Thursday, March 31, 2011

Shakespeare Lives in Topeka

Thanks to Pitchers and Poets I just read this somewhat infuriating article by Bill James (general smart guy and honorary father of modern Sabermetrics, for those of you who don't know him). Eric Nusbaum does a nice critique of the salient logical fallacies of the article, but I have my own entirely more pretentious and cultural axe to grind.  Upon doing so in the comments, I realized that I had written a blog post, so I transfered the thing over and made a couple edits and additions.  Enjoy.

Are we great at producing athletes?  Of course we are.  But to say that we don't develop great writers or philosophers or artists or whatever in our society is total and utter hogwash.  We produce a whole lot of great thinkers, and, thanks to 1) increased access to great ideas of both the past and present, 2) more sophisticated and far-reaching networks, and 3) improved social justice, I would guess that we're producing just as many if not more great thinkers per capita as Shakespeare's London.

Now, it is certainly true that we don't value great thinkers commercially as much as we do athletes, thanks to the nature of consumption of their respective products, but one need only spend a few hours in a university library somewhere to see that there's a whole hell of a lot of darn good writing going on in the world (and, hey, save the gas and spend some time surfing the interwebs or even *gasp* watching television, since a lot of darn good writing is happening both of those mediums, as well; people are writing and reading more now than at any time in history).

Is contemporary writing "great" writing?  Well, what does "great" even mean?  Doesn't a big part of Shakespeare's greatness come from the hundreds of years of cultural and academic narrative we've built around his work?  I'm not arguing against it's inherent quality, but as silly as that would be, it's equally silly to claim that no one writing today is as good as Shakespeare.  Indeed, I would argue that there might be dozens or even hundreds (or even, dare I suggest, thousands or tens of thousands) of writers today with both the natural talent and the refined sensibilities to match Shakespeare.  The reality is, we don't have the lens of history through which to look at the present, and we don't have the time to compare all of those potential Topekan Shakespeares to old Will, so it's impossible to really know.

What's more, our whole cultural paradigm has shifted.  No longer is there a single Canon of great works that everyone reads, certainly not among works produced in the last half-century.  Instead, there are sub-cultures and sub-canons.  Whereas the work of producing great literature, art, and philosophy was once concentrated in the hands of a select few masters, now that same work is distributed across vast networks of vaguely interconnected domains.  The result: umpteen great writers with talent and determination and good educations and so on, most of whom do not fail to be considered great because of the quality of their work, but because they simply never find much of an audience.  Remember, most of us had to be forced to read Shakespeare in school, anyway (and many students just read the cliff notes), and that's freaking Shakespeare.  How much more likely are we to ignore a modern writer of equal quality, but whose work is not forced down our throats?

In short, it's silly to ignore all of the vast cultural differences between Shakespearean London and modern Topeka (or anywhere else).  I'm as much a fan of the notion of something eternal in human experience as anyone, and I also happen to think that reading Shakespeare (and Bacon, and Kant, and Plato, and Hegel, and so on) is a good idea.  But you can't just call writers from before 1900 "Great" and write off modernity.  You can't claim that some seminal works of the past might be closer to capital-T Truth without acknowledging that the way in which times have changed has had a profound impact on the process of thinking, writing, the organization of society, and our notions of greatness.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Beginning the (Writing) Curriculum Writing Process

This summer, before enrolling at either UCSD or Stanford,* I'll be teaching creative writing at Punahou.  While they do have some resources for me to work with - a poetry and short story book that they usually employ in the course - the curriculum is more or less mine to write.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  Pedagogically, it's always easier to teach when the curriculum is laid out in front of you first.  On the other hand - and considering I do have some free time between now and when the course begins in June - the opportunity to actually craft a curriculum according to the principles I learned as an LDT student is exciting to me.

* Yes, my California voyage continues.  But it is coming to an end soon.  I'll be spending the next two days on UCSD's campus before flying home to Honolulu on Friday.

As Director of NALU Studies, I did have a lot of control - in theory, anyway - over curriculum.  In practice, however, three things got in the way of engaging in actual good curriculum design.  First, the turnaround from my arrival on the job and the running of our first session was about a month, hardly enough time to craft an intelligible curriculum that covered almost 100 contact hours.  Second, while I am comfortable with the scientific concepts we were teaching, I am not enough of an expert in marine biology to develop a strong, holistic set of lessons.  Third, and most importantly, rather than building from scratch, we were working from what I would say was a deeply flawed blueprint.  There were plenty of good activities in the curriculum, but no organizing principle (the same could, I suppose, be said about the organization as a whole).  The result was an aimless collection of "fun" things for the kids to do, but the learning that went on was, frankly, minimal.

So how to avoid those pitfalls in this situation?  Well, for one thing it helps to be starting from (ironically) a much stronger position.  Of my three main problems at NALU, the first is not an issue because I'll have much more time (and no directorial duties to get in the way), the second is not an issue because I'm much more comfortable teaching writing than science, and the third is not an issue because I'm largely building from scratch, with the aid and input of teachers who do know how to write good curriculum.  Which is all to say the situation is, if not ideal, pretty darn close.

In the ideal case, then, how does one go about writing a (writing) curriculum?

To begin with - and this is the most important bit, actually - it's essential to define a core purpose for the class.  As in many aspects of life, a clear and succinct and specific goal at the outset of the curriculum design process will make the rest of the work go better.  While this may seem obvious, it's harder to do than it sounds.  The temptation is very much to jump in and start thinking about all of the cool activities that fit into a creative writing curriculum, all of the interesting ways of using technology, and all of the good assignments the students can complete.

The problem is, if you start with any of those things, you lose sight of the bigger picture, and while the student might come away with any number of particular skills, you've done a poor job shaping the overall experience.  Better to pick a focal point for the course as a whole, and to ensure that every activity, technology, and assignment fits into that paradigm.  That way, students can still take away particular skills as they suit student interests and the vagaries of the high school attention span, but even the least engaged student should come away with that central lesson, an "enduring understanding" that lasts far beyond the final day of the course.

A good enduring understanding, then, is like a mission statement.  It is a concept or question sufficiently broad and deep to serve as an organizing principle for, in this case, five straight weeks of four-hour-a-day lessons.  Too much breadth and depth, however, will lead to the same disorganization that occurs without that focal point.  "What is good writing?" for example, is probably too broad a question to organize this class around, whereas "readable grammar" is too narrow and extremely boring.  Somewhere in between, there's a good enduring understanding waiting to be uncovered.

Actually, the biggest challenge, at this stage, is not finding an appropriate enduring understanding, but finding one and sticking with it.  It's all too easy to come up with concepts and ideas that are "enough but not too much."  The problem is that it becomes extremely tempting to try to tackle too many central themes in a single class.  The result is, predictably, a return to the "this lesson looks good" model of curriculum, wherein every day of the course is compelling (to the teacher, anyway), but for so many different reasons that the student's experience starts to lose cohesion.  Incidentally, this is what is wrong with most current standards: there are too many core ideas.

Once I do boil the course to its core, the next layer to apply is assessment.  How will I know that the students know what I want them to know?  This is a sticky question, and while in creative writing there are particular accepted norms for assessment, it's important to make sure that what I do fits well with what I'm trying to teach.  It's really easy to teach one thing and to test for another.  The current manifestation of the standards movement, again, often makes this mistake by asking students to learn certain material, and then testing them on how well they take multiple choice tests.  As a result, more and more schools are doing more "test taking training," which is a waste of instructional time that could be used to teach students to think.

Which is to say, the pitfalls here are not inconsequential.  Assessment is, in reality, perhaps the most important part of the curriculum design process.  Without assessment, it is impossible to know whether or not all of your cool lessons are really working, whether your students are really engaged, and whether the enduring understanding of your course is really being understood.  Good assessment design and alignment, then, will be a big part of my own work in shaping my creative writing course.

Once you've answered these two questions - 1) what do I want the students to learn? 2) how will I know that they've learned it? - the rest of the curriculum building process becomes, if not easy, at least a lot more enjoyable.  Instead of wracking your brain, trying to figure out how to fill the time, or trying to decide which awesome lessons to employ and which to cull, the process is much more, for lack of a better word, mechanical.  Look at your daily lesson.  Does it fit with the overall goal of the course?  Will you be able to tell if it sticks?  If the answers are "no" and "no," there's probably no reason to do it, regardless of how cool it is or how fun it sounds.  Basically, the process comes down to a truism: it's easier to meet your design needs when you know what those needs are.

Now, that's all well and good in the ideal case, but what about reality?  No plan survives contact with the enemy, and that is equally true in curriculum design.  In my own rather limited experience, even well-laid plans require good execution pedagogically, and require vast restructuring (to say the least) sometimes when the actual students in the class have interests and learning needs that diverge wildly from those you anticipated while writing the curriculum.  Which is not to say that writing the curriculum in the first place is a waste of time, but rather that, like any writing, it's a mistake to get too attached to what you write.  The other lesson, here, is that the enduring understanding - the core of the curriculum - is doubly important when reality sets in, because it gives shape to those on-the-fly adaptations that must be made.

I'm sure that, as this project evolves, I'll have more to say in this space, since this blog is a kind of long-term creative writing project of my own.  While I may not be able to share student work, I can assure you that - given my pedagogical biases - it's very likely I'll be completing the assignments I give, and that those assignments will end up here.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Future of Nuclear Energy

Before we get to the real problems with nuclear power, let's talk about public opinion*.  A well publicized CBS News Poll tells us the following about whether people approve of building new nuclear power plants in the United States**:

2007 - 45% in favor, 47% against, 8% unsure
2008 - 57% in favor, 34% against, 9% unsure
2011 - 43% in favor, 50% against, 7% unsure 

*Polling numbers here come from the invaluable 

**It's also worth noting that people have strong opinions about where these new plants are built.  When the same people were asked whether they approve of new nuclear power plants in their communities, responses are somewhat more reserved:

2007 - 36% in favor, 55% against, 5% unsure
2011 - 35% in favor, 62% against, 3% unsure

Don't read too much into the slight changes between 2007 and 2011 here, as margin of error is a bugbear in these opinion polls.  NIMBY is alive and well, thank you very much.  Just build that nuclear power plant over in the other part of town, thank you.

I include the 2007 numbers because they differ significantly from the more widely cited 2008 numbers.  They are, in fact, much closer the the March, 2011 results.

It would be foolish, however, to just look at polls here, as there's a definite buzz around both traditional and social media about nuclear power, and a general sense that the tide is turning politically and socially against more nuclear power.

There is no indication, however, that any major "mainstream" politician is ready to take up the anti-nuclear power banner, in chief because that would mean angering a lot of energy industry big-wigs who have a lot of say in who gets to spend more money in the next campaign.  That, of course, is a post all on its own, but it bears mentioning here.

Public opinion is our chief concern here.  Obviously the fickle masses are easily moved by sensationalism, and there's little more sensationalist than a natural disaster followed by a nuclear meltdown.  It's no wonder that Americans, in addition to hilariously buying up vast stores of potassium iodide, are feeling less sure about nuclear power.

But are they right-headed in this change of face?  Are the dangers of nuclear power really all that different today than they were a month ago?  Of course not.  Nuclear meltdown has always, and will always be, a non-negligible risk of nuclear power.  It may be exceedingly rare, but even one instance can be devastating.  No matter how safe any particular reactor is, the worst-case scenario for nuclear power is disastrous.  And that is what people are currently rallying behind.

That is takes an actual disaster to remind people of this fact is, of course, the silly part.  We humans have notoriously short memories, and as big a deal as the current situation in Japan seems, it has already lost significant momentum (in the face of a new sensational story in Libya and, of course, the triumphs of Butler and Virginia Commonwealth in March Madness).  It's only a matter of time before everyone settles down and forgets how scared they were of nuclear power in March of 2011.

I would argue, though, that it would be foolish to ignore this opportunity to talk about what nuclear power is and isn't.  Now, I'm no expert, but I know enough about chemistry and physics, and have done enough background research of my own that I feel confident putting a few important considerations forward here.  We've all seen, now, what ill can come of nuclear power gone wrong.  What ill, then, can come of nuclear power gone right?

First of all, what is nuclear power gone right?  There's little question that nuclear power is incredibly more efficient than our beloved combustible fossil fuels power.  It takes, not surprisingly, much less uranium to boil water than it does burning oil, and carbon dioxide doesn't get pumped into the atmosphere along the way.  This, however, is the first troubling thing about nuclear power: nuclear waste.  As more and more of the world's energy comes from nuclear sources, more and more waste gets produced.  What happens to this waste?  We store it in vast pools, both because it's still dangerous (check the "legacy waste" section of this Wikipedia article for a heartwarming story about contamination of an aquifer in Ohio) and because we're dealing with half-lives ranging in the 10,000 to 1,000,000 year range.


So, about 10,000 years ago there were a total of, oh, roughly zero cities in the entire world, as human beings had not yet come up with the idea of "civilization."  Let's not even talk about 1,000,000 years.

The thing is, no one is quite sure what to do with nuclear waste, exactly, and that's not really a concern for nuclear energy companies.  Why think about the future when you can think about the present?  Right now there is no question that we need power and we need it from a source other than fossil fuels.  Nuclear power already has an infrastructure, it's efficient, and it's mostly safe most of the time (except when there's an earthquake, or there's a problem with the waste storage, or if someone manages to steal some of the uranium or plutonium being refined).  And you know what, that's exactly right.  For all intents and purposes, nuclear power is what we need to do because, frankly, we've neglected other, better options* for so long that it will take too long and cost too much to replace our massive energy needs with anything else. 

*Namely solar.  Wind energy has non-negligible and often-overlooked problems beyond how hideous it makes once beautiful hills.  The chief among these is the outrageous cost of the lubricants necessary to make the things actually work.  Not only are those lubricants expensive, and not only do turbines need lots of it, but usually lubricants are, you guessed it, oil based.  Not that they have to be petroleum based, necessarily, but almost all industrial lubricants are.

Here's the real kicker though.  Nuclear energy is not a long-term solution to our problems.  I highly recommend the Azimuth Project for its collected wisdom (contributions come from a variety of scientists in a variety of fields) on general planet saving, but their piece on "Peak Uranium" is particularly important to our discussion here.  The Internet is rife with argumentation about how much uranium there is available for future energy production.  Claims range from 10 years to several billion, so obviously someone is lying for political gain.

The Azimuth article offers a simple thought-experiment, instead.  Assume we replaced all other energy consumption and production with nuclear power.  How long could our current stores of uranium support that level of energy use?  Their answer: 10 years.  70 if you count all potential, but not yet mined, sources.

Now that's not saying that there's only 10 (or 70) years of uranium available.  As we know, we're moving towards a hybrid energy world, where nuclear power plays a small role in the bigger.  But it is informative, no?  As we expand our reliance on nuclear power, we have to remember that it is not a renewable source of energy.  Even if we find more than we currently have found (something many scientists believe is likely, as there have been few large-scale prospecting efforts), and even if we also tap all available thorium and plutonium sources, nuclear energy simply cannot last forever.

Now, recall that much nuclear waste will continue to be a problem for 10,000 years.  Does 70 years worth of power - or even, if we're extra generous and double the uranium available and count thorium as a fuel source and ignore rising and increasingly industrialized and digitized populations, 400 years worth of power - justify 10,000 plus years worth of waste?  Does it not seem that the history will deem us barbaric, wanton, and, above all, extremely stupid for making that trade?

As I mentioned above, this doesn't change that we are going to expand the use of nuclear power in both the United States and around the world, nor should it.  We truthfully don't have many other options.  And that's the point: let's not simply celebrate this "solution" to our energy problems.  The nuclear age is a bitter failure on the part of human civilization to plan ahead, to think reasonably, and to act conscientiously towards its future generations.

In short, the immediate future of nuclear energy is bright, indeed, in spite of wavering public opinion.  The distant future?  That's another story.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Writing Process and Upcoming Posts

On the way to producing even something as innocuous as a blog post, there's a culling process.  Ideas have to be sifted and shifted, weighed and discarded before they make their way to the blank canvas of the input screen.  From there, they turn into the monstrosities that you read (or prudently ignore) in this space here.  Though the actual writing is something I usually do quickly, there is significant meditation, conversation, and consideration on the front end.

Which is all to say that, even though I haven't been writing very much during this visit to San Francisco, there's an awful lot to write about, and I've come up with more ideas for posts in the last couple weeks than I can possibly turn into readable entries anytime soon.  At times of inspiration, this is usually true.  It's not uncommon to run through a good dozen ideas for every one that actually becomes a post.  At other times it can be hard to generate even a single idea.

Nevertheless, I find it important to write even when I struggle to know what to write about.  Why?  Because of something I learned from my piano teacher, Todd Kelly, while I was growing up.  He once told me that, as a pianist, sometimes you're inspired and sometimes your not.  The purpose of practice, then, is to ensure that, when you are inspired, you can harness that creative energy and make your musical dreams into a reality.  It is, in short, no good imagining fantastical glissandos when your hands can't play them.

What's more, if you practice enough, it's likely that you'll find yourself being inspired more often, too.  Though I also would caution against over-specialization.  Focus on practice alone, to the exclusion of the world, might stop you from ever being inspired by, you know, the world, which is frankly more inspiring a place than a practice room.

Anyway, as you can tell, all of that is transferable to writing (or to any other pursuit, really).  If you don't slough through those ugly times when you can't think of anything to write about, and you don't want to write, and you wonder what's the point, you'll struggle to write when you do have a bright idea.  There's a kind of learning that goes on when you struggle to succeed that, I believe, fills in the cracks in the learning that comes easily.

So with that in mind, I want to expose a little bit of my own writing process by sharing a slew of ideas that I've been contemplating these last few days while zipping from museum to symphony to restaurant without a chance to even turn on my computer.  Not all of these will become posts, and those that do, I suspect, will end up very different than how I imagine them working now.  Some will turn out to not have enough meat for a full post, while others will have to be cut into pieces.  Part of the point of blogging in the first place is that it's not immediately clear which is which.  Only writing will tell.

My Decision - Not a riff on the LeBron James motif, much fun as that would be.  My current choice between attending UCSD or Stanford to do my PhD work is, as far as I can tell, the most important decision I've had to make in my life so far.  While we certainly face countless momentous decisions every day, rarely are we conscious ahead of time that any given crossroads is truly life altering.

Rough Dissertation Ideas -  This is related to the above.  In order to help make this decision, I was advised by a Professor at Stanford to run through my current top 4 or 5 dissertation ideas, and to see which school would better fit with those possibilities.

Defining Learning Sciences and Communications - The last iteration of the decision theme, this would be a high-level attempt to understand what the two programs I've been admitted to really are.  Stanford's "Learning Sciences and Technology Design" program practically demands an attempt at definition, while "Communications" is so broad and ambiguous a field that it would be valuable for me to place myself within it.

Drawing an Aging Curve - I'm fascinated and, in some ways, terrified, by the human life-cycle.  Joe Posnanski sometimes writes about athletes and how they believe they will never get worse, or, even more improbably, that they will continue to improve indefinitely.  I'm curious as to how that maps to non-athletes as well (from a theoretical and speculative perspective, anyway; I don't know the research on this stuff).

What is Art? - Inspired by the ongoing conversation Jericha and I have had here in San Francisco, I want to explore thoughts on narrative, meaning, categories, and specialization as they relate to artistic creation and artistic consumption.  Painting, music, literature, games, and so on are all possible angles.  So is - be forewarned - Schopenhauer.

Beethoven's Eroica, Part 2 - I haven't forgotten the music project, either.  Part two (and beyond) is in the works.

Darren Waterston's Clearing - Of all the art I've seen in the past week or so, there are a small set of pieces that particularly stand out to me.  This is one of them, and while it is abstract, I think it lends itself well to some layman analysis and interpretation.

Caius (sic) Marius on the Ruins of Carthage - A John Vanderlyn painting from 1807, this piece is another worth writing about.  I find it surprisingly prescient.

The Symphony from the New World Live - It may surprise you that I spent a year at Stanford without ever seeing the San Francisco Symphony live.  During this trip I've remedied the oversight with the help of Dvorák.  His most famous piece is a both very accessible and deceptively subtle and complex.  Definitely worth a listen and some analysis.  Also worth mention is the quality of the symphony and the symphony hall in San Francisco.

San Francisco (and Stanford) Retrospective - I already wrote an in situ poetic rambling about my experience of staying in San Francisco earlier in my visit, but I feel like there's still plenty more snobbish waxing I might do.

Cities and Invisible Cities - Italo Calvino is one of my favorite authors, and Invisible Cities is on my "Best Books Ever" shortlist.*  Why not, instead of just gibbering about my own experience, bring in the expert.  Of course, talking about Invisible Cities means talking about design and emotion and love and desire and meaning and civilization and religion and, well, yeah, just about everything.

* How short is that list?  Frankly, Invisible Cities might very well be on the list even if I cut it down to one.  Which gives me an idea for another post...

What Makes a Good Museum? - One last San Francisco inspired post, taking a broad view of the museums I've visited during my trip.  What makes them work (or not), from my uninformed perspective as a simple museum-goer?

Science and Optimism - A response to the eminent Joe Spotts's recent post, Science is Optimism.  I would tell you more, but I haven't actually read the whole thing yet (I've been busy, and it is tagged with "absurdly long winded posts").  Anyway, don't tell him and maybe I can get away with writing a response without reading it.  You know, kind of like everyone else on the Internet.

Watson, Computer Overlord - I did recently watch the IBM computer Watson "compete" on Jeopardy.  I say "compete" because, frankly, it completely crushed its opposition, which included two of the most successful Jeopardy contestants ever.  While the whole thing is a little sensationalist and, of course, not nearly as big a jump in computing as the IBM people make it sound, a computer that can deal with common language statements has profound implications.

Baseball Team Names - Inspired in part by a Pitchers and Poets post (which in turn was inspired by a Cardboard Connection post) about current MLB hats, I think it would be fun to do a run down of MLB team names.  There are a lot of potential angles here, but the ones that interest me most are:

1) Pure Poetry - wherein we lament the loss of the sonorous Montreal Expos and shame the atrocity that is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
2) Appropriateness - wherein the Los Angeles Dodgers don't make a bit of sense, while the Philadelphia Phillies is perhaps a bit too obvious.
3) Historical Significance - wherein the New York Yankees are as iconic as they come, whereas the Tampa Bay (Devil?) Rays can't even decide who they are.

Nuclear Power - In the aftermath of the Japan earthquake and Nuclear disaster, public opinions is quickly turning against expanded nuclear power (not that it matters, since big wigs from both major parties are still firmly in favor).  The problem is, people are changing their minds for all the wrong reasons.  Nuclear power is terrible, but not because of the threat of meltdown.  How is it terrible, then?  Let me count the ways (and, of course, we'll also count the not inconsequential ways in which it is not terrible).

The FEC vs. Citizens United - For those of you who aren't aware, the Supreme Court ruled prior to the 2010 elections that corporations could effectively give infinite sums of money to political campaigns.  The truth of the matter is, most people from both parties believe that corporations have too much influence in politics already, and that influence is only growing.  So let's talk about corporations, law, precedent, and the effort to reverse the trend.

The Man Who Arranges the Blocks - I don't know if there's a post in this, but I love it.

So there you have it, almost 20 ideas for posts.  I'd say the odds are roughly even that my next post is none of these.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lacertilian Politics

In the process of rereading (for the so-embarrassingly-many-I-can't-remembereth time) the 5-book long Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "trilogy," I stumbled across a passage I did not particularly remember, but which I think is as good a summary of electoral politics as you'll find anywhere.  It goes thus:

[A giant robot from outer space] held up a hand.
"I come in peace," it said, adding after a long moment of further grinding, "take me to your Lizard."
Ford Prefect, of course, had an explanation for this ...
"It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see."
[Arthur Dent speaking] "You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?"
"No," said Ford ... "nothing so simple.  Nothing anything like so straightforward.  On its world, the people are people.  The leaders are lizards.  The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."
"Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."
"I did," said Ford.  "It is."
"So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't the people get red of the lizards?"
"It honestly doesn't occur to them," said ford.  "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."
"You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"
"Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."
"But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"
"Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in."

Needless to say, the next time I'm accused of "wasting my vote" on a third party candidate who has no hope of winning, I think I'll refer the accuser to this passage.  At a certain point you just have to stop voting for the lizards, don't you?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Littered Streets

It's easy to forget what "urban" means when you spend enough time in a place like Honolulu.  Sure, it's a city, and sure, it has a downtown complete with massive office and apartment buildings, littered streets and homeless and/or crazy people wandering aimlessly asking for change.  Indeed, I would argue that there is very much an urban part of Honolulu.  It's just not very big.

Compare that with San Francisco, a city that is no New York or Los Angeles, but is a city nonetheless.  Living in Honolulu it is easy to forget that, in cities there is little grass, few bushes, and trees only where they are planted along the side of the street.  It's a far cry from the greenery (and, let's not forget, blue-ry) of even the most urban parts of Hawaii.  That San Francisco is one of the more environmental, progressive cities in the country just goes to show.

Perhaps the most stunning thing about being in a "real" city, however, is the trash.  There's trash everywhere, to a degree that is unthinkable in Honolulu.  Oh sure, the streets of Waikiki are often littered with cigarette butts and advertisements, but not like in San Francisco.  In Honolulu those dirty denizens of the gutters and alleyways appear as guilty children, just removing their hands from the cookie jar.  They don't mean to be there, and they'll be picked up (or, sadly, washed into the ocean) soon enough.  In San Francisco, by contrast, the garbage is at home on the street, daring you to ask it what it's doing there.  Instead of menehune, the trash is the ali'i, unapproachable and in charge.

I think, perhaps, that's because people are so much less personable in big cities.  Oh, they're friendly enough once you get them in a restaurant or cafe, or if they deliver your pizza.  On the street, though, it's a different story.  One must avert one's eyes at all times, and the friendly nod and "Howzit" that is an accepted and expected part of being a Honolulu pedestrian is noticeably absent.  Instead, walking the streets of San Francisco - or any city, I suspect - is a time to worship the trash gods littering the streets, eyes cast downward, darting from tattered magazine to used bus pass to empty plastic cup in reverence.

Don't get me wrong, San Francisco is a wonderful place.  Where Honolulu couldn't be bothered to pay for its symphony, San Francisco boasts one of the finest in the world, with multiple art museums and science museums, an amazing ballpark, and an embarrassment of great cafes and restaurants.  San Francisco, in many ways, is the cultural center of the whole Western United States, a city with quirky personality, where just about anything is allowed and freedom is not just a concept, but a reality.  Honolulu is stuffy and, ironically considering its electoral history, deeply conservative by comparison, so stuck up on its own multiculturalism that half the time it ends up being more bigoted because of it.

I do wonder, though, if maybe we've gotten too used to city life.  It's easy, in the city, to forget where food comes from, to lose track of the long pathway from farm to the dinner plate.  It's easy, also, to settle for processed, preserved, never-goes-bad stuff that eats you more than you eat it.  It's easy to ignore that the trash on the streets here, just like the trash in Honolulu, ends up in the ocean (it just takes a little longer), and becomes a part of the great pacific trash island that is perhaps the most honest symbol for humanity that we have.  Our most monumental achievement.

Again, I don't mean to sound pessimistic.  Though I don't fully know what I mean.  The truth of the matter is, it's easy to see why this place - while the rain falls on a Tuesday evening - is a place of would-be poets and idealistic politicos, a place where men and women and men and men and women and women (and anyone in between) believe in love for real.  And yet, behind all that striving and ambition of the young idealist, behind the desperation and hope of the homeless man, behind the green-washing of the grocery store and behind the bedazzled faces of the tourists (like me) there's still all that trash on the ground.  I still wonder, walking the streets of a great city - which is exuberant and desperate all at once, and everything in between - when will we learn to take care of the little stuff, much less a city?

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Grade Band Paradox

Ok, so I'm inventing a term here.  The term is the title: the "grade band paradox."  It refers to an inherent problem in K-12 curricula that no one seems to acknowledge when they're doing research, making policy, or framing standards and tests.  In reality, I'm sure I'm not the first to notice this, but it was particularly striking to me as I watched a presentation about ongoing work the National Research Council is doing along with on new standards.  One of the chief goals of these new standards is "grade bands."  In short, the science education pooh-bahs think that there should be logical, rational, cohesive progress from grade to grade, with students from all over the place mirroring each other.

The problem is this*: we are always trying to create a cohesive, comprehensive K-12 curriculum.  We want second grade to build on first, first to build on kindergarten, and the same up the chain.  High school science classes should be able to rely - in theory - on the work done in the middle school.

*We're going to ignore, for now,** that different places - like Hawaii and New York - might have vastly different cultural and environmental needs in their curricula.  A simple example is how much more vital it is to instill an understanding of coral life cycles at a young age in Hawaii, whereas the Hawaiian student will struggle to understand the equally important concepts of continental drift (for example) and the creation and erosion of mountains (like the Appalachians) and how that lends itself to mining.

**We're also going to ignore that individual students might differ from each other.

Wait, that's not the problem yet.  That's just good curriculum design.  After all, wouldn't we rather have a cohesive experience for our students?  No, the problem comes from the continuous reinventing and tweaking that necessarily goes along with these efforts.  Rarely does a given set of standards really last all that long.  Or, even if the standards stay the same, the state-adopted standard-aligned curriculum changes.  Or, even if that stays the same, schools change, teachers are hired and fired, students move around...

The result is that, despite good intentions and sound principles, no student actually receives a coherent K-12 experience.  We decide so quickly that there are flaws and policy problems and teacher problems and learner problems and so on that we never actually give our comprehensive K-12 plans the thirteen years they need to run (not to mention the X years after that for the lessons to really take hold).

An example will serve to elucidate the problem:

Johnny is five years old, and will enter kindergarten this fall, in September of 2011.  As he begins at his local public school, he'll be operating under the standards and procedures of No Child Left Behind.

Come 2013, the NRC framework and new standards have been published, and the Federal Government moves to adopt them.  States slowly follow suit, meaning Johnny's elementary school makes the switch as he enters the fourth grade at the end of 2015.

After a couple of years, Johnny's home state is starting to recognize flaws in the current program, and so they do an internal revision and change testing procedures state wide.  As a result, Johnny's state (and school district) adopt a new text book and new curriculum in 2018.  Johnny enters seventh grade already having faced NCLB, the new standards, and a revision and curriculum change.

Of course, in 2018 a new President enters office with a new plan for education.  He appoints a revolutionary new Secretary of Ed who makes sweeping changes to science curricula in particular, integrating more even more technology and engineering studies than were in the NRC standards of 2013.  This process takes three years to come to fruition, and so as Johnny enters his junior year of high school in 2021, he confronts his fourth new integrated, cohesive K-12 system.

And so on.  The point being, you can't really have a grade-by-grade curricular arc when the arc changes every three to five years.  Kids in America are in school for 13 years, and radical education policy changes - or even small tweaks - lead to a disjointed pathway through the education system.

Of course, policy people don't see past the next election, nor do they see past theory and into reality.  To them, the K-12 system they approve in 2013 means that all kids in school in 2013 are receiving a cohesive curricular experience when, in fact, they are not.  Most of them will be facing, instead, yet another variation on the standards theme, a variation that throws out much - or at least some - of what they have learned heretofore.

It's hardly surprising, then, when a new system is put in place, but high school students don't seem to perform any better within a year or two, or even four, or even seven.  If the new system really works - or if it doesn't - you won't really know for at least 13 years, and there's no getting around it.

A better approach, then, would be to institute new educational policies starting at the kindergarten level, and then working up through the high school.  Unless there is a broad consensus that the current system is obviously and demonstrably messed up so badly that it ought to be thrown out (and NCLB might just be such a case), it's probably better to give students an older, but more cohesive experience than a newer, but fragmented and confusing one.

Actually, I should phrase that as a question.  I don't know which is better, and I don't know if anyone does, because generally new policy is implemented across the grades, all at once, without any regard for the experiences of students who have been in the current system, operating under its rules and its expectations and its standards for as much as a decade.  I would submit that, at some point, it might behoove us to remember the Grade Band Paradox, to remember that your shiny new K-12 framework will never be experienced by a student all the way from K to 12.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Goin' To California

Just a quick note to the effect that I'll be traveling in California for most of the rest of the month, meaning there's no guarantee on frequency of blog posts for that time.  Chances are about 50/50 that I'll actually write more during my trip, but no promises.

The purpose of the journey is threefold.  First off, I'll be presenting along with my Mom at the NSTA national conference in San Francisco.  We'll be talking about using Moodle as a tool to support learning - and especially metacognition - in the sciences.  The presentation is at the Marriot San Francisco Marquis, Sierra C room at 3:30, for those of you in the area who are either attending NSTA already or who might want to sneak in to say "hi."

Secondly, I'll be staying in San Francisco to visit friends and to spend my one year anniversary with my wife Jericha during her spring break.  We're looking forward to actually visiting all those places in the city that we neglected during my year at Stanford (neglected mainly due to the distance between Palo Alto and the city, and the workload of getting a Master's degree).

Thirdly, I'll be visiting both Stanford and then traveling to San Diego to visit UCSD (and more friends, of course).  If you recall my list of PhD applications from the fall, you'll recognize that these as two of the five* schools to which I applied.  I have heard affirmatives from both (with funding still pending from Stanford), and will be engaging in the difficult process of choosing which program to attend for the next four plus years.

*As for the other three, I've heard a no from Chicago, and have not heard from UCSC and UH.  UCSC I don't have particularly high expectations at this point, as it's late to receive a positive response from a UC school at this point, as is evidenced by UCSD's offer.  As for UH, they run on a slightly later schedule, and I likely won't hear from them until the summer.

So if I neglect to post anything for awhile, that's why.  But the Beethoven project will continue - especially now that I'm finally getting around to reading Lewis Lockwood's fantastic biography of the composer - and of course dispatches from the Golden State are likely to be forthcoming as well.  I would also recommend popping over to Pitchers and Poets, both because they recently went through an awesome redesign and because a post from yours truly is on the way.  Ok, it's not written yet, but that's what the plane ride is for.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Don't Feed the Troll

I'm sorry to do this, but I just can't hold it back.  American political discourse is such a sham, people on both sides of the alleged two-sided debate believe such nonsense that sometimes I can't help but laugh at the whole thing.  You know there's some kind of problem when the debates of the day concern who's crazier, Keith Olberman or Bill O'Reilly.  Newsflash, America.  They're both out of their minds.  Neither of them (or any of their compatriots, the Rush Limbaughs, the Chris Matthewses, the Sean Hannitys) has any interest in real discourse, in trying to do anything positive for the country or the world.  They just yell, call each other names, and pass it off as politics.  Because, hey, that's what the people will watch on the TV.

Come to think of it, maybe that's all politics is meant to be, but we can dream of a better approach, can't we?  Perhaps it's too simplistic to put it this way, but wouldn't we be better of if real people made up the meat of political discourse, and not media-magnates, corrupt politicians, or for-profit corporations?  Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that what the word "Democracy" means (from the Greek, 'Demos' meaning people, and 'Kratos' meaning rule)?

Anyway, the point here isn't to gripe about our mis-defined terms (we could spend a whole post talking about how words like "liberal," "communist," "socialist," "democracy," "conservative," and "constitution" have acquired meanings very different from their actual definitions).  No, the point is to go against my own advice.  I'm going to feed the troll.

The troll, in this case, is a man who wrote a letter that I received from one of my right-wing relatives via email.  He's one of those people who forwards five emails a day that all say "I rarely forward emails" at the top, and which contain font in at least three different sizes and at least four different colors in the body of the message.  So yeah, that's a sure sign not to take anything too seriously.  Except...  Except the people who believe these kinds of emails win elections.  Which isn't really a big deal, since at least you're putting principled crazy people (instead of the much more dangerous unprincipled sane ones) in office, but still.

This particular email is a gem, so much so that I laughed long and hard when I read it.  Now, you have to recall, I am not a Democrat, and I am not a Republican.  I'm an equal-opportunity critic of both parties, and, in fact, I'm probably all the more critical of the left than the right.  True, I am more "left wing" than "right wing," in that I believe in social freedoms like the right for gays to marry and the right to have an abortion, but economically and politically I am aligned with neither party, and don't believe that I fit along the 2-dimensional spectrum that most of us have been fooled into thinking encompasses all of political thought.

This particular email, though, comes from the right of American politics and is a harsh "criticism," if you can call it that, of Nancy Pelosi.  Now, Pelosi is about as corrupt as they come, but this fine piece takes her on in the most insane, unreasonable, and terrifyingly inaccurate ways possible.  In theory, it's by a man who is a former Assistant District Attorney named Dennis Guthrie, which makes it all the more classic for reasons which will become clear.  Without further ado, here's the email (in bold) with comments inserted.

Dear Ms. Pelosi:

I write to you out of utter disdain! You are as despicable and un-American as the traitor Jane Fonda.

Jane Fonda!  She's so despicable and un-American that she married Ted Turner!  Of course, Dennis is referring to her protest of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars and her self-described feminist ideals.  But Jane Fonda isn't really the point, here.  The point is that this is an absolutely ludicrous way to start a letter.  "Dear Ms. Person, I hate you!  You're just like this other person that I hate!"  Sounds a little like a little kid, no?

I am a soon to be 65 year-old who has voted in every state and local election since 1966. I have voted for both Republicans and Democrats alike. I have worked on campaigns for both Republicans and Democrats, white and black. I served the country that I love in Vietnam, as my son did in the Middle East . I was awarded two bronze stars. I have been involved in politics since age 6 when my father was campaign manager for a truly great American Congressman, Charles Raper Jonas, who worked for his constituents and his country, and was to be admired, unlike you.

Attempting to rebuild credibility here, because, you know, the whole Jane Fonda thing was a bit of a gamble that didn't really pay off.  So we find out that Dennis is not partisan, not in the slightest.  We also find out that he's not a racist - he's very careful to point out that he has worked on campaigns for both white and black people.

The real key to this credibility argument, of course, is that 6 year-old Dennis (soon to be seven?) was "involved" in politics because his father managed the campaign of Charles Raper Jonas (can we talk to his parents about that middle name?), who worked for his constituents and his country, and was to be admired, unlike [Nancy Pelosi].  Let's talk about how tortured this sentence is.  Wait, let's not.  Just read it again.  Non sequiturs abound!  The purpose of the sentence changes no less than twice, beginning with "I've been around politics for a long time," transitioning to "Charles Raper Jonas was a good congressman," and finishing with "You're a scumbag!" Bravo, good sir.

You obviously haven't read the Constitution recently, if ever, the Federalist Papers, or even David McCullough's book on John Adams.

Oh my.  Cue music...  One of these things is not like the other.  Let's see, key documents for a member of congress to read... 1) Constitution, check.  2) Federalist Papers, check. 3) David McCullough's book on John Adams, check?  Now don't get me wrong, I'm guessing that McCullough's book is very good.  He's a two-time Pulitzer winner, and John Adams is one of those winners.  But that still doesn't put it in the same camp as the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, which are, you know, political treatises about the founding of the country, and not historical biographies.

Also, isn't the order wrong here?  It's weird enough that he throws in the McCullough book, but it's the "even" that gets me.  It's like saying "he hasn't read any Shakespeare, even Titus Andronicus," as if that's the one Shakespeare play everyone should read.  I mean, I can imagine Pelosi not reading the Constitution, but David McCullough's John Adams, really now.

You ought to take the time while riding around in your government provided luxury executive jet to do just that. You represent Socialistic and even Marxist principals that our founding fathers tried to avoid when setting out the capitalistic republican form of government represented by our Constitution.

Boom.  This is the best part of the whole thing, right here.  For a man who is, in theory, a former Assistant AD who has read John Adams (by David McCullough) and even the Constitution (see what I did there?), this is a remarkable display of historical ignorance.  Let's not even get into how non-socialist Nancy Pelosi is, and instead let's talk about Karl Marx.

Marx was not a socialist, because socialism and communism are very different, but that's not what's amazing here.  No, simple chronology is the bugbear in this paragraph.  Marx was born in, wait for it, 1818, and he published the Communist Manifesto in 1848.  The Constitution was written, as I'm sure you know, in 1787, a full 31 years before Marx was even born.  The Marxist principles the founding fathers supposedly avoided while setting up our government did not even exist - at least not in name - when the Constitution was written.  Dennis, I suppose, might argue that Marxism existed in spirit, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of history knows that the late 18th century were hardly a time of powerful labor unions.  Hell, when the Constitution was penned the French Revolution hadn't even happened yet.  Indeed, the closest thing (and they weren't particularly close) in the entire world to communism in 1787 was - you guessed it - the American colonies.  Well done, Mr. Guthrie.

We're not done with this yet, either, because Dennis lets us know that, in addition to predicting the invention of communism in half-a-century, the founding fathers also predicted the invention of capitalism.  Now, you no doubt know that Adam Smith published the Wealth of Nations in 1776, but you may not realize that he doesn't call anything "capitalism," therein.  What's more, that which is capitalistic in Wealth of Nations is critiqued heavily, as Smith laments the way that trade corporations conspire to harm their customers.  Like Machiavelli's Prince, Wealth of Nations is historically misunderstood as advocating for a certain system, whereas the works themselves are more descriptive than proscriptive.

In this particular case, Wealth of Nations has little to no bearing on the Constitution (indeed, it's unlikely that many of the founding fathers had even read the book by the time the Constitution was ratified), and the word "capitalism" or the concepts associated therewith even less.  Capitalism, as a term, didn't really come around until after Marx's own descriptive work, Capital, popularized the concept.  The founding fathers, needless to say, weren't particularly concerned with the economic system of the United States, because there weren't really competing theories at the time, and because the Constitution was meant to be a political and governmental user's manual.

The moral of the story?  Before you spout off nonsense about the founding fathers and their motivations, try reading the Federalist Papers and the Constitution first (bazing!).  You'll find the words "capitalist," "Marxist," and "socialist" absent.

I find it interesting that you and your husband are multi-millionaires with much of your fortune being made as a result of your "public service". You have controlled legislation that has enhanced your husband's investments both on and off shore. At the same time you redistributed the wealth of others. Our system of a free market economy is being destroyed by the likes of you, Harry Reid, and now our President. You ride around in a Gulfstream airplane at the tax payer's expense while criticizing the presidents of companies who produced something for the economy. You add nothing to the economy of the United States , you only subtract therefrom.

Ok, the Gulfstream thing is one of those wonderfully false Internet rumors that floats around.  You know, like Barrack Obama being a Muslim born on Neptune who's secretly collaborating with the Cylons in preparation for their invasion.  As for the rest of it, well, I don't really know anything about Pelosi's husband, but I do know that, by the nature of the congress, Pelosi "controlled" nothing.  It's the classic "Great Man" or, in this case, "Great Woman" theory of politics rearing its ugly head again.  The idea that any one person is responsible for legislation of any kind is absurd, given the several hundred members of congress and the several thousand staffers, lobyists, corporate donors, special interest groups, and so on that make the country go.  To say that Pelosi "redistributed the wealth of others" is more than a bit of an exaggeration.

As for our free market economy being destroyed, well, I'd argue that Nancy Pelosi is only a small part of that picture as well.  Even if we agree that a pure free market works, I would argue that what we have now is a kind of reverse-socialism.  That is, common people are taxed so that our money can be given to huge corporations (which pay no tax at all) in the form of bailouts and subsidies.  Is Pelosi a part of that?  Yes, but only because all elected politicians - in order to be elected - almost have to be corrupt.  With the Supreme Court ruling last year that Corporations can give unlimited, anonymous funds to political campaigns, it is nearly impossible to find a congressperson or senator who has not been bought and sold already.

Blaming Pelosi (or any single congressperson) for that is a bit much.  Really, the blame rests with no one person, but the willful ignorance of the American people - who refuse to see that their country is not, in fact, run by their elected representatives - is a major part of the problem.  It's no wonder that we've begun to cycle wildly - the people elect Democrats, find them unresponsive, and then elect Republicans, only to find them equally unresponsive, and so on.

Anyway, bring us home, Dennis baby, with some personal attacks.

I would like to suggest that you return to the city of fruitcakes and nuts and eat your husband's canned tuna and pineapple produced by illegal immigrants and by workers who have been excluded from the protection that 90% of the legal workers in the United States have.
Another meandering sentence-with-many-meanings.  To wit:
1) San Francisco has gay people in it, and is thus morally reprehensible (unlike my state of North Carolina, where everyone is straight, white, male, and Christian; at least everyone worth mentioning).
2) Eat some canned tuna and pineapple, bitch!  Seriously, is this some kind of innuendo I don't know about?  "I'm taking my talents to South Beach, where I'll be eating my husband's canned tuna (wink wink)."
3) Damn Mexicans, how dare they try to make a better life for themselves!
4) Honestly, I'm not sure what Dennis is getting at here.  Is he saying that illegal immigrants deserve protection?  Or is he saying that illegal immigrants are robbing other Americans of legal protections?  Or what?  Whatever his point, he's sure worked up about it.

I await your defeat in the next election with glee.

I suppose this means, while he waits for Pelosi to lose in the next election he'll be watching a lot of Glee, starring Lea Michele, Jane Lynch, and Matthew Morrison.  I haven't seen the show, but I hear it's very popular.

Don't ever use the term "un-American" again for protesters who love this country and are exercising their rights upon which this country was founded. By the way, while I served in the Army, I was spit on by the same type of lunatics who support you and who you probably supported in the 60's and 70's. You are an embarrassment to all of us who served so that you would have the protected right of free speech to call us un-American. But at the same time, I have the right to write you, to notify you, that I consider you to be un-American, as do the majority of the people of this formerly great country. You are a true disgrace to most of the people who served this country by offering themselves for public service in the United States Congress.

Just when you thought we were done, Dennis pulls out the classic "and another thing" on us.  The best part here is that he criticizes Pelosi for calling town-hall protesters "un-American," and then proceeds to criticize anti-war protesters for the exact same thing.  Does the irony know no bounds?  I mean, let me make Dennis's argument in this paragraph clear:

1) You can't criticize people for protesting because that's the 1st amendment.  They have a right to do it.
2) How dare those protesters in the 60s and 70s rally against the Vietnam War!  That's un-American.  They shouldn't have a right to do that!
3) I, however, have a right to free speech, which is why I'm writing you this letter.  I'm a little confused about what I'm saying, but that's ok, because I can always wrap it up with:
4) You're a scumbag!

Also, let's talk about this "formerly great country" bit.  What does that mean?  Are we talking about the 80s?  I'm guessing not, because there was even more hand-wringing then than there is now.  No, I'm guessing Dennis means the 1950s, back when black people and white people couldn't eat in the same restaurants, back when women weren't allowed to have jobs in science, technology, or mathematics, back when gay men and women were liable to be beat up or killed if people found out about them, back when people lived in constant fear of nuclear war with the USSR...  Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to say the past was awful - rather, it was like any other time, filled with good and bad, filled with justice and injustice, filled with love and hatred.  Humanity is complicated, history is complicated, and the sooner we acknowledge that the sooner we can start having real conversations instead of just yelling at each other.

I feel certain your aides will not share this letter with you, but I intend to share it with many.

Cue passive-aggressive one-liner... And we're done.

Dennis L. Guthrie 

In the end, you have to love the "Sincerely," don't you?

OK, I know what you're thinking:  "But Paul, isn't what you're doing here exactly what Dennis is guilty of?"  Yes, and no.  The purpose of doing this is, in part, the fun of it (I read too much Fire Joe Morgan back before it went silent).  But more importantly, the purpose is to show that there's a wrong way to have political discourse, and that this wrong way is all-too-prominent.  Dennis Guthrie, believe it or not, means well.  It's just, he doesn't know how to have a conversation, how to engage in a dialogue.  He's become a part of a political discourse that's all rage and anger and hatred - from Democrats and Republicans alike - and that will not get anyone anywhere.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Listening to Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, Part One: A Revolutionary Opening

Does music have meaning outside of its context?  That is, when a piece is so revolutionary, so very different from everything that came before it, can we hear that difference, or do we have to be trained to hear it?  Even with training, even with a knowledge of what came before, doesn't the "new" piece still sound to us like it is decidedly old, that is doesn't even begin to capture the things that came later in the composer's career, much less the things that came after the composer's death?

Those are some of the questions I struggle with when trying to explain Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.  It's unlike anything written before it.  The first movement alone takes about 15 minutes, making it as long as some Haydn and Mozart symphonies in their entirety.  The second movement is another 15 minutes.  The thing as a whole takes over a quarter hour, so long that Beethoven advised it not be performed late in a concert program lest the audience become restless.

Length, however, is not always indicative of a revolution.  War and Peace is a long book, but it doesn't feel like a particularly revolutionary book as you read it.  Don't get me wrong, it deserves its reputation as a great work, and it is extremely ambitious in its storytelling, but it did not fundamentally alter the way that books were written, as far as I know.  The Eroica, on the other hand, well, it did fundamentally alter the writing of music.  Or, if it did not alone, it was the capstone of a set of works that did.

Can you hear what makes it so outrageous, so different, so offensive, so intense, so awesome?  Here's a rendition from the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, conducted, at the time, by the incomparable Gustavo Dudamel.

There's a lot in this piece, too much to talk about all at once, so let's start with the beginning.  The big, fat, E-flat Major chords that open the piece are perhaps a tad jarring, but it's not unusual for a composer to signal what key he's in to start off a piece.  No, what's really odd is what comes after those two chords.  Take a listen to the first few seconds of the piece again.

The melody that Beethoven introduces here doesn't sound particularly odd to our modern ears, but it would have been jarring in its time.  What's more, it was uncharacteristic even for Beethoven.  Why?  Because it has a flatted seventh (Db or C#) in it.

After the two chords, what you hear is an outline of the Eb Major triad: Eb - G - Eb - Bb - Eb - G - Bb.  That is followed by a chromatic descent to the 7: Eb - D - C#.  This is jarring because that C# is not a part of the Eb Major scale.  It destabilizes the key, making Eb feel like a dominant, and not a tonic.*  As a result, we're pulled away from the tonic, and you can hear it quite clearly in the clip; it sounds incomplete, it sounds like it's going somewhere, and it's not entirely clear where.

* Quick theory 101 lesson: tonic is, generally, the key the piece is in.  It feels restful and complete.  Think of a simple piece like Mary Had a Little Lamb, or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  The tonic happens at the very beginning and ending of those pieces.  The dominant, meanwhile, is usually the chord on the 5th of the tonic.  It feels unstable and pulls you back towards the tonic.  Try singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and stopping on the "how I wonder what you" without singing the "are."  That "what you" is the dominant.

Analyzing the experience of hearing this opening harmonically is only a beginning, however.  More important is the meaning: what is Beethoven trying to accomplish with this C#?  This symphony is called - by Beethoven himself - Eroica, "Heroic."  Famously, it was originally written for Napoleon Bonaparte, but rededicated after the French Consul declared himself Emperor to Beethoven's chagrin.  Is this a Napoleonic symphony, then, a story of the French Revolution?  Or is it, perhaps, meant to stand for an ideal instead?  Was it ever, really, about Napoleon at all?

Those are questions we can't answer yet, and some of those questions may not be easy to answer from the music alone.  Instead, we need to dive into the narrower questions posed by the infamous C#.  What kind of heroism is this piece going to be about?  Martial heroism?  Political heroism?  Populist heroism?  Artistic heroism?  And what does it mean to have the tonic - the core of the piece - destabilized so early?  Perhaps the heroic is a result of instability.  We, as listeners, are invited to understand musically the context in which heroism takes place.

On the other hand, some listeners want to make the opening theme stand for the hero, and not heroism or the hero's situation.  In that account, the C# is perhaps some kind of Greek tragic flaw, hubris, or a failure of self-awareness.  If the piece is about Napoleon, there could be a kind of accidental truth to this interpretation: while it was written before Napoleon's ambition became clear, the piece might nevertheless anticipate his arrogance.

For my part, I do not think there is meant to be a single correct interpretation.  Music is not, after all, denotative.  There is, however, intent.  Beethoven intends, regardless of specific imagery we apply to his C#, to make us uncomfortable, to make us wonder what is going on.  This effect is compounded by the meter of the piece.  The opening movement, here, is in 3/4, despite its "military march" feel.  Indeed, the opening two chords are wholly ambiguous - they could just as easily be in 4/4 - and it is only with the introduction of the very theme that destabilizes harmonically that we realize our rhythmic expectations have been violated as well.

Regardless of specific interpretation, it is worth recognizing that the movement as a whole is very warlike.  Particular motifs and themes suggesting a battlefield are frequent.  For example, there's this "galloping horses" motif:

And a passage many liken to cannon fire:

This latter passage is particularly notable thanks to the extended "4/4" at the end of it.  After a series of "1-2-rest, 1-2-rest" chords we hear a bunch of big fat "bam rest bam rest bam rest" chords that betray the time signature.*  This is a particularly warlike device, because it shakes the rhythmic foundations of the piece.

*This moment of undermining the time signature is worth keeping in mind as we progress, because it is a tool Beethoven will use in every movement of the symphony.

These motifs we'll come across as we progress through the first movement, but for now they can lend a hand to our understanding of the opening.  In short, there is a revolution afoot.  What kind of revolution?  It's hard to say.  Certainly a musical one - for nothing quite like this symphony has ever been written before - but perhaps a political one and a spiritual one as well.  What that looks like, how music can convey that or - perhaps more to the point - help to create that is the question that we'll be confronting throughout this series of posts.  For now, it's sufficient to recognize that the opening of the Eroica sets us up to go on a long journey.  The destabilization of the tonic here is not something easily resolved, and it may take quite some time to put everything back together again.  Indeed, as we wrap up the first movement (in the distant future) we'll have cause to ask whether or not the questions raised by our C# have really been resolved: can you return to the tonic - to the way things were - after such a piece of music?  Is the hero of this piece redeemable?  Is heroism itself?  Is there such a thing as a great man in an egalitarian society?

Beethoven, in his idealism, believed that Napoleon would bring about a Europe filled with equality and freedom and opportunity.  But there's more than just boundless optimism in the Eroica, because Beethoven recognized the innate contradiction in Napoleon's project: forcing equality on the world.  He believed the General could do it, but his symphony - from its very outset - is very much aware of the challenge.  That Napoleon himself did not live up to Beethoven's expectations - or, more properly, his dream - does not change the very nature of the project.  If anything, it only reinforces how extremely difficult it is to accomplish what the Eroica suggests: transforming a society for the better.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  For now, we've set off on the heroic journey of the 3rd Symphony.  It's not always pretty, and it's not always easy, but it is exciting and stirring and intense.  The fear and indignation with which many of Beethoven's listeners - those disciples of Haydn and Mozart who believed music should be just so - was countered by the excitement and expectation of those listeners who could tell that this was a new, and altogether more powerful kind of music.

If powerful, then also dangerous, perhaps?  That's another question we'll have to pursue as we go along.  Before we get there, however, let's first learn how to hear the optimism, the idealism, the joy, along with the frustration and the violence in the Eroica.  Without hearing those things, first, the question of danger and power is meaningless.