Teachers, leave them kids alone

On my home planet, everyone learns basic algebra. Earth seems to be different.

People are actually discussing whether to remove algebra requirements from community college curricula. They don’t seem to be discussing the elimination of basic reading and writing skills, at least not yet. It seems to me, though, that passing algebra ought to be a really low hurdle to leap, but apparently it isn’t.

Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree — particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads.

It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. So if you’re not a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, math), why even study algebra?

I was a first generation undergrad. I didn’t take algebra in college…because I took it in high school. If you were on the college track, you took it early, because in your junior or senior year you’d take trigonometry/pre-calc. If you were an advanced math student (I wasn’t), you got calculus done right there in public school. 16 year olds can learn algebra. It really isn’t that daunting.

“Why even study algebra?” is a stupid question. If you’re not a history major, why study history? If you’re not an English major, why do you need to learn to write good? If you’re an American, why bother learning a foreign language? Algebra is a kind of minimum standard for elementary numeracy.

This interview with Eloy Ortiz Oakley is appalling in many ways.

You are facing pressure to increase graduation rates — only 48 percent graduate from California community colleges with an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year institution within six years. As we’ve said, passing college algebra is a major barrier to graduation. But is this the easy way out? Just strike the algebra requirement to increase graduation rates instead of teaching math more effectively?

I hear that a lot and unfortunately nothing could be farther from the truth. Somewhere along the lines, since the 1950s, we decided that the only measure of a student’s ability to reason or to do some sort of quantitative measure is algebra. What we’re saying is we want as rigorous a course as possible to determine a student’s ability to succeed, but it should be relevant to their course of study. There are other math courses that we could introduce that tell us a lot more about our students.

No one decided that it was the only measure. People looked at the progression of math concepts that were taught — algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus — and set the standard on the most introductory of the math skills. Students who come into college not knowing algebra are totally screwed if they want to enter any STEM field, but even if they’re doing a non-STEM major, I’d argue that everyone ought to have that minimal level of math literacy.

I don’t see the problem here. If “relevance to their course of study” is the standard, I could see biology majors insisting that they don’t need to know psychology or literature (they’d be wrong). A college degree should not be a narrow certificate that says you’ve been exposed to a thin slice of knowledge, but here we are, arguing that it’s all about getting a job.

A lot of students in California community colleges are hoping to prepare for a four-year college. What are you hearing from the four-year institutions? Are they at ease with you dropping the requirement? Or would they then make the students take the same algebra course they’re not taking at community college?

This question is being raised at all levels of higher education — the university level as well as the community college level. There’s a great body of research that’s informing this discussion, much of it coming from some of our top universities, like the Dana Center at the University of Texas, or the Carnegie Foundation. So there’s a lot of research behind this and I think more and more of our public and private university partners are delving into this question of what is the right level of math depending on which major a student is pursuing.

Look. We get transfer students from community colleges at my university all the time. They do not and should not get a free pass on courses that our full four year students have to take — we don’t set standards arbitrarily. They need to take certain lower level courses because they’ll need those skills in upper level courses. If the community colleges set lower standards, it just means that they’ll have wasted two years as the four year colleges tell all those students entering in their third year that sorry, you have to go back and take all these courses your CC decided were unnecessary.

In a perfect world, students would learn algebra in high school; students who struggled or were not mature enough to engage in disciplined learning (which is a real problem) would attend a CC to get the prep they missed in high school, and the four year colleges would be able to assume a basic skill set on all entering students. If CCs are going to punt, what next? Do we just get unprepared students who enter college with 60 credits of unchallenging courses that do not prepare them all for the major curriculum?

And there are people writing about concepts of numeracy that may be different from what people have been teaching all this time. Do you have in mind a curriculum that would be more useful than intermediate algebra?

We are piloting different math pathways within our community colleges. We’re working with our university partners at CSU and the UC, trying to ensure that we can align these courses to best prepare our students to succeed in majors. And if you think about it, you think about the use of statistics not only for a social science major but for every U.S. citizen. This is a skill that we should have all of our students have with them because this affects them in their daily life.

I kind of agree with this — I would like to see more statistics-literacy in the general public. But this is a proposal to increase the amount of math students should know, and I don’t know how you teach statistics to students who can’t comprehend algebra. Again, there seems to be a relevance argument lurking here — if statistics awareness is good for every U.S. citizen, how can you suggest that art majors have no need of algebra? I want to see some minimal expectations for numeracy and literacy, and we don’t get there by trying to second-guess whether a student will ever find a particular fundamental skill “useful”. You just don’t know.

It’s another fermented fish sauce!

It’s amazing how often these ingredients come up in human cuisine. I have a couple of bottles of Asian fish sauces in my cupboard, it was a key element in Roman foods as garum, and what they all have in common is that they are made by taking large quantities of whole small fish and letting them ferment and liquefy into a spicy umami-rich sauce. Now I learn that Worcestershire sauce is also made by letting anchovies decay. I shouldn’t be surprised.

Although the story about how the original mixture that was made and tested is troubling. It tasted terrible, so they put the bottle away in the basement, and then years later, someone came along and decided to taste it again? When I find old leftovers I forgot in the refrigerator a few weeks before, I’m not tempted in the slightest. Maybe the problem is that I didn’t neglect them long enough, and I should let them a bit more tang, festering in the dark for a couple of years.

Dumb and dumber

Oh, crap. It’s Sunday morning, and all I need is a sermon from dumbshit Jim Carrey. It’s nice that he’s working with former prison inmates, but the most help he seems to providing is dollops of platitudes, while promoting a pernicious and ugly Christian doctrine.

Ultimately, I believe that suffering leads to salvation. In fact, it’s the only way.

No. Ten thousand times no. This is the gospel of Mother Teresa, and it does not lead to salvation — it leads to the veneration of poverty and misery and pain and death. This is why Christianity is a death cult (although, in the case of the prosperity gospel, some splinters of it are transforming themselves into a money cult, which isn’t any better).

Suffering is not a blessing. We should not look on human beings in pain and console ourselves with the thought that the more despair they experience, the more likely they are to find Jesus. We should look on that pain and do what we can to end it.

So yes, it’s good that Carrey is trying to do something to help the needy, but praising their suffering is not the way. Would he also praise cancer for bringing people closer to his god?

Probably. Because he’s a dumbshit.

This is not an accurate description of my Democratic party

Inaccurate. The Democrats would sit down, scribble up some half-assed slogan, and then they’d take a half-day off at the beach.

It is correct in illustrating the white guys ignoring the brown person with objections, though.

(Note also: if they had just gotten their asses kicked in an election, they’d also ignore the brown person and take a half-day off at the beach, so this is kind of a universally applicable cartoon.)


Ken Ham says so.


You may have read media reports and blogs that have misrepresented and/or lied about AiG’s dealings with local officials who have imposed a new city tax that places almost the entire tax burden on our ministry. Here is what we are sharing with the media when they ask us about the matter:

“Because the new ordinance passed by the City of Williamstown essentially singled out the Ark Encounter to shoulder nearly all the burden for additional safety services that will benefit the entire community and not just the Ark, and because of the ordinance’s wording concerning exemptions to the safety fee, we needed to keep our options open to protect the organization for the future. We have always said we want to pay our fair share for safety services, and believed we had made a highly reasonable counter proposal to the city council.

“It has always been our desire to be a partner in helping to grow the economy of a community that welcomed us so kindly. We are saddened that the city council did not extend the courtesy of discussing this ordinance with us before passing it and taking it public, and was not willing to negotiate further.
“We are thankful that even with over a million Ark guests who have come to Williamstown in just over a year, the number of calls from the Ark Encounter for emergency services has been quite small.”–Mark Looy, CCO

Wait. We liars have been saying that AiG didn’t want to pay the taxes imposed by Williamstown, and that they shuffled ownership of the Big Gay Wooden Box to a religious non-profit to avoid those taxes. Nothing in that comment rebuts those claims. They’re calling “tax shenanigans” keep our options open, and they’re basically admitting that they got exasperated with the Williamstown requirements and acted to protect their own interests without regard for the tax laws. So we were right! We weren’t lying!

I’m also not impressed with the objection that darn it, this safety fee will benefit the whole community rather than just AiG. I would also like to point out that the fee is to pay for safety infrastructure rather than paying out on a case by case basis, so it’s irrelevant that they’ve only needed it a few times in the past. It’s like how Republicans don’t understand what insurance is.

The future kinda sucks

We’re all going to be cyborgs who live on protein pills! Unfortunately, reality makes that less glamorous than it sounds. It turns out that Soylent is rather unpleasant, and all those happy ambitious post-humanists who got gadgets implanted under their skin are discovering some downsides. When I met a guy who’d done some biohacking and implanted magnets under his fingertips (he can feel electric fields!), I thought it was nifty — but it turns out those magnets wear out after a few years, and you end up dredging corroded bits of wire out of your flesh.

OK, maybe it’s the near future that sucks, but it’ll all be great in the 22nd century.

Can we stop fighting the Civil War?

The team behind Game of Thrones is now proposing a new show: an alternate reality series in which the South won the Civil War and perpetuated legal slavery into the present day. It might be a good show, if it can consistently show that slavery is an unforgivable evil and uses this alternate history to highlight real injustices. But do you trust them to make a socially conscious, critical analysis of contemporary America? I don’t. The people who made Game of Thrones have learned that sensational violence and sex sells. I predict many opportunities to show attractive naked black women on the auction block or serving white men while topless.

It also falls into the category of playing devil’s advocate, or “just asking questions”, playing rhetorical games with matters that affect people’s lives. That is inappropriate. To have two white guys propose this thought exercise is troubling.

But mostly, we have a dreadful track record on dealing with the Civil War’s legacy in movies. Go read that link; we’re subjected to the most awful romantic schlock about the Confederacy, which was apparently full of rugged, noble individuals who were fighting for their way of life and dealing with the aftermath of loss with dignified grace.

People still think Gone With the Wind was a great movie. I doubt that it was; I’ve tried to watch it multiple times at the urging of friends, and have never lasted more than 15 minutes before I’ve left the room.

Organizations have the right to not invite Richard Dawkins — or me — to speak

A talk by Richard Dawkins on his newest book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, was canceled by the radio station that was hosting it, KPFA, a public broadcasting station in Berkeley. Their reason:

We had booked this event based entirely on his excellent new book on science when we didn’t know he had offended and hurt – in his tweets and other comments on Islam, so many people. KPFA does not endorse hurtful speech. While KPFA emphatically supports serious free speech, we do not support abusive speech. We apologize for not having had broader knowledge of Dawkins views much earlier.

Richard Dawkins complains with, unfortunately, the kind of argument often used by the alt-right:

I am known as a frequent critic of Christianity and have never been de-platformed for that. Why do you give Islam a free pass? Why is it fine to criticise Christianity but not Islam?

Somehow, a minority community in America that is threatened with deportation by the government, is routinely condemned by talk radio and the likes of Breitbart, and that lives in fear of good Christian citizens who vandalize mosques and threaten violence (and sometimes, carry out violence) gets accused of having a “free pass”. That’s precisely the kind of blinkered nonsense that I can understand KPFA objecting to, so Dawkins is not helping his case at all. It’s also denying the fact that the New Atheists have been particularly specific in denunciations of Islam; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the newest member of the “four horsemen”, has recommended converting Muslims to Christianity, so there clearly is a hierarchy of religions with Islam at the bottom, deserving special contempt. And Sam Harris, of course, is all about anti-Islamic sentiment, going so far as to suggest that using torture and nuclear weapons against them might be justifiable. Let’s not play the wide-eyed innocent, “what, me abuse Muslims?” game. Let’s not pretend that Dawkins has never made any hurtful, regressive comments on his twitter feed, or on my blog.

CFI handles it a little better, pointing out that Dawkins has, for instance, opposed Trump’s Muslim travel ban, and that this particular talk was to be about science, so his other views were irrelevant. I suspect that it would have been a good talk that I would enjoy, since it wouldn’t contain the regressive views I’ve found so exasperating in Dawkins. So, sure, you can make the argument that Dawkins is a speaker of considerable virtue, and that he wouldn’t be flaunting his vices in this talk.

But then they go too far.

“We understand the difference between a people and the beliefs they may hold,” said Blumner, “All of us must be free to debate and criticize Ideas, and harmful ideas must be exposed. It is incredibly disappointing that KPFA does not understand this.”

I am disappointed that CFI does not understand that this is not a free speech issue. Dawkins is free to debate and criticize ideas. He’s the best-selling atheist author in the world! He isn’t oppressed or censored in any way; his books are popular, they get translated into dozens of languages, he gets to appear on television, he doesn’t have to fear that he’ll be ejected out of the country or murdered for his views (people like Maryam Namazi or Taslima Nasrin do). KPFA, as the host of this talk, has the right to decide that they’d rather not.

I’m going to agree completely with Siggy on this matter. That Richard Dawkins has some controversial, even objectionable, views does not, in some weird reversal of free speech concerns, obligate every entity on the planet to host him on demand.

People are always thinking of these issues in terms of the speaker’s free speech, but if anything, it’s about the inviters’ free speech. If speakers have a right to platforms, where are all my speaker invitations, and why isn’t anyone standing up for my free speech?

It wouldn’t even matter if KPFA’s reasons for rejecting Dawkins were totally bogus, so all the spluttering about how he isn’t really anti-Islam is irrelevant. Making it a free speech issue is just using a bullhorn to yell about how you don’t understand free speech.

Dawkins (and I) might not particularly like the idea that this rejection was made so late that it was obvious, but it is within KPFA’s rights, and it does no major harm to Dawkins. This is a case where the appropriate response is to shrug and move on.

There have been two cases in just the past year where conference organizers have contacted me, asked if I’d be willing to speak at their event, and then later written to me and retracted the offer without explanation. I’m sure it was because there are vocal members of those groups who objected vehemently to my appearance, but it was done before the final list of speakers was announced, so the change was not publicized. And that was fine, I didn’t complain, I didn’t announce that my free speech was being violated, I didn’t try to argue that their reasons for cutting me were invalid. Conferences have that right.

Why doesn’t CFI understand this?

Is this what the kids call “trash talk”?

That creationist with the chromosome argument put out another video raging about me today. It mainly consist of him declaring that I’m stupid, that he’d destroy me in a debate, but he’s not going to debate me, and that I ran away from debating him (I’d never even considered a debate with this bozo). Although if you advance to 17:10 in the video, he does do an imitation of me which is amusing.

His reply to my earlier comments is that he didn’t have the human chromosome number memorized, which is fine. I wasn’t testing him on rote memorization. More significant is that his guesses were that we had an odd number of chromosomes, which would be unusual for a diploid organism (yeah, you’re raising your hand and saying “male bees!”, but that’s a detail G Man is not ready for.)

What’s more important is that he takes a step back and tries to clarify the concept he was trying to explain. That’s good. That’s more important than the specific number, and I’m glad he could deliver a brief, crystal-clear summary of what he thinks. Of course, what he then has to do is demonstrate that he can get the concept right. So here goes G Man’s short summary of The Chromosome Argument that all of us atheists are using all the time.

What is the meat and potatoes of what I was trying to say there? I was trying to say that since tobacco had more chromosomes than human beings, then that means the next step in our evolution was to become, you know, tobacco. You know what I mean, because they have more chromosomes. That was the whole point I wanted to talk about.

Uh, no. No biologist makes that argument, as I said.

You can now ignore the video. Unless you really want to listen to him rant about destroying me. Oh, yes, and also Matt Dillahunty and Aron Ra.

It’s Christmas in July!

First it’s the gay-themed redecoration of the Ark Park.

Then, in light of the dodgy resale of the Big Gay Wooden Box to themselves to avoid taxes, the FFRF is coming down on them.

FFRF is requesting that the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority take immediate action to suspend the availability of tax rebates to the operators of the Ark and to terminate any applicable agreements it has with the Ark Encounter.

Kentucky has already responded!

The Kentucky Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet notified the operators of the Ark Encounter that it is in breach of its Tourism Development Agreement with the state. That agreement provides up to $18 million in state subsidies for the Ark project in the form of annual sales tax rebates. FFRF obtained records from the Cabinet today that include a July 18 notice sent to the operators of the Ark saying that Ark Encounter, LLC has breached the agreement following the sale of the property. The letter says that no further tax rebates may accrue as of June 28.

And with that, a whole flock of happy lawyers and accountants have got their wings. See? This is what happens when you play shenanigans with the tax system: headaches, and the sucking sound of money swirling down the drain.

Oh, and Sean Spicer has resigned.

Today was a good day.