Friday, June 29, 2007

Verbal Chaos -- Naming the Original Inhabitants of Canada

In a BBC News story on an uprising by the original inhabitants of Canada, the headline read "Canada natives in day of protests." In the first paragraph, the term "aboriginals" was used. In the second paragraph, we find both "indigenous people" and "First Nations," which I will cheerfully admit has me baffled. There is a later reference to "native protesters" and then "First Nations groups." Then comes another reference to "First Nations" and "indigenous groups."
The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, an umbrella group representing Canada's indigenous groups, has called for peaceful and non-disruptive protests.
Reading down further we find a use of "native protester" and then "aboriginal ancestry."

So, the first inhabitants of Canada (that we know about) are alternatively "natives," "aboriginals," "indigenous people" and members or citizens of "First Nations." This verbal blizzard cannot be a good thing. It suggests that journalists are in deadly fear of the PC police. Sadly, what these uses of language signal most is that there exist for Canadians a set of people who are seen as "not one of us." Perhaps that is how the native, aboriginal, indigenous members of First Nations in Canada feel about the rest of the Canadian population -- they are "not us."

I came to reading this story after reading another on violence between the Lebanese army and "protesters" who claim that all they wanted to do is get back to their "refugee camps." Quite remarkably, it seems that
Lebanon has 12 refugee camps housing more than 350,000 Palestinians. They are people who fled or were forced to leave their homes when Israel was created in 1948, or their descendants.
I am guessing that by now that we have some three generation families in these camps where one could speak of first generation refugee, second generation refugee, and etc.

In the case of the Palestinian refugees there seems to be just one name but the situations between the native, aboriginal, indigenous members of First Nations in Canada and the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is quite similar. Both seem to live in camps. And both are groups of refugees. I suspect that the the native, aboriginal, indigenous members of First Nations in Canada could leave their reservations if they wanted to and go to live wherever they wanted. I don't know whether or not this is true of the Palestinian refugees though it is clear they can leave the camps if only temporarily.

In 2003, the BBC had a web story on American Indians in which we do not find quite the same level of linguistic variation. In this story, the people in question were called Indians or American Indians or Native Americans. In 1999, the BBC web site had a story titled "North American Indians to pool resources." In this story, reference is made to a meeting of what collectively are called "North American Indians." Of some interest is that the BBC makes reference to "indigenous people" who came from elsewhere around the world and it was observed that "aboriginal leaders" from around the world hoped to form political partnerships. I suspect the writer(s) didn't have a clue how exactly to refer to these others.

It is clear that Americans (i. e., the people of the USA) have settled on an agreed term for referring to the original inhabitants of the country, namely "Indian" and that this term is used by both Indians and non-Indians. I have no way of knowing who writes the Canadian stories for the BBC but I would imagine Canadians do this. The question I would raise is why there is so much variation in the linguistic references. Does it reflect a lingering guilt by other Canadians or what?

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Meaning of "Reward"

I have bought a number of things from Best Buy and signed up for their "Reward Zone" program when I bought my first item, which happened to be an expensive TV set. They send you your Reward Zone card, which, of course, just adds to the other crap one has to carry around. Best Buy pushes the word "reward" whenever possible, even having a special web site called MyRewardZone.com. Notice the "My." The "My" is you.

The way it works is that if you spend X amount of money you get Y amount of reward zone points. When you get 250 such points, they mail you a $5 off coupon. This means that they are, in essence deciding for you when your points will be converted into a certificate. You can't accumulate them over several years and end up with large enough coupon to buy some big ticket item. There are other businesses that would allow you to do that. Frequent flier miles work that way. I was told that a $3,000 TV purchase would earn one a $50 dollar gift certificate. This tells us that we are getting a whopping 1.67% return on our "investments" in Best Buy products. Color me "unimpressed."

There is, of course, an expiration date on these gift certificates. This means that they decide when to spend your Reward Zone points and then they tall you when you have to redeem the coupon. If you happen not to want to buy anything right then -- who needs $5 off on a $2,000 TV set? -- your coupon will expire and those points you had accumulated will have vanished into the ether. It is clear that Best Buy is the only one getting a reward -- if the coupon expires they lose nothing and if you spend it on something you don't really need, they will make some money. We have here a SpendMoneyatBestBuyZone program.

This is a bit different from a rewards program run by several grocery chains in our area. According to the one we use, one gets a one time ten or twenty cents off per gallon for every $50 dollars or so we spend in the store in a given month. The amount off will continue to grow over the month until you decide to buy gasoline. So, you are making the decision when to spend your "cents per gallon off" benefit. There are two differences between the "rewards" that our grocery chain is offering from that offered by Best Buy. The first is that we actually need to buy both food (what gets you the reward) and gasoline (where the reward comes in) each month whereas we do not need to buy MP3 players or HDTV's or movie DVDs or any other electronic product each month. This is a huge difference in the nature of these rewards systems.

This brings me to another major misuse of language we ran into when buying a car recently. (Yes, we are doing our best to stimulate the economy.) We were offered the opportunity to purchase an extended warranty. I gather that people financing cars with banks and see thei cost of an extended warranty in monthly terms and may not find adding another $20 or so dollars per month onto the payment (paying interest on the retail cost of the extended warranty, of course). We used a combination of cash and our line of credit to get our car and thus, from the perspective of the car dealer, we were buying the car with "cash." Apparently people like us tend to balk at paying some $500 more for an extended warranty. We were also offered the opportunity to pay big bucks for a program whereby some company or the police (I wasn't listening too closely to this since I knew I would turn it down) can determine exactly where your car is when it is stolen and the police can go pick it up and maybe arrest the chop shop people or the thief "red handed." When we said, "No," the salesman reminded us how much we were spending and wondered why we wouldn't want to "protect our investment."

This is a curious use of "investment." I would not call anything that is guaranteed to depreciate 5 or 10 or 20% the moment one purchases it and which will ultimately become worthless an "investment." An extended warranty is purely and simply an insurance policy but, for some reason, the salesman didn't chose to use that word. We have some actual investments, namely money we have put in mutual funds. However, there is no way whatever that one can protect an investment like that other than by securing the services of a good adviser who has a plan that emphasizes preserving capitol in down times at least as much as increasing it during good times.

Extended warranties are insurance programs for us but licenses for printing money for those who sell them to us. I no longer ever buy extended warranties for I realized one day that they represent a special case of gambling. I just bought the computer I am writing this blog on. The salesman said that I got a one year warranty but could pay $120 more dollars to extend the warranty by two years. I pointed out that the retailer was betting that my product would not fail for at least three years. I, on the other hand, would be betting that my product would fail in its second or third year. Think about that a minute. That's a crazy bet, especially in the case of electronic goods. In my experience, if a TV or MP3 player or computer is going to fail, it is most likely going to fail fairly early in its life. If it survives for a year, the odds are very good it will survive for a number of additional years. We still have a TV set that I bought some 15 years ago that is still working. One we bought around 10 years ago is still working. It is a replacement for one that failed early on during the initial warranty period.

When you buy an extended warranty you are betting against the house. The manufacturer knows how long his products last on average and gears its extended warranty plan to terminate during the useful life of the product. They are betting you that their product will not fail during the extended warranty period. In the case of my computer, I would have been betting that the computer would fail, not in the first year, but in the second or third year. That's a crazy bet to make. It is much smarter to bet with the house. The house always wins. Well, almost always.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

A World Spinning our of Control

A Lebanese MP is killed. A Lebanese broadcast journalist "gloats" about it not knowing that her microphone was "live" and she and the person she was talking to were sacked. Some Lebanese soldiers were killed in an attack on a refugee camp -- how can there still be a refugee camp holding those that left Palestine in fear of the Jewish people. Correction: how can there be a second and surely a third generation of people descended from those who left Palestine who are still in a refugee camp? That was 60 or so years ago. Is their presence there due to their belief that they will soon or someday get to return and don't want to put down roots elsewhere or because life is good in refugee camps in Lebanon (that is not a serious question) or what?

We move to Gaza where Hamas has driven out those Fatah military and political leaders they have not killed. And quickly on to the West Bank where Fatah is going after Hamas leaders. This will surely mean that Israel cannot possibly make peace with a Palestinian state since there will be two of them and Hamas is very unlikely to want to deal with Israel and conversely. Meanwhile, Israel, in what has to be an act of desperation has made the 283 year old Simon Peres President. I may be off on his age a bit. Israel still has clearly not recovered from their very costly "victory" over Hezbollah.

Moving over to Iraq we find that everyone is at war with everyone else. It is impossible to sort out what the dynamics are there. At least, from this chair I can't figure out how Islamic militants can bomb Mosques that have been in place for a very long time because they are being used by some other group of Muslims. The US did its best not to bomb a mosque when it won its great victory in Iraq by toppling Saddam. This is a paradigm case of a Pyrrhic victory. I do not know who we are fighting against, if anyone. Apparently it would be bad for an infidel state to bomb a Mosque but okay for a rival Muslim group to do so. So far, at least, the Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Saudis have not condemned this sort of thing (as far as I know). Occasionally I read about the US killing some insurgents but there are at least two sorts -- the pro-Al Queda group or set of groups and the non-pro-Al Queda group or set of groups. Are we trying to fight Shiites too? I did read that Sadr has suggested that Shiites loyal to him should cool it. Meanwhile, I have read that Turkey has invaded Iraq. They, of course, are terrified of a union of some sort between Turkish and Iraqi Kurds. I gather we did not rush northward and start shooting at Turks. They are our allies after all.

Meanwhile much of the West is condemning Iran for this, that, and the other thing. The most remarkable thing I have read about Iran is that "Fifty-seven Iranian economists have launched a scathing attack on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad." I hope that they are not killed. If not, this would be the one good thing I have read about the Middle East this morning. I am grateful to learn that the US Secretary of State, Condy Rice, opened an Iranian art show or, rather, an art show featuring Iranian artists in the US. There have been interactions between American and Iranian wrestlers as well. This brings to mind the cultural exchanges between the Soviets and Americans during the Cold War. It took a long time for those exchanges to do any good, assuming, probably counterfactually, that they did any good at all. Condy made the fatuous and totally meaningless because hopelessly false claim that art is a language and that art can help two different peoples understand each other. The claim she made is that art is "the language of peoples who need to know each other and understand each other." Art is not a language. And having an art show in the US of Iranian artists will not help Americans and Iranians understand each other. How in hell can one understand a country that has a bunch of Ayatollahs who seem to run the country, a whacked out President who seems to run the country, a Revolutionary Guard that seems to act on its own, and an elected body that manifestly does not run the country (at least as far as I can tell). To be fair I ought to concede that I am not sure who runs the US -- it is some combination of George Bush, rich people, corporations, and the religious right. I think we would have to forgive the Iranians who find it difficult to understand us.

I am going in for surgery today to have my tongue surgically removed from my cheek. This post does have something to do with language, thanks to Condy's unbelievably ignorant statement so I have not totally violated your trust.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Inadequacies of K-12 Teaching

There is, to use the words of Pat Smith in an op-ed piece in the Columbus Dispatch a couple of days ago a "disconnect" between high school teachers and college professors as to how well prepared the students they train are for college work. Citing The American College Testing Program which assessed the attitudes of high school teachers and college professors, she writes:
The disconnect is substantial in all subjects: Seventy-six percent of high-school English teachers think their students are well-prepared for college work, whereas only 33 percent of professors think so. In reading, the gap is 72 percent to 36 percent; in math, 79 percent vs. 42 percent; and in science, 67 percent vs. 32 percent. In other words, students appear to be no better prepared than those in previous years, despite all the attempts to improve their performance.
I can reasonably be charged with bias on this question because I was a college professor for many years and never have been a high school teacher but the fact is that the people who are best qualified to assess how well college students are prepared for college work is the professors who are actually teaching them. High school teachers may have gone to college but that in itself does not qualify them to evaluate how well they are preparing their students for college level work.

It is worth asking why our teachers are failing to prepare kids for college work. The first answer that came to my mind was that the problem lies in the fact that our teachers are not particularly good and that that itself is due to the fact that the kids who gravitate toward K-12 teaching are not the brightest bulbs in our university chandeliers. However, in an effort to find research on the intellectual abilities of our teachers using Google Scholar, what I found is that there seems to be little correlation between teacher intelligence (in an IQ sense) and their ability to teach effectively. So, I will reluctantly abandon that thesis.

The single most important problem our teachers face is that they are caught between a rock and a hard place that has resulted from our "one size fits all" approach to education. The rock is holding back kids who do failing work and the hard place is "socially promoting" kids who do failing work. In regard to this problem, reading specialist, Debra Johnson, in a report prepared for the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory writes:
Extensive research indicates that neither holding students back a grade nor promoting them unprepared fosters achievement. Studies indicate that retention negatively impacts students' behavior, attitude, and attendance. Social promotion undermines students' futures when they fail to develop critical study and job-related skills.
President Clinton argued in a State of the Union address that schools systems must stop the practice of social promotion. Some apparently did. However, many have not. But as noted, simply holding kids back is no solution.

The reality is that we are born in this world with different abilities and we develop different interests. If we want our schools to succeed, it is imperative that we match kids up with programs of study that match their abilities and interests. According to The Onion
If you work hard, believe in yourself, and never lose sight of your dreams, you can achieve anything you want, the make-believe children's-book character Chipper Chipmunk said Tuesday.
This theme that kids can be whatever they want to be seems to be common in children's books. It is, of course, total crap. Moreover, it is dangerous crap for it sets kids up for huge disappointments. Until we match students up with appropriate programs of study teachers will always be between the rock and hard places mentioned above.

It pains me to cite "Fair and Balanced" Fox news but it has a useful story titled "Flunking Out of School? Get a Lawyer" which started out "Some parents have slapped lawsuits on teachers, saying their kids deserved better marks and should be allowed to graduate from high school despite their grades." How it is that parents believe that they are in a better position to judge the academic work of their kids than teachers are is a complete mystery to me. Maybe these parents believe that their kids can be anything they want to be, thanks to reading children's books to them.

Teachers appear to vary a great deal in their ability to teach. A very interesting web page on teacher quality cites Stanford University researcher Linda Darling-Hammond as showing that "teacher ability is a stronger determinant of student achievement than poverty, race, or parents' educational attainment." Unfortunately, teachers associations have resisted formal evaluations of the abilities of teachers. Teachers give exams but they don't want to take them. However, George Bush managed to do an end run around the teachers' associations by getting his "No Child Left Behind" bill passed. There have been a lot of legitimate complaints about this bill, the worst of which may be that it has led teachers, perhaps at the direction of administrators, to teach kids to pass the standardized tests rather than teach their subject matter. The wonderful HBO show, The Wire, had a very nice program featuring this practice last season. Even so, what these tests are proving is that our schools are no damn good, which is, more or less, what professors are saying when they claim that high schools as failing to prepare students for college.

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