Eewww–the science of turkeys

Wired Science has an obligatory post on how “the intensive selective pressures of industrial farming” have changed–sometimes to near-unrecognizable extents–traditional Thanksgiving foods. It’s perfectly interesting and in keeping with the season and all, so no qualms on that score.

But I could have lived many more years without reading this particular image (emphasis added):

 Anderson, who has bred the birds for 26 years, said the key technical advance was artificial insemination, which came into widespread use in the 1960s, right around the time that turkey size starts to skyrocket. The reason is that turkeys over 30 pounds are “inefficient” breeders: It’s difficult for them to actually perform the natural mating act. With artificial insemination, the largest birds can still be used as sires, even if they have a hard time walking, let alone engaging in sexual reproduction.

You can spread the one tom around better. It adds a whole new level of efficiency. You can spread him over more hens,” Anderson said. “It takes the lid off how big the bird can be. If the size of the bird keeps them from mating, then you’re stuck.”

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

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How the Wii wrecks my mornings

This semester I have struggled even more than usual to be timely about e-mail and certain other relatively simple online things.  In part, this is an effect of going to WikiSym in September and starting the semester behind; also, virtually all my preps are at least somewhat new.  But I’ve just realized over the past two mornings that the Wii plays a role, too.

Last spring, when I got tenure, I bought a Wii.  My five-year-old gets 1 hour of screen time (dvd, computer, wii) per day, usually divided into 30-minute doses.  Before the Wii, he would usually watch 30 minutes of something to wake up in the morning, and then again in the late afternoon to make it through until dinner.  Now, though, he’d always prefer to play Wii over watching something.  And usually, what we play is one of the varieties of Lego games–Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones, or Lego Batman.  He likes them because their two-player mode encourages cooperation, rather than competition, because he gets ideas for building his own Lego worlds, and because they’re pretty cool.  But if what he likes about the game is two-player mode, then he needs a second player.  And so now, on weekday mornings, I play for 30 minutes with him.

You see the problem: In the past, when he was watching a DVD–especially something he’d seen 20 times before–I could do e-mail or whatever.  Especially in the mornings, this was a useful way to stay on top of my inbox before disappearing into the classroom for hours.

I didn’t realize how useful that 30 minutes was until this week, when the boy lost Wii privileges for a week. (Not a big deal–repeated instances of a minor infraction . . . I don’t think he believed we’d take it away. Hah!)  Just as he uses the DVDs to transition into the day, it is just enormously helpful to be able to point/click and do other e-mail-type things for a minute in the morning, before breakfast and getting him to kindergarten.

Maybe we should ban Wii in the morning?  Then again, he wants this game, which *is* a lot of fun, for Christmas.

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A plug for First-Year Experience classes from the NY Times sports section

Like many schools, we have a required first-year experience class. (Here’s the website for our program.) It can be satisfied in several different ways, but the most common (I think) is to take a 3-credit 100-level class plus a one-credit FYE add-on, usually taught by the same instructor.  That way, the “adapting to college” bits don’t take time away from course material, yet there’s still continuity & credibility because it’s taught by content faculty.

As with any formal requirement, many students are a bit cynical about the program, deriding it as at best a waste of time, and at worst an opportunity for brainwashing of sorts.   Some of that’s fading away as we do a better job of getting students an FYE course in their first semester.  (Next semester, I’ll be teaching second-semester students in an FYE section of 110, which is always weird.  They’ve already fallen into the bad habits that the FYE course is supposed to help inoculate them against.  Plus, because they’re in their second semester, it’s too late to spring on them the strong statistical correlation  between first-semester grades and time-to-degree.)

In the NY Times today, though, UCLA guard Jrue Holiday proclaims his fye-type class his favorite so far:

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE CLASS AT U.C.L.A.? We have a life-skills class that teaches us about stress and stuff. I guess the stress is starting to build because of the basketball, so it really helps. They make us meditate and everything. It’s kind of cool.

That humming sound you’ll hear next semester at 1pm on Wednesdays will be my FYE students meditating so they can be cool like Jrue Holiday.  (It’s far too late for me to be cool like anything, as my cyberpunk students will attest.)

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Dickens and hunting, courtesy of SI

Matthew Teague has an interesting article in Sports Illustrated this week on the decline of hunting in the United States.  Fewer hunters have meant more wildlife attacks on people, more disease, more property damage (including the cost of removing deer carcasses from interstates and roads), and so forth.  There’s also the decline of traditional, familial hunting culture, and its replacement by virtual (video games) and consumerist fantasies of it.  It’s well worth a few minutes of your time, and seems to me to be a good example of the kind of article Sports Illustrated should publish more of–bigger-picture pieces that locate sports, broadly construed, in the culture.

Teague’s basic argument is that, as Americans have become an increasingly indoor nation, we have conceived of hunting largely in moral terms, rather than in resource-management or other terms.  I don’t think he gets the moral argument quite right, however–and his mistake is readable in his abuse of a Dickens quotation:

By the middle of the 20th century, the animal population had begun to rebound, and our fathers and grandfathers could again satisfy what Charles Dickens called “the passion for hunting . . . implanted . . . in the human breast.”

But in the decades since, attitudes have shifted and hardened, and the very idea of hunting as “sport” has come to imply something cavalier.  Among animal-rights advocates it indicated indifference to wildlife.  In two generations the lone hunter–once exemplifd by Teddy Roosevelt–found himself accused of enmity toward nature.  Hunting had become a question of morality.

In reaching for a Dickens quotation to dress up his article, Teague gets tangled up in something.  The Dickens line is from Oliver Twist, Chapter 10:

There is a passion FOR HUNTING SOMETHING deeply implanted in the human breast. One wretched breathless child, panting with exhaustion; terror in his looks; agaony in his eyes; large drops of perspiration streaming down his face; strains every nerve to make head upon his pursuers; and as they follow on his track, and gain upon him every instant, they hail his decreasing strength with joy.

The “passion for hunting,” in other words, is the mob’s bloodthirsty pursuit of a wholly innocent boy, and its delight at the prospect of ravaging him.  Dickens wasn’t suggesting that people naturally like to hunt animals; he was noting that there is an unbridled bloodlust and unslakable desire for cruelty that’s intrinsic to being human. Civilization overlooks this desire at its peril.  (This is why you can’t drop in quotations out of Bartlett‘s or other resources!!)

Teague’s misreading of Dickens is consistent with his downplaying of the savage elements of hunting.  (The same elements become overly fetishized by the video-game hunters out for a thrill.)  And that’s too bad, because the fact that hunting is sometimes savage doesn’t really counter his main point: That it’s also profoundly valuable, and a defining aspect of civilization.  In fact, we could even go a bit further and say that it’s value arises in part from its savagery, because Dickens is right: If we try to ignore or wholly disallow (rather than find outlets for) that cruel instinct, then the consequences will not be to our liking.

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Coming to Dickens in spring 2009: Tikitags

Last week Alex Jarvis and I found out that we’d gotten funding for a local faculty-student research grant.  Entitled “Tagging Dickens,” it entails putting tikitags (RFID-enabled stickers) inside Dickens novels to see if it helps spur students to use supplemental materials. We’ve got no idea whether it will work, of course, but it seemed like it might produce interesting results.  The application’s project narrative is below the fold.  Details as we have them. Continue reading

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Plagiarism nightmares

The Hartford Courant reports on a nightmarish lawsuit over a student’s expulsion for plagiarism.  Though it happened at CCSU, I don’t know any of the participants in this case.  At any rate, it hardly seems worth it to get into the specifics of a case that will probably leave everyone’s reputation at least somewhat damaged.

But there are a few generic points worth making:

  1. Allowing students to turn in work to an unsecure location: Risky!  In addition to plagiarism concerns, there’s always the chance of mischief, purposive or otherwise.
  2. Relatedly: Part-time faculty need to have secure locations to receive student work.
  3. Commenters on the article seem to believe that the grammatically cleaner piece is likely to be plagiarized, because doubtless the cheater would’ve cleaned things up a bit to cover their trails.  This has not been my experience, and I’m not naive about plagiarism.  The reason is simple: If you had the time and inclination to write a good paper, and the knowledge of your subject matter to produce a coherent final draft, then you would know that “covering up your trail” in this way is as time-intensive as just writing the damn paper in the first place.  Plagiarizing well doesn’t pay–you’d be as well off doing the work.  (Assuming you’re doing this yourself, of course, and not buying a paper outright.)
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On replacing the local paper with a campus version

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, there’s a pretty good chance that the local paper, the New Britain Herald, will close.  On the faculty e-mail list, one or two faculty members have speculated about having the campus paper step into the breach.

Here’s a sampling of the local news our students could cover:

The recruiting pitch almost writes itself!

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I always knew my brain was different

Via Andrew Sullivan, here’s Jonah Lehrer reporting that, according to brain scans, it’s harder to pay with cash than with credit cards:

one of the reasons credit cards are such a popular form of debt is that they take advantage of some innate flaws in the brain. When we buy something with cash, the purchase involves an actual loss – our wallet is literally lighter. Credit cards, however, make the transaction abstract, so that we don’t really feel the downside of spending money. Brain imaging experiments suggest that paying with credit cards actually reduces activity in the insula, a brain region associated with negative feelings. As George Loewenstein, a neuroeconomist at Carnegie-Mellon says, “The nature of credit cards ensures that your brain is anaesthetized against the pain of payment.” Spending money doesn’t feel bad, so you spend more money.

I don’t know where these neuroeconomists get their volunteers, but I’ve always found it nervewracking to buy things with credit/debit cards.  It doesn’t matter how much money is in my account, or how much available credit I have: Every time I swipe a card, I’m convinced it’ll be rejected.  (I’m not alone.) It’s almost as if I spent most of my 20s in graduate school and in low-paying jobs . . .

By contrast, paying with cash is satisfyingly reliable.  I don’t use cash more because it’s irritating to have to guess the right amount before going to Target, and because I tend to spend what’s in my wallet.

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Miscellany (RBOC)

A few not-quite random things:

  • Apparently the local paper’s closing.  It wasn’t a very good paper recently, but still — that’s a blow.
  • Here’s a short video (via A.) featuring the boy’s elementary school & it’s use of continuous data-driven assessment as a way to improve performance on standardized tests.  (The video starts with information about the school’s demographics–66% “low-income,” and we live in a relatively nice part of the city.) I like the principal a lot, but it’s a little chilling to hear him speak approvingly about “taking the opinion out of teaching.”
  • I have a post at GeekDad today (Tuesday) about the cultural prehistory of Clone Commander Cody, a minor character from Revenge of the Sith who’s far more important in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
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Punctuation & attitude

I haven’t taught composition in a couple of years, less from aversion than from natural patterns (if you get reassigned time, you usually buy out comp; likewise, if you teach in an interdisciplinary program, it usually replaces comp).  In the courses I’ve been teaching, papers almost never come in all at once.  Students can write to a variety of different deadlines, and so there’s never a time when everyone’s getting a draft or a final paper back.  Also, I’ve shifted entirely to electronic submissions–largely to ward off disease, but also because my handwriting’s bad–and so there’s never that edgy class period when I’ve clearly got a stack of papers.

That means it’s been a Very Long Time since I’ve been able to do my “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” thing over, say, the abuse of the present progressive, or students’ weird habit of padding out sentences by writing, “In the novel The Egoist by author George Meredith.”  There’s nothing quite like an emotional rant on behalf of more nuanced punctuation to spice up, say, a Wednesday.

Last week I got the chance to do this again in a course I’m team-teaching, and *boy* was it fun.  And it gives me the opportunity to re-link to one of my favorite essays on grammar, Paul Robinson’s “The Philosophy of Punctuation“:

Rules are important, no question about it. But by themselves they are insufficient. Unless one has an emotional investment, rules are too easily forgotten. What we must instill, I’m convinced, is an attitude toward punctuation, a set of feelings about both the process in general and the individual marks of punctuation. That set of feelings might be called a philosophy of punctuation.

I say “a” philosophy, because I’m not yet so opinionated as to insist that everyone adopt my own. I recognize legitimate alternatives, and I’m quite aware that punctuation has a history. A single page of Thomas Carlyle, or any nineteenth-century writer, reminds us, for instance, that a comma between subject and verb–for me the most offensive of all punctuation errors–was once perfectly acceptable. A colleague of mine, whom I consider a fine writer, punctuates, as it were, by ear. That is, he seeks to reduplicate patterns of speech, to indicate through his punctuation how a sentence is supposed to sound. Consequently his punctuation lacks strict consistency. But I can respect it as guided at all times by what I consider philosophical principles.

. . .

Periods and commas are lovely because they are simple. They force the writer to express his ideas directly, to eliminate unnecessary hedges, to forgo smart-aleck asides. They also contribute to the logical solidity of a piece of writing, since they make us put all our thoughts into words.

The idea that taking up a distinctive attitude toward grammar is probably more important than a fetishized ideal of correctness seems to me exactly right, and lurks behind a surprising # of comments I make on student writing.  Re-reading the Robinson essay has me looking forward again to next semester’s composition class!

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