you’ve no academic future, and thereby no future at all. For some this is the end of the line, and it’s been shown that it links to poverty (and implied links to minority race): a sobering reflection for Americans to consider.

At the end of Secondary there’s another test at 16, and then another at 18 to determines if you’re allowed in college. These tests are ‘cuts’ – they are designed to weed out, sort out, drop kids out of the system. We know that education is the most reliable means of achieving a higher pay scale and the best tool in the fight against poverty, which should mean something to a country of the unemployed. No Child Left Behind made the basic aim of standardized testing blunt: failing schools weren’t propped up, they were closed. Failing students aren’t supported, they’re axed. Fine as a business model for handling bad performance, but ludicrous for children: where else can they go?

So by this point most have been “weeded out” and the metaphor is apt as we treat most of our children and the generations following them as contaminants of Academia. By doing so we reinforce that these children would become contaminants of middle and upper-middle class society. This, then, is what is cruel. It is the stress of being eleven years old and knowing that your performance of a few hours of your life may well determine the rest of it. It’s the anxiety, fear, and crippling burden that teens face knowing that their exams will either make or break them. How can we, as compassionate humans and parents of our children, wish this upon them? Are we so selfish that we prefer the ‘A+’ on the refrigerator, no longer earned from interest but purely to ‘achieve’ and please, no matter the cost to our child’s mind, emotions, and health?

Such parents disgust me.

(Those who cite South Korea as a goal for educational reform and ‘tough’ parents always fail to mention, or are perhaps so ignorant as to not know, that the country is also experiencing a profoundly worrisome and tragic increase in suicide rates amongst their youth, buckling under the pressure and strain of an unrelenting system.)

Too many factors, well-known but unaccounted for by the sterile tests, account for performance on tests, standardized or otherwise. The other students in the room, the time of day, the student’s race and gender both, how much sleep you had the night before, heck even which nostril you’re breathing through have all been shown to change outcomes, processing times, and performance scores. Boys do better or worse than girls, blacks better when not sitting with whites, early clear morning results will be better than those on a rainy afternoon. These results have been measured, demonstrated, and shown to be significant. Standardization, by design, takes account of none of these. Not to mention the big factors from parent’s income to whether a student works better alone or in groups, to whether they’re better at expressing themselves in a written or oral exam.

Standardized testing is anti-diversity, a lesson we should be very wary about embracing. We can each name our favorite genius who didn’t do well in school, or exams: there are enough to choose from. In a non-democratic country like Singapore, which equates ‘diversity’ with ‘challenge’, standardization suits them nicely. But in America the values are very different. Singapore has produced generations of fine test-takers, but no Nobel Prize winners. Do we want our students to be good test-takers?
What happens if we take that path might look something like this, and we’re seeing it already: as high-stakes testing takes over our country many will simply do the easy thing and cheat. These scandals are to be expected, especially if scores remain tied to performance. As stated earlier, you’ll never get 100% pass rates, so if that’s the demand than the results will be fudged so teachers don’t lose their jobs and schools don’t shut down leaving students with nowhere to go. Since the test is so critical they’ll start to focus increasingly on test-taking skills. These can make a huge difference, as hundreds of thousands of us wealthy enough to take test-prep courses know. (In Singapore it’s called ‘tuition’, is lucrative, and if you can afford it, you will pass your exams.) So public education will begin to realign towards ensuring that kids pass the test and in the process they’ll miss out on any non-relevant material, and more importantly, non-relevant learning skills.

Unless they are careful, and ensure that certain types of skills are necessitated, these skills will be lost. The ability to do research, to give a presentation, to work in groups: skills our employers would love to see more of. Even if time is carved out in theory, or legislation, such provisions often don’t translate to reality in the classroom, nor are they likely to do so as the consequences of failing tests become more dire. Maybe on the syllabus there’s a week devoted to oral presentations, but if it’s approaching revision week, forget it.
Standardized tests, like any test, are good at doing one thing: showing how prepared a student is to take them. The SAT, America’s standardization of choice, doesn’t correlate well to happiness, IQ, success after college, or even success in college. The entrenched bureaucrats of the College Board are profiting on a test that refuses to die but, by all accounts, doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. We all know it can be gamed, and has little correlation to real ability, and yet it persists.

These tests aren’t really that good at showing skills – because we never need to demonstrate these skills out of context in real life. When was the last time you faced a problem that needed an immediate solution and you weren’t allowed to use any resources to solve it? And there was only one possible answer? It’s ridiculous – we don’t encounter ‘testing conditions’ ever in real life. Stripping the context from our reasoning isn’t somehow ‘purifying’: it’s just bad sense, and further discredits those who may think or learn differently. Trying for laboratory conditions doesn’t make sense in preparation for the complexities, or relative ease, of problem solving later in life.

As for myself I think best when walking and moving. Perhaps I’d be considered to be a ‘kinesthetic’ learner these days. When I face a problem I go for a walk, and if literature is any indicator so do many other people. Others really do like to sit down and have a good long think, but that’s not me. I’d wager those are the minority, and that most people solve problems in a variety of diverse ways, all of them nonreplicable through standardization. Watson and Crick didn’t get their insight the same way Ray Kroc or Mozart or Fleming did. It’s an individual process.

So these are the people we are discrediting, causing a life of trauma and alienation, as we continue to standardize. Anyone who is doesn’t fit in a particular, relatively arbitrary, mold, one which we know is not the only possibility for success or brilliance, is stigmatized and fails. Somewhere in our minds we know this isn’t true: we wouldn’t have Steve Jobs and Zuckerberg, Howard Hughes and Rockefeller otherwise (none of whom completed college).

The generation of test-takers produced will lack diversity, skills, and will be inherently non-democratic. We will lose many good minds, useful minds, along the way (either through failure due to circumstances beyond their control, or in a far more sinister sense.) These students will be bad citizens. They’ll lack approaches to problem-solving, creativity and curiosity, team-work abilities, critical thinking and analysis skills. They will prove to be a dangerous body of citizens, for, as Jefferson said: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” If they are not well-informed, and this generation will lack the skills to distinguish between pundits and policy, Jon Stewart and Walter Cronkite, then by implication they can’t be trusted with government. We will have tested the ability to uphold democracy out of them. In a place like Singapore, or the top-achiever on the recent tests, Shanghai, you don’t need a citizenry that can think for itself. The U.S. might want to consider if implementing their models inherently contradicts our values.

Moreover, democracy itself is under scrutiny as new views look at splitting two elements of the fundamental concept. American democracy, as I understand it, means that with hard work anyone can make it, and that everyone has a responsibility to play an active role in their country. We directly elect our officials – and so we are held responsible for the laws they pass, and the work they do. But the spilt has arisen between giving everyone the same chances (or a “fair shake” if you prefer) and saying that government has no right to intervene in our lives. But both lead to problems: we elect representatives so that government can get work done, which has to affect our lives and so too with our immigrant history we try to attract the best and brightest to compete with us, on our own turf, yes, but with equal opportunities. The notion that we must choose reinforces a false dichotomy. It wouldn’t be such a problem if we could work around it, but in fields like universal public education that’s not possible.

(This is not new: twice before we’ve encountered this rather serious debate. Using the terminology of the last encounter, it is a debate between populists and progressives. Populists are the hands-off camp, and the progressives want Washington to get stuff done. The populists, cutely named the People’s Party, in the 1890s managed to elect people to local government, lasted 20 years, and tried to elect William Jennings Bryan for President three times – yes, the fellow arguing against evolution in the Scopes Trial. But Progressives held D.C. from Theodore Roosevelt through Woodrow Wilson, and after the Republican Depression were revived by FDR. The strength of progressives led to the end of the populists – for a while at least.

The earlier example may be more familiar, and in that case the ‘hand’s-off’ argument, at that time known as ‘states’ rights’, was more successful in Washington, leading to such infamies as the Missouri Compromise and, eventually, the Civil War. That time the populists, the ones wary of government interference, got their way for so long that it became entrenched beyond repair, to the point that government was no longer functioning properly, and slaughter followed. Based on some of the rhetoric of the current Tea Party perhaps violence is what they want this time as well.)

And so we return to take our last looks at NCLB. The role of the federal government in education has been questioned time and again (consider desegregation in the 1950s – and what would’ve been the outcome if ‘state’s rights’ proponents had gotten their way). Currently most of the states are so cash-strapped they’d gladly accept money from Washington, regardless if they’re told to leave no child behind or race to the top or jig on the moon. The bureaucrats will oversee the transition of the new policy, the tests will arrive, and the governors and legislators will deal with the next emergency, not thinking about education seriously until teacher’s votes are an issue.

I hope to have shown that standardization is not the way to go for America, and is damaging not only to our children (and teachers), but to our national interests. Now it comes time to consider the alternatives. At the start a divide was posited. We’ve engaged one half of the issue, now to engage the other.

What does school without standardization look like, and how do we know it’s effective? These, I think, are the questions proponents of non-standardized schooling must be prepared to answer. Unlike standardization, which we’ve seen produces the same sort of child the world over, there is no one descriptor for non-test students, or non-test schools. By design they are diverse, catering to different needs and talents, types and skills. However examples can be provided, once we consider the goals of education.

For the test-mongers the goal of education is to get everyone on the same page (literally). Sad for them, not that they admit it, they fall far short of their goal, as shown above. The numbers they assign are meaningless. As educational reformer Sir Ken Robinson points out, this is because standardization is part of a factory model, which is the model we run public schools by, from the bells for shift changes to educating in ‘batches’, and which is designed to create the same thing, over and over, rather than individual things (like human beings).

If we prize individuality then we must account for individual’s different goals, and these will create different educational goals. These can range from rehabilitation and societal reintegration to specific skill sets to broad concepts such as increased freedom, spiritual needs, or democratic schooling. I will attempt to give a quick overview of the main branches from the most radical (that is, compared to our current PS 136 factory/test school) to the more recognizable.

At the least regulated end of the spectrum you have schools where the student is in charge of their education. Summerhill, in the UK, is probably the most famous of these. As a student you choose what classes, if any, you want to take and everyone from administrator to teacher to child has an equal vote in the rules and practices of the school. Its main objective is to make happy students, as its founder A.S. Neill said “I would rather Summerhill produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar.” Beyond the thee R’s little is required as our futures will be so very different. (A welcome argument for every child who has asked what the importance of geometry, chemistry, French, or history is to them, only to receive a dubious response.) Summerhill has been going since the 1920s, and the British government has started to warm to them, by observing that students there are in fact doing well in life.

Criticisms of this model are wide-ranging. One might question a child’s ability to self-regulate and the use of producing an adult who knows little about this or that. Of course they’d respond in defense by saying that ‘knowing this or that’ is not the purpose of their education – but to instill their core values of democracy, equality, and freedom. For Neill this meant foremost, play: lots of it and lots of self-discovery. By telling students answers or explaining things to them we rob them of the experience of figuring out answers for themselves. This jives, basically, with the notions of childhood forwarded by Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist who said children are like little scientists: curious and trying to make sense of their world through discovery and research. Certainly watching young children might confirm this, from the questions they ask us about their world to actions of their play activities.

Perhaps it’s best to pause and distinguish between two basic models of education. The first is the one just described, of self-discovery. The latter is that of modeling, and has maybe been in place longer. Modeling runs through every task from an apprentice copying the paintings of the master, to copying out translations, to a teacher showing their class how they mark an essay before engaging in peer marking. You see how the task is done, and then work on replicating it. It’s copying, and depending on what it is you’re copying these days it’s seen as either the best way of learning or totally unacceptable. At any rate it has been in place for thousands of years, but, of course, this need not mean that it’s the best or preferred method, and Piaget and Neill’s view of childhood is very persuasive.

Moving down the line we might next consider Waldorf schools. These emphasize the role of imagination and the arts in balancing the analytical and ethical. To teach at a Waldorf school you need to go through specific training, that is, it takes the approach of a specific model or program, and thus is more structured than a place like Summerhill. The classroom is rather freewheeling, and teachers are given great leeway in their classrooms – but the basic purposes must be met, and naturally this means that students can’t choose to skip out on classes as they might at Summerhill. Basically, though, Waldorf is cut from the same fabric as Piaget, with students working in blocks for extend periods of time on a specific subject of interest, just as a young child may become fascinated by something for a few days or weeks before moving on.

Few children do not delight in the arts, which are so central to the Waldorf model, and for that matter few adults would say they don’t like good music, acting, dancing, or visual art either in fashion or galleries or design. But of course there are some people don’t, whose turn of mind isn’t the same as the majority, and find solace at a young age for example amongst the abstractions of algebra and calculus. Globally Waldorf is, however, on the rise and many parents think it is the best means for their child to be in touch with themselves, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

Similar in basic approach to Waldorf is Montessori, advocating partial freedom for students. So, too, is it more along the lines of Piaget in that it advances freedom for students to develop within a prepared environment – one designed to foster their psychological development. Like the prepared environment there are specific materials to be taught. Still, many features familiar from Waldorf remain, from long blocks of time for tasks to the emphasis of self-discovery. These schools are more common than Waldorf, globally, and begin at an earlier age, even in infancy, unlike Waldorf which begins primary at age six or seven.

By now we must assume we’ve lost A.S. Neill. Montessori would be considered too structured and rigid for his tastes by far. Montessori is not the same as the factory/test model, but it is notably top-down, with a specific guide and framework for what is to be covered, and more importantly, how. Waldorf has a little more bend, and some may say balance, between these: a specific idea of how kids learn and freedom in child’s actions.

Now we come to the last model I’ll consider in depth, and this is Progressive education, as formulated by John Dewey. Unlike the other models Progressive education began in the United States, during the heyday of the movement at the turn of the last century. It is still Piaget – learn by doing – but doesn’t have the specific foci of the others, and is generally top-down, attempting to balance democratic ideas and student freedom in a structured way. This moves away from modeling, but as a methodology rather than prescriptive philosophy it can be integrated as means of studying any subject, and can therefore meet state or federal requirements. That is, unlike Waldorf’s art focus, or Montessori’s specific prepared lessons, Progressive education techniques can be applied in any classroom, if the teacher is willing.

Progressive education techniques have seeped into our classrooms, from studying American history simultaneously with American literature to laboratory work in the sciences. Like Waldorf there is a focus on critical thinking skills, although the role of imagination is not as emphasized. Collaborative work and community service, in line with Dewey’s strongest emphasis on valuing democracy, are highlighted as well. Evaluation accounts more for projects than tests, or abandons tests entirely, and textbooks are uncommon. Elements of all of these were probably experienced, in one form or another, by most who were educated in the U.S. but few, now, get the whole package.

At this point a good amount of ground, but by no means all of it, has been covered in answering the first question posed of what do schools without standardization look like. My first teaching job was not a standardized school, for example, but was very different from anything we’ve covered, as it was designed for students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. Standardization was out of the question, but the days were repetitive, balanced by an unrestrictive classroom environment (well, restrictive only regarding their safety and mine). There are many types of alternative education, from prisons to online degrees, with varying success rates and societal acceptance. But examining all these would draw us away from our intended goal, which is to focus on public education, of the mandatory variety. Summerhill, Montessori, Waldorf and Progressive models could all be, tomorrow if legislated, nation-wide replacements for our current system.

The other question raised was if other models are effective. We’ve examined one particular branch of the non-standardized tree, focusing on models that promote values I think most Americans could get behind – childhood curiosity, democracy, freedom, ethics and empathy – which, to varying degrees, each model covered (1). But how to rate their effectiveness will differ widely depending on what each hopes to achieve. For Summerhill effectiveness would be measured in happiness of students as adults. For Waldorf and Montessori it would be based on how well the child thrived according to the ideals and boundaries placed upon them. For the Progressive educators every individual implementation would require analysis of effectiveness.

Yet, for those who are skeptics it’s worthwhile to address their concerns. As such we can take a look at a case study of non-standardization on a countrywide level which has, nevertheless, proved to be effective when tested by traditional means: Finland.

Unlike Singapore or the American education system, I do not have direct experience to fall back on. But the policies of Finland are well-known to those who concern themselves with such matters. Foremost, there is no tracking. That is, students aren’t split into groups based on ability. This still happens in the U.S., although it is not allowed in some areas, as it tends to be very damaging for lower-level students (who lose the benefit of working with better students, who, in their turn, benefit from further application of their abilities helping those who are struggling). Singapore grades students and separates them out extensively in the lower levels in different tracks, again based on those high-stake exams. In Finland the distinction of ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ does come to play a role at sixteen, and, like the U.S. and Singapore, post-secondary is differentiated (as we have our community colleges and state schools, or Singapore’s polytechnics, junior colleges and universities).

After nearly universal preschool, focused on play rather than teaching, all students begin comprehensive schooling. Interestingly there are private schools allowed, but they cannot be selective – no tracking of any sort is permitted. As many have advocated for in the U.S. class sizes are kept small (as is also the case in Singapore, where a class I taught of 26 was seen to be enormous, and where I had classes as small as 9). Multiple languages and arts classes are required (the former is also the case in SG). There are none of the high-stakes tests in vogue elsewhere, very limited homework, and considerable teacher autonomy in determining how to implement the curriculum. Grades are not received initially. If you fail an end of year test you retake it. Free health care and lunch are provided. Some books are provided by the government starting in infancy.

Internationally Finland was ranked 6th in Math (SG – 2, USA – 30), 3rd in Reading (SG – 5, USA – 17), and 2nd in Science (SG – 4, USA – 23). It is, then, as or more effective than the high-stakes standardization model, less damaging to students (unlike South Korea) and better received by them, and far more capable than what the U.S. has – and the U.S. now requires more testing than any other nation on earth.

Thus we have seen that standardized tests are not the way to go, by any consideration. We need a total, wholesale reform of our educational system. I would suggest one that places emphasis on student well-being and development, while fostering those American values we wish all future citizens to possess. A diversity of models should, and can, be employed preserving equity and remaining globally competitive. Moreover adopting such measures will notably improve those other areas of concern in society, our political discourse and representation as well as our troubled economy, producing candidates employers want to hire. We cannot do any less.

(1) Those who don’t like Piaget’s theories are free to embrace others, such as Vygotsky or Freire. Vygotsky noted that children don’t develop in vacuum, and that cultural background is a critical component, which Piaget overlooked. He appears in classrooms today also under the related concept of scaffolding – helping students move from a top-down modeling approach to one of self-achievement. Freire, amongst other ideas, said that the very duality of teachers and students is problematic. In all, then, the options are out there to explore for those who wish to do so.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Nobel Season Around the Corner

October, of course, is Nobel Prize Season (and other things too, I'm sure.)

But this year I decided to go all out and compile the Living Laureates.

There are 250 - and I've ranked them by category. (At least, as of September 16th.) Maybe this list will inspire folks to look up what these people have done.

Peace 30

Nelson Mandela – 1993 Age – 93 South Africa

Henry Kissinger – 1973 Age – 88 USA – Longest Holding

Shimon Peres – 1994 Age – 88 Israel

Jimmy Carter – 2002 Age – 86 USA

Elie Wiesel – 1986 Age – 82 USA

Mikhail Gorbachev – 1990 Age – 80 USSR/Russia

Adolfo Perez Esquivel – 1980 Age – 79 Argentina

Desmond Tutu – 1984 Age – 79 South Africa

The 14th Dalai Lama – 1989 Age – 76 Tibet

FW De Klerk – 1993 Age – 75 South Africa

John Hume – 1998 Age – 74 UK

Martti Athisaari – 2008 Age – 74 Finland

Kofi Annan – 2001 Age – 73 Ghana

Oscar Arias Sanchez – 1987 Age – 71 Costa Rica

Wangari Maathai – 2004 Age – 71 Kenya

Muhammad Yunus – 2006 Age – 71 Bangladesh

Mohamed ElBaradei – 2005 Age – 69 Egypt

Betty Williams – 1976 Age – 68 UK

Mairead Corrigan – 1976 Age – 67 UK

Lech Walesa – 1983 Age – 67 Poland

Ang San Suu Kyi – 1991 Age – 66 Burma

David Trimble – 1998 Age – 66 UK

Shirin Ebadi – 2003 Age – 64 Iran

Carlos Belo – 1996 Age – 63 East Timor

Al Gore – 2007 Age – 63 USA

Jose Ramos-Horta – 1996 Age – 61 East Timor

Jody Williams – 1997 Age – 60 USA

Liu Xiaobo – 2010 Age – 55 China – Shortest Holding

Rigoberta Menchu – 1992 Age – 52 Guatemala

Barack Obama – 2009 Age – 50 USA

Literature 20

Doris Lessing – 2007 Age – 91 UK

Wislawa Szymborska – 1996 Age – 88 Poland

Nadine Gordimer – 1991 Age – 87 South Africa

Dario Fo – 1997 Age – 85 Italy

Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 1982 Age – 84 Colombia – Longest Holding

Gunter Grass – 1999 Age – 83 Germany

Derek Walcott – 1992 Age – 81 St. Lucia

Imre Kertesz – 2002 Age – 81 Poland

Toni Morrison – 1993 Age – 80 USA

V.S. Naipaul – 2001 Age – 79 UK

Wole Soyinka – 1986 Age – 77 Nigeria

Kenzaburo Oe – 1994 Age – 76 Japan

Mario Vargas Llosa – 2010 Age – 75 Peru/Spain – Shortest Holding

Seamus Heaney – 1995 Age – 72 Ireland

Gao Xingjian – 2000 Age – 71 France

J.M. Coetzee – 2003 Age – 71 South Africa

J.M.G. Le Clezio – 2008 Age – 71 France/Mauritius

Elfriede Jelinek – 2004 Age – 64 Austria

Orhan Pamuk – 2006 Age – 59 Turkey

Herta Muller – 2009 Age – 58 Germany

Physiology and Medicine 65

Rita Levi-Montalcini – 1986 Age – 102 USA/Italy

Renalto Dubecco – 1975 Age – 97 USA/Italy

Sir Andrew Huxley – 1963 Age – 93 UK

Christian de Duve – 1974 Age – 93 Belgium

Joseph Murray – 1990 Age – 92 USA

Francois Jacob – 1965 Age – 91 France

Donnall Thomas – 1990 Age – 91 USA

Edmond Fischer – 1992 Age – 91 USA/Switzerland

Har Khorana – 1968 Age – 89 USA

Stanley Cohen – 1986 Age – 88 USA

Arvid Carlsson – 2000 Age – 88 Sweden

Roger Guillemen – 1977 Age – 87 USA

Torsten Wiesel – 1981 Age – 87 Sweden

Oliver Smithies – 2007 Age – 86 USA

David Hubel – 1981 Age – 85 USA

Paul Greengard – 2000 – Age 85 USA

Robert Edwards – 2010 Age – 85 UK – Shortest Holding

Andrew Schally – 1977 Age – 84 USA

Sydney Brenner – 2002 Age – 84 UK

James Watson – 1962 Age – 83 USA – Longest Holding

Gerald Edelman – 1972 Age – 82 USA

Werner Arber – 1978 Age – 82 Switzerland

Eric Kandel – 2000 Age – 81 USA

Luc Montagnier – 2008 Age – 79 France

Bengt Samuelsson – 1982 Age – 77 Sweden

Sir Peter Mansfield – 2003 Age – 77 UK

Michael Bishop – 1989 Age – 75 USA

Ferid Murad – 1998 Age – 75 USA

Gunter Blobel – 1999 Age – 75 USA

Harald zur Hausen – 2008 Age – 75 Germany

Robin Warren – 2005 Age – 74 Australia

David Baltimore – 1975 Age – 73 USA

Mario Capecchi – 2007 Age – 73 USA

Susumu Tonegawa – 1987 Age – 72 Japan

Joseph Goldstein – 1985 Age – 71 USA

Harold Varmus – 1989 Age – 71 USA

Leland Hartwell – 2001 Age – 71 UK

Hamilton Smith – 1978 Age – 70 USA

Michael Brown – 1985 Age – 70 USA

Alfred Gilman – 1994 Age – 70 USA

Peter Doherty – 1996 Age – 70 Australia

Louis Ignarro – 1998 Age – 70 USA

Sir Martin Evans – 2007 Age – 70 UK

Bert Sakmann – 1991 Age – 69 Germany

Stanley Prusiner – 1997 Age – 69 USA

Sir John Sulston – 2002 Age – 69 UK

Sir Richard Roberts – 1993 Age 68 UK

Christiane Nusslein-Volhard – 1995 Age – 68 Germany

Sir Tim Hunt – 2001 Age – 68 UK

Erwin Neher – 1991 Age – 67 Germany

Phillip Sharp – 1993 Age – 67 USA

Rolf Zinkernagel – 1996 Age – 67 Switzerland

Richard Axel – 2004 Age – 65 USA

Eric Weischaus – 1995 Age – 64 USA

Robert Horvitz – 2002 Age – 64 USA

Linda Buck – 2004 Age – 64 USA

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi – 2008 Age – 64 France

Sir Paul Nurse – 2001 Age – 62 UK

Elizabeth Blackburn – 2009 Age – 62 USA/Australia

Barry Marshall – 2005 Age – 59 Australia

Jack Szostak – 2009 Age – 58 USA

Andrew Fire – 2006 Age – 52 USA

Craig Mello – 2006 Age – 50 USA

Carol Greider – 2009 Age – 50 USA

Chemistry 59

Sir John Cornforth – 1975 Age – 94 UK/Australia

Herbert Hauptman – 1985 Age – 94 USA

William Knowles – 2001 Age – 94 USA

Frederick Sanger – 1958, 80 Age – 93 UK – Longest Holding, Only Double Recipient

Jerome Karle – 1985 Age – 93 USA

Paul Boyer – 1997 Age – 93 USA

Jens Skou – 1997 Age – 92 Denmark

Rudolph Marcus – 1992 Age – 88 USA

Walter Kohn – 1998 Age – 88 USA

Paul Berg – 1980 Age – 85 USA

Sir Aaron Klug – 1982 Age – 85 UK

Irwin Rose – 2004 Age – 85 USA

Manfred Eigen – 1967 Age 84 Germany

George Olah – 1994 Age – 84 USA/Hungary

F. Sherwood Rowland – 1995 Age – 84 USA

Elias Corey – 1990 Age – 83 USA

Osamu Shomoura – 2008 Age – 83 Japan

John Polanyi – 1986 Age – 82 Canada/Hungary

Akira Suzuki – 2010 Age – 81 Japan – Shortest Holding

Yves Chauvin – 2005 Age – 80 France

Richard Heck – 2010 Age – 80 USA – Shortest Holding

Walter Gilbert – 1980 Age – 79 USA

Dudley Herschback – 1986 Age – 79 USA

Richard Ernst – 1991 Age – 78 Switzerland

Robert Curl – 1996 Age – 78 USA

Paul Crutzen – 1995 Age – 77 Netherlands

Ei-ichi Negishi – 2010 Age – 76 Japan – Shortest Holding

Hideki Shirakawa – 2000 Age – 75 Japan

Alan Heeger – 2000 Age – 75 USA

Roald Hoffman – 1981 Age – 74 USA

Yuan Lee – 1986 Age – 74 USA

Robert Huber – 1988 Age – 74 Germany

Gerhard Ertl – 2007 Age – 74 Germany

Ryoji Noyori – 2001 Age – 73 Japan

Avram Hershko – 2004 Age- 73 Israel

Sidney Altman – 1989 Age – 72 USA/Canada

Kurt Wutrich – 2002 Age – 72 Switzerland

Ada Yonath – 2009 Age – 72 Israel

Jean-Marie Lehn – 1987 Age – 71 France

Sir Harold Kroto – 1996 Age – 71 UK

Thomas Steitz – 2009 Age – 71 USA

Sir John Walker – 1997 Age – 70 UK

Barry Sharpless – 2001 Age – 70 USA

Robert Grubbs – 2005 Age – 69 USA

Mario Molina – 1995 Age – 68 USA/Mexico

Johann Deisenhofer – 1988 Age – 67 Germany

Kary Mullis – 1993 Age – 66 USA

Richard Schrock – 2005 Age – 66 USA

Ahmed Zewail – 1999 Age – 65 USA/Egypt

Roger Kornberg – 2006 Age – 64 USA

Martin Chalfie – 2008 Age – 64 USA

Hartmut Michel – 1988 Age – 63 Germany

Thomas Cech – 1989 Age – 63 USA

Aaron Ciechanover – 2004 Age – 63 Israel

Peter Agre – 2003 Age – 62 USA

Roger Tsien – 2008 Age – 59 USA

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan – 2009 Age – 59 USA

Roderick MacKinnon – 2003 Age – 55 USA

Koichi Tanaka – 2002 Age – 52 Japan

Physics 76

Charles Townes – 1964 Age – 96 USA

Norman Ramsey – 1989 Age – 96 USA

Nicolaas Bloembergen – 1981 Age – 91 USA/Netherlands

Jack Steinberger – 1988 Age – 90 USA

Yoichiro Nambu – 2008 Age – 90 USA

Leon Lederman – 1988 Age – 89 USA

Chen Yang – 1957 Age – 88 USA/China – Longest Holding

Val Fitch – 1980 Age – 88 USA

Hans Dehmelt – 1989 Age – 89 USA

Antony Hewish – 1974 Age – 87 UK

Philip Anderson – 1977 Age – 87 USA

Leo Esaki – 1973 Age – 86 Japan

Roy Glauber – 2005 Age – 86 USA

Ben Mottelson – 1975 Age – 85 USA/Denmark

Tsung-Dao Lee – 1957 Age – 84 USA/China – Longest Holding

Donald Glaser – 1960 Age – 84 USA

Karl Muller – 1987 Age – 84 Switzerland

Martin Perl – 1995 Age – 84 USA

Masatoshi Koshiba – 2002 Age – 84 Japan

Herbert Kroemer – 2000 Age – 83 USA/Germany

Alexei Abrikosov – 2003 Age – 83 USA/Russia

Rudolf Mossbauer – 1961 Age – 82 Germany

Murray Gell-Mann – 1969 Age – 82 USA

Leon Cooper – 1972 Age – 81 USA

Ivar Giaever – 1973 Age – 81 USA/Norway

Jerome Friedman – 1990 Age – 81 USA

Richard Taylor – 1990 Age – 81 Canada

Zhores Alferov – 2000 Age – 81 Russia

George Smith – 2009 Age – 81 USA

John Schrieffer – 1972 Age – 80 USA

Burton Richter – 1976 Age – 80 USA

David Lee – 1996 Age – 80 USA

Martinus Veltman – 1999 Age – 80 Netherlands

James Cronin – 1980 Age – 79 USA

Riccardo Giacconi – 2002 Age – 79 USA/Italy

Arno Penzias – 1978 Age – 78 USA

Steven Weinberg – 1979 Age 78 USA

Sheldon Glashow – 1979 Age 78 USA

Heinrich Rohrer – 1986 Age – 78 Switzerland

Claude Cohen-Tannoudji – 1997 Age – 78 France

Carlo Rubbia – 1984 Age – 77 Italy

John Hall – 2005 Age – 77 USA

Charles Kao – 2009 Age – 77 USA/Hong Kong/UK

Samuel Ting – 1976 Age – 75 USA

Robert Wilson – 1978 Age – 75 USA

Kenneth Wilson – 1982 Age – 75 USA

Robert Richardson – 1996 Age – 74 USA

Anthony Leggett – 2003 Age – 73 USA/UK

Albert Fert – 2007 Age – 73 France

Daniel Tsui – 1998 Age – 72 USA

Peter Grunberg – 2007 Age – 72 Germany

Brian Josephson – 1973 Age – 71 UK

Toshihide Maskawa – 2008 Age – 71 Japan

Joseph Taylor – 1993 Age – 70 USA

David Gross – 2004 Age – 70 USA

Theodor Hansch – 2005 Age – 69 Germany

Klaus von Klitzing – 1985 Age – 68 Germany

Makoto Kobayahsi – 2008 Age – 67 Japan

Douglass Osheroff – 1996 Age – 66 USA

George Smoot – 2006 Age – 66 USA

Gerard ‘t Hooft – 1999 Age – 65 Netherlands

John Mather – 2006 Age – 65 USA

Gerd Binning – 1986 Age – 64 Germany

Steven Chu – 1997 Age – 63 USA

William Phillips – 1997 Age – 62 USA

Horst Stormer – 1998 Age – 62 Germany

David Politzer – 2004 Age – 62 USA

Johannes Bednorz – 1987 Age – 61 Germany

Russell Hulse – 1993 Age – 60 USA

Robert Laughlin – 1998 Age – 60 USA

Carl Wieman – 2001 Age – 60 USA

Frank Wilczek – 2004 Age – 60 USA

Wolfgang Ketterle – 2001 Age – 53 Germany

Andre Geim – 2010 Age – 52 Russia/Netherlands – Shortest Holding

Eric Cornell – 2001 Age – 49 USA

Konstantin Novoselov – 2010 Age – 37 Russia/UK – Shortest Holding

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cambodia Travelogue

(Describing the individual temples would take too long, and I direct you to Wikipedia for any enquiries.)

Day One, Saturday:

The flight was uneventful - Changi Airport was as pleasant as ever. I Arrived in Phnom Penh around 1 local time and took a cab to The Pavilion which was as nice as the website had led me to hope. Free: bottled water, limeade when I arrived, breakfast, computer in room with internet. I was in a detached single from the main building, the Garden Bungalow, an aircon and private bath room with a queen bed.

After settling in I walked over to K'nyay - a Khmer restaurant that is gay and vegan-friendly. I thwarted this, however, by having pork in green curry and some watermelon/apple/mint juice. Took a tuk tuk (think rickshaw with motorcycle) to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: this is where they interrogated prisoners before sending them to the killing fields. Only seven people survived. There are thousands of photos of those who didn't as you walk through the cells and interrogation rooms where the cots and devices still sit out. The whole place is rather decrepit, and they've kept the barbed wire on one of the buildings - the compound formerly was a school. In one room there is a shrine surrounded by skulls.

After this I took another tuk tuk to the Russian Market - similar in size and scope to Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, but instead made of corrugated roofs and uneven floors. A third world shanty town of a Grand Bazaar. It was getting near closing so I browsed and haggled around killing time and getting souvenirs while I could hear the brief tropical storm rain down on the metal overhead. Then I hopped in the day's last tuk tuk back to my rooms, unloaded, and went around the corner to Frizz - another Khmer restaurant where I got Lok Lak (beef with tomatoes garlic and onions in sauce and a fried egg) some fried spring rolls and a banana shake (yum). It had been recommended by both my guidebook and my hotel, so it was not surprisingly lively when I arrived. Then I made an early night of it to rest for the next day.

Day Two, Sunday:

Got up around 8 to make the best of a free breakfast - two fried eggs, two pieces of artisan walnut bread, a chocolate croissant, passion fruit and orange juice (fresh squeezed) watermelon and banana slices and some tea by the pool. Walked a few hundred meters to the entrance of the Royal Palace. Cambodia is still a monarchy (albeit of the parliamentary, constitutional type) but after Pol Pot the return of the King was a major unifier of the people and so the King and royal family in general is very highly respected. It also means much of the compound, still his residence, is off-limits. That which is open is quite grand, and I took my time, my shoes off as needed, and many photos.

After this I went over to the National Museum, about a block away. It was another beautiful building, but the interior exhibits were a bit lacking. Many pieces of sculpture from back to the 5th century. If I was really jazzed I might have taken maybe two hours to read all the plaques - but as was the few small rooms were rather quick going. So I moseyed across the street for lunch at a joint called Friends, very popular and also highly recommended. Part of the reason for the recommendation is that it takes kids off the street and trains them in hospitality. The food was a little pricey for Cambodia, but very good. I had a raspberry vanilla shake along with my two small orders (they only do small dishes) of cashew chicken and mangoes and sweet potato fries with curry (one of these was more authentic than the other...)

Not knowing what to do with a free afternoon (which I'd planned on Museum-ing after a more lengthy Palace tour) I ruled out the killing fields (since they've been, if you can believe it, privatized by a Japanese company. I'm not big on genocide tourism - but money for the impoverished nation is worthwhile, so I saw Tuol Sleng. But letting the Japanese profit off the tragedy struck me as wrong.) and instead went to the river front, an apparently popular joint. Indeed it was lined with many bars and restaurants - but was decidedly unscenic. Not even in a fun, grimy way - it was very neat and very boring with uniform architecture dating back to maybe 1980. I moseyed down to what I think is the confluence of the Tonle Sap (PP's main river) and the Mekong, before heading back for another early evening as the thunder rolled outside.

Day Three, Monday:

The morning was basically the same, and I arranged a bus to Siem Reap, which picked me up around 11:45 leaving the capital around noon. The road was often bumpy and, had it not been for two days of tuk tuk preparation, scary. Most of the bus was Cambodian, and we picked up more on the way. Sometime around 2 we broke down for a while and had to wait as they repaired the engine. The countryside was beautiful, though. Lots of cows and water buffalo, lots of rice paddies and farms, lots of poverty. I took pictures of the countryside (not the people, since I couldn't ask their permission). Oddly there were lots of cell phone stores on the way - it seems every place where there's more than two houses had one.

The bus got in to Siem Reap around 6 and I was picked up by my hotel in a tuk tuk, in a nice twilight ride. The Pavilon Indochine was a bit more of a hotel - I was on the second floor, and all the rooms had a private "deck" overlooking the pool. The room was bigger, bed was smaller, fewer free amenities. But still aircon and a private bath. The grasp of English, throughout the city, wasn't as strong as in the capital. The same driver took me downtown once I'd unloaded my stuff (the Pavilon is a ways out of town, nearer to the temples) for dinner at Viva - Cambodia's attempt at Mexican. Very lively and full of tourists and Cambodians alike. Not surprisingly it was a little strange, but after some rather lame nachos, a steak burrito with shredded carrots, and chicken wings with sweet and sour sauce washed down with watermelon juice I was ready to go back and rest.

Day Four, Tuesday:

After breakfast (very similar to Pavilion's) I started walking to Angkor Wat with enough money in my pocket to by a ticket and $4 left over. I figured as a place of pilgrimage it would make sense to walk. After I bought my ticket and went up the road apiece an old man on a motorcycle (moto) asked me if I wanted I ride. I told him I had no money (usually to tour around for a day is $15) but he said he didn't care. So I hopped on and we got to talking. He was retired, and had nothing better to do, and he wanted to practice his English with me. He was 69 and named Meas Soth ('meas' like 'mea culpa' and 'soth' like 'both'). We went first to Kravan - which was a nice, small introduction of what was to come. Then we went on to Sra Srong (A large artificial lake one of the kings built) and nearby Banteay Kdei, a nice temple. Then we hit iconic Ta Promh - where they usually film "ruined temple" scenes. As such it was a bit busy, but it is the vine-covered classic.

After some time we went on to Ta Keo. Soth usually waited around and talked to other drivers or would have a smoke as I wandered around the temples, but occasionally would join me. All the temple sites are restored by different countries, I guess to be fair and since I'm presuming Cambodia lacks resources to do so (unlike Germany, Japan, PRC, India). After Ta Keo we went to two small temples, Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda. In the latter I gave incense to Buddha - most temples had old women in them that would insist you do so. We passed on, through the East gate of Angkor Thom, a large walled city of probable millions when the Empire was at its height. We passed by some Kleangs rather briefly and the Terrace of Elephants before going on to Bayon, which is the temple with the iconic faces smiling back at you. I spent a good amount of time here. This was followed by a small temple, Baksei Champrong, before Soth insisted we stop for lunch at one of the roadside stalls. I was wary - roadside food can leave one fairly ill. I had some veggie fried rice, and only a couple sips of the water provided (I was carrying and replenishing my own bottled water throughout the day.

After a leisurely lunch we went on to Angkor Wat. I slowly made my way around the place, which was sort of crowded. The sun went away, and when I was in the top of the central tower the rain came down in a massive thunderstorm. Usually you're only allowed 15 minutes up there, but as we were stranded I got to take my time. Eventually the rain died down, and we could climb the stairs back down to the main temple. In all I spent a couple hours at least walking around the massive site - the largest religious structure in the world. I rejoined Soth when the storm broke and he said he had to go to his stepdaughter's, to which I somewhat reluctantly agreed. The dirt road was incredibly muddy and sketchy, I realized as evening was coming on I was being driven further from safety. We met his step-daughter and went to her house, so Soth could have dinner. Their house was pretty swank for the area. Lots of chickens, dogs and puppies, and children. I declined a meal, for obvious reasons, and eventually we geared up and went back to my hotel, via a safe well paved and lit road. With no money in my pocket any more, after he'd dropped me off I started to walk to town to get to an ATM, when I was picked up by a nice tuk tuk driver. After some difficulties with tuk tuks not knowing how to get back, I reached my hotel and got room service, eating some chicken wings, amok (curried fish and the national dish) and carrot apple juice. This was followed by a one-hour complimentary massage, and a rest after a long day.

Day Five, Wednesday:

After a rather late morning I decided to make the most of it and see more temples - albeit that these were farther afield than the cluster I'd seen the day before. The guy who'd picked me up at the bus stop agreed to take me on moto $35 to the three sites I wanted. The first, after a lengthy drive, was Banteay Srei, which was small, but very well-carved. This was followed by another lengthy drive to Kbal Spean. All in all about two hours, I'd guess, to get from the hotel out there to Spean. The actual site is a 1,500 m climb/scramble uphill to get to. A waterfall and river bed has been carved with vishnus and other figures - the source of a river that runs all the way to Siem Reap. From this long 3km jaunt I met back with my driver and we headed towards the last destination, which was quite some ways from the other two, in the opposite direction of where we'd been heading so far.

The road we took was not a main road, instead it was dirt, and very pothole-y, which was unfortunate on a moto - although we dodged 98% of them. We were going pretty fast, and still it took a couple hours of constant driving to get to the last site. This was Beng Melea, which is not part of the UNESCO conservation (like all the rest mentioned) but a separate temple. The reason is that it is still ruined - basically what you would've encountered if you'd stumbled on it coming out of the jungle. Almost no restoration work has been attempted. We then had another very long drive back, maybe an hour and a half, and got back around 6 before I took a bit of time to rest and then go to dinner at a place called Butterfly Gardens, similar to Friends in that it's a training restaurant, where I had some shrimp spring rolls, ginger pork, a banana shake and fried ice cream with mango. The service was lousy, unfortunately, and I headed back to my hotel where I got another massage to help my sore muscles from a day of long moto rides while the rain came down.

That's about it. The next day my driver took me to the airport, where I hung around waiting for my flight and then I came back to Singapore.

Mister Micawber's Song Lyrics

It's a game! First read Micawber's unique retelling, and then guess what the original song lyric is. Fun for the whole family!

Mister Micawber, for those not in the know, is a character from David Copperfield, by Dickens. He is poor, but always optimistic that something will turn up, and has a very unique speech pattern. In the movie he is portrayed by W.C. Fields, whose voice I envisioned delivering the lines below.

Mister Micawber’s Version

1. Ah the womanly woes! I sympathize, my lad. For I have, in my own time, been hounded by a multitude of predicaments, difficulties and troubles. Yet I have no advice to give: for throughout these tribulations never have I found myself on the wrong side of a woman.

2. So I sally forth! Do not fret, for though the road is to be full of trials, I will continue on. There is no alternative: this is the path I must take, the path I have been on all my days. For this, my boy, is the journey the wise call ‘eternity’ and the fools call ‘life’. Sad to say, I am but a fool.

3. Never to have one’s dreams fulfilled – the lot we most must face. Despite my best efforts contentment remains elusive.

4. Hold, and I will tell you. I knew that there was trouble afoot at an egregious hour, for my restlessness disturbed an otherwise uninterrupted and peaceful sleep with my wife. A knock on the door (two hours before the dawn!) silenced my attempts to sleep soundly and forced me to answer it’s calling, upon which I was presented with a most distressing emergency telegram.

5. It is most advisable in these situations not to panic, m’boy. I have it on good account that your mother and father are both in sound physical condition. It is only how they seem to us that is the issue. Their peculiarities are not so drastic, after such a nasty shock. You need to be strong for them. It is not fair for the young to need to do so on the behalf of the old, but I’ve never heard it said in even the most generous of pulpits that we should expect this world to be fair. You cannot lose sight of yourself during their ordeal.

6. Truly, something has turned up! Not only for the present, but as a trend of increasing good fortune. So you see, lad, truly life improves!


1. If you’ve got girl problems/ I feel bad for you, son/ I’ve got 99 problems/ but the bitch ain’t one. – Jay-Z, “99 Problems”

2. Here I go again on my own/ Going down the only road I’ve ever known. – Whitesnake, “Here I Go Again On My Own”

3. I can’t get no satisfaction/ ‘Cause I try... – The Rolling Stones, “Satisfaction”

4. Wait a minute/ Something’s going wrong/ Someone’s on the phone/ three o’clock in the morning (yeah)… – Al Green, “Love and Happiness”

5. Mommy’s alright, daddy’s alright/ They just seem a little weird/ Surrender, surrender/ just don’t give yourself away. – Cheap Trick, “Surrender”

6. I’ve got to admit it’s getting better/ It’s a little better all the time. – The Beatles, “Getting Better”

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Baker's Dozen People Who Should Have Gotten the Mark Twain Award

...Before Will Ferrell.

I don’t like Will Ferrell. Still I recognize his popularity. At 44, he'll be the second youngest recipient of the Mark Twain Award ever. This award is for the best comedians in the country, the Immortals. George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart.

Someday Ferrell should probably be inducted. But not now. Not while there are people who haven't been honored with stunning legacies. Like many awards, the Twain awards are time-sensitive: they are not posthumously awarded. Here, then, are thirteen people who should get the award sooner than Will Ferrell. With luck they'll be the next winners.

1. Sid Caesar, 88

Did you know Sid Caesar was still alive? The man who helped create improv and, you know, practically invented comedy television? Well he is and if I were him I’d want my dues by now. See: Your Show of Shows.

2. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, 85 + 74

Really, they were part of the fantastic inner circle, and wandered show to show. Two of the best of the era. See: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore Show.

3. Mort Sahl, 84

Can there be a more fitting winner from the Kennedy Center? Sahl was close to John, and wrote jokes for him, besides helping invent modern stand-up comedy. See: modern stand-up comedy.

4. Tom Lehrer, 83

Considering how many great comedians got their start on albums (Newhart, Foxx) perhaps the award could go to a guy who championed musical satire. Hear: Songs of Tom Lehrer, More of Tom Lehrer

5. Joan Rivers, 78

Rivers has always been more of a profile making appearances on Late Night (which could handle her material), but she got her start by being brassy at a time when that was just starting to be acceptable. See: Any late night appearances you can find.

6. Woody Allen, 75

Allen is indisputably a great comedian. As an author and director he helped invent the romantic comedy, as well as being a gifted actor. See: Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo.

7. The Smothers Brothers, 74 + 71

Tommy and Dicky were wonderfully sly subversives, as well as silly. Besides their Comedy Hour the never-quite folk singing duo recorded numerous classic records. See: Mom Always Liked You Best, My Old Man, I Talk to the Trees.

8. Garrison Keillor, 69

The mind behind the Prairie Home Companion and the folks of Lake Woebegone. So quintessentially American I'm stunned he's not yet been honored. See: The Prairie Home Companion.

9. Christopher Guest, 63

As an actor he has plenty of great roles, but he's also been the writing (and directing) force behind many classic comedies. His style and humor have helped defined three decades. See: This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, Best in Show.

10. Robin Williams, 60

Williams started as Mork from Ork, and played his manic lunacy into a very successful stand-up career, winning oodles of awards. "There's no one faster." See: Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, Good Morning, Vietnam

11. Harvey Fierstein, 59

He wrote La Cage Aux Follies and got a Tony for it. He’s received other Tonys, including his comedic role in Hairspray which earned him a Drama Desk Award. See: La Cage Aux Follies.

12. Jon Stewart, 48

If you are going to award someone in their forties, why not Stewart? The Daily Show is probably going to have a longer legacy than Thirty Rock anyway. See: The Daily Show, Colbert and Carrell's careers.

13. Chris Rock, 46

Heck, even if you’re going to give it to an SNL star from the 90s – I’d still nominate Rock over Ferrell. He’s had a great television and stand-up career, often ranked as one of the best out there, and he's still more likely to kick the bucket before Ferrell. See: Bring the Pain, Never Scared

Note: I took Mel Brooks and Carol Burnett off the list since they’ve both at least received Kennedy Center Honors, which is sort of more prestigious anyway. (Didn’t stop Steve Martin or others from getting both, though.)