Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Favorite Things: Confirmation (Anti)Bias

Woke commentators and many of my friends (who are all woke, lol) have astutely pointed out that the vast majority of the Les Bleus players have African heritage.  It's so conspicuous that France has been dubbed the Africa's "sixth" World Cup team.  We can thank colonialism, obvi. 

These observations about colonialism as inseparable from France’s talented team are true. Like American Slavery, it was a Big Bang type event. And like slavery, most of us (including me) are more ignorant than knowledgeable of the personal experience, systemic ramifications and historical reverberations. Yet there is more to the story, for even after slavery and colonialism ended, history kept happening. There has there been, of course, some movement towards justice and rectification.  

But a word to the woke: it is also really, really important for us to remember this post-history also includes new forms of unjust or non-benign action (not to mention bald oppression here and there) that we ought to learn about. I think you could say these assertions spring from an almost desirous confirmation bias.   Sometimes in the process of being justified in subverting mainstream accounts we lose some curiosity, over laser finger-pointer loses loses some precision.

On this score, Ezra Klein just made this really good video, "Why France Produces the Most World Cup Players."  It is informative about the post-colonial history of France and the development of soccer talent there. It reminder to stay curious, going beyond ready answers.

Also, this piece in the Washington Post by Karen Attiah who acknowledges the "#RootingForEverybodyBlack sentiment" while tripling down and going way past the mere assertions of colonialism.

Let's stay adopt a bit of confirmation (anti)bias and stay curious, because if you stop looking for new folds in your ball of truth, you might just fall asleep.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Rich Get Richer; the Rest of Us Are Blind - Part II

Now, really, groupthink and bandwagon effects on museum attendance or a city's ability to attract tourists are far less significant than how they can actually affect people.

I was listening to an episode in Season 2 of Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent podcast, Revisionist History, discussing a study by two Vanderbilt University professors examining the fact that white students are far more likely, 2 times more likely, in fact, to be placed into gifted and talented education (GATE) programs than black cbildren. ("Miss Buchanan's Period of Adjustment")  They look at a large sample of elementary school students and equalize for test scores, income, health of parents, age of children entering kindergarten – age, class, health of parents.  None of these factors bear any significance of the disproportionate placement rates. So what gives? 

What the researchers found is, like underrated cities or paintings, black students were also overlooked for nothing intrinsic to the students themselves, i.e., the relevant factor of intelligence and capability.    It had nothing to do with the child's ability, but the teacher's ability, to see. 

For white students, black and white teachers are just as likely to assign them to (GATE) programs. But for black students, a white teacher was 50% less likely to assign black students to receive gifted and talent services.  50%!   Remember that adage about black people having to be twice as good?  

It's not about the viewed, but the viewer. 

So what’s really going on?  Well, take almost any object and it would that our expectations can, simply put, cloud our judgment.   And it’s not always simply a matter of chauvinism, prejudice or lenses that are sinister in that way.  (I said, not always). Perhaps our brains seek experiences that confirm the expectations?  Perhaps, social creatures that we are, we seek to have the same experience as other and feel that experience in the same way?   Another way to put it, we look for the same things. 

So we may, like a teacher unfamiliar with black children or traveler simply seeking “an art museum experience” look for well-known, widely identified qualities, traits and entities.  For example, I know that just sounding black, which, look, is probably going to happen is you grow up in a predominantly African American milieu, is just not considered to be a correlate of exceptional intelligence, though sounding British generaally is.  This is not a casual example.  Considering  that I am black, I know I  see differently in really crucially different ways from many of my education colleagues.   

The educators who fail to place - misplace- the myriad gifted black children* and other children of color are essentially blind.  There's a fair debate about the causes of this "blindness ".  But  there's no debate about the cost.  

In Paris, travelers may corral themselves into the Louvre and take an hour just to see one painting.  Or, you may book a second trip to Paris before visiting Cape Town or Rio once.   Or…

When I moved to suburban Riverside in 8th grade the my middle school disregarded all my previous academic records and placed me in the “regular” classes.  At my mother’s insistence they allowed me to take the GATE test, which I passed, and after that I pretty much enrolled in all the honors and AP classes my high school then made available.  Sure, I was smart.  But no smarter than Patrick, who absolutely should have shared more classes with me than simply Mr. William's Health Science in 9th grade.   Why didn't more teachers see him?

That said, I was definitely, definitely less gifted, in the realm of language, than Mike.  Mike was a sharp mind, a brown kid – was he Puerto Rican? Black and Samoan? Mexican?  I don't actually remember.   But what I do remember is that he could cut you with words 100 ways.  No anecdote is adequate.  No teacher saw enough in him to say, you’ll be joining us in honors and AP, and maybe he didn’t have a parent who advocated the way my mother did.  My freshman year at Cal I learned that Mike was stabbed to death in a street fight.  Was Mike  likely to l have had a different outcome if he had been given the opportunity take the same classes  that I did and get on the same college track? The question answers itself.

The story of Mike is a long way from Paris and the Louvre.  It’s actually closer to home, though, considering I'm a teacher.  And so, maybe we can all be mindful to make sure the rich – artworks, cities, people – earn their fine regard.  

And, more importantly, that we do our best to see the unheralded in as much glory as we can possibly see or, at least, imagine.

*I want to say right now that even the notion of separating kids and tracking them along the  lines of perceived "giftedness" is problematic and I believe I work against in my education work. Still, there's going to be MIT and Caltech. College may be an appropriate time for that sorting  to happen, secondary and primary education is absolutely not the time. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Rich Get Richer; the Rest of Us are Blind - Part I

I once had a friend in high school, Patrick E-----------, who seemed to possess that top-tier comedian’s talent for provoking a laugh even before the punchline.    It seemed like every single observation he made in Mr. William’s Health Science class drew forth giggles.  Especially from the girls. 

Without question, this biracial, not short for long kid with the sloping cottony afro and kinda long, kinda foreign name was charismatic and witty.   He was affable and good natured but, really, when you compared him to other folks, he was neither comedian nor clown. 

He just never seemed to try too hard.  And that effortlessness, along with what seemed to be outsized reactions, was a bit puzzling to me.

Real conversation:
“Yo, Pat, these girls be crazy. They laugh at everything you say.  Man, if you said, “Carrot”, they’d be like, ‘Hehehe.  He said car-rot!’  If I said carrot, they’d be like, ‘Uh, ok.’”
 “I knowwww!”  he agreed, smiling widely. 

So, with every comment Pat’s stature as someone really humorous grew.

This memory came to mind recently as I was walking through Paris and realized that while the number of charming and awesome things about Paris is really innumerable, and while in so many ways its reputation is well deserved, still it and many of its “artifacts” can be, to varying degrees, overhyped.  Not only that, but the hype tends to further enhance the status of that to which it is applied.

Look, the Eiffel Tower!

Look, the Eiffel Tower, again!

Eiffel Tower again, again

Did Pat “deserve” all those giggle?  Was his every comment equally mirth inducing?   I don’t think so, but what he had was, “a reputation.”  And that reputation was like a Visa with which he gained purchase into the hearts and funny bones of many a Valley View High 9th grader. 

The same dynamic is at play with Paris.  In both cases, you might simply call it another iteration of, once again, “the rich getting richer.”

First, the Mona Lisa
Every year, over 6 million people flock to the Louvre Museum to snatch a glimpse, and now many a selfie, of the woman with the half smile.  It is the most famous painting in the world and as cavernous as the Louvre is, crowds cram into this one viewing hall. 
It took three quarters of an hour for the midday Monday crowd to shuffle inch by inch to come finally face to bulletproof encased face with this beauty for the ages.

You’re in the vicinity of “the greatest painting ever, Dude!” but hey, you’ve got to pass the time: 

I’m no art historian, but I’ve seen a painting or two in my day, and I wonder, does this portrait deserve all the renown?  

The man who put Mona Lisa on the map is unequivocal here.  In 1867, Walter Pater wrote: 
“Hers is the head upon which all “the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions...

Yeah, but were you alone, Mona Lisa, really worth an hour of my time?

Her reputation however, is enough to draw throngs and, I wonder how many really desire a second visit.  Isn’t that really the test of the highest art, the desire to take multiple bites, to keep coming back?

The Louvre Museum
The museum in which the Mona Lisa is housed, the Louvre Museum, also ascends higher that it might should, in great part owing to it’s reputation.

It’s massive, labrynthine and displays thousands of art pieces.   For an artwork, getting selected by the Louvre is like induction into the Art Hall of Fame.  Yeah, maybe the local museum in Scranton, Kyoto or Amsterdam, has “retired” your number.   But inclusion in the Louvre, that’s the ultimate rejoinder to “You’ll never amount to anything.”    The halls dedicated to European art are the most trafficked, but it holds art from around the world. 

In many ways this volume and diversity is a virtue.  But how many medieval Christian are pieces does one really need to see?  It's all subjective, but hardly any of them took my breathe away.  And getting from one hall to the next was itself a small trial.  

Compare the Louvre to the much smaller Musee D’Orsay, which houses Monet’s Water Lilies, Van Gogh’s self-portrait or if you’ve been there, that one of the tall, draped Moor with sword in hand, lording over his bloody beheaded rival.  

Which museum is better?  I don’t think it’s simply a matter of perspective.   Maybe the paintings in the Louvre, and the stories they tell are central stars in major constellations of Western, Greco-Judeo Christian or even world history.   After all, the pharaoh sculpture and below is pretty dang cool.

But, piece for piece, the art works in the Musee D’orsay, shine more brightly.   And if you disagree with that assessment, then the museum-going experience itself -- 1 hour entrance lines, cramped viewing halls, disorientation throughout --  calls for the Louvre to consider making a few changes.   Ignore the hype and if you are visiting Paris, make the Musee D’Orsay your FIRST stop.

Next on trial, Paris
Third, the visual experience Paris itself.  It’s definitely not as overhyped as The Louvre.  But somehow, I became indiscriminate in my picture taking as every view seemed, well,  picturesque. 

Look, the limestone facades glisten modestly in the sunlight.  The ironwork balconies and roof crests add form and detail.  The boxy trees reach wide and high; they always seem to reach as high as the rooftops, but that’s really just greenery seemingly hung from every balcony.  The greenery seems to be a type of jewelry adorning ever corner of the city.  Yes, Louis XIV set out to make a capital city befitting the greatness of France and he succeeded wildly.

My building
Yeah, random doors "be like, Whoa"
Balcony close-up; designs are myriad

And besides the basic architecture you have a river running through the city, historic landmarks  on every block, and innumerable statues that say, “Stop.  Here standa man or woman who made history.  Behold.”  

Because, sunsets

Everyone says, Paris is the most beautiful city!  But really, Is Paris the Helen of Troy of cities, the most beautiful men have ever set their eyes upon?  Is it more “beautiful” than Amsterdan, 


or Rio?

Possibly.   But if so, only because like so many other things that matter, beauty is itself constructed.   The visual arts, namely movies and photography have set Paris – its geography and geometry – as the template, and manufactured stories that add to the legend.  What you get is a virtuous -- or from a different perspective, unfortunate -- feedback loop.  

Not just Paris, or Paintings. 

And it’s not just Paris.  It happens with people too.  In the next post a few reflections in the field of education.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Back to Cali

I'm back from Paris, but there are still many observations that I haven't yet had a chance to explore here on this blog.   So, I imagine that as long as I keep this up this summer the loose and tight observations I wind for The Spool will often relate to my time in Paris.   

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Throughout Paris and I'd imagine France, too, there are monuments everywhere.  Clearly, there's a real emphasis on remembering the past.  Like, even in one site, like the Luxembourg Gardens, there are numerous statues - not just busts, but full on, life-sized statues.  Monuments and statues can be a form of hero worship, which I and many of my peers are trained to resist.  It's reflexive.  But, really, doesn't it depend on who the heroes are?  I don't know any of my folks who'd be like, "That Malcolm X statute... Whatever..."  Nope. 

Recently monuments to the Confederacy have come under renewed scrutiny from a range of parties.  Not just civil rights advocates, but the likes of New Orleans' Mayor Mitch Landrieu, among others.  It's easy for us to be complacent about all this, I think there are lot of people who realize, hey, the window could be closing on our opportunity to beat back these most overt methods of normalizing of white supremacy.  Check out Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny  for a sober, well-reasoned argument for why this country (I mean America) could very much move in the completely opposite trajectory from the wave we thought we were riding upon the election of Barack Obama, even if assertions of a post-racial society were very wrong.

So, here are just a few pictures of various monuments around Paris.
Joan of Arc  

Saint Sulpice

Alexander Dumas, writer of over 250 novels, including Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo, both greatly inspired by his father

Pope Jean Paul II, outside of Notre Dame Cathedral

Random and unnamed to me, but probably important to many.  
Luxembourg Gardens
The Abolition of Slavery in France (twice!), adjacent to the statue of Alexander Dumas and fils.  A statute to the the father of Alexander Dumas is proposed for the site as well.

The Pantheon.  Word has it that France sought exhume Josephine Baker from her grave in Morocco and inter her here, making her I believe the only foreigner to be interred in the Pantheon.

The Arc De Triomphe

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Paris, Day 3 -- Pleasant Surprises

Today was the day of unexpected, pleasant surprises. Some of my best travel experiences have been these.  I think it’s something about blank canvas and all.

The Unexpected #1: Cross-fit Gym #1789 - Luxembourg Gardens!
I did my first run of my trip in and around Luxembourg Gardens.  Running through the “tail” I saw various workout equipment and did a short crossfit style workout.  

The Unexpected, #2: Paris Jazz Festival
A few hours later I went to the Paris Jazz Festival where Raul Midon was to perform the 4pm set.  The folks at the Black Paris Tours said they set up blanket there, so come on out.   For all practical purposes I don’t speak any French and I’m traveling solo, so it was nice to hang for a few hours with a chill group of people who could relate culturally.  Talking about graphic novels, being on both sides of the communications revolution (doing the you remember cassette tapes, rotary phones and beepers?) and diverging on the significance of Sally Hemmings and Jefferson was all food for the soul.  
That's me in the green shirt.   Turns out half these folks had Berkeley or Oakland connections,

The Unexpected, #3: No Rain Out
It was supposed to thunderstorm that afternoon, throughout Sunday’s jazz performances.  Apart from taking out the umbrellas to placate the couple kids with us and ward off a not-quite drizzle, it did not rain.  Considering the gathering was outdoors (the jazz itself was under cover) it was a leap of faith to go.   Faith rewarded.

The Unexpected, #4: What's it's not just any old park?
The say ignorance is bliss, which is half-true.*   But what if all you knew about the park was to take place is that it was a park?  What if the fine print of the event description, all in French, said, “Massages de cou gratuits a tous les spectateurs”?  You show up and you get way more than just a concert?  Score!  So there I am headed out to Parc Floral de Paris at the Chateau de Vincennes stop?  Little do I know this is THE BOTANICAL GARDEN OF PARIS!!!  And considering that the Parisiens hang flower and plants EVERYWHERE well, you know the bar is set kinda high.

So, upon gather our things and bidding farewell and ignorant of what this park really is, I decide to walk the park because, why not?  Oh snap!  This park is nuts,  Bonzai gardens, bamboo ensconced tea houss, a room dedicated to Succulents du Monde, medicinal plants garden and oh yeah, c’mon now, all those dang flowers and plants are just, um, really pretty.

 The Unexpected, #5: Chateau de Vincennes
What if, like, you lived across the street from a castle?  Dang.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Food Interlude!

Just gotta step away from the day-based logging of my comings and goings to celebrate the food that has nourished my vacation.  Below are pics and reflections on just some of the wonnderful meals or meal courses I have had.  

But first, in honor of  one of the meals I didn't take a picture of but really, really enjoyed, courtesy of Family'z, a quick food joint across from the music spot, Onze Bar:

Ode to Mediterranean Wraps
Oh Mediterranean Wrap, how you are made to order.
Your almost too-hotness is the flip side of
Your grilled ill-ité
Your char sets my heart ajar.

Oh wrap, how are you marry tasty bite-size meat,
grilled onions, lettuce and diced tomatoes to a
A most perfect union.
“With this pita bread thou art wed.”

Oh wrap, you contain multitudes
and so you may very well contradict yourself.
Oh well:
One, you are fast yet still food.
Two, you are seasoned sublimely and
could quote E-40 “Sprinkle Me” without
being salty.
(Mom would say, you're a little Pepper!)
Three, except for that small Seine of juice staining this notebook page,
you are juicy without being messy.
Have a word with Carl’s Jr., won’t you?

But I am not mad atcha –
the healthy, unempty calories you fill me with
also soak into these pages. 

So, Mediterranean wrap, you are the best-est!
Others can see you any way they want,
(except naked, of course, for you are ever swaddled in pita, haha)
but for me, your stain blob
on my notepad
is a Rorshach
of health and happiness.


Bavette (Flank Steak)  
Two things: One, half the time I see bavette on the all French menu I'm like, I'll have that!  This happened to be my first meal.    Two, "Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick."  That doubly true for my thinking as I progress in age, it seems.   So,I was seriously like, unironically, "Haha, I'm having french fries with like one of the tastiest steaks I've ever had."  Then I was like -- and sadly, this wasn't right away, like when you are about to step in crap but nimbly double-step with the off foot, averting shame -- "Ok, ok, the French just call them fries (frites)."
 Hamburger (Trust me)
Man, this bistro did so many things wrong and still, at the end of the meal I was like, W-T-F just happened?

First, I ordered a Jack and Coke, and this guy brings me a bottle of Coke, a small glass of 4 ice cubes, a stirring spoon, and maybe 2 - 2.5 ounces of bourbon. I'm supposed to mix my drink? Second, they say they have no frites (in France of all places!) so I choose a substitue spelled like maybe mashed is not the translation.  Third, as you can see, yeah, they were out of bun (probably brioche) so would the bread they use for croque monsieur be ok?  Sure.
Listen that's way too many mishaps for one meal, and yet, by the end, you could all it bliss..

Choix du fromage (Chevre)
I was completely like, "Huh?" when the lettuce and tomato wedge came with the chevre.  I'm not saying it was better than that tube I get at Trader Joe's to pair with roasted beets, but like the Rolling Stones said, "You can't always get..."

Decisions Were Made

Listen, I do not consider myself to be a vain person.  I don't like spending all that much time in the mirror.  I don't mind being well-nigh bald (denial!), but yeah, I'd prefer a say in the matter.  And if you know me, you can imagine I wouldn't mind being a little taller.*  

But what these croissants and baguettes have done to my belly? Ridiculous! Sacrableu!  Talk about inflation!  They're destroying in maybe 4 days what it took 4 months of Crossfit to build up.   I honestly only started doing Crossfit to improve my run time, but all the residual benefits does have me sometimes nodding at my reflection with approval.  

You got to understand something though, these croissants are great!  So basically, I've got to decide between the croissants and my ab game.   Like the Warriors singing on the team bus/plane two playoffs ago, "I'm in love with the croissant!"   Sacrableu! Ok, I guess I'll be doing another run through Luxembourg Gardens.

Ok, I haven't had this one yet.  It suggests a macaroon which, now that I've had a couple, yo lo compremendo totalmente. 

*Side note, once in our teens, 15 and 16 respectively) my cousin Derrick and I
were walking at the Woodbridge Mall when we passed two dudes who seemed related too, but much taller.  No words, we just looked at each other and laughed.  D managed to make it much closer to 6' than to 5'.  And I, well, am always tempted to be figurative (or lie) when asked specifically about my height:  I stand tall, lol.)