A gigantic pyramid scheme

It was the opening sentence of an Opinion piece in last week’s Philadelphia Inquirer that first caught my eye:

Ask students what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue and they’ll likely respond with “1492!”

I’m guessing that most students these days have no idea when Columbus sailed over here. After all, as yesterday’s Washington Post reports, two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is, and 22% “haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it.”

Continue reading

The Westchester bomb cyclone and the achievement gap

I’m about to make an observation that’s not remotely original, but this weekend’s experience was a revelation for me nevertheless, so I’m posting.

We’ve just emerged from the Great Tarrytown Blackout: two days without heat or running water in the wake of our second “bomb cyclone” of the winter.

Sidebar: It’s a good thing I like learning new words, because new-word enthusiasm mitigates the pain I feel having to learn new words about the weather. I don’t want to learn new words about the weather. Ever. And why are there new words about the weather to learn anyway? Seriously, I’m mystified. How can I have lived this long and not know all the words a normal human being who is not a meteorologist needs to know about the W-E-A-T-H-E-R? Why couldn’t I go to my grave never having encountered the phrase “polar vortex”? My parents did, and their parents before them. Ditto for bomb cyclone, a term I had never in my life laid eyes on until almost exactly two months ago, and now here it is again. Plus I got suckered on this month’s bomb cyclone because the first one was a hyped-up bust (BarStool posted a hilarious rant on the ridiculousness of January’s bombogenesis,” yet another weather word I didn’t need in my life), so I assumed the second one would be, too, and I wasn’t prepared. Wasn’t prepared as in: wet laundry mildewing in the washing machine, Subaru imprisoned behind its electric door in the garage, rooms too cold to begin with so the temp didn’t have far to fall before hitting the 50s, no idea which-hotels-where take large, hyperactive dogs, etc., etc.

Anyway: two days without heat, light, or running water.

Our back story is that during Hurricane Sandy we lived without heat and light for nine days. We stayed in our house nearly the entire time, till we finally moved in lock, stock, and barrel with my friend Debbie. I still remember vividly the joy of making coffee in her beautiful kitchen with its beautiful Nespresso machine—the first one I’d ever seen; her parents had carried it back from Italy—running on its beautiful electricity and illuminated by her beautiful electric lights. (Thomas Edison! A great American!)

By the end of the Hurricane Sandy blackout, the temperature inside our house was down to the 40s, and I was suffering a mild depression. Mild depression was the good news; others in the neighborhood were clearly experiencing some cognitive impairment. Specifically, they were developing paranoia. Paranoia about Con Edison and its whereabouts, which is not going to land anyone inside the DSM-5, but still.

That experience may sound strange, but there it is. A very short period of sustained dark and cold will alter ‘cognitive status.’ I know, because I lived it.

Point is, I think our entire household probably has some mini-PTSD on the subject of power outages. I say that because, prior to Sandy, power outages felt like adventures.

That was then. This go-round all three of us—C., Ed, and I (Jimmy & Andrew’s home had electricity)—fell apart. Our collective mood darkened, we felt severely stressed, and we had no ability to focus. Whatsoever. Ed had a huge amount to get done over the weekend and did nothing at all; C. had papers to grade and an IEP to write and did none of that; I, in what I thought was a concession to reality, didn’t even try to do anything productive but instead assigned myself the task of going through old magazines & tossing them, and I couldn’t manage even that.

It was pretty shocking, especially given the fact that it’s not as if we’ve been living on the Island of Peace and Quiet for lo these many years. I’ve always been able to work in the middle of commotion; in fact, I like a certain amount of disruption and surprise.

That’s why I have two large, young hyperactive dogs.


Sunday afternoon, with the electricity back on and the (cold) water sporadically spurting out of the faucets once again, C. said he was thinking about his students.

We had been disrupted for just two days, and our ability to focus had crashed. We weren’t sick, we weren’t hurt, we weren’t even tired. We were disrupted.

And our concentration was shot.

Most of C’s students are poor, and quite a few of them—by no means all, but quite a few—lead chronically disrupted lives.

How does a child leading a chronically disrupted life focus in school?

And how much of the achievement gap is down to chronic disruption alone?

I bet it’s a lot.

Off-topic: Broward County and the “H factor”

Broward County has been on my mind.

It’s been on my mind for the same reasons it’s been on everyone else’s mind, but it’s also taken me back to a book I read a few years ago, which believe it or not is at least tangentially related to the subject of this blog:

The H Factor of Personality: Why Some People Are Manipulative, Self-Entitled, Materialistic, and Exploitive–And Why It Matters for Everyone by Kibeom Lee and Michael C. Ashton

The “H factor”–“H” stands for honesty and humility–is a core personality dimension uncovered by a form of corpus linguistics:

Trait theory takes a lexical approach to personality, which assumes that traits can be described using single adjectives or descriptive phrases. If enough people regularly exhibit a form of behavior and no term exists in a given language to describe it, then according to the lexical hypothesis, a term will be created so that the trait may be considered and discussed with others.

Until the late 1990s, when Lee and Ashton plucked the H factor from the Korean language, lexical research had uncovered just five such dimensions. They argue that “H” should take its place alongside the Big Five:

  • Emotionality (E): emotional, oversensitive, sentimental, fearful, anxious, vulnerable versus brave, tough, independent, self-assured, stable
  • Extraversion (X): outgoing, lively, extraverted, sociable, talkative, cheerful, active versus shy, passive, withdrawn, introverted, quiet, reserved
  • Agreeableness (A): patient, tolerant, peaceful, mild, agreeable, lenient, gentle versus ill-tempered, quarrelsome, stubborn, choleric
  • Conscientiousness (C): organized, disciplined, diligent, careful, thorough, precise versus sloppy, negligent, reckless, lazy, irresponsible, absent-minded
  • Openness to Experience (O): intellectual, creative, unconventional, innovative, ironic versus shallow, unimaginative, conventional

And, now:

  • Honesty-Humility (H): sincere, honest, faithful, loyal, modest/unassuming versus sly, deceitful, greedy, pretentious, hypocritical, boastful, pompous (You can take the quiz here.)

Fun side note: Lee and Ashton weren’t actually looking for a 6th personality factor when they found it. They were looking to see whether Korean personality adjectives sorted into the same five categories Western adjectives do.

The answer was yes: Koreans describe personality the same way we do.

Having established the apparent universality of the Big 5, they decided to see what happened when they sorted the list into 6, 7, and 8 factors:

[N]ow we wondered how the Korean adjectives would sort themselves out if we asked the computer to sort them into more than five groups. So we checked out the results for six and seven and eight factors. . . . To some extent we were just procrastinating, taking a break from the chore of writing the manuscript. But we were curious to see what would happen.

(Now there is one fruitful bout of procrastination.)

The rest is history:

When we looked at the results for eight factors or seven factors, some of the categories were very small, consisting of only a few adjectives. But the results for six factors were much more interesting. . . . . [T]here was a sixth factor that was fairly large and easy to interpret: on one side, it had adjectives (translated from Korean) such as truthful, frank, honest, unassuming, and sincere; on the other side, it had adjectives such as sly, calculating, hypocritical, pompous, conceited, flattering, and pretentious….

At first we were surprised to see that there was a large sixth factor. The previous studies of the English personality lexicon had found only five; no sixth factor could be recovered…. [W]e started checking the results of some recent lexical studies conducted in various European languages. Now, most of these studies had focused on whether or not the Big Five would be recovered. In a few studies, however, the authors did mention briefly the results they found when they examined six factors. In each case, they found a factor that was defined by terms such as sincere and modest versus deceitful, greedy, and boastful–much like the factor that we observed in our Korean study.

So: basically the H factor is the a****** factor.

The corrupt a******* factor.

Which brings me to Broward County and its police department.

When reports emerged that one Broward County deputy had failed to enter the building, and, subsequently, that other Broward officers had also failed to enter the building, I wondered.

Who runs into the building where children are being murdered?

Because we know people do run into the building.

What kind of person runs inside?

What kind of person doesn’t?

Like everyone else, I’d seen multiple references to “Broward cowards”….but what makes a cowardly police officer? What makes 3 or 4 cowardly police officers inside the same sheriff’s office?

Having read The H Factor, I think the answer is corruption.

Who runs inside the building?

People with integrity.

When corrupt officials are in charge, no one is safe.

I’ll post my Goodreads review of The H Factor later on.