Category Archives: Current Affairs

Why the Internet Was Created

So that people like William Kamkwamba could inspire the entire rest of the world.

This is awesome both in the "too totally cool" sense of the word I absorbed into my pores as a teenager in the 80s and in the old, non-slang sense of inspiring awe. William is a 19-year-old in Malawi, and this is his windmill blog. He grew up in a village with no electricity, in a house lit by pungent paraffin candles. He had to drop out of school for five years because his family couldn’t pay the fees. But just because William couldn’t take classes didn’t mean he stopped learning:

During that time I decided to try to get as much education as possible
by reading as many books as I could find. An organization called the
Malawian Teacher Training Activity (MTTA), a project of USAID
contributed a large quantity of books to the primary school library
near my home. I read many of them.  One of the books I read was called Using Energy,
a primary school textbook about how energy is made. Inside the book
there were plans for a windmill. I decided to build a windmill to
provide power for my family.

Read the rest to find out what happened—and how it came to pass that William is now writing a blog.

PaperBack Swap Says “Stop the Fires”

The Missouri bookburning has become even more of a dog-and-pony show. Now the good folks at PaperBack Swap have gotten involved, mounting an effort to douse the fires:

Of course we were unhappy at the thought of all those books being
burned! So we contacted Tom to see if he would consider donating them
to our PBS [Note: that’s Paperback Swap, not Public Broadcasting Service] family. He said that he has had several contacts from
different groups asking for his books so that they don’t get burned and
has vowed to select one of the groups to receive them–he hasn’t
decided yet which one. Of course, we think that he should give all of
them to PBS!

To show Club support for the idea, we have started a
petition from our members asking Tom to let PBS find new readers and
new homes for these books, instead of destroying them.

Here is the proposed plan:

Robert and/or Richard fly
to Kansas City and rent a big truck. Then we drive it back, heading
towards PBS headquarters in Atlanta, with numerous stops along the way.
At each city we visit, we would invite our members to come meet us and
take as many books as you want. All for FREE!

It’ll be interesting to see Tom Wayne’s response to this. Is his primary objective to inspire people to read more books, to boost sales, or to garner media attention? And I wonder what other organizations will jump into the ring?

Burning Books to Make a Point

A bookstore owner in Missouri is burning his book collection to "protest what he sees as society’s diminishing support for the printed word."

"This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today," Wayne told
spectators outside his bookstore as he lit the first batch of books.

Strikes me as a little like cutting off your nose to spite your face, but I suppose I see his point.

Kansas City has seen the number of used bookstores decline in recent
years and there are few independent bookstores left in town, said Will
Leathem, a co-owner of Prospero’s Books.

"There are segments of this city where you go to an estate sale and find five TVs and three books," Leathem said.

of customers took advantage of the Sunday’s book-burning, searching
through those waiting to go into the fire for last-minute bargains.

Bechtel paid $10 for a stack of books, including an antique collection
of children’s literature, which he said he’d save for his 4-year-old

"I think given the fact it is a protest of people not
reading books, it’s the best way to do it," Bechtel said. "(Wayne has)
made the point that not reading a book is as good as burning it."

Ah, so it’s not just a protest, it’s a fire sale.

Do you think Tom Wayne’s bookburning will make people think about how much (or little) time they spend reading actual books? Will any passersby be moved to go home and curl up with a classic instead of reaching for the remote control? Or will they all be looking to see if they made the evening news?

The Real Cocoa Commotion

This time they’ve gone too far.

The FDA is thinking about messing with my chocolate.

Certain movers and shakers in the U.S. chocolate industry want to

change the basic formula of chocolate in order to use
vegetable fat substitutes in place of cocoa butter, and to use milk

instead of milk.

The FDA is considering relaxing the current rules that require chocolate manufacturers to use a certain percentage of cocoa butter in chocolate in order to call it chocolate on the package. (Under currect regulations, even white chocolate must contain a certain percentage of cocoa butter in order to be labeled by that name.) This FDA is considering this because Big Chocolate is asking it to. It seems the Grocery Manufacturers Association has petitioned the FDA to change the chocolate standard, and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association is on board. They’re calling the move "thinking outside the chocolate box," according to an LA Times article.

Hershey Co., which supports the Grocery Manufacturers’ petition, said
the standards were created decades ago and should be modernized.

By adopting the proposal, the FDA would be providing "flexibility
to make changes based on consumer taste preferences, ingredient costs
and availability and shelf life," said Kirk Saville, spokesman for the
Hershey, Pa.-based company.

It’s worth noting that not all chocolatiers are in favor of the move. Some of the smaller manufacturers, such as good old See’s Candies, oppose the change, and they are encouraging consumers to add a voice to the conversation.

The FDA has been holding an open-comment period this month, and they just extended the period to May 25th. So if you have an opinion, now’s the time to speak up. Personally, I don’t care what they put in their candy as long as the package explains that the brown stuff isn’t real chocolate. I want to know that when I buy something labeled "chocolate," it’s real chocolate, full of cocoa buttery goodness. Do you know—I learned this when I was doing research for The Cocoa Commotion ten-odd years ago—that the fats in cocoa butter are of a sort that causes chocolate to slide over your teeth rather than cling to teeth and cause tooth decay?

Candyblog, my favorite source of confectionary news, is holding a raffle to encourage people to talk to the FDA. Since the public-comment period was extended by a whole month, I’m guessing that means the FDA is hearing from a lot of consumers on the issue, and that’s great. If you love chocolate, real chocolate, speak now or forever hold your piece of mockolate.

The WSJ Has Left Me Speechless—Almost

From The Wall Street Journal Online:

The rise of digital entertainment has upended whole
industries, from Hollywood to the music business. Now it’s striking at
a touchstone of the American family: the allowance. Kids are pouring
money into things that can’t be bought with cash — music downloads,
cellphone ringtones and online videogames. JupiterResearch estimates
teenagers spent $3 billion online last year alone. In many families,
the upshot has been the demise of the weekly cash dole that parents
have long used to teach kids financial responsibility and keep them
from busting the budget.

Instead, "giving the kids their allowance" now often
entails untangling a complex web of electronic transactions. It means
figuring out which sibling blew $29.99 to download Season 4 of "South
Park" on iTunes and getting someone to fess up for charging those Jay-Z
ringtones to mom’s cellphone bill. Some parents find themselves taking
on the role of bill collector and dunning their kids for reimbursement,
while others are throwing up their hands and giving up on spending
limits altogether.

Okay, this paints a picture of a world so different from mine that I hardly know where to begin. I don’t have teenagers (yet), and I don’t have kids who are into ringtones or have any clue what South Park is. The only person in this family who has paid money to download a ringtone is, ahem, the mother. (A Green Day song to ring when Scott calls me, if you’re curious.)

But come on. Come on! Really? Kids are racking up e-bills and parents feel helpless to stop them? These kids are getting credit card numbers from somewhere. Surely their parents possess enough wit to figure out how to keep the cash card numbers out of their children’s keyboarding fingers.

Thirteen Cars

What I remember is September 12th. Beanie had a doctor’s appointment in Queens, so I was driving west on Long Island, staring at the distant smoke that still rose in heavy plumes where the Towers had been. They were ghost towers now, made of smoke and ash. On the way out of my neighborhood I had to pass our town’s train station. On any other weekday it would have been packed full at that time of day, but on this day it was almost deserted.

Later I learned that there were thirteen cars left in the parking lot of that train station after everyone else finally made it home on that terrible day. Thirteen cars. Thirteen dads. Thirteen holes in the hearts of families like ours.

Beanie is five and a half years old now. If her dad had been one of those thirteen drivers, she would not remember him. There would be no Wonderboy and no Rilla.

I don’t know their names, any of them, but today I am thinking about those thirteen men who parked at the station one morning just like any other, and didn’t get back in their cars at the end of the day. Those men, and their families, and those thirteen empty cars.

Edspresso: Debate Over Standardized Testing

Edspresso has had an ongoing debate about standardized testing all week. Dana Rapp is not a fan of testing; Richard Phelps is. I’ve been following their discussion with great interest.

Says Dana Rapp:

"Before I moved to Vermont in 2002, I lived in Ohio where standardized
tests and national frameworks created environments where recess was
eliminated, teachers’ salaries were linked to test scores, children
became ill during testing, teachers’ job satisfaction waned, and,
ironically, less appeared to be learned."


"Testing is a booming market where companies like McGraw-Hill and
Harcourt-Brace are reaping record profits with the sale of the
textbooks, tests, practice tests, and improvement kits.
Schooled-to-order children force-fed on scripted curriculum also
benefit big business. As testing proceeds to earlier grades, even
kindergarten, CEO’s and industrial “leaders” can rest even more assured
that future employees will not have the skills, knowledge,
dispositions, and collective consciousness to recognize and act to
change disparities of wealth, loss of jobs, lack of health care, and
corporate corruption in the organizations in which they work."

He avers that standardized testing has "dehumanized" schools and has led to an increase in "sales of anxiety, depression, and attention drugs for children."

I am none too keen on standardized tests myself. I think the need to teach to the test can suck the joy out of learning and shift a student’s experience from connecting to cramming. Not always, not across the board, but in many, many cases. And being good at taking tests doesn’t necessarily mean you are good at thinking. Or remembering, once the test is over.

Rapp’s point about testing becoming a lucrative business is one that had never occurred to me. Interesting to contemplate.

Phelps responds with a reminder that "the U.S. Constitution grants (by deference) responsibility for education to our country’s original founding entities, the states."

"State executives and legislators have the right, and the
responsibility, to determine education policy. By implementing
high-stakes testing programs, state officials are being responsive to
their constituents, who strongly favor such programs."

Really? I’m asking seriously. I’ve never seen data on that question, it occurs to me. Are most average joes really in favor of standardized testing? Is the increase in reliance on testing REALLY a response to what the constituency desires?

You, for example. Reading this blog. Are you an advocate of standardized testing? Not all of you are homeschoolers, and I’m curious to know what you think. (I can hazard a guess as to the opinion of most home educating parents, but even there I don’t presume to KNOW.)

"The fact is," says Phelps, "standardized testing programs are an expression of
democracy. If the public was strongly opposed to them, politicians
would be, too, regardless what corporate executives might want."

Hmm. I don’t know about that. I guess it depends on what "strongly opposed" means. I don’t think this is an issue that the public spends a lot of time worrying about, and unless the public starts marching in the streets ("No more tests!"), I don’t think politicians are going to pay too much attention to what the "public" thinks.

You can read the rest of the debate as it unfolds at Edspresso.

What Is Network Neutrality and Why Should I Care?

We like our internet. We like being able to get online and clickety click click wherever we like. We pay our monthly ISP fee and then click, the World Wide Web is world-wide open to us.

Some folks want to change that.

AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, and other telephone and cable companies would like to be able to control the flow of information on the internet. Here’s how my hubby explains it:

The government is thinking about allowing Internet Service Providers to decide what websites you can or cannot go to, and who can or cannot send you emails. In other words, if this goes through, you may not be able to link to Left of the Dial* unless I’ve paid your specific ISP a fee. Otherwise I’ll get blackballed. Kinda like legalized payola.

* (Or, say, Spunky. Or FUN Books. Or even Google, if they haven’t paid up.)

Net Neutrality is the opposite of that scenario. Net Neutrality is what we’ve got now.

Here’s what’s happening:

The telephone and cable companies are filling up congressional campaign coffers and hiring high-priced lobbyists. They’ve set up “Astroturf” groups like “Hands Off the Internet” to confuse the issue** and give the appearance of grassroots support.

Congress is now considering a major overhaul of the Telecommunications Act. The primary bill in the House is called the “Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006” and is sponsored by Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Rep. Charles Pickering (R-Miss.) and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.).

The current version of the COPE Act (HR 5252) includes watered-down Net Neutrality provisions that are essentially meaningless. An amendment offered by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), which would have instituted real Net Neutrality requirements, was defeated in committee after intense industry lobbying against it.

**Case in point: the ad in my sidebar. What it calls the truth isn’t really.

We mustn’t ignore this issue. You can read more about it here and here.