sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

September 22, 2015

What If “Islamophobia” Clock Was A Dry Run?

Filed under: jihad, politics — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 6:57 pm

A few days ago both me and DH got messages from our elementary school.  Turns out, some bum was arrested a block away, which triggered emergency proceedings in school and students were marched out of their classrooms.

Meanwhile in Texas 14-year old Ahmet Mohamed brought something he called a clock (tick-tock, tick-tock) to school.  He showed the device to his teachers just one of whom thought it looked too much like a bomb and called police.  As Pamela Geller notes:

When police questioned the boy, WFAA reports, they said he was “passive aggressive” and didn’t give them a “reasonable answer” as to why he had brought his contraption to the school. “We attempted to question the juvenile about what it was and he would simply only say it was a clock. He didn’t offer any explanation as to what it was for, why he created this device, why he brought it to school,” said James McLellan of the Irving Police Department.

Although the IED-looking project turned out to be an  80’s Radio Shack digital clock , the teen’s alleged genius immediately drew praises from the political and corporate establishment, receiving high profile invitations, including Google, NASA and the White House.  That’s one way to shame the jittered “islamophobes”.

Because Ahmet’s dad is an Islamic activist, it’s generally assumed that the family attempted, successfully, to gain notoriety.  But what if the motives of the perpetrators were more sinister?  How do we know that Ahmet’s “Islamophobia” clock wasn’t a dry run?  As my husband points out that it’s basically an equivalent of the Flying Imams asking for seat belt extensions on the airplane.  And while we can count on American men to subdue terrorists mid-flight, can our overprotected boys handle a high school jihadi?

It’s not as if nobody raises their children to be suicide bombers

Yeah, I worry about it.  One mom in our school wears a full face covering.  I keep thinking I need to invite her to Peet’s so we can figure out Muslim-Jewish relations over a cup of coffee… oh wait.


You Keep Using That Word

Filed under: education — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 11:56 am

At the first open house of the school year, I had the misfortune to listen to my kid’s teachers talk about the much-maligned multiple methods in math.  The topic is controversial with American parents, but judging by what I’ve see so far (my oldest is a third grader) I find multiple methods old school.  When I was growing up it was known simply as math, and now half of my class is in the US on H1B visas.  The problem with implementation of this teaching strategy is not with the approach itself but with the teachers, and, I suspect, Department Of Education bureaucrats, who have only faintest grasp of the idea and cannot adequately explain it to parents what it is.

“There is more than one way!” gushed our third grade teacher.  “Students can memorize that 9+3=12 or they can draw the number line which will help them visualize it.”  Then she dropped the name of some DOE honcho who appeared in some video explaining how there is more then one way in math, and, similarly, there is more than one way in humanities.  I’m paraphrasing the teacher here, and no, I didn’t catch the name of that DOE character and I didn’t see the video.

Our teacher was excited about the plan to have the class write an essay arguing whether or not it’s OK to wear two different socks.  Sure, it’s OK to wear two different socks and such behavior is not a crime, and kids will have fun developing wacky arguments both pro and con.  Yet one can write a well-argued essay proposing to eat Irish babies, which, of course, doesn’t mean that we can take such a proposal seriously. There will be wrong answers in humanities, especially once we get out of the realm of tastes.  I hope the teacher doesn’t believe that “more than one way” means “anything goes”, but she didn’t make the distinction.

Because every mother is entitled to a fashionably mismatched child

Her metaphor for math was off, too.  Yes, multiple methods enables students to experience math in different ways.  But it doesn’t mean that, as she says, there is more than one way, as much as it means, as my math teachers used to say, that all roads lead to Rome.  My math teachers weren’t touchy-feely Californians.  One was a hard-nosed blue-stocking and another rode his T-34 all the way yo Berlin.  But they, my math teachers, were romantic about their discipline.

Yes, 9+3 is 10+2, but 10+2 is no more no less than a convenient shortcut or a way to check oneself.  At the end it’s about 9+3.  There is a beauty in math, I was taught, in learning that all methods will produce the same result, that everything checks out.  This is quite different from developing an argument about a favorite book where well-argued answers will wary.  Hosiery decadence is a different matter entirely.

All roads might lead to Rome, but, although the Romans built very good infrastructure, not all roads are created equal.  As students learn more math they will find that there ways to prove a theorem that will do, and then there are elegant solutions.  Again, beauty (and joy) in math.  For now knowing that we don’t write checks in X’s and 0’s is sufficient.  Arabic numerals are still tops.

It’s only natural that after decades of centrally-imposed failed experiments in math education American parents are suspicious of the currently promoted multiple methods.  It doesn’t help when teachers mention multiple methods in one breath with new math without reassuring the parents that the two are not the same.  That’s what ours did, anyways.  And then she invited us to come talk to her if we have any questions.  If she has questions — as she should — she is welcome to make an appointment with me.

September 19, 2015

A Fall Reading List: Russian Lit 101

Filed under: parenting, politics, Russia, Ukraine — Tags: , , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 1:19 pm

If you are like me, you can’t find a free minute during summers.  But in fall, as soon as the kids head off to school, it’s time to relax, read up… blog.  So, fellow fall readers, I have a few suggestions with a Russo-Ukrainian twist, but please note, having read it in the original Russian I don’t vouch for the quality of translation:

  1. Mikhail Bulgakov Heart of A Dog.  This is possibly the best reactionary novella of all times.  Its setting is post-revolutionary Russia and its hero, Dr. Preobrajensky, is a stubborn carrier of tradition of the old order, a scientific genius and a brilliant conversationalist who fills the book with zingers, among them:

[i]f I, instead of performing surgeries every evening, will take up singing with a choir in my apartment, I will have devastation.  If I, walking into a washroom, start, pardon me, peeing beyond the toilet and Zina and Daria Petrovna will follow the suit, there will be devastation in the washroom.  Therefore, devastation is not in the closets, it’s in the heads.


Dr. Preobrajensky performs a revolutionary surgery turning a lovely stray dog named Sharik into a man, but as a man Sharik turns out to be a brute who got chummy with the commissars.  Not surprisingly, the commissars banned the book.  Written in 1925, it was officially released in the Soviet Union only in 1987.

Bulgakov remains controversial.  Last year Ukraine banned the film based on his novel The White Guard because of the Kiev-born author’s politically incorrect opinions on the civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution.  Heart of A Dog gets nailed, deservingly, for eugenics, but we love it anyway for its biting satire of the communist regime.

2. Nikolai Gogol Taras Bulba.  This is what all Russians and Ukrainians know about Ukraine, but Americans, as a rule, don’t begin to suspect.  Nikolai Gogol, a great, if seriously mad, 19th century Russian writer, was a descendant of the Cossacks born in what is now Poltava region of Ukraine.  That being early 19th century, the name most commonly applied to the area was Malorossia or Little Russia, a reference to Ukraine’s status as a cradle of Russian civilization.

Gogol’s early work was fused with what we would now call Ukrainian themes, and Bulba is the last and most developed in this line.  Taras Bulba is set at the birth of  the Ukrainian nation, a Cossack revolt against Poles, in which Orthodox Christianity, as Gogol illustrates, was a rallying cry of the future Ukrainians.  Poles are Catholic, and to this day the border of Western civilization cuts through Ukraine, separating its Catholic and Orthodox regions.

Bulba is Romanticism for men — we women cringe at the carnage and prefer Gogol’s later, very different works.  This arguably the single most important literary work to understand Ukraine has in it a satirical description of a pogrom.  For our 8th grade matriculation exam in Russian literature we were made to memorize a page-long passage about Taras being burnt at the stake by the Poles.  Before meeting his violent death, Taras kills his son Andriy for falling in love with a Polish girl and betraying the Cossack cause.  It is Taras’s pronouncement “I gave you life, I will take it”, not the pogrom, that had our Jewish mothers railing against the book.

XVII century Bohdan Khmelnitsky’s uprising against the Poles ended with the Cossack asking Moscow for protection.  The death of Andriy did not put an end to Polish-Ukrainian, and more generally western-Ukrainian alliances, and yet Ukraine always ends up back with Russia — as it will this time around.

3. Yuri Trifonov House on The Embankment. This is an appropriately subtle book about Earth-shattering historic events. One student who was in the seminar I took ten years ago thought that Americans may read the book and enjoy it, but miss the subject matter completely.  I decided to test out this theory on my then boyfriend and now husband who got the message after the first appearance of the relevant euphemism.

4. Natalia Baranskaya A Week Like Any Other.  This is an affirmative action pick, selected primarily to illustrate a political point.  A Week Like Any Other is a story about a Soviet woman having it all.  Not.

Protagonist Olga works second shift at home, and, we are told, likes her work very much.  She harbors resentment against her husband rather than her government.  Her husband, to be sure, is of little help, but at least he’s around, and he’s sober.

For the little ones (they need to entertain themselves while parents are reading, no?):

  1. Ivan Turgenev Mumu. One of the most moving anti-slavery narratives ever written.  The toughest hooligans cry when this short story is read aloud in class.  Older kids may ask questions like “What does it mean that Gerasim was deaf and dumb?” and “You mean there was slavery outside of the US?”
  2. Alexander Afanasiev Russian Fairy Tales.  In this case I suggest the edition lavishly illustrated by the hugely influential early 20th century Russian Art Nouveau artist Ivan Bilibin.  If this edition is not available any other will do, I suppose, as long as the tales are really by Afanasiev and not rewritten by some shmuck with a political agenda.

Afanasiev was Russia’s Grimm, except that he worked several decades later and with better material.  Russian folk tales contain specific Russian motifs, but the synopsis is the same as in German or French or any other Indo-European folk narrative.  However, it is presumed that the tales first emerged in Asia and then traveled west across the Eurasian continent, and as the narratives travel, they lost some of their detail.  Russian tales, being more Asian are more complete.

As is often the case with folklore, Afanasiev gets really dark really quick, I recall being scared silly of the tales read in my pre-school

September 14, 2015

Degrees of Environmental Concern

Filed under: environmentalism, parenting, politics — Tags: , , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 7:36 pm

Environmentalism is an all-consuming ideology.  It postulates that a) the Earth is in danger and b) to save the Earth all of us (save Al Gore whose priestly status absolves him from acts of sacrifice) need to dramatically reduce our “footprint”. No aspect of our lives is too small because a) the planetary emergency and b) think globally, act locally because changes made by the masses on the personal level will affect the shared planet.  Act microlocally, I’d say, because true believers are to continuously alter mundane, inconsequential routines.  In reality it doesn’t matter, for instance, if one prefers plastic or paper grocery bags; in fact, plastic was encouraged 20 years ago, but today the same plastic bags are banned in California.

Young children are hugely susceptible to environmentalist propaganda, not because they understand ecology, but because it’s easy to coerce them into politically correct routines.  Ask an unindoctrinated adult to recycle, and he’ll demand a proof that it’s a legit exercise, but children like rules, routines and they like to sort.  They learn by doing; to them separating garbage is a game.  Reward them with a sticker of smiling Gaia (wait, is that conspicuous consumption?) and they’ll squeal with excitement.  They are conformists, too, so count on them to bully each other into compliance.  As time goes by, layer on propaganda.

On-the-fence parents can be approached through kids.  As students are taught environmentalist routines, they quickly begin to insist on implementing them at home.  Schools act as if the habits they import on pupils are grounded in universally accepted truths, but they merely reflect the opinions of educators.  Our family only recycles in as much as the behavior is mandated by the local government through manipulating the size and price of the garbage bins.  I’d rather have school focus on teaching basic good manners than recycling.  If our local schools accommodate (and celebrate) lesbian parenting, surely they can accommodate families with diverse traditions of garbage disposal.  But they don’t.  Our kids are a bit suspicious when I teach them something other than the received truths of public education, but they’ll come around.  This is nothing compare to how I grew up.

So que in Darleen Click’s post about a San Francisco mom and her uberannoying teenage son:

I can do nothing right in my teenage son’s eyes. He grills me about the distance traveled of each piece of fruit and every vegetable I purchase. He interrogates me about the provenance of all the meat, poultry, and fish I serve. He questions my every move—from how I choose a car (why not electric?) and a couch (why synthetic fill?) to how I tend the garden (why waste water on flowers?)—an unremitting interrogation of my impact on our desecrated environment. While other parents hide alcohol and pharmaceuticals from their teens, I hide plastic containers and paper towels.

And so on.  Why do I feel like I know these two?

Click makes an excellent point about the boy’s upbringing:

Where is dad? Or grandpa?

Where was the required influence of an adult man who would have pulled this little asswipe aside and told him to knock-off the totalitarian nonsense or get knocked into next week — “Don’t ever, ever let me catch you treating your mom this way again.”

No, really, where is the dad?  Did he entrust the boy’s moral education to school in which the boy get a big chunk of enviro-garbage that fills his head?  And why do the parents assume that they can control their son’s environmentalist fervor to the extent that it fits with the habits of their household?

In mom’s view the son is merely a puritan — basically on the right track, only his zeal is taking him a bit too far.  But in reality, she is a hypocrite because if she believes that there is a planetary emergency then no aspect of her lifestyle should remain unchanged in an effort to reduce her impact on the Earth.  She is the one who taught her son to “care[] a whole awful lot”, and yet she also insists on eating the polluting beef.  The two cannot be logically reconciled.  Environmentalism has no measure.

I can’t say I’m not concerned about the Earth, but the way I’m concerned about the Earth, I’m concerned about the Iranian nukes.  Or the 3rd world migrants flooding into the 1st world countries, many of them nuclear powers — not hard to think up the scenario in which Islamo-savages gain control of the French or the British nukes.  But whether or not my paper plates are recyclable, compostable or reusable?  Please, I’m just going to toss them.

And for the kids I have the following question: If grown ups, politicians especially, insist that you make environmental considerations central to your lifestyle, but they themselves don’t seem to act as if the planet is on an irreversible path to extinction, why do they insist that you spend time of your life thinking about the minutia?  Could it be because they don’t want you to spend your time thinking about something else?

September 10, 2015

Why Trump Is Popular

Filed under: politics — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 5:27 pm

He’s not bound by conventions, unscripted, an outsider, supposedly, with an aura of machismo, and he hit a nerve with his opening salvo on immigration.  None of which explains why Trump’s defenders forgive his support for partial birth abortion or his hob-nobbing with the Clintons.

I think I have an answer for that, and it’s not because Americans (or conservatives) are stupid or racist.  My answer comes from Maurice Bloch’s Prey into Hunter, a book exceptionally annoying even by the French standards.  I mentioned this book in the past a few times because, even though I can’t stand Bloch’s style, I value his insights.  Looking at the hunting ritual in Africa, Bloch noted that hunters dress like prey and identify with prey in order to then go on an offensive against an animal in a hunt.

It’s not hard to notice similar rituals in the political world.  A photo of a dead toddler washed up on the beach in Turkey is printed on the front pages of Western papers, bleeding hearts identify with the child (the Donald was among them for 5 minutes), demanding opening the borders to “refugees” without thinking through the consequences or even looking into the toddler’s story. (As Peter Hitchens pointed out, he was a victim of human traffickers.)

Back to Trump, when he burst into the race with his common sense remarks about Mexican illegals, the media, business and political elite all but declared a war on him.  The perpetual defenders of the perpetually offended were screaming their heads off; Macy’s was dropping his merchandise, Univision was canceling his contracts.  Any of that could happen to any one of us — if only we were so lucky.  We identified with the Donald, the victim, not the underdog, but the victim; we wanted to stand up for him, we called for Macy’s boycotts.


Billionaire’s detractors can scream that he’s not a true conservative till they are blue in the face; it doesn’t matter.  So many in the base already identified with Trump, the victim — the flashy victim! — and if you are against him, you are against us too, you are the establishment and you are the problem.

How wise Rush Limbaugh is to eschew criticism of Trump.  He abstains, primarily I assume, because he will not attack a Republican presidential candidate, but, I think, he also understands that any such attempt would be counterproductive.

UPDATE: Many thanks to Professor Jacobson for linking and retweeting.

September 8, 2015

Degrees of Unwantedness

Filed under: Europe, politics, Ukraine — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 1:27 pm

Twenty five years ago I was a stateless person crossing the Austrian border in a sealed train.  Demographically speaking my kind was negligible, but still no country in Europe wanted us.

We had it better than our immediate predecessors. In the 70’s and the early 80’s we, the former Soviet Jews, subjects to Arab terror attacks, were sequestered at an run-down high-rise in outer Vienna — read this beautiful essay by the late Svetlana Boym.  Thirty years later Boym was still reeling from the experience, but not complaining.

I can vaguely remember men with large guns patrolling the platform when our train full of Jews arrived to Vienna. I didn’t find them odd because uniformed soldiers were a normal site on a Soviet street.  Although my parents swear they were IDF, I doubt a sovereign country that Austria was at the time would let a foreign army operate on its soil.  In any event, were were housed in a rooming home in central Vienna, next to an operetta theater.  I walked the streets of the city with three other teenagers whose families shared apartment with us.  We were in awe.

Three weeks later, after declaring our intention to move to the US instead of Israel, we were shipped off to Italy where we stayed on a semi-legal basis thanks to an agreement between the United States government and that of Italy.  My parents were nervous about the trip in a sealed train, but I, in my teenage brain, was looking forward to seeing Rome.  I felt secure in the knowledge that tens of thousands of those who came before me had safely arrived at the destination.  In my head I was already composing letters to my girlfriends in Ukraine, telling the jewels of Western civilization resting behind the iron curtain.  Also, our train went south, not east.  Two cheers for the teenage brain.

I can relate, but I’m not moved by the 3rd world migrants forcing their way to the land of milk and honey.  Syrians among them left a war-torn country, but apparently they don’t feel that the land on which their families lived for centuries was worth a fight.  These military age man opted for reaching Germany; and once they get situated there, they’ll send for their clans.

These men are paying a premium to human traffickers, suggesting that some of the migrants come from wealthy families, and might have unreasonable expectations from their future place of residence.  One can live quite comfortably on German welfare, but this is hardly the kind of luxurious existence one leads in the Gulf States.  When the migrants, who already showed themselves to be quite hostile to Europeans figure that out, what happens?

I suspect European humanitarians have a soft spot for brown children.  They are crying bitter tears for a child that fell a victim to smugglers but doing their best to look the other way when there is a real life war raging on their continent.  Two years ago at Independence Square in Kiev Ukrainians listened to speakers promising them visa-free travel to Europe.  I daresay this, and not any kind of national idea, was the chief appeal of the Euromaidan movement to those Ukrainians who found it appealing.  The way things stand in their country, they travel to Lviv, a city flush with Western architecture, to get a whiff of the West.  Needless to say, it’s not up to Ukrainians to decide what kind of people the European Union will let in within its borders (apparently it’s up to Arabs), so as the war in the East heated up, EU further restricted travel from Ukraine.

Did she dream of Paris? This picture young mother and child killed, allegedly, by Ukrainian bombardment made the rounds on the Russian Internet last year.

The Kremlin, on the other hand, relaxed entry, enabling, according to the official data, two and a half million Ukrainian nationals to move to the Russian Federation.  Not all of them are strictly speaking refugees, many are laborers and a large number are on the run from conscription.  We have to commend Russia on choosing its refugees carefully.  Those Ukrainians are basically Russian people; they share the host country’s language and mentality and quite a few are done with Ukraine.  Russia is a natural choice for them the way Gulf States would be a natural choice for the Syrians.  And yet, had the Ukrainian nationals, for economic or whatever other reasons, fled West, unlike the Arab migrants they’d be indistinguishable within a generation or two.

9/9/15 UPDATE: Wasn’t there a near-riot situation in Ladispoli circa 1987 that got sorted out by social workers by the time the polizia arrived?

9/13/15 ANOTHER VIGNETTE: The Velvet Revolution happened as train passed by Prague on the way out of USSR.  That was cool yet worrisome because during our stay in Vienna we hoped one night to get standing room only tickets the Opera house.  Seeing a sizable number of Czechs pop up on the streets of the Austrian capital, we feared the standing room competition.  We got to the theater early and spent some time waiting in line in the cold.  We did get in, with the Czech, and the two totally amazing creatures that a few years down the road I learned to identify as art school hipsterati.

“What do we want?” “Tickets to Madama Butterfly!” “When do we want them?” “NOW!”

Speaking of which, that being 1989, I found that all young people in suites in Vienna’s downtown business district spotted Mohawks.  Or it seemed that way to me, being fresh out of USSR.  Sweet innocence.

September 4, 2015

Alphabet Bottom Diggers

Filed under: education, politics — Tags: , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 1:37 pm

I, for one, survived what was then known as a “co-ed” bathroom.  Those were the only ones available at Unit 2 Davidson Hall, an ugly, mid-century dorm where I found myself living when I started Berkeley two decades ago.  So gender-neutral bathrooms are not a new concept, you know.

Things were different then, however.  Nobody on my floor was “transgender” (albeit, thinking back we had one closeted homosexual — no really) and nobody insisted on being referred to in funny pronouns.  That was Berkeley in the 90’s and this is a school in the South today:

Gender-neutral pronouns

We are familiar with the singular pronouns she, her, hers and he, him, his, but those are not the only singular pronouns. In fact, there are dozens of gender-neutral pronouns.

A few of the most common singular gender-neutral pronouns are they, them, their (used as singular), ze, hir, hirs, and xe, xem, xyr.

These may sound a little funny at first, but only because they are new. The she and hepronouns would sound strange too if we had been taught ze when growing up. (Via Victory Girls)

It’s not that “the pronouns” are funny as much as they are off-putting, and if they are off-putting it’s not not so much because they are new, but because they are funny.  University of Tennessee students found them bizarre.  And yet, their professors are obligated to go around checking if any student always felt like a “xem” or, maybe, today it’s a bit of a “zir”.  Hmm…  Is the latter a Martian for sir?

I can sympathize with alphabet bottom ugliness.  I never had to deal with x’s and y’s, but like many other “Russians” living in English-speaking countries, I’ve been a victim of excessive y’s all my adult life.  In lieu of Cyrillic я Eastern European transliterators insisted on a ya letter combo, turning common female names into cumbersome Tanya, Anya and Zhenya instead of Tania, Ania and Jennie which flow noticeably better in English.  And since many of our female last names end with an , quite a few of us gals ended up aya contraptions, courtesy of Soviet/post-Soviet bureaucracy.  Typically, by the time we noticed that our names were spelled all wrong (and native-born Americans were no help, unfortunately) we were already established and it was too late to change.

Ukrainians in particular are the masters of the inelegant.  In the 90’s they insisted spelling Kiev as Kyyiv, which, in their opinion, best reflects the current Ukrainian pronunciation of the medieval capital.  They dropped one of the y’s, thankfully, and Infoukes swears it’s Kiev anyway.  It’s not up to Ukrainians to tell us how to speak English, and even if it was, they should find a more appealing way to promote their country abroad than to make up unreadable words that, in their opinion, are more authentic to the sounds of their language.

Similarly, words chalk-full of z’s and x’s is a dubious way to promote hormonal infusions.  If anything, insistence on applying funny names to themselves suggests that gender dysphoria might be secondary to some deeper dysfunction, and that a treatment for that dysfunction should replace “gender reassignment”.

In any event, the English language already has an English gender-neutral pronoun — he.  “He” can refer to both a man and a generic individual.  It’s a little outdated now, true, but it worked so well for centuries, we should see about brining it back.

And now, from the very top of the alphabet, Adam Ant singing about something at the bottom:

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