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Archive for April, 2010

bribery

In government, business, and personal life, bribery is considered a no-no.  Sure, some people accept money or other favors, especially in countries like Thailand, where it’s almost de rigeur.  But “nice” people don’t accept bribes.  And you certainly wouldn’t expect to get a little “sumpin-sumpin” slipped under the table for just doing your job.

According to a recent article in TIME magazine, education researchers are doing just that — bribing students to get better grades, score higher on tests, stay out of trouble, or just read books.  The results, unsurprisingly, were good.  Students read more, and as far as they knew how to change the grades or test scores, tried to do better overall.  The study found, in fact, that students were able to better achieve when the goal was measurable, like getting paid per book read, rather than a more nebulous “improve grades/test scores”, which, as any teacher knows, very few students have any inkling of the process of doing so.

When I initially read the article, I thought, “Wow! Kids are doing better on reading!  They are staying out of trouble!  How wonderful!  Just think how much better they’ll do when they get to high school if they have a good foundation of reading and studying in elementary school!”  Then it hit me.  Students in second grade were getting paid $2 per book read (and quiz taken to prove said reading).  So what would be the “fee” for books read, homework done, or grades raised when these students got to fifth grade, ninth grade, or twelfth grade?  How much of a school district’s budget would go towards bribe money?  And what would happen when the students graduated and went on to college, where they would be doing the paying?

Those who look on the bright side (which usually tends to be me) would say, “Oh, by that time the students will be motivated by a love of learning and will learn because of the intrinsic benefits.”  Not bloody likely.  Spend some time in a high school twelfth-grade classroom, you know, those who are separated by a few short months from “real life” and college, and you will quickly reassess.

For that matter, how many of us do something purely from a love of learning?  Would you, having once been paid for running on a treadmill, be likely to continue once the payments had stopped?  Yes, I belong to the group of people who pay for access to a gym, and try very hard to go often enough for my health insurance to kick in that benefit of paying for two-thirds of it.  Oh, wait.  I’m getting some form of kickback, aren’t I?  Hmmm…

It was brought up in the article that “adults get paid for their jobs.  A student’s job is school, so they should get paid.”  I’ve heard that said, by high school students, whose only real gripe was that they had to stay in school until they were 18.  They didn’t do any actual work, so the problem was just that they had to get out of bed, dress in a uniform, make some pretense at coming to school at some point in the morning (and maybe leave after lunch), turn in one or two assignments a quarter (just enough to complain that they had DONE work when they got the F), and quit showing up the second they hit that birthday.  Oh, and they were too busy working that after-school job to do homework, so really, they couldn’t be expected to turn in the assignments anyway.

Honestly, I’m torn.  In my heart of hearts, I guess I’m still the idealist who wants to believe that students should be “inspired” to learn, and that teachers, if they are really good teachers, can accomplish that inspiration.  Unfortunately, having spent one year in a spoiled-brat private school and two in an inner-city school (where above scenario was compiled, although the private school students’ attitudes weren’t much better), my inner idealist is a bit battered and a bit more cynical.  Maybe paying students to learn is one answer.  I don’t like it, but if it works, maybe it’s what we need.  I hate to believe it has to be that way — I’m scared of the consequences down the road when the bribed students grow up.  Is there some other way to motivate students?  Maybe we just need to keep trying everything all the time.  But maybe we can find something else other than bribery to achieve our goals, just because it doesn’t set a good precedent, whether it works or not.

(Do I get paid for this blog?)

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Apparently France and other European countries are trying to pass legislation banning women wearing burqas or other veils.  Far be it from me to approve a custom that has at its roots the oppression of women, but such a law smacks of religious oppression to me, and others.  I understand that some Europeans are feeling threatened because of the many Muslim immigrants who are refusing to become assimilated into their host countries, and are making some smaller countries feel like their identities are changing.

The problem is, some women wear the veil because it is their outward expression of their inward religion, not because they are forced to by male relatives.  Even here in the United States, girls who otherwise look and act just like other, non-Muslim girls wear a head scarf.  Some other non-Muslim religious sects believe it is right to cover their heads.  Why legislate against veil-wearing?  A burqa or niqab, maybe, I can understand, if someone is worried about undercover bombings, but a veil over the face is harming no one.

It is wrong to deny people freedom of religious expression (unless that expression is harming others i.e. bombings).  Rather, let’s show people freedom of speech and religion.  Let them see how people who are free behave and let them decide for themselves, in a culture of openness.  The people who want to wear a veil will decrease; in fact there are fewer than 2000 women in France who do.  Why pass a law aimed at such a small group?

Let people be as free to practice their religion as we are to practice ours.  If they are worshiping God to the best of their ability, He will tell them what is right to do.  We shouldn’t try to force change on people.  (That’s how we got stuck in Muslim countries in the first place.  😉 )

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At least not now in Bangkok.  Evidently protesters in red shirts, fueled (however unofficially) by ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (whose nephew I taught in kindergarten), have begun to be forcibly suppressed.  The rioters have been blockading streets, storming government buildings, and generally creating a war zone in downtown Bangkok.  The Army used tear gas and rubber bullets to subdue the crowd, but some of the protesters had assault rifles and Molotov cocktails.  Expats living in Bangkok have been told to be careful where they go downtown, and those who had planned on traveling to Thailand have been advised to change their plans.

This is a continuation of a problem from 2006, when then-prime minister Thaksin was ousted during a coup after he tried and succeeded (multiple times) to buy the election.  At that time, martial law was instituted for a short while, and the King told people basically to stop fooling around or he would not allow the elections to continue.

Unfortunately, Thaksin doesn’t appreciate not being in power anymore, and he has funded protests.  Now that rioters have been running rampant in the streets for several days, Thaksin is trying to make big promises so they will put him back in power.  He even called for a revolution at one point.

I’m glad I’m not in Bangkok right now, but I feel sad for my friends who are afraid there, who can’t be guaranteed a fair government, even with a King they love very much.  I wish people would just do what Jesus said, and then things like this wouldn’t happen.

Edited to add: Here’s an update on the latest violence.  It doesn’t look to be calming, but rather escalating as time goes on.  More people are getting killed, and the blockade is expanding closer to our old stomping grounds.

Edited a second time: The Red Shirts have torched 27 buildings in Bangkok, including the Central World Plaza shopping center (and the area around Siam Paragon), mostly concentrating on government buildings and banks.  Some say that the government allowed the situation to escalate to this level, since they didn’t move decisively to stop the rioters in the beginning.

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So, how big a living space do you need?

We’ve got 1000 square feet.  It must be the right size, because it feels too small for the things I need to put away, but way too big when I have to clean.  But there are only two of us (and a whole lot of stuff!), and we really have a lot more space compared to some people in the world.

Like this guy.  He lives in a 300-square-foot apartment in downtown Hong Kong.  I know these apartments from Bangkok — basically a dorm room with attached bath, extra for “air-con”.  Somehow, with a lot of ingenuity (and money), he has transformed it into the most versatile space anyone could want.  Sliding walls, fold-up bed, mirrors, and tinted windows make it seem spacious and warm, as well as modern.  It’s an amazing (and eco-friendly) maximization (is that a word??) of available space.  I wish others had his vision.

The only thing — well, things — I see could be problems would be if more than one person were in the apartment at a time.  What if someone were in the bathroom and someone else were in bed?  What would you do?  It’s an excellent idea for someone on his own, but probably not so practical for more than two people at most.

The other problem?

Where would I put all my stuff?

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This week, business-as-usual came to an unusual screeching halt as smoke and dangerous volcanic ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano spewed over much of Europe’s sky.  Volcanic ash particles can seriously damage airplane engines, so air traffic in Europe was curtailed.  What surprised everyone was how much it actually mattered to life-as-we-know-it.  Shockingly, not only travel plains were disrupted, but food delivery and other vital cogs shuddered to a halt.  The question I have to ask is, how could one volcano cause so much trouble, especially one in Iceland, which is a little further off the beaten path than, say, one in Germany, Japan, or even the US.

See, we have all these timesaving devices and an infrastructure that allows us to have items from all over the world.  Time was when someone who had a shell from the ocean had something rare and interesting if they lived inland.  Now (not including those who travel) our cupboards are full of imported things, our everyday items are made or assembled on the other side of the world, and we are dependent on the quick transfer of people and items to even function.

One volcano interrupts flights in Europe, and people have nothing to eat?  I daresay, if I couldn’t go to the store for groceries, I’d be ok for a few weeks.  We’d be a little malnourished from not having many greens, but I have a lot of fruit, veggies, and soups frozen in the freezer, flour, dried rice and beans in the pantry, and a lot of cooking know-how.  Actually, we’d be fine for probably longer than three weeks.  I gather that people in Europe don’t stockpile that way.

I’m not saying people in Europe are feckless.  I remember the fridges we had in Thailand and the trouble we had keeping bugs out of things there, but even still I had a bit of a stockpile.  What I am wondering is, who’s really in charge of this society?  Is it the people?  Are we masters of the technology, or is the technology mastering us?  Ask the people who spend days immured in their rooms, gaming, or those who can’t stand to be without something electronic in their hand or at their ear (iPod, Wii, and Crackberry, I’m looking at you).  Is our society so dependent on technology that the world (or a large portion of the First World) comes to a screeching halt because airplanes can’t get off the ground for a few days?

Actually, yes.

I think we should all try to dial back our dependence on technology.  No, we need to do it.  Comes a day when more than just a few planes can’t take off, and society as we know it will break down in short order.  People don’t think for themselves.  At the very least, we should try to limit ourselves to what is necessary (not what we want, but what we need), and constantly ask ourselves if we really do need it.  It would probably cut down on all that fossil fuel usage if we did take fewer flights.  Stay longer in one place.  Took an alternate transportation.  Maybe the volcano did us a favor.

So who’s in charge?  You, or a box of wires and spare parts?

Edited to add: I found this article and thought it was interesting, given my thoughts on this topic.  Not quite what I had in mind, but at least a step in the right direction.

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I have to preface this by saying I didn’t grow up eating school lunches, for the most part, and (to my credit) I hated the food in my college cafeteria so much that I just ate salad and sandwiches (and lost a lot of weight, actually).  However, I don’t think I am the norm.  Most people don’t mind eating deep-fried whatever day after day, or mounds of potatoes at every meal (yes, the school I taught at did that).  Most people don’t mind if their veggies are overcooked — they weren’t going to eat them anyway.

Kids are especially vulnerable to bad food choices.  Recent research has shown that fatty foods can actually be addictive, and unhealthful foods like fast food or frozen pizzas are also much cheaper and quicker for poor and busy parents to use than buying (more) expensive fresh ingredients and concocting a healthful meal.  Especially when their kids will probably fight them over it.  It’s much less stress to simply feed them what they’ll eat and save money and time.  Except we as a nation are grossly obese.  I say grossly because kids shouldn’t be overweight, as much energy as they all seem to have, and when other people are starving, it does seem quite selfish to overfeed your child and cause health problems.  But that’s another rant.

Kids are not only growing up feeding an unhealthful food habit, they are growing up ignorant about what is actually healthful to eat.  It’s all fine and good for schools to say “Eat your fruits and veggies”, but if kids think potatoes are a healthful vegetable and can’t identify a fresh tomato, then we’ve got a bigger problem.  Jamie Oliver, one of Britain’s top chefs, came to the US recently and tried to revamp kids’ ideas about food, as well as the actual food served in the school cafeteria.  He was shocked at how little kids knew about what was healthful to eat, and he met with nothing but difficulties in attempting to change what the cafeteria served.

I understand that schools are on a tight budget, and, for the reasons mentioned above, it is very hard to serve anything healthful and keep costs down.  Not to mention kids’ propensity to eat junk and keep said junk in their lockers or get it from vending machines.  And what child, when faced with veggies in the cafeteria, wouldn’t just snack on potato chips instead?  My principal in Bangkok had a good idea, and that was to limit the hours the snack area would be open, and limit the choices to healthful items only.  If kids were hungry and needed to snack, they only had options that were decent to eat and wouldn’t send them into a sugar spiral with empty carbs.  But you should have heard everyone complaining at first!  You’d have thought we were starving the kids by not serving them fatty, sugary snacks!  I figured if the kids were actually hungry, they’d eat something healthful.  Maybe.

In this week’s Time magazine, there was an article about a company, Revolution Foods, that is working to develop healthful, ready-made foods for school cafeterias without making them go over budget.  That’s hard enough to do, but they also have to have food that the students will eat!  Kids are notoriously picky about what food looks like as well as what it tastes like, so even pizza cut in squares instead of triangles met with doubtful disdain (Although Little Caesar’s pizza is cut in squares, so I’m not sure what the problem was).  Revolution Foods has central kitchens that make meals fresh every morning and ship them to area schools in time for lunch.  They make things like spaghetti, but instead of the usual white-flour pasta, they use half-white, half-wheat pasta that is still “normal”, but better for the students than the empty carbs of white pasta.  They also don’t sell junk food in the cafeterias, so students can eat the healthier food available or bring lunch from outside.  They help suppliers develop healthier “normal” food, like the spaghetti, and they help raise revenue by selling selections in local grocery stores as well.

It is very easy to eat food that is bad for you, and difficult to eat more healthfully, especially when prices are high and time is low.  But we all need to make a concerted effort, not only to eat better ourselves, but to take the responsibility to serve our children the best food possible.  This means taking forethought in planning healthful meals, not just running to KFC, Pizza Hut, or Dairy Queen when someone decides they’re hungry.  And not trying to find 101 ways to serve potatoes in the school cafeteria.  Popular or not, we are eating ourselves into our graves and it’s got to change.

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Someone posted this on Facebook.  I think it might be satirical, but I think some of the things on there are pretty awesome, so I thought I’d repost, just for kicks.  And to give this blog a scientific air.  Hey, I tried.

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