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July 2003

More Bad News about Standardized Testing

I've always hated standardized educational testing ever since I was in the 4th grade when I attended Herkomer Platz Kinderschule in Munich, Germany. (My father, John Cramer was on sabbatical and was doing research at Garching.) At the end of the school year we all took a series of tests. They didn't matter for me because I was going back to the US, but for all the rest of the children, the tests determined whether they were going to the Hauptschule, the Realschule, or the Gymnasium. Only the kids chosen to go to the Gymnasium were expected to go to college. As a 10-year-old I thought it was stupid and unfair that my peers were taking tests that would eliminate to possibility of a university education for two-thirds of them. I still think it was stupid.

My later experiences with standardized testing did nothing to change my mind. For the most part, I've always been a good test-taker, but this did not reduce my disdain for them and my upset at what they did to the educational environment. Thus, I was deeply suspicious of the emphasis on standardized testing in Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative: school would teach to the test and otherwise distort the ciriculum to optimize their pupil's scores.

I think a lot of the recent emphasis on "Kindergarten readiness" originates in the pressures on schools to make sure their pupil's test scores are up from the beginning; and following from that, the fashion for holding kids back a year, rather than letting them enter Kindergarten and First Grade on schedule. The pressure to perform is passed increasingly downward in age-groups. This is very bad for the kids and brings pressure to the early elementary grades that my generation didn't see until Junior High.

But I've just found out about a new way in which this testing pressure damages eduction:

To Cut Failure Rate, Schools Shed Students

Educators nationwide are waking up to the problem of pushouts. With the advent of high-stakes testing in dozens of states, and the fact that under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools with low graduation rates risk being deemed failing schools, schools are facing real temptations to make their results look good by getting rid of low performers.

Just this month, Miami school officials began investigating a principal who apparently tried to weed out low-performing students to bolster the school's test scores. And the Houston schools are mired in controversy after a state audit found that at some schools, more than half those discharged should have been classified as dropouts.

In New York, Mr. Klein said, the pushout problem was one he inherited, and became aware of only late last year. Since then, he said, he has been investigating the issue, and making plans for a new accountability system that will, among other things, keep better track of what happens to students who leave the system.

Mr. Klein said he was not aware that the discharge issue had been brought to the department's notice in prior years.
But two years ago, just before he left his post as chief of assessment and accountability, Robert Tobias recommended an audit after noticing a "heavy use of the discharge codes" under which students are no longer accounted for in a school's graduation rate.

The discharge codes can be misused, he said, by classifying students who drop out of the system as having left the city.  "It would be possible to inflate graduation rates and reduce your dropout rate," said Mr. Tobias, who is now an education professor at New York University.


Vote in the Hugos

Hugo Award voting closes at midnight Pacific Time on Thursday, July 31st. Be sure to cast your vote. The New York Review of Science Fiction, ed. Kathryn Cramer, David G. Hartwell, & Kevin Maroney, (Semiprozine) and David G. Hartwell (Best Editor) are among the nominees.

The voting deadline for the 2003 Hugo Awards is midnight Pacific Time on Thursday, July 31st. However, our membership team is not able to instantly process memberships and send back membership numbers and the mandatory voting PIN numbers. Therefore, if you wish to use the on-line web ballot to vote, please register on-line for your membership by midnight Tuesday, July 29th.

A personal identification number (PIN) is required to use the web-based on-line Hugo ballot. So far, nine electronic ballots have been rejected for incorrect PINs. You may not substitute a membership number for your PIN. Personal identification numbers were sent to all member households in a letter with the last progress report. If you cannot find this letter, please send a PIN request to PINrequest@torcon3.on.ca. Include your name, postal address, and membership number.

On the Homeland Front

I tried to have an intellectual conversation with David last night which distracted me halfway through diapering the baby. She's usually fairly reliable with her diaper off and is very difficult to dress. David and I conversed for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, Elizabeth crawled down the hall and around a corner, pooping as she went. I was a huge mess. Luckily, we have carpet cleaner on hand.

Speaking of poop, I've discovered a new way in which people out here outsource domestic tasks. There's an outfit called When Dooty Calls you can pay to pick up after your dogs. (I suppose one has to coordinate this carefully with the yard service schedule!)

During the last NYRSF work weekend, when I was busy working on the magazine, I gave Peter all the seeds in the house and told him to go plant them. Yesterday, I discovered beanstalks emerging from the lawn. Although we didn't intend to use the yard service this summer and David had been mowing our lawn, after David's heart adventures, we had to reengage their services. They come with enormous mowers and powerful weed whackers and are quite indiscriminate about what they mow, whack, or run into with the mower. So Peter and I built bean teepees yesterday, hoping this will protect the beanstalks from the yard service. Peter has been dead set against us using the yard service ever since they mowed his toy manta ray that a friend of his had tossed out of the kiddie pool onto the lawn. Peter's right, of course, but our options are limited for now.

HOMELAND SECURITY UPDATE:

Did this one get lost in the mail for a couple of years?

Memo Warns Of New Plots To Hijack Jets

Terrorists operating in teams of five may be plotting suicide missions to hijack commercial airliners on the East Coast, Europe or Australia this summer, possibly using "common items carried by travelers, such as cameras, modified as weapons," according to an urgent memo sent last weekend to all U.S. airlines and airport security managers.

The "information circular" issued July 26 was drawn from recent intelligence reports that detail the most specific terrorist plots involving passenger aircraft in the United States since four hijacked jetliners were used in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, crashing into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania.

Um, isn't this why we have all this additional security at airports and such since 9/11? Is there anything much new here? (A few very minor plot twists are suggested in the memo, but it think that to keep it from being too embarrassing.)

I think what's really being said here is BE AFRAID! BE VERY AFRAID!, probably with the thought that frightened people will support Bush.

Perhaps they feel people out there aren't scared enough if they're giving to Howard Dean? I haven't given him any money yet, but if I get more scared, I just might.


Assasination Betting Pool

Not wanting to be left out of the reality show trend, the Pentagon had a really bad idea.

The folly of running America like a business, part 14.

The Pentagon has abandoned a plan to create a futures-style market that would let investors bet on the likelihood of terror attacks and other events in the Middle East, a senior lawmaker said Tuesday

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said he spoke by phone with the head of the agency overseeing the program, Tony Tether.

"We mutually agreed that this thing should be stopped," the Associated Press quoted Warner as saying. Tether is the head of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA.

A day earlier, Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota lit into the Pentagon for its role in launching the "Policy Analysis Market," a futures-style trading system that would let participants bet on the likelihood of assassinations, terror attacks and other geopolitical events. The site invites participants to begin registering on Aug. 1, with the market set to begin trading on Oct. 1.

"Spending taxpayer dollars to create terrorism betting parlors is as wasteful as it is repugnant," the senators wrote in a letter to John Poindexter, head of DARPA's Information Awareness Office. "The American people want the federal government to use its resources enhancing our security, not gambling on it."

One objection to this plan that occurred to me that I haven't seen mentioned was the possibility of insider trading: Get paid to commit crimes! Bet on a long shot and then assasinate the guy or blow up the bridge your very own self! Who needs a job? Terrorism for fun and profit!


Censorship and the 9/11 report

Let's all call for the section concerning Saudi Arabia in the report on 9/11 to be declassified. (This would be a really good thing for the families of victims to file suit over.) From the sound of it, the reason it is classified is that it is very upsetting to the Saudi government, not because revealing it would compromise our national security.

Saudi Arabia has sent its foreign minister to Washington to meet with President Bush on Tuesday, an administration official said tonight.

The foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, is expected to raise with Mr. Bush and other administration officials his country's concern about reports that classified sections of a Congressional study about the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, found that senior Saudi officials had funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations that might have helped pay for them. The foreign minister's hurriedly arranged visit reflects sensitivity in Saudi Arabia to the suggestions that, knowingly or unknowingly, it might have aided the terrorists who attacked the United States. Saudi officials have denounced any suggestions that they helped pay for the attacks. The visit could also add to the pressure on the administration to declassify a 28-page section of the report, which was deleted from the nearly 900-page declassified version released Thursday by a joint committee of the House and Senate intelligence committees. People who saw the section have said it focuses on the role foreign governments played in the hijackings, but centers almost entirely on Saudi Arabia.

It appears that by keeping this section secret, the Bush administration is trading our national security for the interests of the oil companies. If the Saudis funded and staffed the 9/11 hijackings, the American people should be able to read about it in the government's report on 9/11.

We have already taken over two other countries over the issue of 9/11. I am not advocating that we take over a third. But if the Saudis are really the nation most behind the attack, we deserve to be told.


Is the DLC campaigning for Bush, or what?

I follow a link that I expected to lead to a right-wing poll, and low and behold, the whacky folks at the Democratic Leadership Council are at it again. This isn't just a slap at Howard Dean. This is an attack on the entire Democratic party:

Poll Finds Democrats Lack Crucial Support to Beat Bush: Party Must Strongly Reposition Itself to Regain White Male Voters' Support, DLC Advised

PHILADELPHIA, July 28 -- Dramatic erosion in support among white men has left the Democrats in a highly vulnerable position and unless the party strongly reposition itself, President Bush will be virtually impossible to beat in 2004, according to a new poll commissioned for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).

The gloomy prognosis came despite evidence in the poll and in the assessments of Democratic elected officials attending the DLC's "national conversation" here that the economy alone makes Bush vulnerable for reelection. But Mark J. Penn, who conducted the poll, said that the party's image has regressed since former president Bill Clinton left office and that those weaknesses put Democrats in a weakened position.

Is this just pouting from the Lieberman camp dressed up as political data? Nope. This is outright campaigning against the party with which the DLC claims affiliation. Also, it clearly seems to be an attempt to counter the news stories of Howard Dean's fundraising successes.

Where is the DLC's money coming from? Enquiring minds want to know. If the DLC quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. It quacks like one of those industrial lobbying organizations that masquerades as a citizens group. Who is funding the DLC? Let's call for an investigation of the DLC's finances.


Resuming

My technical difficulties seem to have cleared up while I was gone to Pennsylvania. The problem I was having was that (1) new comments wouldn't show up on the main page where it lists the number of comments, and (2) I couldn't rebuild pages -- thus no new entries, no corrections. (I was getting error messages when I tried to rebuild.) I discovered the problem Thursday night when we were half way across Pennsylvania, at Jim and Kathy Morrow's, on our way to Confluence in Pittsburgh. Since I hadn't been doing any tinkering, I figured the problem was probably server-side and I was dreading trying to solve it. I'm in luck: it's gone now.

I have many other things I'd like to write about right now, but having just arrived home, I've got a lot to do, like cook dinner.


Bunyip Stamps

Peter asked me today about bunyips, an Austrailan mythological creature. I typed bunyip into Google and we found a web site with pictures of four Australian Bunyip stamps, with widely differing portrayals.

Australian aboriginal stories describe the bunyip as an evil spirit which dwells in creeks, swamps, and billabongs. The bunyip's loud bellowing cry terrifies the aborigines. They avoid water sources where they believe a bunyip might live. Some stories suggest the bunyip emerges at night principally to prey on women and children as well as animals.

Peter says The Bunyip looks like a lama, a megatherium, a dragon, a beaver, and a dog (because of it's nose).

See also the Cryptozoology and Philately site.


Ideas Should Know Their Place

In this week's NYT Sunday Book Review Jeff Turrentine has written a most unkind and condescending review of Sarah Smith's Chasing Shakespear. Since I just spent five days staying at Sarah's in Maine and haven't read the book, I'm not in the position to provide an objective defense. However, I cannot help noticing the similarities between Turrentine's arguments, and those of Sven Berkert's attack on Margaret Atwood a while back. Certainly, Smith's novel focuses on the past and Atwood's on the future, and Smith's is a mystery novel, whereas Atwood is accused of writing science fiction. Nonetheless, their alleged literary crimes are apparently the same: privledging ideas over character. Don't these guys ever get tired of that argument?


A Bad Day

Peter had a bad day yesterday. He did something impulsively which had much more severe consequences that he would have anticipated even if he had stopped to think before he acted. He felt just miserable last night. Elizabeth came over to him and patted him on the head and said, good. This cheered him up some and was very meaningful to him.


Cat and Baby

Elizabeth tackled the cat and was lying on top of her. I said gentle, to try to get her off and moved in their direction. Elizabeth looked meaningfully at me and petted the cat with her open hand (without getting off) to show me she was being gentle. She's been tackling those she loves lately, especially me.

The cat adores her, and so puts up with a lot.


Babies on the Beach

It occurs to me on rereading my post from the other day that about 3/4 of what I was thinking about infants and evolution and the beach stayed in my head and didn't make it to the page. Here's a bit more:

I've been watching all these Discovery Channel/BBC nature programs -- Walking With Cavemen, Walking With Prehistoric Beasts, etc. -- which all have a very strong evolutionary themes: lots of action focused on predators and prey, hunting, breeding behaviors, etc. Relatively little attention in these stories is given to how infants and juveniles survive long enough to have the opportunity to do these things. As nearly as one could tell from these series, young creatures survive by hiding and sticking close to their mothers, and occasionally by watching their mothers do something and imitating.

Being in charge of the well-being of an infant nearly 24 hours a day, I observe a lot of behaviors that don't fall into these limited categories. The one most relevant to our beach experience is how infants constantly put things in their mouths: shoes, rocks, paper clips, dust bunnies, twigs, cat hairballs, grass, leaves, and paper. From baby books, I'm given to understand that this is an oral exploratory stage and is (presumably) neurologically necessary. As parents, we are strictly instructed to keep anything out of the baby's mouth that might be a choking hazard or might have germs on it. This is because babies can very easily die by choking and also because one wants to keep them from getting diseases. The mouthing behavior comes with a very high evolutionary price tag. Even in our pampered, mostly post-evolutionary environment, it still carries a heavy cost and consumes a lot of my time and attention every day. What are we to make of this?

I do not buy the idea that this is simply a neurological side-effect of other aspects of human development. The baby is very clearly foraging in addition to exploring and teething.

I've been a lot less orthodox about keeping stuff out of Elizabeth's mouth than I was in this struggle with Peter. When we're in the grass, I let her pick grass and leaves and put them in her mouth and then I tell her don't eat that, because as her mother I am supposed to be teaching her what to eat and what not to and -- it seems to me -- she'll learn faster this way than if the grass never makes it to her mouth in the first place. Over the past two months, she has developed at least five distinct modes of mouthing: sucking (rocks on the beach which taste salty), exploring (a paper clip, a dried leaf), teething (putting something in her mouth for the purpose of exerting counterpressure in the area where she has teeth coming in), tasting (establishing whether prospective food is actually good to eat), and eating. Over time, the distinctions between these behaviors has become clearer (which I think decreases her chances of choking by a lot), and things she seems to be tasting or actually trying to eat are much more likely to be actually edible or close to edible -- dandelion leaves, a fallen crab apple, a clover blossom, and, of course, seaweed.

A baby let to go her own way on a suburban lawn will find some nutrition, but not much. By comparison, a baby on a sheltered beach with tide pools and tide flats rich with life will find a whole lot more nutrition: not only highly nutritious sea vegetables, but also snails and small crustaceans. (When Peter was just under 2, I took him to the beach. I caught a tiny crab and gave it to him to hold in his hand. Peter popped it right in his mouth and ate it.) Because of water pollution, overfishing, and other factors, our beaches today are much less rich in life than beaches were several hundred years ago. What might Elizabeth have found to eat on the beach in Maine in 1600?

At some point, babies mouthing behavior would have to have been strongly selected for for it to be this strong and indefatigable. Here is my thought -- the mouthing behavior of babies would have substantial evolutionary value in a tidal beach environment, perhaps more than enough to overcome it's evolutionary cost.

In general, I think, evolutionary pressure on the young is much stronger than evolutionary pressure on adults because it is a bottleneck: you cannot reproduce unless you reach maturity. Certainly, adults exert a lot of effort to keep their progeny from dying. But young creatures do a whole lot more than hiding, clinging to their mothers, and imitating. And what is missing from this picture may be more important than what adults do.

FUTHER TO THE SUBJECT OF MOUTHING:

Mouthing books is really an important early literacy skill.

This literary skill is strongly discouraged in our household. Handling books, yes. Mouthing them, no.


Home Again

Peter's question of the day: Do all the continents of the world float on the ocean?

I'm not sure I'm glad to be home. I think I'd rather still be in Maine. But we have a NYRSF work weekend. We're expecting Kevin Maroney shortly.

There's nothing like going to the beach with an infant to make you believe the aquatic ape theory of human origins. Elizabeth, foraging for seaweed and small edible creatures looked like she was born to do it. She did not seem to be eating the rock she put in her mouth, but I'm pretty sure she was eating sea weed, nutritious stuff that it is. (She seemed just to want to suck on the rocks, probably because they tasted salty.) I was, of course, following closely, prying rocks and the occasional snail out of her mouth. At first I tried to keep her from eating seaweed, but after the two hundredth time of saying don't eat that, I got worn down.

CONFUSION: A headline from CNN: U.S. kids living longer. Also, a sentence in this evenings weather report from weatherunderground.com explains Thunderstorm activity will be associated with cloud-to-ground lightning. (This last is gone now, but was up a half hour ago.)


The only thing we know for certain is these are bad people.

There was this Bush line in a CNN story earlier this evening that was badly placed so that I couldn't figure out the context:

"The only thing we know for certain is these are bad people," Bush said.

I thought, is Bush saying that the war with Iraq is all just a matter or good vs. evil? Or is he saying none of our intelligence on Iraq is any good? Or what? I got as far as copying the line but not pasting it and went off to the beach. Now it's gone from the CNN story.

Did Bush say it or not? If he said it, in what context? And what could he have meant by it?

Since I couldn't figure out the context of the quote, clearly the news story needed work. But presumably Bush actually said it, since it was there in the first place. CNN seems to have made Bush make a bit more sense in the intervening two hours.

Anyone know anything about this?

UPDATE: The quote seems to have been revised back in in a context (or maybe I temporarily lost the ability to read):

The fate of the Guantanamo detainees has generated concern in Britain, which does not have the death penalty. Blair has been pressed by members of Parliament to lobby Bush to turn the prisoners over to face British justice, rather than a U.S. military tribunal.

"We will work with the Blair government on this issue," Bush said. "The only thing I know for certain is that these are bad people."

OK, this makes a bit more sense than it initially seemed to. I don't agree with him, but the quote no longer seems to be a general satement about the whole mess.

FURTHER UPDATE:

Here's the whole exchange from the Bush-Blair news conference as reported in the NYT:

Q I wonder if I could ask you both about one aspect of Iraq and freedom and justice, which, as you know, is causing great deal of concern in Britain and the British parliament -- that is, what happens now in Guantanamo Bay to the people detained there, particularly whether there's any chance that the president will return the British citizens to face British justice as John Walker Lindh faced regular American justice?

And just on a quick point, could the prime minister react to the decision of the foreign affairs committee tonight that the BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan is a, quote, "unsatisfactory witness"?

PRESIDENT BUSH: (To Blair.) You probably ought to comment on that one. (Laughter.)

PRIME MIN. BLAIR: Well, can I just say to you on the first point, obviously this is an issue that we will discuss when we begin our talks tonight, and we will put out a statement on that tomorrow for you.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, we will work with the Blair government on this issue. And we're about to -- after we finish answering your questions, we're going to go upstairs and discuss the issue.

Q (Off mike) -- the people detained there?

PRESIDENT BUSH: No. The only I know for certain is that these are bad people. And we look forward to working closely with the Blair government to deal with the issue.

PRIME MIN. BLAIR: On your other point, Adam, the issue here is very, very simple. The whole debate for weeks revolved around a claim that either I or a member of my staff had effectively inserted intelligence into the dossier we put before the British people against the wishes of the intelligence services. Now, that is a serious charge. It never was true. Everybody now knows that that charge is untrue. And all we are saying is those who made that charge should simply accept that it is untrue. It's as simple as that.

The quote remains a little mysterious, as it is unclear exactly what question Bush was responding to. Also, in the rewritten CNN story, they've cleaned up a bit of Bush grammatical wandering. He seems to be saying that we are confident that the Guantanamo Bay detainees are bad people without much confidence in any other information about them. This is somewhat at odds with the American legal tradition.

Note that in the quote that initially caught my attention, CNN appears to have added a word to make the sentence grammatical.


Blood in the Water

By way of explaining the current fuss, Timothy Noah argues in Slate that Washington holds its liars to a higher standard than the Bush administration is able to supply:

Is it wrong to lie? Reporters tend to shy away even from that moral judgment. But at least in Washington, reporters take a very dim view of incompetent lying.

Only the finest lies will do for the Washington Press Corps, apparently. Choosy reporters choose -- What?

I have to say that part of my political commentary burnout here is caused by the willingness to the press to continue to play along with the Bush administration's very public lies. Where are the reporters who swarmed all over Clinton's lies about his penis? Isn't this more important?

But now the blood is in the water. As a reporter, all you have to do now is ask Bush a question and he'll just make something up. Instant scoop! Developing story. Pictures at 11. Now we're getting somewhere.

And can we get Cheney to resign over asking for more forward-leaning intelligence?

The president's most trusted adviser, Mr Cheney, was at the shadow network's sharp end. He made several trips to the CIA in Langley, Virginia, to demand a more "forward-leaning" interpretation of the threat posed by Saddam. When he was not there to make his influence felt, his chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was. Such hands-on involvement in the processing of intelligence data was unprecedented for a vice-president in recent times, and it put pressure on CIA officials to come up with the appropriate results.

(From the Guardian.)

And what about these Republican Attorneys General who appear to have been selling protection to corporations in legal trouble with the states in exchange for GOP contributions? This is really interesting. What do you make of it, Mr. Ashcroft?

(Via Technorati.)


Eating the Rose

It rained very hard in the late morning and early afternoon. We set out in a northerly direction exploring, but turned back when the weather got too bad.

After lunch, I took the kids to the Portsmouth Children's Museum. Peter's favorite part we the yellow submarine climbing structure (on which he spent at least a half hour). Elizabeth's favorite part was the infant area in the top floor loft, though as the parent of a fast crawler, I could have done with some gates at the tops of the too-near stairs -- I didn't dare look at their selection of parenting books for fear of losing Elizabeth overboard.

We had dinner at Warren's Lobster House, which has a terrific salad bar and also has (of course) really good lobster. After dinner, we dropped of David and his mother at the house, and then I took Peter and Elizabeth for a beach walk.

At the beach, Peter busily inspected tidepools and found a shrimp (or possibly a young lobster) and a crab or two.

Elizabeth was outraged that I wouldn't put her down in the sand, but we weren't dressed for that. I handed her a beach rose someone else had picked and dropped. She ate it.


I guess they didn't want to miss out on all the most popular viruses.

Microsoft chosen as exclusive Homeland Security contractor

The Homeland Security Department has chosen Microsoft Corp. as its preferred supplier of desktop computer and server software, according to a statement issued late Tuesday. The move is a significant development in the governmentÅfs ongoing merger of 22 agencies and comes as officials are selecting various technology companiesÅf products as de facto standards for the department.

(Via Electrolite.)


Kittery Point

We're in Maine at Sarah Smith and Fred Perry's Kittery Point House, a former fisherman's cottage built in 1836. It's about a quarter mile from the center of town, up hill. So we can't see the ocean, but we can smell it. (Geoff and Annie are at home in Pleasantville minding the house and pets.) It's foggy this morning and a little over 60 degrees. I can hear the fog horn in the distance. David's mother, who is 89, is with us. To my surprise, there is a high-speed Internet connection in the house. So here I am.

The weather's been great up here so far, but we're going to catch a piece of the band of rain moving across the northeast today, though I suspect it will be possible to go to the beach by late afternoon.

Monday morning, we drove up from Readercon. After lunch in Kittery Point, we took a boat ride in Portsmouth Harbor, around New Castle Island. It was a small boat, essentially a water taxi. I had with us the kids' life jackets we'd bought in the Florida Keys in March, so they were suitably attired. Elizabeth fell asleep almost instantly, lulled by the motion of the boat and the sound of the motor. Peter lasted about 20 minutes before dozing off. He spent most of those 20 minutes looking intensely over the side, hoping for glimpses of creatures.

Both Monday and Tuesday, in the late afternoon, we've gone to Seapoint Beach. On Monday, I took the kids for super-low tide (the moon was full) while David stayed at the house with his mother. Yesterday, David came with us. The beach has both sand and also rocky tide pools. Peter found crabs and snails, a small purple starfish, and a shrimp. But it seems to me that the tide pools ought to have more life than this. Perhaps their relative poverty is the longterm effect of having a huge naval shipyard nearby. Nonetheless, judging by the density of lobster buoys, lobsters seem to be plentiful.

Elizabeth loves the beach and gets very sandy. She fingerpaints in the wet sand and picks up all kinds of things to look at. I occasionally have to remove a rock or a live snail from her mouth, but usually saying "don't eat that" does the trick, though I must have said "don't eat that" about 200 times yesterday.

Yesterday, we drove around New Castle Island and down the New Hampshire coast to see Tom and Sue Beeler in Hampton Falls. They have rebuilt their house, which burned to the ground two years ago in a tragic fire. It has essentially the same floor plan, but is in a different orientation to make better use of the light. There is a parrot in their kitchen. They don't have nearly as many dogs as they used to (they have 5 or 6 now). They have 3 moneys, two spider monkeys and a capuchin. Peter and the capuchin, named Munchie, spent most of our visit entertaining each other. Peter loves their house. Last time, after we visited, when we got home Peter suggested that we needed monkeys in the trees in our back yard, too, and maybe a few parrots. The Beelers' idea of utopia and Peter's are very similar.

On the way to the Beelers, we went to the Seacoast Science Center, which has tanks with sea creatures in them and also a touch pond, very much Peter's kind of place. They have a shoreline with, I suspect, lots of tide pools. But it was foggy when we were there, so we couldn't see it from the main building.

When we are at the house, Peter spends a lot of time in the yard. There's a large garter snake that lives next to the front steps that Peter's spent a lot of time watching. There's an enormous friendly dog named Max who live next door, whom Peter gets along with famously. And a few black chickens who stroll through.

The fog is breaking up and the sun is coming out, though only for a little while. Judging from the weather radar, the rain will be here soon. So I should wake up Peter and let him play outside before the rain begins.


Whatever's Happened to Baby Jane?

I've added a link to the weblog of my friend Diane Greco, whom I worked with at Eastgate. Mark Bernstein, who turned up at Readercon, told me about it. Diane, who had a baby named Jane in March, seems to be having a mothering experience very different than mine. From the sound of it, she has a fussy baby.

Baby makes scientists out of her parents. Daddy and Motherbody become skilled at making and testing hypotheses. Observe: Baby is crying. Hypothesize: Is she hot? Motherbody removes a blanket. Baby still cries. Try again: Maybe she's cold? Daddy folds blanket in half and tucks it around Baby, who kicks it off, crying all the while. Is she hungry? Wet? Bored? The tests go on and on. Eventually, the crying stops. A possible cause has been discovered; now the result must be re-tested (the scientists say "challenged," but they have never quieted a roaring baby and therefore do not know what challenge is). But Baby is changing all the time -- what stopped a fuss today might not work again tomorrow, or next week. Hypotheses proliferate until the parents despair, and then the hypotheses become untestable, absurd. Is she hungry? Tired? Wet? Bored? "Maybe a monkey flew out of her butt," says the Motherbody finally, giving up.

I woud offer advice, but it sounds like she's already had it up to here with well-meant parenting advice.

I'm weaning Jane. I've had enough of the lactivist bullshit, and I'm tired of wondering, every time she peeps, if I ate or drank something that passed through the milk and upset her. More to the point, I'm tired of having other people wonder for me. Out loud. In my presence.

Sounds like what she needs is comfort rather than advice. Feel better, Diane.

Elizabeth's a happy cooperative baby. Most of her serious fussing happens when she's bored. After a difficult first month with Peter, breastfeeding has always worked well for me. I wish it worked this well for everyone.


Loose Ends

I had hoped to blog a bit more about yesterday's panel ("Does Your Baby Make You Smarter?"), but the day's shedule looks like it won't permit. I'm going to try to get a tape from the convention so I can discuss it later. I will be offline for a few days, so this may be my last post until then.

Chip Delany's best line (or at least the best one I wrote down) was:

Living with a child is like living with someone totally insane whom you are tring to bring into sanity.

Elizabeth is getting her top two front teeth and so has been a bit fussy. And she's learned how to fish in the toilet, so we're having to keep the hotel bathroom door closed. Peter's been running wth the Readerkids pack and found frogs, tadpoles, and a snapping turtle in a pond outside the Hartwell House, the restaurant where we had dinner.


1968: They were having sexual adventures in roughly the same quarter of the forest, with the exception that Clinton was only sleeping with women

SF's own Roz Kaveny dishes up some marvelous gossip about hanging out in the same social circles as Christopher Hitchens and Bill Clinton. It reads like alternate history. But it's just history:

In 1968, when I arrived at Oxford as a gangling skinny Northerner with serious sexual identity problems, I went to a lot of political meetings. You could hardly not notice Hitchens - he was charismatic, and beautiful, and passionate in his denunciations of the Americans in Vietnam. You also ended up noticing a quiet bearded American called Bill something, who would periodically stand up and oppose the war, while defending his country's better angels. My memory, which may be faulty, is that, on at least one occasion, I heard them speak at the same meeting.

Hitchens has latterly claimed that they probably slept with at least one of the same people - who subsequently became a famous lesbian and feminist activist. The problem with this is that the most likely candidates - Oxford in the late 60s was not exactly awash with such women - either never slept with one, or never slept with the other, or never slept with either. One woman, who shared an apartment, and a girlfriend, with Clinton, claims to remember vaguely once necking with Hitchens when she was drunk.

What is the case is that they were having sexual adventures in roughly the same quarter of the forest, with the exception that Clinton was only sleeping with women.

I love this kind of gossip!

(Via Patrick Nielsen Hayden.)


Report from Readercon

Readercon is in full swing. I was on a panel this morning (which I proposed) called "Does Your Baby Make You Smarter?" with Samuel R. Delany, James Morrow, Kit Reed, Alex Irvine, and Katya Reiman, which went very well. We're going out to dinner shortly with Rudy and Sylvia Rucker and Don Kingsbury. I'm back in the room for a few minutes before we go out. I may get time to write more later on this evening.

David gave a presentation on space opera this afternoon that went very well. (I had Elizabeth in tow, who wanted to talk back to daddy, so I was only there for the first few minutes.)


The Skunk

I'm taking some tired pleasure in watching the Bush administration squirm over this Iraq uranium thing. For a while, I did my patriotic duty and blogged nearly every day on the new idiocy and dishonesty, the sheer low cunning, of our current regime. But after a while, it began to get really depressing. I found myself unable to get very interested in new incursions on civil liberties, new lies and political outrages, etc. It's not that I didn't care anymore. It was more like having a dead skunk in the house with you. For a while, you are really upset by the smell. But after a while, even if it begins to smell worse and worse, you notice less and less.

I'm going to drag my attention back to the skunk and say something I've been thinking for a while and have been keeping to myself. I think the men behind the curtains of the Bush administration are loathsome political strategists rather than Bush's cabinet; that the decision to invade Iraq was made by strategist before Bush had even become the Republican nominee; that control of oil is not the ultimate reason we invaded, though this prospect was probably used to get funding for the campaign. Out with it: I think the real reason for the Iraq invasion was so that Bush could be a wartime president because, as a wartime president, he would be politically invincible, and maybe his anointed successor would be invincible, too, if they could just keep this up.

I don't want to go research this or serve up heaping tablespoons of links that might convince you. (if I'm right, the real evidence is more deeply buried than I'll ever find.) Rather, this image has been visible to me in the mist for a while and I thought I'd finally share it.

If I'm right, impeachment would be too light a penalty. This would be a matter for a war crimes tribunal: one does not go to war, killing thousands, in order to win elections. But that is indeed what I think has happened.


Greetings from Readercon

So we did all get in the car yesterday and head on down the road despite all. We stopped for dinner and celebrated David's 62nd birthday, arriving at the convention hotel at about 10:30 last night. The kids, up way past their bedtime, bounced off the walls for about an hour before we could get them to go to sleep. I was worried that we might be disturbing the people in the next room. But this morning we discovered that the next room is occupied by Jim Freund and friends and that they didn't hear a thing.

There is a high speed Internet connection in the room and a decent pool downstairs. I have fantasies of relaxing in the sauna, but will have to wait until someone else can take the kids for that.

The convention has not yet started. Registration is setting up and Graham Selight and a friend of his are helping David set up in the dealers room. David's not allowed to lift cartons yet, but has recruited help setting up.


ReaderCon Looms

ReaderCon looms large in the headlights. It is one of my favorite conventions, yet right now the possibility of the family and all the luggage making their way to the car by the end of the afternoon tomorrow seems small.

A pile of wood chips in the driveway beckons. Chappaqua Chipmunks Tree Service has graciously given me a new batch to apply to the play surface in the circle of stumps. But I have to get them out of the driveway and into the woods.

Right now it's 70 degrees and 100% humidity. Later it will be much hotter, but it will still be very humid.


The Fire Santa

Today is crazy hat day at Peter's camp. He created his crazy hat this morning by putting a Santa hat on top of a fire helmet. The effect is striking: seemingly, the hat worn by the Fire Santa who goes to fires and brings people presents.

It's supposed to get very hot and humid today. I expect this afternoon and evening will be a challenge.

David has taken the train into Manhattan for the first time since his angioplasty.


Logistical Challenges

I was going to write about how I can't seem to plan my way out of a paper bag today and how concentrating on making things work only seems to make them worse. Then I got a phone call which revealed that what I thought was a significant blunder on my part turned out to be a medical emergency on someone elses's part (nothing too terrible -- a bad rash resulting from a newly purchased pair of pants). This call was reassuring after an embarassing slip-up earlier that was clearly and entirely my fault.

I did not sleep well last night, and a personal logistical collapse seemed like a direct outgrowth of this. I need to find some inner peace (and perhaps get used to sleeping through heat and humidity).

Nonetheless, I've had a pleasant day. David and I (with Elizabeth in tow) had lunch with Paul Park at a Pleasantville restaurant we'd never eaten at before. (Elizabeth got her first taste of squid.)

Yesterday, I got Peter's Fun Ride set up in his circle of stumps. It is one of the traditional backyard recreations: a trolley you hang from on a wire between two trees. So far, I give it favorable marks. However, given my level of manual dexterity, I found it a bit hard to set up. I kept losing little parts in the woodchips down there.

It's been pleasant weather, but a storm system is moving in: it's getting dark out rather quickly and I hear distant thunder. And now the rain has come. There is a severe thunder storm watch on for the next two hours.


Dumbo the Octopus

Peter has a fever today and so is spending the day watching the BBC series Blue Planet: Seas of Life on DVD, which I highly recommend. We haven't seen it all yet. But so far, the best episode is The Deep which features amazing footage from the deep sea chimney vent ecologies and a strange underwater lake (a methane-based ecology deep enough to be beyond the reach of sunlight).

Peter's favorite creature is the dumbo octopus. Click on the link to see whay it's called that.


Architectural Fictions: Welcome to the future, Kid. How would you like to live here?

Searching to see if Usonia, the utopian development a mile from here, had a web site, I came across a bit of speculative fiction I would otherwise have missed: eight stories inspired by architecture in Metropolis Magazine's Fiction Issue (January 2003), including stories by Yxta Maya Murray, Karen E. Steen, Kurt Andersen, Karrie Jacobs, Bruce Sterling, Thomas Beller, Rick Moody, John Hockenberry.

I'm still chuckling over the bit of dialog which serves as the last line of the Sterling story: Welcome to the future, Kid. How would you like to live here?

MEANWHILE, Ferag NicBride and Charles Stross have posted their wedding pictures. (The bride wore purple.) Congratulations!


Bad News in Batches

I discovered from reading Teresa Nielsen Hayden's weblog, Making Light, this morning that Kevin Maroney's 41 year-old brother Tim Maroney collapsed in the shower yesterday and died. Our condolences to Kevin and his family. Kevin is a good friend, a frequent visitor to our house, and a member of the NYRSF staff.

The final post on Tim's weblog is quite unsettling. He apparently could tell that something was wrong with him but couldn't tell what.

Also, we heard yesterday from Caitlin Blasdell that she is back in Pleasantville, home early from vacation because of a car accident. Caitlin was taking her son Will out for ice cream when it happened. Will is fine, but Caitlin suffered a broken pelvis, is in considerable discomfort, and will be on crutches for at least 6 weeks.

Also, the Pleasantville branch of Chase Bank was robbed Monday, as was (I'm told) the candy store next door. A friend of ours was in the bank moments before. David is in that bank several times a week. The bank and candy store are in the part of Pleasantville Peter refers to as his "favorite part of town." We encountered one of the policemen investigating yesterday afternoon, who said he'd been working so much he hadn't seen his family in three days.

David continues to improve and recover, but I find myself a bit paranoid about his health, since I never had a chance to get really upset about the clogged coronary artery until it had been stented.


Old Farm Hill Park

Old Farm Hill Park is around the corner on the other side of the block on Old Farm Road South. At the time of the Mt. Pleasant 1970 Comprehensive Master Plan, the park was 6.1 acres earmarked for a playground, with the possibility of buying additional acreage (which the town did) to provide for a playfield. It is now 22 acres, but remains undeveloped. The land has frontage on Old Farm Road about the width of a house lot, plus a road-width bit of frontage one house further. The rest of the 22 acres is surrounded by the backs of people's back yards.

When David and his first wife moved into this house in the mid-1970s, it was possible to go for walks in the park. As nearly as I can tell, it is former farmland, gradually being reclaimed by forest and underbrush. Three years ago, when I tried to find my way in to have a look at the park as a possible place for nature walks, I found it heavily overgrown with briars. Also, the road frontage is quite steep, leading immediately into a marshy area. So the main frontage of the park is a quite treacherous way to enter. I've looked at the parks department's topo maps. The road strip is a much gentler way in. However, it is overgrown with chest-height underbrush at present. So for me, this park is, in it's current form, quite unusable.

This does not mean that it isn't being used. For one thing, I'm sure that it is heavy used by the local deer population. This sounds like a good thing, but we are on the main deerpath and so not only do the deer eat most things we might wish to plant in the yard, but they carry deer ticks which carry Lyme Disease. This household has had three (all serious) cases of Lyme disease. So even though deer are pretty, we are not big fans.

Also, I'm told by the head if the parks department that there are bike trails and such immediately in back of the adjacent houses. So, to some extent, neighborhood children use, or have used, at least the outside edges. Also, a number of the houses adjacent the park are of the type that have a big front yard, providing the estate-style entry, combined with a small back yard. The undeveloped park contributes to the illusion of an estate by giving the sense that the homeowner is the master of all he surveys. So this undeveloped park is used, after a fashion, but only by people with adjacent yards.

It's perimeters are entailed in much the same way as the shoreline of Tercia Lake, the nearby lake I mentioned in yesterday's post. However, Old Farm Hill Park is public land, paid for by the taxes of town residents.

Why has it remained undeveloped? I don't know the deep history of it, however I do know that when Peter was a newborn, we got a little flyer in our mailbox from a group promoting the idea of putting a small walk-to only playground in Old Farm Hill Park. Before the group had even had time to present a formal proposal, the people with homes adjacent the park rose up and mobbed a town council meeting, angrily shouting that they did not want the park developed.

What I'm given to understand is that they had two main objections:

(1) Increased traffic on Old Farm Road South. This is a legitimate objection, given that there are no sidewalks on Old Farm Road South. The overall safety of that road would be improved by the addition of sidewalks, even if there were a developed park.

(2) Adjacent residents wanted to retain their woodland views. Nothing in the meek proposal by a group of local mothers would have interfered with the views of any of the parks' neighbors, especially since they weren't even proposing that a road in be built. Nonetheless, the owners of illusory estates fought hard to preserve the illusion. From their perspective any development of the park was a potential threat.

Several years ago, I went over the topological map with the head of the parks department. The park is actually large enough that one could have a playground and several baseball fields in it without interfering with the views of adjacent neighbors.

For now, the park remains undeveloped.

PETER QUOTE OF THE DAY: Peter, watching WALKING WITH CAVEMEN, says Mommy, one of our ancestors just ate a tarantula!


Wild Turkeys

A family of wild turkeys walked through our yard. It's the first time we've seen them in this area. There were two adults and five chicken-sized turkey chicks.

I had wanted to continue on with the discussion of my neighborhood this morning, but my writing time just isn't working out this morning. The next topic will be the park on the other side of the block. Maybe later today.


A Town of Mini-Rockefellers

My post of yesterday has received a fair amount of favorable attention, and there is certainly more to say on this subject, so I will continue.

The particular development we live in was built in the late 1950s. A few years ago, I talked to a man, probably in his late 40s, who had grown up in this neighborhood as it was when first built. He told me that there used to be a sledding run from our uphill neighbor's yard, across ours, across our downhill neighbor's yard, and almost to the street. All the neighborhood kids used to use it. He told me that this went on until the former owners of our house built a pool, thus blocking the sledding run. (The pool was built in 1967 and rotted out about 10 years ago.) I was quite struck by this tale, perhaps even a little shocked.

I had assumed that the isolation of neighborhood children in their own yards was simply a function of the lack of sidewalks and the 1 acre lots. But clearly, other social forces were at work. The children in this neighborhood as of the time I heard this story (4 years ago) would never behave like that. Property lines had been made too meaningful.

What has changed? When these houses were built, they were surrounded by open fields. There was a beautiful lake you could walk to. (It's about 800 ft. from our property line; David's son Geoff, now 26, who grew up in this house, says he's never seen the lake.) There was an estate in ruins where there were the foundations of an estate house one could explore.

Children have very different ideas about real estate than adults. For children, any unclaimed open space is potentially the commons. Open space that doesn't have a KEEP OUT sign and that adults aren't using can become the commons. So, first off, this neighborhood had, I'd guess, about 30 - 40 acres of commons available to children, encompassing forest, streams, meadows, ponds and a lake, and ruins. On the street itself, there was very little traffic, since this would have been a dead end in those days. (There's still very little traffic, since we are not on the way anywhere. But much of what traffic exists comes in the form of heavy delivery and service trucks.) Over the 70s and 80s, the surrounding houses were built and people refocused their children's attention on backyard utopias with patios, pools, and playstructures.

The new houses that were built were bigger and fancier. Most of the neighborhood is built on 1 acre lots. Many of the newer houses, though on the same size lots, have a bigger setback from the street (so they have extremely long driveways) and smaller back yards. They are built as mini-estates. I have a copy of the Town Plan for Mt. Pleasant from the 1970s -- our mailing address is Pleasantville, but we live in the Town of Mt. Pleasant which also encompasses part of the Rockefeller estate. The town plan promotes the 1 acre yard as what should be the standard. It also spends more wordage on how the Rockefellers will do as they please with their land than it does on housing for the elderly. The subtext of the plan is that this area was intended to house many mini-Rockefellers on little private estates. On the other side of the block, where there are only fences visible through the woods, the estates are not so mini: immense houses on 10 acre parcels with key-card entrances. There is a playstructure in one of those yards, though I have never contacted them to ask if their kids want to play with mine. I don't expect I ever will.

Given that the idea was for us all to be mini-Rockefellers, the roads and placement of the houses are optimized to emulate the look of estate driveways, not for convenient pedestrian traffic from house to house. Trick-or-treating around here is exhausting. Many nearly streets don't go through in order that we not be on the way somewhere, which is fine. But no pedestrian traffic is provided for. A house two houses away with a child Peter's age is either a short hike through a patch of poison ivy, or it is a 3.3 mile drive. Poison ivy grows on disturbed land. When new houses are built, poison ivy grows around the periphery.

I have to stop now and wake up Peter so I can drive him 13 miles up to Bedford Village for art camp. Perhaps I'll continue this thread tomorrow.

MEANWHILE, one of the praying mantis egg cases has hatched out and we have several hundred baby mantids on hand. (One egg case remains unhatched.)


Why Sidewalks?

In the comments section of yesterday's post, Patrick Nielsen Hayden says "I actually wish you'd spell out your argument about family values and sidewalks." A few years ago, I was all upset about this and capable of long rants, but I feel a bit beaten down on this subject, since not many people in this area seem to see the lack of sidewalks as the serious problem I perceive it to be. I married into this place. Most of the rest of the people moved out here because they actually thought it was a good idea to live this way.

When people complain about the unwalkablility of suburbs, they usually point to unnecessary gasoline consumption or specific details, such as Americans becoming fatter because they don't walk anymore.

I approach this topic from a pragmatic and functional standpoint. I live in Pleasantville, NY, one of the places the suburbs were invented. Readers Digest's historic move to our town was one of the things that set the new idea of the suburbs in motion. Also, we are about a mile from Frank Lloyd Wright & co.'s development, Usonia. We live in the kind of suburb people move to "for the kids." We have an excellent school system, fine libraries, and beautiful, well-equipped parks.

Yes, I will drive an enormous car over 60 miles today to get Peter where he needs to go. Summer camp has begun. If you see children in their own yard during summer camp hours, it's like seeing a racoon out in daylight -- it means they're sick; don't go close. Children are trucked away every weekday morning in the summer and don't return until late afternoon.

Two summers ago, I did a lot of work in the yard. I watched all summer and never saw an unaccompanied child walk down our street. Many adults walk for exercise. But those gentle suburban curves in the street hamper visibility. Many yards have shrubbery that grows into the street. And, of course, there are no sidewalks. Why don't kids walk down the street? Although there is very little traffic, to walk safely, you have to zigzag across the street.

We have an interesting swamp behind our house. The only child other than my own that I have ever observed exploring it isn't from around here. He lives in Scottland and his grandfather lives up the street. Poison ivy and Lyme disease reinforce the general suburban tendencies, so kids stay in their own yards until mommy can drive them somewhere. They do this until they are old enough to drive.

When Peter was born, there were several families with children close by, but they never crossed property lines. Playdates came in cars by appointment. Kids played in their own yards in the center of the grass on wooden playstructures. All of those families have moved away and have been replaced by other families. As each new family has moved in, I have encouraged the idea of spontaneity, of children crossing property lines, and with good results. Slowly, things are changing.

What is the impact of the lack of sidewalks on a neighborhood? It removes most of the social supports for both mothers and children. Know any teenaged baby sitters? I don't. Want someone to play with? Mom will make a few phone calls and see what she can set up for Tuesday of next week. And it gets scary when there's an actual emergency if you don't know anyone nearby. I've shovelled snow with pneumonia because I didn't know what else to do. I've taken an infant along when I went to the emergency room, since there was nothing else I could do. Neighborhoods without sidewalks are stripped of a lot of basic supports for family life because people do not know one another and do not regularly interact.

So, other than the very cumbersome institution of "playdates," how do children have friends? Parents sign the kids up for activities. The lack of sidewalks strips the neighborhood of one of its basic functions, which is then sold back to us at a premium price. How do people find baby sitting? Many have live-in baby sitters or regular sitters charging $12/hour or more. I can't hire random teenagers I don't know, and since I have no network for knowing them, I pay experienced adults with many references. This means that at home, I don't get out much in the evening. Similarly, all other functions that might emerge from cooperative effort within a neighborhood are subcontracted. Running a household around here up to local standards amounts to managing a complex network of subcontractors. (Some even contract out the putting up of Christmas decorations.)

Parents can drive and can subcontract, but children can't. They live strangely isolated and over-supervised lives with little autonomy or opportunity for exploration. (I have thought of nominating poison ivy as the official plant of Westchester County, since it seems to me an icon of isolating greenery.) I can't quite imagne growing up this way, and yet my children are.

What has all this to do with family values? A functioning family is not a discrete nuclear entity. Rather, it functions within a community, and stripped of it neighborhood supports it is much less functional. Supporting the family means supporting the neighborhood, and neighborhoods are much more likely to function properly if they have sidewalks.

Does the lack of sidewalks contribute to divorce and the breakdown of families? I think it does, though I know of no statistical evidence one way or another.

Why are neighborhoods built without sidewalks? Because sidewalks are expensive and contractors are allowed by municipalities to get away with building developments without. We shouln't allow them to do that, but increasingly the suburban neighborhood without sidewalks is the shape of American life.

PETER'S THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Why don't apes have playdates?

That simple question is in its way quite profound and resonates nicely with my post of this morning. (I did explain to him that we are apes. But he meant all the rest of the apes.)