Thursday, December 25, 2014

Longing for Peace and Justice in 2015

If a single sentence is to summarize the year 2014, it will probably be “I can’t breathe.”

Those were the fateful words a 43-year-old black man named Eric Garner managed to utter before dying when police officer Daniel Pantaleo applied a chokehold on him in Staten Island, NY, on July 17. Just three weeks later, on August 9, 2014, an unarmed 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown was shot dead by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.
Neither officer was indicted.

The protests and civil unrests that followed put America on edge as the distrust between police and people, particularly African-Americans, grew intense. Almost inevitably, a criminal named Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a black man, shot dead two police officers in Brooklyn, NY, on December 20, before killing himself.

Can there be a silver lining to these horrific events? Perhaps this: Brinsley tried to invoke the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as motivation for killing two policemen. Both the Brown and the Garner families denounced and rejected his reasoning.

Racism lurks beneath the fa├žade of normalcy in America. We have progressed beyond Jim Crow but the progress has been uneven and slow. Blacks have legitimate reasons to fear the police for reasons both historical and structural. It is a tragedy that progress in race relations in America occurs only after blacks die, mainly because it forces us to question existing laws and attempt to make them less cruel and more human.

Year 2014 has been a difficult year. Murderous organizations like ISIS went on a killing spree, beheading journalists and civilians who challenged their barbarity. In Peshawar, Pakistan, the Taliban killed over 130 children in a single horrific attack in a school.

Yet the fanatics are steadily losing ground as Muslims overwhelmingly reject them and coalition forces retake territories.

Every nation in the Middle East unfortunately lived down to their unexceptional state. None showed any imagination or daring to break out of the cycle of distrust and violence.

On December 9, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a 6000-page report on the CIA's "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques." CIA’s depravity against 9/11 detainees shocked America. Yet there was something else too: In how many countries could such a report see the light of day? America’s willingness to question itself is one of its strengths, although its capacity to learn lessons from its failures gets at best a c-.

It was not all dystopia, of course.

The Nobel committee honored Malala Yousafzay of Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi of India with the Nobel peace Prize “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” The Taliban had shot Malala in the head in 2012 when she was 15 but that only strengthened her determination to secure universal access to education, particularly for girls. Satyarthi, 60, had been waging a tireless war against the exploitation of children for decades. The “Save the Childhood Movement” he launched in 1980 has saved over 80,000 children from exploitation, bonded labor and trafficking.

Openings are always better than closings. President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba was welcomed by most Americans. “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” declared the President. “It’s time for a new approach.” (Are leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere listening?) Pope Francis played a critical role in bringing the two sides together. This humble man has shown that religion can be a catalyst for diplomacy when applied with the right touch of humility and foresight. Transcending the naysayers was the euphoria that gripped ordinary Cubans. “For the Cuban people, I think this is like a shot of oxygen,” exulted a 32-year-old IT specialist in Havana. “It’s a wish-come-true, because with this we have overcome our differences.”

Cynicism is supposedly the hallmark of the modern man but even the most hardened heart has to acknowledge that peace is a universal human longing.

In education, the Common Core Curriculum (CCC) is going through its trial by fire. More parents than teachers seem to be against it, only because CCC is forcing children to analyze what’s going on under the hood – critical thinking - and that has shaken parents off their complacency. For the first time in years, parents were forced to confront the possibility that their children were perhaps not as smart as they imagined them to be. Yet what they need to consider is that CCC can actually make their kids smarter, if only they give the curriculum a chance.

In community colleges, the tension between learning and relevance continues to frustrate students and teachers alike. Students are convinced that education is important but they are not convinced that what they learn at community colleges will help them in their lives. “As soon as I am done with this algebra course, I will flush it completely out of my brain, so I can make room for what will really help me,” said a despairing student. Replace ‘algebra’ with any other subject and this is a refrain one hears frequently in the corridors of community colleges across America.

But teachers are stepping up to the challenge. They are making relevance and connection with real-world problems a priority in the student-centric learning environment they are striving to create, recognizing that the main purpose of education is not to train students for jobs but to kindle their passion for knowledge and for their capacity to think independently.
Also laudable is the effort by organizations like California Open Educational Resource Council (OERC) to reduce textbook costs by making peer-reviewed quality textbooks available to students for free.

What is perhaps missing from our perspective is an awareness of the countless acts of kindness and generosity that ordinary people perform every day to propel us forward. It is the anonymous goodness of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, teachers, nurses, volunteers and others that animate our humanity. It is their sacrifices, and not the antics of the headline grabbers, that keep the world humming. The source of the extraordinary, we often forget, is ordinary lives. No one captured this more eloquently than George Eliot in Middlemarch:

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

The world may appear more unsettled and dangerous than ever but when we believe in the generosity and selflessness of those “who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in uninvited tombs,” our faith in humanity is restored. We sense that a new beginning is ours for the taking, that the fanatics and the extremists will be defeated by the humble and the resolute, that cruelty and stupidity will surrender to kindness and reason.

We long for peace and justice and hope that 2015 will be a year when we will be graced by both. Perhaps 2015 will be our personal Year of Innisfree (W.B. Yeats – The Lake Isle of Innisfree)

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Book Review: "The Sense of Style" by Steven Pinker

There is a certain paradox about books that try to teach how to write well: Anyone with a gift for writing hardly needs the advice and anyone who dreads writing rarely profits from such advice. “Education is an admirable thing,” as Oscar Wilde observed, “but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

This does not mean we cannot improve the quality of our writing but this really requires just two stunningly simple rules: a) write, write, and write and b) read, read, and read. The rest is footnote.

Except when it isn’t.

Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century” isn’t an easy book to peg. It offers plenty of advice, all based on appeals to intellect and common sense, as expected from a renowned cognitive scientist and linguist. It slays the myths about bad writing in the age of the Internet and reveals the jaundiced views of the self-styled ‘style mavens’ whose fear of change in language usage makes them anything but maven. It pays homage to Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” without being bound by its limitations. As Pinker writes in the prologue: “Many style manuals treat traditional rules of usage the way fundamentalists treat the Ten Commandments: as unerring laws chiseled in sapphire for mortals to obey or risk eternal damnation.”

But Pinker’s analysis of syntax that can “help a writer avoid ungrammatical, convoluted and misleading prose” can be a touch too complex. It is true, as Nabokov said, that “a writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist” (a bill that fits Steven Pinker perfectly) but most writer only want to “write with clarity and with flair,” without having to deconstruct each sentence as a node in a database. His chapter on “The Web, The Tree, and The String,” with its intricate tree diagrams and their forward and backward-pointing arrows can cause a would-be writer to flee to the nearest forest in panic.

But that’s a minor objection compared to the riches this guide offers. In fact, the very first chapter, “Reverse-Engineering Good Prose as the Key to Developing a Writerly Ear,” is alone worth the price of admission. The craft of writing is a lifelong calling, as Pinker reminds us, and although “the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by a delight in the best works of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.”

Writers may quibble with the word “must” but Pinker’s reflections on what makes the work of masters so memorable is irresistible. He does not quote Shakespeare or Hemingway or other recognized heavyweights from the curricula of English departments but writers who write obituaries, dispense advice (Dear Abby), track migration and muses on the enigma of existence and death,. Their writings show that “a varied vocabulary and the use of unusual words are two of the features that distinguish sprightly prose from mush.” They know that readers understand and remember material far better when expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images. For them, the concrete almost always wins over the abstract, the visual and the conversational over the vague and the condescending. They know that pedantry is the bane of good writing, that good writing means revising. What else do these authors share?  “They write as if they have something important to say.” Even more, “they write as if they have something important to show.”

In the chapter on “Telling Right from Wrong,” Pinker takes issue with the language police who focus only on correct usage of the language and ignore the more important qualities of clarity or grace or coherence. These pedants, sticklers, peeves, nitpickers and snoots – otherwise known as purists – do the English language a disservice All the tropes are here: adjectives and adverbs, who and whom, between you and I, can versus may, dangling modifiers and split infinitives, ‘none’ as singular or plural, less versus fewer, active versus passive, its versus it’s, and so on. As Pinker notes, “… for all the vitriol brought out by matters of correct usage, they are the smallest part of good writing. They pale in importance behind coherence, classic style, and overcoming the curse of knowledge …”

So how should a writer aiming for clarity and flair write? Pinker’s summing-up advice is as sound as it is attainable. “First, look things up. Second, be sure your arguments are sound. Third, don’t confuse an anecdote or a personal experience with the state of the world. Fourth, beware of false dichotomies. Finally, arguments should be based on reasons, not people.”

What exactly do these mean? Get this guide if you want to find out. You may skip the sections that go too deep into syntax structure (I did) but what you do read and act on, you will do so with pleasure. You will write with clarity and with flair. Just as with any other worthwhile craft, it will not happen overnight, but it will happen. That’s what makes Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” a book to heed.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Math-English Synergy: Student Response

In a previous article, I suggested that making a connection between English and Math words can help students overcome their fear of math word problems. Is it true? Does this really work? Here are some student responses to the hypothesis, as they experienced it themselves.

Amanda believes that when one understands the meaning of certain words both in their everyday context and in their mathematical context, it can make both subjects flow more seamlessly. “Creating a table of words that show their everyday meanings and their mathematical meanings right next to each other made me think more about how the words correlate in both subjects. It gave me a new tool to study when presented with word problems. Rather than avoiding math word problems at all costs and only studying exactly what I need to before an exam, maybe I need to spend more time studying the linguistics of the words so I have a better comprehension of what the words are presenting. By doing this, I hope to achieve the skill of being able to decode the problems and understand how to get the algebraic equations.”

For Brian, the synergy between English and Math has obvious benefits: “I enjoy learning new words every day.  Bahare, however, is not completely sold: “It’s a good idea as long as we are not tested for our vocabulary!” For both Linda and Axel, “learning to increase our vocabulary in Math class is important because it helps us understand word problems. It sure makes math more understandable.” Athena is equally emphatic: “Vocabulary is very important to express ourselves. One of my favorite books is the thesaurus.” Desarae finds the connection “good, almost necessary. It helps you better understand what we are learning. Knowing the vocab makes the concepts less scary!” Lizeth goes so far as to say that “a weekly vocal quiz in our math class would be a great idea!” It is an opinion shared by Kathy, who finds that “sometimes a word has a different meaning in the context of algebra than in regular usage, and you need to know the difference to solve word problems.” Leslie says flat out that “if you don’t understand the words, you don’t understand algebra!” As Dana sees it, “it is important to know what the words mean in math. If I didn’t know the meaning of function or factoring, I wouldn’t know how to solve the problems!” Alexander has a different angle: “Knowing these words can honestly impress girls!” Alma finds that “math is useful everywhere, in school, job, shopping etc. Knowing what the words mean and increasing vocabulary can only help.” Nico feels that “learning new words and using them properly can actually make you smarter.” But Eduardo will have none of it. “This is a math class, not an English class!”

For Hess, the issue is more nuanced. “I am one of those people who have a hard time with word problems. It’s not that I don’t understand what the terms mean, because I get when it says a number increased by 6 is x+6 but somehow when it comes to writing the equation I suddenly have short-term memory loss or something. Maybe it is PTSD, Post Traumatic Solving Disorder! Whatever, I need to find a way to overcome it. One way is to understand math words like “rational” and “radical” in both their regular usage and in their math context. I think a lot of students understand the terms. It is not the language barrier but more of a sentence structure issue. Also, like when you learn Spanish, you may know all the terms but put the adjective before the noun like you would in English, and the sentence becomes grammatically incorrect in Spanish. It is the same thing in math: If you put the equation in the wrong order, you may end up with the wrong answer.”

Alyssa knows from personal experience that when there is an equation in front of her, she knows where to begin “but as soon as it is surrounded by words I’m completely lost. The ironic part is that English happens to be my strongest subject and Math my weakest. I do like the idea of having a better understanding of terms and phrases and how they relate to in Math and English. Looking at math and English phrases in depth will certainly help me overcome my fear of math word problem. I think the two questions in a word problem are always: ‘Where do I start’ and ‘How do I know what the equation is asking?’ Word problems are tricky, because they ask a question at the end but there are a lot more steps before you can solve it. Breaking them down to certain key phrases is already helping me solve them with more confidence."

Ashley learns best “when I can learn something from two or three different approaches. Making the link, when I hear, for example “reducing” or “reduce” at work place to fractions is really helpful. If I can see a fraction in my head when I hear that word, I can learn to practice the mathematical term “reducing” more and become better at it. I also think some of the words in math are rather beautiful and if I could use them in everyday language, I would sound more educated. ‘Exceeds’ is one of those words. I use ‘difference’ a lot but not really thinking of math directly, unless I am working on a word problem.  Using words in daily language that can be applied to math is turning out to be a very useful concept for me.”

Brandon finds that a clear understanding of words in their math and regular usage context “helps me understand word problems and math itself a lot more. It definitely helps with learning everyday language. Not only are you learning more about the word itself but you are also learning how you can use it towards math and real life. For example, the word ‘rational’ is used in life to explain reason. When it comes to math, it means a ratio, either of numbers or polynomials. It is really amazing to me how math can be so connected to the English language in such a weird but helpful way. It helps me understand algebra a lot more and at the same time helps me learn the English language even better. I never realized how important it was to connect English and math together!”

Yannick agrees that “understanding meanings of words contributing to everyday and math context will increase math skills, but I disagree it will help with English skills. In every math textbook, there should a good handful of word problems. But if you open up an English textbook, there might be a few math problems, but not as detailed or as skilled as the problems in the math textbooks. However, it may not apply to somebody whose first language is not English. I feel this way because in math, there are sections and chapters in the book, with each one building its way up to more skilled formulas and methods, challenging individuals as they go through the book. When one has to solve a problem from an English textbook, that person is already used to the language and reading a simple sentence or a paragraph will not be an issue, unless it is asking the person to apply the problem with numbers and formulas. We are too used to speaking English every day. That’s why English texts are meant for English and Math textbooks for Math. In my opinion, the only reason people hate to solve word problems is not because the way it is worded, but rather the way it is printed on the paper, which is much longer than the equation problems.”

For Tyler, “learning the meanings of the words that have context in both English and Math would greatly improve the skills in both subjects. In Math, to know how to form a problem would help in a few situations in the real world, say, trying to figure out how much yarn you need to make a sweater. If you don’t know how to structure the equation, then the problem becomes impossible to solve. However, in English, one should constantly attempt to learn new, more complex words and various meanings so that in the future you could describe a complex sentence or in this instance, a mathematical problem. In my own accounts I use mathematical vocabulary to figure out pay in my job to make sure I get the right pay. As a referee I am paid different amounts depending on the games refereed. For example, I am paid $20 for a regular 45 min game, but I am paid one-and-a-half time more for a high school or junior high game. So if I work 20 regular games and 8 High school games then the expression should be: 20x + (20 x 1.5) y which becomes 20(20)+(20x1.5)(8). Since 1.5 times 20 is 30, so the equation ends up being 400+240=640. This is not my actual pay, but I wish it was! To form this equation requires the knowledge of a mathematical equation structure, as well as knowledge of how to form a proper English sentence with mathematical terms. Thus I can honestly say that the knowledge of Mathematical vocabulary will help students learn how to decrypt and solve word problems far easier than they would before they knew what the words structuring the sentence mean!”

As an ESL student, Pariya is convinced that knowing and understanding English is critical to understanding Math word problems. “My first language is Farsi. During the first days of class, understanding word problems becomes very hard for me. I try to learn the words that are the most useful in math as I came to appreciate the connection between English and math. It helped me a lot and now I have less difficulty with math word problems. Understanding such words also helped me to speak English more fluently at work that I could before. An Architectural interior designer and I deal with numbers and math problems most of the time at work, for example, for calculating the occupancy of a building. Also, knowing and understanding these words have helped me to think more logically.”

Jessica believes that “having command of the English language is absolutely crucial to understanding any type of math. Even though I have a strong understanding of the English language, as I have been speaking it my entire life, I find that I still struggle with understanding math word problems. Not being able to solve word problems is a huge issue in the real world. Outside of the classroom, real life issues are not presented in nicely laid-out equations for you to solve. In real-life situations you’re presented with a number of variables that you are tasked to put together to solve a problem. Though equations and formulas are helpful to know, students should be able to solve real situations with real numbers. For instance, when an anesthesiologist is tasked with administering anesthesia a patient, they must take into account a number of different variables in order to make sure that the patient is receiving the correct amount of medication. In the classroom it is important to practice the concepts of math and understand how to correctly solve problems but it is also critical that students understand how to solve problems that are not completely spelled out for them.” 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

English-Math Synergy Helps Students Overcome Math Fear

Community college students generally dislike math word problems. The difficulty is particularly pronounced in introductory algebra, intermediate algebra, and introductory statistics courses. Students often cannot make sense of what the question is asking them to solve. It frequently comes down to a difficulty with the English language. The challenge is not restricted to ESL students but to native speakers as well. Students can solve algebraic problems if they are expressed in straightforward mathematical notations but if the same problem is expressed in words, they are lost.

Consider the following:
Solve for x in the equation
x – 0.2x = 320
Students find it easy to solve:
0.8x = 320
Dividing both sides by 0.8, x = 400

Now consider the problem: After a 20% reduction, you purchase a camera for $320. What was the camera’s price before the reduction?

Suddenly this problem looks strange and difficult. There is that 20 percent reduction. There is that word ‘before.’ How exactly do they translate into mathematical notation?

Consider another problem: Solve for x and y.
x + y = 146
x = y + 12

Again, this appears to be an easy problem to solve.
Substitute the value of x from the second equation into the first:
y + 12 + y = 146
2y + 12 = 146
2y = 134
Dividing both sides by 2 give y = 67
Thus, x= y + 12 = 67 + 12 = 79

However, suppose the problem is presented like this:
In two consecutive games, the college basketball team scored a total of 146 points. The team scored 12 more points in the first game than in the second. How many points did the team score in each of the two games?

It is the same problem but writing down the two equations, in which x = points scored in the first game and y = points scored in the second game, pose a problem for many students.

Finally, consider this problem:
Solve for x and y:
x + y = 16000
0.06x + 0.08y = 1180

Students can substitute the value of x from the first equation into the second and solve for y and then solve for x.
0.06(16000-y) + 0.08y = 1180
Solving for y gives y = 11000. Hence, x = 5000.

However, suppose the problem is stated this way:
You invest part of $16,000 at 6% interest and the remainder at 8% interest. If the annual yearly interest from these investments is $1180, find the amount invested at each rate.
Again, creating a set of linear equations to answer the question seems as remote as the moon, visible but beyond reach.

It may be helpful for math and English teachers to compile a list of words and their meanings in everyday context and in the context of mathematics, as well as a list of mathematical phrases and their translation into mathematical notations. By working together, math and English faculty can help students overcome their fear of math word problems, enrich their vocabulary and enhance their critical reading and writing skills.

The larger goal is to help them see the connection between Math and English. It is through such interdisciplinary connections that students can discover new insights and make new connections of their own.

A partial list of words may include:
constant, variable, ratio, proportion, fraction, slope, factor, rational, irrational, commutative, percent, percentile, integer, decimal, compound, absolute, perimeter, area, volume, coefficient, term, monomial, binomial, trinomial, polynomial, simplify, evaluate, solve, equation, inequality, linear, non-linear, base, power, exponent, exponential, hypotenuse, numerical, numeracy, innumeracy, round-off, round-up, sequence, series, intersect, intercept, radical, elliptical, radius, circumference, circular, parabola, parabolic, ellipse, elliptical, quadratic, imaginary, complex, conjugate, matrix, unknown, vertex, model, prime, square, cubic, parallel, horizontal, vertical, grouping, precision, accuracy, dependent, independent, function, one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, domain, range, average, mean, median, probability, hypothesis, regression, correlation …

Fragments may include:
at least one, at most 4, ratio of a to b, x split into k equal parts, golden rectangle, golden ratio, margin of error, confidence level, significance level, confidence interval …

Serendipity occurs at the intersection of disciplines. It is something that has been missing in America’s schools for far too long. The time has come to address this urgent issue. A first step will be to create synergy between English and math teachers. There is plenty of data that show how student performance in solving math word problems increase when they are clear about the precise meaning of words as they are used in their everyday context and in mathematical context.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Defeating Bigotry

A 17-year-old Pakistani, along with a 60-year-old Indian activist named Kailash Satyarthi, has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala Yousafzai was honored for her death-defying stand against the regressive and fanatical Taliban and for demanding her rights to modern education and a life of freedom from fear. Her story has given hope to millions of girls like her, not just in Pakistan but around the world. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said of her: “The terrorists showed what frightens them most: a girl with a book.”

Malali’s Nobel should gladden the hearts of most Muslims, particularly in the wake of the fierce debate on Islam and Muslims viewers witnessed on Bill Maher’s "Last Word" TV show on HBO on October 6. Prominent Islamophobes Maher and Sam Harris attacked Islam, essentially declaring that Islam and its adherents were the root of all evil in our times. “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas,” asserted Mr. Harris. An unbelieving Ben Affleck could only exclaim, “Jesus, it’s an ugly thing to say!”

Thank God for Ben Affleck, the protagonist and director of Argo, the 2012 political thriller about the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis. Affleck provided the most spark in the debate with his logic and clarity and for challenging bigotry. He called the views of Maher and Harris on Islam and Muslims “gross” and “racist.” As Harris nonchalantly continued his attack on Islam, Affleck challenged Harris: “Are you the person who understands the officially-codified document of Islam?” Mr. Harris replied, “I am actually well-educated in Islam.”

Well, let’s see. In an interview with Pat Morrison of Los Angeles Times on September 24, Harris was asked what he thought about the “the latest, distressing religion-related headlines … by Islamic State, posing as believers.”
Harris replied, “They're not posing as believers; they are true believers. They truly believe in the letter of the scripture. Everything we see ISIS doing is spelled out in the Koran and the Hadith. The problem is not how to correct the lies of religious extremists; we have to figure out how to divorce Islam from its actual doctrines. Cutting off people's heads is there in the Koran. If it said, "Cut off their legs," we would see ISIS cutting off legs. This is paint-by-number Islam.”
The “well-educated in Islam” neurosurgeon and in-your-face atheist has concluded that the solution to the world’s problems lies in “divorcing Islam from its actual doctrines.” In other words, a good Muslim is, according to Harris, an atheist Muslim, whatever that means.

Forget the breathtaking arrogance of that statement for a moment. But for Harris to claim that he understands Islam, while ignoring the fact that ISIS victims are mostly Muslims, that Muslim nations have joined America in the fight against the terrorists, and that ordinary Muslims and scholars have condemned these killers, is prejudice of the worst sort.
Incidentally, the reason for the interview with LA Times was the publication of Harris’s book, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.” The title is certainly intriguing, until the reader realizes that Harris found his special brand of spirituality through the drug Ecstasy.

Why, this expert on Islam wants to know, would anyone seek morality and spirituality based on a religion when she or he can so easily get it with just a few tablets of Ecstasy a day? Hence his anger at the government: “The idea that something like Ecstasy is illegal is a travesty.”
Sam Harris probably considers himself the Samuel Taylor Coleridge of our times, a ‘poet’ who discovered his very own Xanadu through a newer edition of opium.
The religious scholar Reza Aslan, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, has had his share of dealing with ignoramuses and bigots on TV. His interviews with FOX News, CNN and Bill Maher, all of which went viral on the Web, have been revealing. His take on Harris is incisive: “With Harris, we are confronted with a completely different issue, which is the idea that anyone can simply become a recognized expert in religion simply by spouting these overly simplistic criticisms of it. Sam Harris, to me, gives atheism a bad name because he comes from a tradition of atheism that is really disconnected from the titans of intellectual, philosophical atheism who gave birth to the modern world. These were experts in religion who, from a position of expertise, criticized religion. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist; he knows as much about religion as I do about neuroscience. The difference is that I don’t go around writing books about neuroscience.”
Equally apt is Reza's conclusion about Maher: “Bill Maher’s usual critique of religion in general has morphed into a real crusade against one religion in particular, Islam, which he has on repeated occasion said is worse than the other religions and not like other religions; other religions are bad, but Islam is far, far worse. And I would say that the other thing that’s a little bit different is that the criticism of Islam has really crossed the line into what can only be described as frank bigotry.”
Coming back to Malala’s Nobel: If Islam is the source of violence, one has to wonder how the Mahers and the Harrises of the world reacted when they heard that a Muslim was recognized with the highest peace award in the world for standing up to the Taliban and blazing a new trail for oppressed adolescent girls everywhere. They probably denounced the award, or rationalized it away by saying the Nobel peace prize was, after all, a political award, or that there were probably a few good Muslims (you can count them on your fingers!) among the 1.6 billion of them, and she just happened to be one who succeeded in divorcing her faith “from its actual doctrines.”
For those of us rejoicing at Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize, which must surely include most of the world’s population, we need to remember that Malala did not happen in a vacuum. Before her, there was a young woman named Mukhtar Mai, also of Pakistan, who was brutally gang-raped by Muslim men in 2002. In the face of death threats, she testified against her attackers, won in the courts and used her settlement money to start schools for girls in remote Pakistani villages. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, also a guest with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher's HBO show, has been a tireless champion of Mukhtar Mai and did much to bring her inspiring story to the rest of the world.
In towns and villages across the world, there are brave souls, most of them girls, who break free of the cruel practices of patriarchal societies and point the way to a life of freedom and dignity. They are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and yes, Muslims, who often have to make the ultimate sacrifice to open the door for others. A few celebrities like Angelina Jolie take up their causes and succeed in shining the spotlight on the plight of the oppressed and the vulnerable. We wouldn’t know it by listening to the Mahers and the Harrises of the world, people who only know how to deal with the currency of bigotry. Far better it would be to join ranks with those who are making a difference in the lives of others and support them in whatever way we can.
No matter how you look at it, it is clear that in terms of benefiting humanity, one Malala is worth more than a million pairs of Bill Maher and Sam Harris.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Why Do Teachers Teach?

George Bernard Shaw offered the most damning argument against teachers and the profession of teaching. In Man and Superman (1903), the Irish playwright declared through his protagonist: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

Comedian Woody Allen clarified the idea further for us: “Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”

A snider version is available on the Internet (author unknown): “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”

Is there any truth to these prickly sayings? Does the teaching profession attract only those who have failed at everything else?

Of course not. Teaching is a calling just like physics, literature, law, music or mathematics. In countries like Finland and South Korea, teachers are revered. They are considered the pillar of society. Their remunerations reflect their standing and status.

It is a different story in the United States. Whether in income or status, teachers are, on the whole, at the bottom of the heap. Politicians pay lip service to the importance of teachers in shaping minds and then dutifully kowtow to the demands of Big Business and Wall Street honchos. Colleges and Universities are now run by CEOs who cut their teeth running corporations (often running them to the ground) and who, in cahoots with the textbook industry, see no distinction between an educational institution and a company selling, say, toothpaste. It’s all about market, free enterprise and academic capitalism, their argument goes. Besides, isn’t education a dream of a product to sell to anxious customers, that is, students, the perennial cash cows?

Compounding this problem is the rise in the number of part-time and adjunct teachers. Currently, over 75% of college professors in the United States are adjunct. The dictionary defines ‘adjunct’ as ‘a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.’ And that’s exactly how adjuncts are treated: ‘things’ that earn minimum wage salary if you count all the hours they have to toil without pay (grading, counseling, and so on, without any office space) and of course, without any benefit or security. Yet they teach the bulk of the courses in our colleges and universities, saving untold millions that mostly go into building expensive gyms and cafeterias and hiring yet more administrators.

So why do teachers teach, even as adjuncts? Has this breed completely lost its sense of self-respect, its dignity?

The truth is more complicated. There are bad teachers, good teachers and a few great teachers, just like in any other profession. But whereas a middling cubicle-dweller at a
high-flying startup can earn in his first year fifty times the salary of a teacher who has been toiling at his craft for over a decade, there is a crucial difference. A teacher, full-time or part-time, is the master of his domain, that is, of his class. She is the one who decides what will be taught, how it will be taught, and how her charges will be graded. Yes, there have been major shifts in pedagogy: the importance of student-centered learning, about teachers being “not sage on the stage but guide on the side,” about ‘it’s not what we teach, it’s what they learn.”

Still, even if a teacher is not the sage on the stage, she still commands the most attention in her class as a guide. Whether she wants to or not, she is still her class’s focal point. Given her dismal financial status and her utter anonymity outside the classroom, this ‘looking up to’ feeling, this temporary sense of indispensability, when combined with the passion for shaping minds, can be priceless.

Yet, this same feeling can undermine a teacher’s noble intentions. As Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bazar point out in their book, Methods That Matter, Teachers probably wouldn't have originally chosen their vocation if they didn't crave the spotlight on some deep psychological level. The hunger to 'really teach something' has probably derailed more student-centered innovations than administrative cowardice and textbook company co-option combined.”

Why do teachers teach? Other than a few academic superstars and Nobel laureates, teaching cannot surely be about money in America, since the pay is relatively so little. Even with passion and nebulous talks about calling, there are teachers who destroy the curiosity and the motivations of their students through mindless drill and uninspiring style. But there are also teachers who try to do their best by their students, day in and day out. There is something ineffable about their ways and methods, some x factor that cannot be reduced to algorithmic analysis. It is important for these teachers, however, to acknowledge the lure of the spotlight ‘at some deep psychological level.’ As long as they maintain the proper perspective about it and focus on what their students are learning, rather than what they are teaching, teaching will continue to be its own reward.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Penny Foolish

The US. Mint recently released a disheartening statistic: In 2013, the cost of making a penny exceeded its face value for the eighth year in a row. It now costs 1.83 cents, or about 2 cents, to make 1 cent.

Does this make sense? A newborn can tell you it doesn’t. (By the way, the story with the nickel is as bad but let’s stick with the penny for now. Besides, one step, or rather one cent, at a time!)

At a mass of 2.5 grams, the penny comprises 2.5% copper and 97.5% zinc. The total loss incurred by the penny in 2013 amounted to $55 million. A simple math (5,500,000,000/0.83) shows that the US Mint shipped about 6.63 billion pennies (over half a billion per month!) in the 2013 fiscal year.


Fifty-five million dollars, coming at the taxpayers’ expense, is small change for the government and for billionaires but it is more than a quarter of the annual budget of many community colleges.

So what explains the madness?

Political apathy, combined with the public’s supposedly sentimental attachment to the coin bearing the visage of our beloved President Lincoln. (The 16th President will continue to grace the $5 bill, so he will not disappear from our wallets and transactions anytime soon.)

What is often overlooked is that psychology and math also play a role in perpetuating the penny. As Alex Bellos, author of The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life, points out: “The practice of subtracting 1 from a round number conveys a potent message. When we read a number, we are more influenced by the leftmost digit than we are by the rightmost, since that is the order we read, and process, them. The number 799 feels significantly less than 800 because we see the former as 7-something and the latter as 8-something whereas 798 feels pretty much like 799. Since the nineteenth century, shopkeepers have taken advantage of this trick by choosing prices ending in a 9, to give the impression that a product is cheaper than it is. Surveys show that anything between a third and two-thirds of all retail prices now end in a 9.Though we are all seasoned shoppers, we are still fooled …”

But to pay for merchandise or food items or gas or anything that ends in a 9 requires, of course, that one or more pennies change hands, causing endless delays at counters and cash registers and billions of dollars in lost time and productivity.

What to do?

We must, with a will, overcome the perverse pull of psychology and send the penny to the dustbin of history. Make the last digit of the price of any item a 5 or a 0. (If the nickel is also consigned to oblivion, 0 and 5 will still be the only acceptable last digits to accommodate the quarter.)

One immediate benefit will be the rise in the aptitude for math among the public: counting and calculating in multiples of 5 will become second nature to most, since any digit that ends in a 5 or a 0 is divisible by 5. No need to count pennies anymore. Among some, this may even stir their latent fascination with the magic and mystery of numbers.

Ramanujan, anyone?

Still not convinced? Then you really need to watch this video.

President Obama recently included an intriguing provision to his 2015 budget to develop “alternative options for the penny and the nickel.” Since he hasn’t spelled out what exactly he means, and given the current state of a dysfunctional Washington, the penny may continue to live while choking the life out of our collective common sense.

Canada, our neighbor to the north, has badly beaten us to the punch and abolished the penny in early 2013. How can we allow the most advanced nation on earth become the laughingstock of the rest of the world, for sheer stupidity, no less?

We, the people, must refuse to “live lives of quiet desperation,” rise boldly against this dumb and cruel affront to our common sense, and bury the penny for good.

RIP, penny!

Sunday, September 07, 2014

American-Muslims Condemn the ISIL Extremists

During a recent Friday sermon in one of the biggest mosques in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Imam unequivocally condemned the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) extremists whose gruesome slaying of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff (and of Syrian journalist Bassam Raies few weeks earlier) has shocked people of conscience everywhere.

“These people are hijacking our faith,” said the Imam. “We have to stop them. This conversation has to take place among Muslims!”

Such sermons are being heard in mosques throughout America.

Muslims are outraged by the nihilistic ideology of the ISIL. This fanatical group will kill anyone crossing its path as it tries to enforce its extremist interpretation of Islam in large swaths of Syria and Iraq. We agree with President Obama’s observation of the ISIL: They have rampaged across cities and villages killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery. They have murdered Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can, for no other reason than they practice a different ­religion.”

One of the religious minorities targeted by the ISIL includes the Yazidis, practitioners of perhaps the oldest religion in the world. These peace-loving people, whose ancestry goes back 6,000 years, are now facing extermination through the barbarities of the organization.

American-Muslims vehemently oppose the ISIL. They would find their Utopian fantasy and Dystopian dream laughable, were they not so drenched in blood. They reject their distortion of Islam, a poisonous mix of misogyny, mayhem and intolerance. 

To defeat these zealots, who are not amenable to reason, will require the organized military forces of nations. We applaud the President in helping to form a 10-nation core coalition of NATO countries (United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Turkey, with Turkey expected to play a critical role) to defeat the ISIL, although differences remain on the details of the execution.

Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to devote most of his time and energy in the coming weeks to enlist Arab countries in this effort. We urge the Arab countries to leave politics aside and unite in supporting the NATO-alliance in uprooting the ISIL.

The ISIL will not fold at the first sign of defeat. The group consists of battle-hardened jihadists and media-savvy technologists, with ‘Jihadi Johns’ from Britain, Australia, Germany and America swelling its ranks.

But there is no question that ISIL is doomed. Mainstream Muslims have rejected the group’s extremism and intolerance, just as they rejected those of Al-Qaida in the wake of 9/11.
Islamic history offers an example.

From the 7th through the 9th-centuries, Muslims calling themselves Kharijites (literally, those who seceded) in mostly current-day Iraq rejected moderation and engaged in ‘takfir’: declaring those Muslims ‘kafirs’ (unbelievers) who rejected their inflexible interpretation of the faith and thus became, in their sight, deserving of death.

Initially the Kharijites made headway through their reign of terror but once the moderate Caliphs of the day were able to organize their forces, they were able to crush the fanatics.

Mutations of the Kharijites appear every now and then in Muslim countries. These are people who are drunk with certitude and who believe that they, and only they, know who is favored by God and who isn’t. Their rigid and exclusive view of faith and life ultimately become the cause of their defeat.

Such i sdestined to be the fate of the ISIL. But it will neither be easy nor quick. It will require the cooperation between the NATO coalition and Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the continued rejection of the extremist group by mainstream Muslims.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Paying It Forward is Contagious!

The idea of paying it forward caught the public’s imagination when Catherine Ryan Hyde’s 1999 novel “Pay It Forward” was turned into a movie in 2000, starring Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey.

The idea is simple: Act on an impulse of spontaneous generosity toward a stranger and hopefully you will start a chain reaction. At each step, the receiver of generosity becomes a giver. Rather than repay the help you receive, “pay it forward” by helping someone else.

Does this work in practice? In other words, if you receive or merely observe (bystander effect) an act of help, are you more likely to help someone else? Is the sequence socially contagious?
In their hectic lives, in which hard-up college students juggle between studies, work, and family, how contagious can the ideas of “paying it forward” be for them?

Hilda, a community college student, who also works for a non-profit health facility, remembers giving a disabled woman her bottle of water on a hot day. She has no idea whether any ‘pay it forward’ occurred in the days that followed. On another occasion, she saw a homeless man sleeping in front of a Walgreens store. She gave him a water bottle, a cup of yogurt, some cheese sticks and an apple that she had left over from lunch. She saw a woman observing her. As she was leaving the store, Hilda saw the woman giving the homeless man some money. Since then, Hilda has started an Instagram project in which she posts pictures and stories about ‘paying it forward,’ in the hope of sparking spontaneous generosity among people.

“I have read many stories about paying it forward,” says Cristina. “Reading about random acts of kindness gives me hope. I see the good in people in a society that can be mean and cruel. I have never been in a “chain” of giving, but several times I have given food to a homeless person, taken groceries to a family in need, given a ride, helped a family whose car had broken down. It makes me feel good that I can do something for someone, just to do it. This is not easy for me to talk about, because it is not about me and my actions. I have given from the heart and not thought twice. There is a phrase I have passed on to my children and grandchildren: ‘Do not let the right hand see what the left hand is doing.’” 

Nina believes that long-term happiness depends on giving rather than receiving. “My random act of kindness consists of lending someone a pencil or tutoring them in a subject for 10 minutes or so. These things cost me nothing, yet they make me feel good. These small habits can develop into something more. Recently, my 10-minute tutoring sessions have turned into several hour-long sessions on Fridays. It's gotten to the point that almost all the students in my school  knows me as ‘that girl who can totally help you pass math, no matter what grade you're in!’ In turn, I see students I teach helping their peers when I'm busy. So those students, without thinking about it, are paying it forward!”

Rigoberto is grateful for the chance of helping a poor family member living in Mexico, a place where food is hard to come by and money is scarce. It happened that this man needed surgery. Rigoberto sent him the money he needed. “I know I am not rich but with the little that I have, I know I can always help someone. I am confident this spirit will rub off on him. Who can predict where this will end?”

To Derek, the idea of “pay it forward” gives him faith in humanity. “There is nothing I like better than seeing people from small towns coming to the craziness that sometimes can be San Jose. I remember a man in his thirties at Costco saying ‘Hi’ to everyone he passed and tipping his hat. If you have ever been to Costco you know that’s a lot of hat tipping!”

Genevieve feels that people often forget what it means to be generous and to give without expecting anything in return. “People have become selfish. To them, paying it forward would be going too far out of their way. Fortunately, I have been at both the receiving and giving end of ‘paying it forward.’ Several times, people in front of me have paid for my order at places like Starbucks and Jamba Juice. I remember the first time someone paid for my toll. As I approached the booth, I realized that I did not have any cash on hand.  Luckily, the attendant told me that it was paid for by the SUV in front of me. I cannot describe the relief and appreciation I felt at that moment! Since then, I have paid the tolls for people behind me on several occasions.”

Allison has been on the receiving end of a pay-it-forward system. “I grew up very poor and often had difficulty getting the food we needed from the grocery store. I watched as strangers opened their wallets and handed my mother a five-dollar bill so my sister and I could get the fruit we wanted. My mom has also paid it forward when she has seen a struggling mom in the same situation. Whenever I have run into an instance that someone has paid for me, I feel like I am obligated to either pay them back or pay it forward for the next person. I have bought food for a co-worker who didn’t have money, and the same has happened to me. The growing trend of picking up someone’s coffee tab has happened to me at Starbucks. When I got to the counter to order my drink, the guy just waved it off because the girl in front of me, a complete stranger, had paid for it. I ended up paying for the person behind me. Paying it forward just makes me happy!”

Matthew feels that random acts of kindness are not seen much in today’s society. “We are living in a society where we are too busy and completely caught up in our own lives. The more considerate people are to each other, the better this place will be. My personal random act of kindness was when I was renting out a room to a friend. We had a pretty close friendship. He was always respectful and paid his rent on time. A year and a half later, he lost his job and was stressing because even if he were to go on unemployment, he wouldn’t have enough money to pay his bills and the rent. Having been in a similar situation, I told him to focus on his school and not worry about the rent. I considered him a part of my family. He was forever grateful for what I did and is living much better now. It happened that for a class for which I had enrolled, I didn’t have the appropriate calculator. I posted a Facebook listing asking if anyone was willing to sell his calculator. That same night, he showed up on my doorstep and simply gave me his!” 

Charles was introduced to paying it forwards as a bystander in a redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “I was mountain biking with a buddy. We had paused to drink some water and take in the scenery when, in the distance, we heard a loud explosion. Two men came into the clearing where we were resting, pushing their bikes. The inner tube of one of the bikes belonging to a middle-aged man had exploded because it was installed incorrectly. His companion, an athletic looking Irishman with a matching bike, rummaged through his backpack and came up empty. They didn’t have a spare tube but my friend did, which he promptly offered it to the older man. The man was grateful, asked for my friend’s address and told him he would send him money for the tube. My friend said: “It’s cool, just pay it forward.” Merely witnessing my friend’s generosity was enough to instill this concept of paying it forward in my heart. Several months later, I left home alone on a mountain bike excursion with no spare tube and got a flat tire. I wandered about in the woods, soliciting help from groups of mountain bikers until a kind man gave me a tube. “I’ll buy you a tube, what’s your number?” I asked. “Pay it forward,” was his response. I would like to propose a P.I.F.R. (pay it forward revolution) to soften the hearts of Americans and make the world more hospitable for people without large networks of support.

Jon was once part of a ‘car chain’ at an In-N-Out Burger. “I was with my baseball team in Tracy when we stopped for lunch. One of the parents in front of me paid for my food. I was genuinely surprised when I reached the booth and decided to add to the chain as the few cars behind me were also parents from my team. I'm not sure how far back we went but it was pretty cool and I definitely felt like extending the generosity. I knew all these people so they were not strangers but it was still one random act of kindness extending from one person to another to another. These are the kind of simple pleasures that stand out in memory!”

Thursday, August 21, 2014

We Must Unite to Defeat the Islamic State

The Islamic State (IS) extremists are on a gruesome killing spree. The video of the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley, 40, disseminated worldwide, is only the latest reminder that, unless nipped in the bud, IS will kill and maim anyone crossing its path as it attempts to enforce its nihilistic ideology in large swaths of Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and elsewhere.

As President Obama rightly observed of the IS, “They have rampaged across cities and villages killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery. They have murdered Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can, for no other reason than they practice a different ­religion.”
Religious minorities targeted by IS includes the Yazidis, practitioners of perhaps the oldest religion of the world. These peace-loving but vulnerable people whose ancestry goes back 6,000 years are now facing literal extermination through the satanic cruelties of IS fanatics.
People of conscience everywhere, particularly Muslims, must rise to stop the IS.
Why particularly Muslims?
Because the IS consists of so-called Muslims who have vowed to establish a blood-drenched Caliphate in which only their distorted version of Islam - a fusion of misogyny, intolerance and mayhem – will hold sway. We have an obligation to snatch our faith from the clutches of fanatics.
It is no use trying to reason with these killers with verses from the Quran, that there is no compulsion in religion, or that Allah loves those who are merciful.
Scholarly arguments have no sanctity with killers.
But it is also impractical to suggest that ordinary Muslims should travel to IS-held territories to fight the fanatics, although it has become evident that would-be jihadists from Britain, France, Germany, Australia and America have strengthened the rank and file of IS forces.
To defeat this lethal organization will require the organized military forces of nations. The United States has started bombing areas around Mosul in Iraq and other IS strongholds. Muslims nations must leave politics aside and unite to support the United States in whatever capacity they can.
Meanwhile, ordinary Muslims everywhere must unequivocally condemn the IS and its practices. In mosques from coast to coast in America, for instance, we must use the platform of the Friday sermons to take a stand against the IS. The black banner of the IS and all the cruelties it represents must be torn down before it has a chance to flutter in the wind.
At the same time, a few western pundits claim that (in the word of just one of them) “Muslim street from Turkey to Saudi Arabia follows the Islamic State like a sports team.”
Really? (As an American-Muslim, I request these opinionators to provide us with hard data, along with defining exactly what is meant by "Muslim Street!")
These pundits surely know how hard the clergy in Saudi Arabia, for instance, came down on the Islamic State. Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheik, top cleric of the Kingdom, has said that extremism and ideologies of groups like the IS and al-Qaida are Islam’s number one enemy and that Muslims have been their first victims. He went on to say that terrorism has no place in Islam, adding “These foreign groups do not belong to Islam.”
Saudi Arabia is, of course, no model of Islamic restraint and moderation. But that is not the point. Where the Islamic State is concerned, Muslims of all nationalities and origins must unite to stop the murderous advances of this organization.
One area where ordinary Muslims can counter the Islamic State is Social Media. Within the Islamic State exists a section that is savvy with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and such. We too can post our thoughts and opinions in these media to unequivocally condemn the group. The battle is fought on the ground and in the air but also, and equally importantly, in the cyber world, which is open to all.
We must not give in to wishful thinking. The Islamic State will not fold at the first hint of defeat. It is led by one Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who has the audacity and the arrogance to claim Prophet Muhammad’s (saw) lineage. He and his battle-hardened deputies will attempt to continue their reign of terror overtly and covertly for as long as they can.
But their defeat will be permanent when, along with unbearable losses on the physical battlefields, they also realize that Muslims have rejected them by countering their barbaric propaganda on the digital battlefield with the truth.