Saturday, September 13, 2014


Cornell's sesquicentennial year, which was begun with a bang involving the red-and-white lighting up of the Empire State Building, has led me to ponder this uncomfortable truth: Olivia's class of '18 is as distant in time from my class of '76 as my class was from the class of 1934. Suck on that for a while.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Zephyr-Andrew Map

We'd been a little worried that Tompkins would be an outlier in voting for Teachout. Well, the numbers don't entirely tell the story. I thought I'd like to see this graphically, so I did a little map, showing where Zephyr won (dark blue) vs. where Andrew won (light blue). I leave it up to others to draw conclusions. Click on the map to see more detail.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

What Zephyr's Done for NY

I'm not calling the game, because I am the worst predictor of all time. But seeing Cuomo pretend not to see Teachout at the Labor Day Parade today, seeing the thugs who always surround him push her aside, reminded me again of what Zephyr has done for NY, win or lose.

1. She verified the irrelevance of the Working Families Party. I haven't found them interesting in a long, long time, but their decision to dump her in favor of a deal with Cuomo—a deal that I guarantee he had every intention of carrying out before they made that deal—proved their small-mindedness and gave her the opportunity to connect with people who would never have taken a third-party candidate seriously. WFP's dumping of her was a gift to us all.

2. She reminded Democrats of our roots. Instead of capping property taxes and worrying about gridlock, she talked about corruption, the environment, and dignity for all.

3. She suggested that NYers don't have to settle. Until she decided to run, everyone I knew was resigned to another Cuomo term. We spoke about the governor's race dully, if we spoke about it at all. Even the most gung-ho Dems I know could only pick on social policy as a plus for the Cuomo regime, and that starts to pale in significance when you start to look at the map. I mean, we were seventh, not first, when it comes to marriage equality. New Hampshire and Iowa beat us, and they aren't exactly bastions of liberalism. Is it a radical, profound position or just part of a trend?

4. She made politics fun again. With sparkling energy and unaffected enthusiasm, she lit up small rooms and open spaces and often seemed larger than life. Someone said to me early on, "All people have to do is meet her, and they'll vote for her." I thought it was hyperbole until I met her.

5. She brought up some critical issues. Her attempt to sue the State Committee for paying for and sending out Cuomo mailers failed thus far, because that sort of unsavory party-as-an-arm-of-the-governor's-office was more-or-less legalized in 2006, but the lawsuit reminded us how wrong that relationship is. She showed us once again how deeply corrupt our institutions are and how insensitive to corruption we have become. She shone a light on the dark corners of the Cuomo administration, pointing out its failure to connect at any genuine level to the people of the state.

6. She unmasked the governor and revealed him as the mean-spirited bully everyone had always said he was. He had countless opportunities to refute this impression, but he failed at every turn, becoming more and more himself with every passing week—insular, angry, cowardly, and rude—up to today's grotesque behavior at the Labor Day Parade. If nothing else, she punctured the test balloon for his anointing as presidential candidate down the road. And she did it all not with the bombastic ire one would expect when confronted with the dreadful, tangled, nasty political mire that is the State of New York and the people who run it—but with a smile. We owe her, seriously, our eternal gratitude.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Math. Still Hard.

Okay, so it turns out that 94 percent of teachers outside NYC were rated "effective" or "highly effective" via the new APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review). Twenty percent of that assessment is to be based on growth on state assessments (or a comparable measure using Student Learning Objectives for those subjects not tested on state assessments). In many districts right in our area, no teachers at all were found to be ineffective. Yet, as we know, the growth on state assessments was negligible.

Which brings up a couple of questions. 1: What were the unions so worried about? and 2: Does the way we're measuring teacher effectiveness make any sense at all?

I have no doubt at all that effective teaching correlates to student achievement. This introduction to a 2005 book explains why teacher evaluation can nevertheless be so difficult to do with any validity. NYS is applying multiple modes to their teacher assessments, as the authors would recommend, but the results simply defy logic.

Monday, August 18, 2014

They Must Think We're Stupid. And Maybe We Are.

Chapter 1: Test Scores

Well, it's August, so it's time for a lot of concern-and-pleasure over rancid test scores statewide. It is pretty hard to spin a 6% passing rate in seventh grade math, except by comparing it to the 5% passing rate in 2013. But wait, you might ask, shouldn't we compare grade 6 in 2013 to grade 7 in 2014? After all, those are the same kids, whereas comparing seventh graders then to seventh graders now is a mismatch. Well, yes, but then you might notice that sixth graders in 2013 had a 7% passing rate, and the same students this year had a 6% passing rate. And so it goes. My statistician friends would be able to tell me how large a sample one would need to be able to compare unrelated kids overall, or to say that a rise from 7.2% to 7.6% represents growth of any significance. But it really doesn't matter, because the media apparently have no interest in what the numbers mean. It's math! It's hard!

Chapter 2: Rebate

Lucky us, we're all getting a rebate check or two. If our schools stayed within the cap, we might get $50! (Our county administrator estimates something closer to $15.) If we lived in Westchester, we'd get a whole lot more! Gosh, our governor and legislators really are watching out for us.

Chapter 3: Ballot Initiative

The first proposal on our ballot in November is for an "independent" redistricting commission to establish new senate, assembly, and judicial districts. But hold on! Is it "independent" if it's appointed by the legislature and if legislators can thumbs-up or thumbs-down anything that comes out of it? Well, it says "independent" right there on the proposition, so it must be true! Heck, it worked for that nutty casino initiative! Even if you thought gambling was bad, how could you resist something that promised that it was designed "for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes." You couldn't! It passed easily!

Pretty neat trick: First prove that New Yorkers can't read or do math. Then take advantage of that fact.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Our Tolerance of Intolerance

I'm a white woman and thus unqualified to speak about the plight of Michael Brown or Ezell Ford or Jonathan Ferrell or Eric Garner. I was teargassed and chased by police in my day, but it was because of what I was doing and saying, not because of how I looked. But now that Ithaca has joined the ranks of places where white policemen and African-American boys and men collide, it's hard not to think about it constantly.

Although anyone who's been through middle school knows that a gaggle of white girls is the biggest force for evil on the planet, had my daughter and some of her friends been riding around near the site of the Ithaca arsons, she never would have been followed and stopped by a cop. It simply would not have happened. My kid sees guns in hunting season and on TV. The thought of her seeing a strange man pull a handgun around her, even if it was in fact "pointed in a safe direction"—well, it doesn't bear thinking about. As a parent, I can imagine the parents' fear and horror, but all I can do is imagine it, because it won't ever happen to us.

I'm always aware of white privilege, although as someone whose relatives died in the gas chambers of eastern Europe, I honestly don't often translate it into white guilt. My daughter identifies as Jewish, which led throughout her school career to some ignorant shaming by teachers and classmates. She came home once to report that a teacher had made her teach the class about Judaism when they came to that part of the Religions chapter in history. The joke was on the teacher, because my kid (to my shame) knows as little about Judaism as most of her classmates did, although she has a good imagination and is always willing to make stuff up. But although she thought it was funny, I thought it was horrible. Would the teacher have had an Asian-American student teach the lesson about the Han Dynasty?

It is hard for me to see the same people who cannot differentiate "Hamas" from "all Gazans" call on us all to be tolerant of looters in Ferguson, pointing out that it's just a small group of bad-actors and should not reflect on the population of protestors as a whole. That's true, for sure, but it's curious how our tolerance of intolerance is a direct reflection of ourselves, our upbringings, our experiences. For me, looters = Hamas, and other protestors = other Gazans. But of course, I'm not a real Jew; I'm Jewish on my father's side, and we were never religious. Where my father had to run away from gangs of Italians and Irish, I was instead belittled by people who denied half my heritage. So maybe my intolerance of people's intolerance toward Gaza is a reflection of my non-Jewishness—or my anger at those Jews who pointed it out incessantly.

I belong to a very multicultural extended family—white, Christian, Jewish, Latino, Asian, African-American. Somewhere on my mother's side is an Inuit great-great aunt. You would think that I'd be pretty tolerant and unbiased. But as my daughter can tell you, my biases are political, and they are fierce. So I don't pretend to be better than anyone else when it comes to this stuff.

I don't plan to prejudge the police officer who was involved in the Ithaca incident. Anyone who has ever felt threatened, rightly or wrongly, knows that adrenaline can lead you to do stupid things. A lot of people are concerned about the militarization of our police forces, and I am too, but I don't think it can be solved until we demilitarize bad-actors. But gun control is probably a topic for another day. Right now, I'm just thinking about those teenagers and their parents and the police and fear and race and expectations and beliefs and ignorance. We like to think of our little corner of the world as a pretty open and tolerant place. Yet when my brother's former girlfriend moved to Ithaca with him for a year back in the 1980s, she found it the least tolerant place she'd ever lived—and she had lived in half a dozen countries and many large cities. People threw things at her from their cars as she walked to work, and as a mixed couple, they were often verbally harrassed. She was thrilled to move back to the big city.

My daughter will never know what that is like, to be abused for the color of one's skin. On the other hand, she knows what it's like to be called a "Jew Whore" (by an African-American classmate, as it happens) and to be humiliated by teachers and students when she suggested that selling Easter candy (complete with crosses!) was an inappropriate school fundraising activity.

We're none of us immune, but some of us are more likely to die due to other's intolerance. Right now, being a brown-skinned male means having a target on your back. And that should be intolerable to anyone with a conscience.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Prisoner of the Amazons

"I think the definition of a book is changing." So said Jeff Bezos of Amazon some years ago, and he was right.

I have lately had an issue with Amazon that I haven't heard about elsewhere, not on Wikipedia's growing list of Amazon controversies, not in February's remarkable New Yorker article. I haven't met anyone who's had this particular problem, and I am not sure what to do about it.

One of my best-selling books (which is to say, one of the ones that sells best, not that I have dozens of bestsellers) is a test prep for the nursing test known as the TEAS. It has sold close to 100,000 copies on Amazon alone, a fact that I know because I log onto Amazon's useful Author Central website every so often to check things out.

Among the features on Amazon's Author Central are customer reviews. Amazon has had a bit of trouble with those reviews, some of which is documented on Wikipedia (above), but in general the reviews have been useful for me and fairly informative—and regularly positive. All of that changed back in May, when I started getting reviews that read like these:

I would love this book for studying, except all the graphs/maps/charts aren't printed correctly, so you can't answer 15% of the questions in the book because you can't read the charts! Almost all of the charts have missing information. For example, a bar chart without the bars!!! Horrible. And there is no way to contact McGraw-Hill...

Looks like I received a copy of this book that has a print defect. None of the charts and graphs are filled in, so I cannot answer those questions. I really was depending on this book to help me with the Teas test that I am taking in a week. Real bummer to have received this defective item. If you are planning on ordering this book, make sure with the seller that the graphs and charts are all visible. I feel like I have been ripped off!

And so on, and so on. There is no way to identify a reviewer on Amazon, and even though I wrote back to the angry customers and asked for details (where the book was purchased, etc.), I got no responses. Meanwhile, my ratings dropped, and eventually, in July, Amazon had so many complaints that they pulled the book, dropping sales into the toilet for several weeks.

At the same time, my publisher was going nuts, with the inventory manager ripping open cartons and checking books willy-nilly and finding absolutely nothing wrong.

Finally, in August, the publisher had a complaint directly from a real person and asked him to send a copy of the defective book. Surprise! THE BOOK WAS NOT PRINTED BY MY PUBLISHER. It was actually printed by Amazon as part of their "just-in-time" stocking program. If a publisher runs low on a title, they must allow Amazon to do short printings to stay in stock. In my particular case, the books were not even printed from existing digital files; they were scanned and sold, presumably for the same price as the originals. Somehow in the scanning process, pieces of the charts and graphs dropped out.

My publisher is looking into this, and I trust them to follow up. I have lost revenue (and ratings), my publisher has lost countless hours, and the poor customers who assumed they were buying a real book have been scammed twice.

Gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout, who writes often about monopolies, made it clear at breakfast the other day that she is down on Amazon for a variety of reasons. The battle with Hachette appears to be just one in a long string of dubious business practices. And now I am a victim, along with a bunch of would-be nursing students.