Friday, February 26, 2010

"Cap'n, thar be whales here!" -- Scotty, Star Trek IV

As the dolphin becomes just another victim of
humanity's utilitarian attitudes towards the Earth, it
seems as though the ancient friendship between our
respective species is no longer entirely reciprocal.

Such exploitation is nowhere more evident than in the
capture and display of cetaceans for profit. Stripped of
their natural identity, deprived of their own culture
and environment, the dolphin and whale incarcerated
within the oceanarium not only symbolizes an abuse of
that ancient relationship, but above all our
estrangement from nature as a whole.

Prince Sadruddin Khan

The Bellerive Symposium on Whales and Dolphins in Captivity (1990)

I'm not a vegetarian. I love a juicy red and char-
blackened steak. Hopefully, the more of Temple Grandin's
methods for humane slaughter of cattle are adopted, the more
times I'll eat meat with a clear conscience.
Never mind the carbon-footprint aspect, which negates
all the humanity stuff. I didn't say I had no vices.
If I thought the fat and sodium wouldn't kill me at an
earlier age, I'd eat bacon all the time. And pigs are
considered one of the more intelligent animals.

I don't eat veal, which I used to love, because I found
out how grossly inhumane the animal is treated.
I wouldn't advise reading up about how chickens get to
market if you like eating them either.

I'm not an "animal lover," though logic and morality
demand a recognition of the co-members of nature
taking up a percentage of space with us humans on
this planet, including plants and fish. Even crystals are
known to exude and transmit energy, so maybe rocks
and dirt for that matter have some input in our shared

After all, on a molecular level, we're all made of the
same stuff that comes from the creation of stars...
whales have been mistreated in the world over
the last 250 years.
'The Whale' by Philip Hoare describes instances of total
thoughtlessness on the part of humans' use of an
"As their land-borne counterparts drove buffalo from
sixty million to extinction, so these oceanic cowboys
pursued whales to the brink. . . . For America, the
common enemy was the wilderness; and just as that
wilderness was in fact full of animals -- and native
peoples -- so the American seas were full of whales,
ready for the slaughter."

The Russians don't escape blame either in this
"During the Cold War, gargantuan Soviet factory ships
dispatched and processed their quarry with grim

Lamps no longer burned whale oil during the 1950s
and 1960s; whales were made into lipstick, margarine,
vitamins, lubricants, fertilizer, glue, leather and food
for minks and other fur-bearing animals."

The overall issue is about the animals we live with.
There has been a long term outcry against making fur
clothing from animals. Very recently I have seen increasing
activism about so-called "puppy mills" where dogs are
bred beyond the ability of the demand of puppy lovers
to absorb them so that many have to be killed.
We got our dog from a shelter, and there were hundreds of
other dogs there waiting for a home they'd never see.
We have no control over our fellow citizens of the
earth in other countries where tigers have been
poached down to near nonexistence.
Then PETA makes a silly ad comparing the
problems with tigers to the problem of a guy named
Tiger in order to make a point--but not a good point.
So they pulled the ad.

Animals kept in captivity, in zoos, aquariums, or in
any of a number of other unnatural habitations
is not healthy for them, or for our human
perception of them. If a parent thinks the child will
become more knowledgeable about an animal by
observing it in a zoo, circus, or constrained in water
when it was meant to roam the sea, that parent should
realize that the real lesson the child learns is how
people can be bullies over even the most powerful of
creatures. That's what I learned from seeing monkeys
in a zoo or graceful dolphins in a small area, or huge powerful
lions chasing their tails over and over in confinement.

It is especially souring that a woman who is said to
have loved her relationship with the great Killer
Whales, was killed by one of them in an accident.
This incident needs to bring to the headlines that these
animals need to be let loose and out of captivity.
The news reports are even blaming the trainer for dangling her
ponytail in the water, and this confused the Killer Whale. Her fault
was not in trying to embrace and love this whale, it was the fault of
a system that says that humans can invade the world of nature with
no consequence, and no thought. In the wild, a human would never
try to interact with a large Killer Whale. It's not natural. Dogs are
domesticated animals over several thousand years--Killer Whales, not.

Circuses need to be disbanded, and animals fit for the
wild need to be released into their native habitat.

Let Sea World hire James Cameron to develop a huge multi
-screen "Avatar"esque 3D show about how Orcas live,
eat and produce in the wild. Show them sneaking up
on the California Grey Whale calves and munching
down in a few bites as the Greys make their way with their
mothers down to Baja to spawn. It's terrifying,
grotesque--but it's natural and none of our business--
go ahead and film it for the sake of educating our
children. Sea World would thrive on punching
those tickets for that filmed 3D show.

There's more to learn in the natural activity of the food
chain than there is in the artificial depravity of human
technology conquering an ignorant beast.

All of this sounds pretty way out and far-fetched--let all the
zoo animals go and close down the circuses...
How do you think it sounded to the Sperm Whales when
they were being hunted and killed to use their oil to
light the gas lamps of London 160 years ago? They
couldn't believe it either!

People are so bizarre. Try talking to one sometime--
you won't believe what you hear next.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Genius on Education: Roger Schank

I have quoted Roger Schank several times regarding the dismal state of the education curriculum in the US. Mr. Schank's background and biography are so complex and profound that my quick take is that he is an expert--possibly THE expert--on how people learn.

Actually, he is an expert on how learning happens, because his initial studies over 35 years ago were not about people, but about how to develop computers that could learn. Schank thinks so far outside the box, it's hard to describe briefly what his field is.

How'd I know about Roger Schank and his amazing research? My dad played in a softball league with him in Florida. As they became friends, my dad told me about Mr. Shank's work, because my dad knew of my interest in the issue of US education--or at least of it's failings. I didn't know of Mr. Schank's work--I received a Master's Degree in film production from Boston University, so what did that have to do with education?

I have now read enough of Schank's work and his anecdotal quotes to know that if he offers advice, you're always better off following it. I am referring to particular advice in terms of how our US publi school system.

It seems to me that most parents take for granted that their children will attend schools grouped by grades, divided by year chronologically, and that they will be taught separate subjects like math, history, English literature etc. The buildings used for classrooms are usually divided into rooms lining a hallway. The rooms may or may not have windows, and children line up a lot to move from room to room, or lunch cafeteria.

On the whole in this country, prisons and school buildings are indistinguishable from each other. Who questions this structure? We've all gone through it. Surprisingly, not all parents swallow this route for their children's education hook, line and sinker.

These people, motivated and stimulated by publicized alternatives to US public school education, have found state-sanctioned recourses such as Montessori, or the new charter schools which are not wholly obligated to the local school district's curriculum.

Some parents even teach their children themselves--home school--although sometimes the reasons for this are not due as much to the education deficiencies in the school district as much as to the religious preferences of how evolution or the bible is taught.

Children also get more homework these days--unless you're a teenage parent, most of us had less homework than our kids do now. In many situations, the heavy homework burden is because "we, the people," decided our "children
doesn't read" as well as they should, or know enough about 'rithmatic, or whatever.

So we fixed it where the powers that be--Bush & Co. "No Child Left Behind," would see to it that these kids'll get the practice they need. And if that means
30 repetitive math homework problems to do every night--instead of dance class, or a singing or piano lesson, or baseball or just plain old playing with your friends...buck up and take your medicine before the Chinese overcome
you and communism rules the world.

Well, maybe that's a little "over the top" as the drama critic says--not every parent who wants his child to succeed, and thinks homework helps, is afraid of the overrunning "Asian hoard"...But Schank isn't the only one who thinks the
"system" is broken, or that kids are inundated with homework

What if you, as a student or former student, or parent, closed your eyes for a moment, and thought about something you once learned while travelling, or watching a movie, or the History channel? What if you thought about how
much an adult uses advanced algebra equations, who isn't working on sending rockets into outer space, and what if you thought about just sitting around with your friends discussing something that interests everyone?

Some enlightened experts in learning, including Mr. Schank, have asked the question, "why do children have to learn by subject category." Maybe there shouldn't be a demarcation between history, English, Math etc. In fact, why teach math at all, unless a certain student enjoys math and wants to learn more about it--there are some who do!

Here are the core issues: immediately urgent is that kids spend six-eight hours in school every day. Why should their family life be ruined by two to five additional hours of homework?

And ultimately, the entire curriculum and set-up of our school system needs to be re-evaluated and revolutionized to conform with how a human being actually learns. One thing is for sure--people do not learn by being lectured to and repeating by rote what they can remember from the lecture on a test. Yet that's exactly how the public school system is set up to teach our children.

Which brings me to the interesting portion of this post -- my conversation about all the above with the principal of my daughter's middle school in Sherman Oaks, CA.

If you want to speak with your child's school principal, you make a phone call, then leave a message, and eventually you may speak to him or her. In my case, the principal called me! We had a nice talk, and we were in total agreement.

He is unhappy that the system is geared towards "teaching for tests," in other words, making sure students get high test scores so the money keeps funding in from the state and federal coffers to the local school. He agrees with me
about too much homework intruding in family life--especially repetitive math problems. And he says his hands are tied as much as mine to make changes.

I initially thought the principal's phone call would revolve around his explanation of why the schools are set up as they are, and how this was good for children. I was gratified that his end of the conversation was the exact opposite--he agreed that kids are set up to fail, average achievers are discouraged from creatively branching out, and a high percentage of teachers and parents--both sides of whom are ignorant about the subject--think a lot of homework is better for the student. He told me of every 3 parents like me who complain about too much homework, 2 parents think it's just fine as is or that there isn't enough homework!

My daughter still has too much homework, she gets all A's (I personally don't care about grades or tests, but she likes the A's), and she still wants to stay in school. She's as tough as the system itself!

Why did the principal phone me in the first place? He called me because of a letter I wrote to the Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The LAUSD serves around 700,000 students, has around 45,000
teachers, 38,000 other employees, and a budge of roughly $13.6 billion.

Here's the letter I wrote to Ray Cortines,
Superintendent of LAUSD (the vitriol is self-explanatory):

January 30, 2010

Mr. Superintendent:

Once again my dinner was unnecessarily interrupted by an annoying recorded phone call from you to report about a report card regarding school's performance. Who cares!

It isn't enough my daughter attends Millikan for 7 hours a day, and then has an average of 3 to 5 hours homework per night, and at least 12 hours over each weekend--that's AVERAGE!--but you or someone in the school also send out recorded messages which are either not urgent,nor meaningful, to my daughter's education.

Today is a beautiful Saturday on which my daughter should be outdoors, playing with friends, or having some recreation not involved with indoor school paperwork homework. Instead, she is doing repetitive math problems, a science report she already did in December but has to add to, and other busy-work homework.

If I have to quote you the studies done through the years which prove that the amount of homework a student does is NOT commensurate with his or her achievement in school, or career, then you have a huge gap in your back ground as an educator.

The lack of social interaction due to homework assignments; the immense pressure exerted on students because teachers act more like prison guards than educators, putting utter fear into each student about turning in homework assignments on time; teacher and administration accent on standardized tests which score how a school compares in terms of test scores with other schools; the "tone" of collusion of the LAUSD that all of this is better for our students--these aspects of my daughter's experience in school show a tremendous failing on the part of administrators, and teachers, in understanding of how children learn.

I don't believe this one letter will change any of the amazing damage the policies regarding homework is doing to students.

But I do know that my daughter is an exceptional, better-than average, bright student who is inundated with unimportant busy work homework. So how does a student who doesn't have my daughter's capabilities and acumen even keep up?

No wonder I see so many youngsters throwing up their hands, giving up, and dropping out. Maybe it's time you reassessed this homework barrage. It's wrecking social and family lives.

David Goldenberg

ps: I just got another recorded phone call at 6:30 PM Thursday,Feb 4. 2010, informing me that tomorrow is a minimum day and that Monday is a regular day. this was an wasted phone call and a waste of my time. The school and your district has notified parents already of this information. These phone calls are intrusive.

BUT--if I choose not to receive these phone calls, I have been informed that some of your information is ONLY delivered by phone. So I must continue to be a victim of LAUSD intrusion and incompetence.

After this venting, I didn't care who contacted me or not, because I don't believe in this circumstance one voice can make a difference--which goes against everything I ever say or teach about speaking out against injustice and

So I did receive a response:

Dear Mr. Goldenberg,

I apologize for interrupting your dinner. I am trying to be transparent and communicate with parents. I receive complaints that I do not communicate enough with parents, and your complaint is that I communicate too much with parents.

Nevertheless, I do believe that there should be time for play and enjoyment for young people. I have shared your email with the principal and local district superintendent and I have asked them to get in contact with you directly
regarding the homework policy.

Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to communicate with me.

Ray Cortines

Nicole Elam-Ellis
on behalf of Ramon C. Cortines
Office of the Superintendent

Two items come to my mind upon reading this email from Mr. Cortines:

1 - when someone in authority complains that whatever he or she says or does always pleases some people and rankles others, it's time to get another job. I
knew about this when I hit puberty and don't need the head of my child's school district to remind me.

2 - How does Cortines know I have a busy schedule? That's a huge assumption, and a smear against me being bothered by his intrusive phone calls. Busy or not, I don't like having my time wasted for anything, especially when it's done on purpose.

Nevertheless, that letter lead to the the principal's phone call. And despite the positive tone and discussion between the principal and me, my now assured assumption is that nothing will come from my letter or phone call to change the rotten public school system in this country. I didn't expect it to anyway, but I always like to add one more "weight" to the side of the scale in favor of rationality, in case it could matter.

And in case I wasn't sure about my hopeless assumption, here's an email exchange between me and Roger Schank about the school system, homework, and correspondence from the school district (and my trust and admiration is on the side of Mr. Schank, along with hope after all!) :

Dear Mr. Schank --

I really just want to say you are a tremendous inspiration for me, as someone who has been educated (might as well read tortured...) and has many untutored reservations about how our children are being treated in school.

I have a daughter who is inundated with homework,is one of the top students of her class (out of 650) in 7th grade, and can't see daylight because she fears the system. She also gets all A's (as if that matters to me!!!--only to her) but they've got her, if you know what I mean--they've got her right by the cinder blocks that make up her schools walls.!!

Anyway--I am not an expert in education, and when her principal called me the other day subsequent to the letter I wrote (Not very diplomatic--I was pissed can you tell?) to the LAUSD superintendent who is on the "take" as board member of a company that sells textbooks to the's a mess...[Cortines has since gotten out of this conflict of interest]

The principal agreed with me (essentially you--since I only have your quotes and studies as a back ground to me) and said it was because of "No child left behind."

Anyway you know all about this.


David Goldenberg

Roger Schank's Response:

The system is very hard to fight and getting worse every day; my advice is get her out of school; how to do that is another question; we will be offering a new virtual high school from a school here in Florida open to students anywhere if you want to try that option


So there it is--good advice, hard to take. Public school structure needs a revolution in the US. Our legacy is at stake.

There are examples of what really works. Parents have to take note and become informed--unlike most of my children's friends' parents who shrug their shoulders and talk about how much homework they had when they went to school, or how math is good for the brain. My accountant can't even do math.

Maybe if I drank the fluoridated water supply like everyone else, I wouldn't mind so much either...

...At the head of this post--The top photo is a prison, the brick building is a school.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Short Sound Bites & Jack Benny

We've all learned for years about the "sound bites" that sprinkle the news on TV and radio. Anyone under 20 now reads and thinks in even shorter "bites" due to the contractions of texting and Twitter. If you can't speak your piece in 140 characters or less, you're not worth hearing.

For those who suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, this shortening of the pay-attention span is a good thing. Since I may be one of those (at 60 years of age now, I was too young to be diagnosed waaay back then), the sound bite delivery works for me. It just doesn't happen to be illuminating or enlightening, but the basic info is there.

Although I still read long articles, and even books (I hate to brag), but I have to retrace sentences or even paragraphs at a time often to cover up for where my thoughts wandered.

But I digress (naturally-that's my ADD)--how far back do you think this contraction of information started? I can't answer that, but I was surprised to see the following story about Bob Newhart, now 80 years old, in the Los Angeles Times, and about how he had to shorten his stand up comedy stories over 45 years ago because people's attention span at that time had dwindled!

Newhart says he learned comedy from the best, especially Jack Benny, with whom he became close friends.

"I would watch the Sullivan show, the Paar show and 'The Steve Allen Show,' but I would watch the comedians clinically," he says. " 'Why did they use that word? I understand where they are going.' For a comedian, there is nothing better than watching another great comedian."

Another classic routine from his first album featured Abraham Lincoln being coached by his press agent before giving the Gettysburg Address.

"Abe Lincoln came out of a book by Vance Packard called 'The Hidden Persuaders,' " says Newhart. "It was a book about subliminal advertising. I read the book and somehow I made a connection, because all comedy has a connection and an association with something else."

It was Benny's favorite routine. "I was at the Crescendo on Sunset and Jack came in with Mary [his wife] and George Burns and Gracie Allen. They came back afterward and Jack said, 'If we are ever in the same city and I'm in the audience, finish whatever bit you are doing and do Abe Lincoln.' "

Fast forward a few years and Newhart is winding up his engagement at the Palmer House in Chicago. "He's about to open there and he's in the audience. So I do Abe Lincoln. Jack comes back afterward and says, 'You left that out, you left this out. . . .' He was absolutely right. I had tightened it because of the attention span of the public. It was around the time of 'Laugh-In,' and I could tell in Vegas that you couldn't do eight-minute routines anymore. You had to do it in about five minutes."