Give Your Brain Credit: Comment More Online

A great way to make your learning concrete is to respond to it. In creating a more thoughtful web presence, a good experiment is to comment more on the blog posts or articles you read. You already have an opinion on them (otherwise, why would you have read them through?), so become part of the community, or at least give your brain credit by putting those opinions into words.

Here are some places I’ve commented lately:

The Number of PhDs on food stamps triples (Sociological Images)
New CSTA K-8 Teaching Resource (Computer Science Teachers Association)
32 New Things: Put A Significant Amount of Money Into A Roth IRA (Yes and Yes)
13 Rules for Being Alone and Being Happy About It (Advanced Riskology)
Adulting Step 225: Get married for the right reasons (Adulting)

Bonus that I didn’t comment on but which brought on my comment at Sociological Images:
“Why Smart People Are Stupid” by Jonah Lehrer on The New Yorker
The ridiculous oversight inherent in using ONLY undergraduates in academic research about the human condition is blatant. Why do the media continue to believe this kind of limiting research? Perhaps Lehrer is attempting an altogether too-adept stroke of irony by proclaiming, through a fairly “smart” publication, that its readers are shortsighted, while being itself quite shortsighted.


Book Report: Dear John, I Love Jane

Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for WomenDear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women by Candace Walsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dear John, I Love Jane was eye-opening but left quite a bit of pain to be desired. Forgive the possibly sadomasochistic oxymoron, as pain rarely falls under the category of desirable. Nevertheless, the book lacks the naturally suggested heartache — even destruction — in the stories of women leaving behind devoted partners and choosing lovers of a completely different orientation, often in addition to leaving children and established families.

Despite the assumed tragedy in such stories, most of the anthology seemed to repeat the same one-sided anecdote of the sexually unsatisfied, arguably inexperienced women who married too young before finding new love — not necessarily just novel love — with a cast of interesting female characters. It would have been a more thorough picture of their experiences though, to include the men’s stories, the husbands’ stories. The dissolution of a family, especially one with young children or adult children, is not a thing to ignore. Yet I found it sorely untouched in this selection. Some of the pain of lost love, the inconvenience of dissolving a heavily financial and codependent arrangement like marriage, certainly dusts the pages. But not enough.

Certainly, the coming-of-age inherent in coming out as an older adult, rather than as an adolescent, rings with personal discovery, the beauty of being born again and finding identity. That’s really what this book was about. It does a fantastic job of painting striking, even erotic images of female bi- and homosexuality. But the deeper significance of finding that self-actualization amid family crisis was completely left out. It would be great to someday see a version of this anthology from male writers whose partners left their married families for a different sexuality.

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Book Report: Sex at Dawn

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern SexualitySex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This anthropological review of human sexuality theory and history is neatly argued, but still flawed. The basic argument is that we are not evolved for monogamy, a point illustrated by many rebuttals of contradictory “research” throughout recent history, as well as evaluations of sexual practices in the communities of our evolutionary siblings — bonobo monkeys, in particular.

The central flaw in arguing that we should not, according to the authors, expect ourselves to adhere to monogamy, lies in the pure fact that monogamy ideals have grown and flourished in our agricultural, large-scale western societies. (The case is different in isolated tribes in the rest of the world.) Our bodies may not be evolutionarily suited to monogamy, but our emotions and our societal conditioning seem to be. Indeed, this is why so many people in first-world Western countries still have emotional difficulty with cheating partners or, in more liberal circles, the practice of polyamory. The authors of Sex at Dawn seem to recommend the latter, but even professional sex and relationship guru Dan Savage has to counsel polyamorous wannabes to go slow and take baby steps to re-condition their monogamous hearts.

All in all, this book was very thought-provoking, a must-read for any sociology nerd. However, a huge takeaway from it is my new conviction that human beings really need to stop trying to understand why we act the way we do, and just take it a day at a time. Anthropology and psychology are well and good, but at the end of the day, it’s our party and we’ll cry if we want to — or, more accurately, we’ll be monogamous or polygamous if we want to.

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I love this melded image of Natalie Portman and Audrey Hepburn, from (click image for source)

Yes, I love bad plays on words — in this case, “web” and “bibliography.” Here are a few things I’ve been reading about on the web that mean something to me, and the takeaways I gained from them.

Travel is an exercise in perspective, from BreatheDreamGo.

Kelly Williams Brown of Adulting says that grown-up people should be able to sit down and read something long-form.

MindHacks cites a study from the European Journal of Psychology that found that “physically attractive people are more likely to be psychologically balanced and accepting than the rest of us.” I think this depends on whether “physically attractive people” are universally attractive. From the study itself: “contemporary studies have revealed that people share common views of physical attractiveness regardless of race, age or nationality.” However, I completely disbelieve the study, because the participant sample and “judges” (model recruiters living in London — whose profession is based on completely commercialized ideals, not actual “beauty”) are severely limited. The researchers themselves admit this in the limitations of their paper. Tough luck, “science.”

Video break! Walk Off the Earth does “Somebody I Used to Know”… with 5 people on 1 guitar!

Sociological Images shows the overcrowding of California prisons, making me grateful to have been raised as a law-abiding citizen in our prison-heavy country.

Lindy West on Jezebel says, “Stop using cavemen as an excuse for your fad diet,” and it’s true. Paleo diets are silly, as are diets of McNuggets and fries. We evolved to eat somewhere in between the two: think whole grains, fresh produce and local animal products in moderation.

The Supposed Evils of Sidetalk


The text: “Causons bavardage,” from MAIF, a French insurance provider (translation: “Let’s talk chatter”)
The media: blog post/article
The thought: Sidetalk or chatter in classrooms is a widespread roadblock to productivity. There are ways to identify and mitigate it.
The lesson: Teachers might do better to embrace the learning power of student chattiness, instead of stifling it.

Pourquoi les élèves bavardent-ils ?
Explication qui revient le plus souvent : ” Un élève bavarde d’abord parce qu’il s’ennuie “.


Why do students talk so much in class?
The most recurrent explanation: “Students talk in class primarily because they are bored.”

These infuriating, generalized lines tell only half the story. Although I’m hesitant to make generalizations about the entirety of an education system, I did spend time teaching and observing in a public French high school, and I did also read François Bégaudeau’s Entre les murs. A motif common to both of these is teachers’ ongoing struggle to quiet the incessant sidetalk (supposedly) inevitable in all classrooms. Many French teachers, and probably many teachers worldwide, spend a great deal of energy on attaining the (supposed) holy grail of classroom management: a silent class.

Silence is not the natural state of the average student, at any age. Chattiness is a social behavior, and I disagree that it comes primarily from boredom.* A good classroom should not be absolutely silent; instead, there should be enough opportunities for students to chat with each other about the subject matter that they won’t have time to digress into idle chitchat. This permission to chat freely about academic material is sometimes called “buzzing” in American, or at least Californian, school culture.

The MAIF article goes on to cite widespread disrespect for French teachers by their students, and tells tales of failed classroom management descending into unrecoverable chaos. As a student, I would certainly become bored, yes, and consequently lose respect for my teachers if I were yelled at or sent out of class every time the noise level reached above a whisper.

Entre les murs

It’s certainly true that well-behaved students may appear to be the most hardworking and productive. But generalizing the well-behaved learner as the best of all learners is like generalizing a sheep’s follower mentality to be the most effective in the entire animal kingdom. Everyone learns differently, and many of us learn effectively through discussion. The flaw in the reasoning of “Causons bavardage” is in its insistence that talking in class is only ever bad, never good. I shudder to think that an entire country’s educators make the same generalization as MAIF.

The end of the article makes some huge concessions about its initial closed-mindedness, which I’ll translate here unofficially so that they can speak for themselves.

Selon Florence Ehnuel, il est primordial de poser une réflexion sur la façon de gérer la classe.
” D’abord en mettant en place une pédagogie adaptée via des travaux en groupe, des pauses, des activités variées et ensuite en repensant le cours magistral qui ne peut plus aujourd’hui être qu’un outil parmi d’autres ” Yann a entendu parler du co-enseignement, mesure qui consiste à faire intervenir deux enseignants dans une même classe. Ainsi, ces derniers supervisent des activités différentes à des moments distincts.
Enfin, tous les témoins de ce dossier insistent lourdement sur la formation du corps enseignant en terme de gestion de groupe, qu’ils estiment très insuffisante et inadaptée à la réalité du terrain.

According to Florence Ehnuel, it is essential to consider methods of classroom management, “first by enacting  teaching practices adapted via group work, breaks, and a variety of activities, and then by rethinking the traditional lecture style, which nowadays should only be one tool among many.” Yann [a music teacher] mentions the discussion of co-teaching, a method that consists of introducing two teachers in one class. In this model, the two teachers lead different activities at specific times.
Finally, readers of this report strongly emphasize teacher training in the realm of classroom management, which said readers find very lacking and poorly adjusted to the reality of the field.

*Translation note: not to argue semantics, but it’s also possible that here, d’abord simply means “first of all.” I chose “primarily” for the sake of making my point.

Book Report: Ender’s Game

Ender's Game (Ender's Saga, #1)Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ender’s Game seems to be on the favorites list of everyone who was once a nerdy pre-teen boy. After seeing it on so many such lists, in fact, I decided to investigate. I asked a lot of now-grown men what exactly drew them to Ender’s Game and left such an impression, but I’m still slightly mystified.

I think the appeal may lie in the endless battle sequences, which may certainly appeal to some — girls, even! — but not to me. I found the pacing of the story incredibly slow: all the talk of an all-out war with the buggers, and not a plotline climax to be seen… until the last thirty pages. The book drags on about Ender’s ascent in rank as soldier, with a few twists and turns, and although I suppose the meat of the overall plot is dynamic enough, I personally didn’t feel connected to any of it. I admit that the ending was a shock, but not enough to excuse the previous 200 pages of unsophisticated jumps forward by years within the span of a paragraph, unromantic narrative, and characters who somehow never became real to me.

The video game simulations seemed contrived and irrelevant to me, and the picture of life at the battle school wasn’t vivid enough for me to find it a worthy place to spend the majority of the book. By the end, I felt almost like each character was a different physical representation of the same boring army type — even Valentine, the “soft” sister character.

Pop culture phenomena certainly interest me, and I’m glad to have finally checked this one out. But it didn’t captivate me enough to make me follow through with the rest of the series. Like The Hunger Games, I feel this book could stand alone just fine, and I was much less enchanted by this one than by The Hunger Games.

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The Economics of the Dowager’s Hump

"The Economics of the Dowager's Hump"The texts: The battle between your present and future self (Daniel Goldstein, speaker) and Cost of Eating Healthy vs. Unhealthy Part 2 (Lynn of Fit2Fat2Fit), On being wrong (Kathryn Schulz, speaker)
The media: TED talk, blog post, TED talk
The thought: In finances and health, our present “wrong” decisions strongly affect our future self and outcome. It is hard to satisfy one without sacrificing the well-being of the other.
The lesson: [Test your critical literacy by reading this post and finding a lesson of your own! Tell me in the comments. You’ll find mine at the end. :)]

A friend of mine is in medical school, and whenever we talk, she teaches me many new things that she has learned in her classes there. A lot of them are cautionary tales — when pregnant, you must strike a perfect balance between no vitamin A and too much vitamin A if you don’t want your baby to have this or that vision defect; to avoid the dreaded Dowager’s hump (I just spent way too long looking for the perfect link for “Dowager’s hump”), people under 30 should take calcium three times a day, but that after 30 there’s nothing more you can do (!).

In thinking about these lessons, and relating them to what I’ve seen in our self-diagnosing culture (WebMD, anyone?), I can’t help believing that outside the laboratory/doctor’s office, medical advancements and their propagation in the real world (not to mention the ever-viral internet) are perpetuating paranoia. Here is what I think happens:

  • making mistakes and getting bad results (or seeing the result of other people’s mistakes) makes us afraid of incurring more mistakes
  • fear inspires prevention
  • prevention means
    • seeking to better inform our choices and avoid mistakes,
    • only making choices with known, good outcomes, or
    • blindly depriving ourselves for the sake of a future payoff

How does this flow of fear and future relate to my texts? Well, Daniel Goldstein researches this exact science, and he inspired my above thinking. You can watch his TED talk below, where, among other things, he demonstrates how people can make more economically beneficial decisions for themselves by seeing a simulation of their future self’s emotions in correlation to their present decisions.

This is certainly interesting, and I’m sure I would have benefited financially from these ideas before choosing my undergraduate institution, which has left me with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. But an important aspect of that choice I made, is that I don’t regret it. Goldstein’s projects hinge on people’s readiness to regret their choices. Let’s look at another facet of regret.

At, Drew, a personal trainer, decided to spend six months gaining weight on a typical American diet and activity lifestyle, then working himself back to health in another six months. His wife, Lynn, recently wrote a reflection on the unforeseen health and financial costs of his “fat” stage. She mentions doctor visits and buying creams for chafing, and the extra costs of dining out — all of which were mostly unexpected or surprising. She counsels others to avoid these by staying healthy, since the long run benefit is so great. That is, like in the case of the dowager’s hump, without knowledge of how we may harm our future selves, we sometimes make poor choices and incur unexpected costs, which causes us to regret our past ignorance (or simple carelessness).

This brings me to “On being wrong,” Kathryn Schulz’s TED talk. You can watch it below; her essential message is that we need to allow ourselves to be unconventional, and to let go of this whole “wrong” thing. I equate the “wrong” thing to that feeling of regret when we find that our choices have led us to “pay”: needing chafing cream or having a dowager’s hump, or simply being embarrassed that our ideas don’t match society’s definition of correct.

There is no time to waste in our lives regretting choices we have already made. If they were “wrong,” then so be it — we’ll simply deal with them the best we can. For my student debt, I am doing my best to understand my finances and pay them off gradually. From fear of dowager humps (which prevails in spite of love for the name), I did start taking calcium, but who knows how long that habit will last. Plus, if my future self is unhealthy, it will probably be a result of a general set of mistakes, not just calcium-related. So I’ll just try to continue being healthy right now, in the best way I know how — running, eating well, drinking water, etc. It’s true that my future self depends heavily on my present self being perfect and omniscient. But how dare my future self demand that of me?

The lesson: Continue reading