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.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Disinformation Era

I first saw one of these fake sites in 2012, and I wish I could find it again, because it was genius. For a long time, the very first site you came to when you Googled our local Democratic candidate for Congress was 100% fake. There are still a variety of fake sites bearing her name. And now her opponent has put one up himself—not really fake, I guess, because his name's right there at the bottom. It's "just a way of getting this information out there," as the RCCC likes to say.

It's pretty clearly covered by both the First Amendment and caveat emptor rules; if you don't read carefully, shame on you. Just because you thought you were giving $50 to the candidate, but you really donated to her opponent, well, I guess you're exactly the idiot that opponent was hoping to nab.

We Dems claim to be above all this, but maybe we're just sorry we didn't think of it first. After all, it's a really brilliant way to cover up the fact that you have no plan, a great way to spread hate speech without getting your hands dirty.

Our current Congressman doesn't believe in climate change and just voted to sue the President. Govtrack ranks him second most conservative in the NY delegation. He has staffers that make the governor's aides look ethical. My fingers are itching to run to Wix and set up his fake website, but honestly, it would be no more appalling and freakishly hilarious than his existing real one.

P.S.: If you are so down on liberal Ithaca, Tom, maybe you shouldn't advertise so much of it in your homepage video.