Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hi-Yo Silver, Away! ('Til Sunday)

In a post to this blog on February 6, 2011, Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas was quoted from an interview before Super Bowl VI between the Cowboys and the Miami Dolpins in 1971. One of the writers asked Thomas how it felt to play in the "ultimate game." Thomas replied: "If it's the ultimate game, how come they're playing it again next year?" Amen, Duane. Super Bowl XLVII will command a massive audience this coming Sunday. However, the super prognosticator — Nate Silver — picks the Niners over the Ravens. Disclaimer: don't bet the farm on that tip. If this is (fair & balanced) pigskin augury, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap 'Zine]
Nate Silver Picks The Super Bowl!
By Nate Silver

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Does defense win championships? Stat-geek sports fans like me tend to distrust this old saying. Scoring a point helps just as much as allowing one hurts. And in football, the proposition risks ignoring the role played by the likes of Tom Brady.

It is the case, however, that the better defensive team has usually won the Super Bowl — and done so far more consistently than offensive juggernauts. The Web site Pro Football Reference publishes a statistic called the Simple Rating System (S.R.S.), which evaluates each team’s offense and defense based on the number of points it scored and allowed relative to the league average and adjusted for strength of schedule. Of the 92 teams to have played in the Super Bowl before this year, I identified those with the 20 best defensive and offensive ratings, according to S.R.S. (see charts above). The defensive list contains teams that you would expect, like the 1985 Bears. These teams have compiled a 14-6 record (.700) in the Super Bowl. Their winning percentage is actually nearly 80 percent when you ignore the three cases, Super Bowls IV, VIII and XLV, when two of the all-time great defensive teams faced each other.

The 20 best offensive teams, however, are just 10-10 in the Super Bowl. There have been successes in this group, like the Saints under Drew Brees, but there have been just as many failures, including two of Brady’s Patriots teams. (During his three championships, the Patriots had a much better balance between offense and defense.)

The reasons that exceptional defenses fare so much better in the Super Bowl are still somewhat murky, but this factor bodes well for this year’s 49ers, whose defense belongs in the elite group, according to S.R.S. (it ranks 17th among Super Bowl teams). The Ravens, despite all the hype surrounding Ray Lewis, allowed a rather pedestrian 21.5 points per game this year. The 49ers also have the better offense, according to S.R.S., so there isn’t much to recommend the Ravens... unless you look at the more sophisticated rankings published by Football Outsiders. Their system, known as Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (D.V.O.A.), accounts for a team’s success or failure on every play it ran during the year and not just on final scores.

Those rankings find that while the 49ers had the better offense and defense, the Ravens had the best special teams in the league this year. If they do pull off the upset, on the heels of Steve Weatherford’s game-changing performance for the Giants in last year’s Super Bowl, perhaps it will be time for a new cliché: punters win championships. But don’t count on that. Ω

[Nathaniel Read "Nate" Silver is a statistician, sabermetrician, psephologist, and writer. Silver first gained public recognition for developing PECOTA, a system for forecasting the performance and career development of Major League Baseball players, which he sold to and then managed for Baseball Prospectus from 2003 to 2009. In 2007, writing under the pseudonym "Poblano", Silver began to publish analyses and predictions related to the 2008 United States presidential election. At first this work appeared on the political blog Daily Kos, but in March 2008 Silver established his own website, By summer of that year, after he revealed his identity to his readers, he began to appear as an electoral and political analyst in national print, online, and cable news media. The accuracy of his November 2008 presidential election predictions — he correctly predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states — won Silver further attention and commendation. The only state he missed was Indiana, which went for Barack Obama by one percentage point. He correctly predicted the winner of all 35 U.S. Senate races that year. In the 2012 United States presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, he correctly predicted the winner of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.[9] That same year, Silver's predictions of U.S. Senate races were correct in 31 of 33 states; he predicted Republican victory in North Dakota and Montana, where Democrats won. His book, The Signal and the Noise (2012), reached The New York Times best seller list for nonfiction, and was named by as the #1 best nonfiction book of 2012.]

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Today, Welcome To A Cyberblog!!!

In September 1971, this blogger was on a lonely research trip to Waco, TX. He stayed in an old-style motel and the room had neither a telephone nor a TV set. To fill the lonely evening hours, this blogger purchased the October 1971 issue of Esquire magazine. The lead article in the 'zine was "Secrets of the Little Blue Box." It was an early encounter with hackers before they were cyber outlaws. Today, this blog observes that first act of hacking a system. If this is (fair & balanced) cyberpunking, so be it.

[x IEEE Spectrum]
Phreaking Out Ma Bell
By Phil Lapsley

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Ralph Barclay was walking through the engineering library at Washington State University, just minding his own business, when it called out to him. He couldn’t say why, it just did.

It was a booklet, about 18 by 23 centimeters and maybe a centimeter thick, on display in the library’s new periodicals section. Its pale blue cover proclaimed it to be the November 1960 issue of something called The Bell System Technical Journal. It had been out for less than a week.

Barclay looked at the table of contents printed on its cover. Most of the articles could put even the hardest of hard-core geeks to sleep at 20 paces: “Magnetic Latching Relays Using Glass Sealed Contacts,” “Molecular Structure in Crystal Aggregates of Linear Polyethylene,” or the ever popular “Ionic Radii, Spin-Orbit Coupling, and the Geometrical Stability of Inorganic Complexes.”

But one title caught his eye: “Signaling Systems for Control of Telephone Switching” [PDF]. He flipped to the article and started skimming. Minutes passed. His original purpose for coming to the library shelved for the moment, he sat down and began to read in earnest.

Barclay was just 18. Athletic and of medium build, with brown hair and blue eyes, Barclay had started his first year at Washington State’s Pullman campus, about 50 miles [80 kilometers] south of Spokane, just a couple of months earlier. “I was living in the dorm,” he remembers, “and a lot of people in the dorm are looking for ways to make cheap phone calls home to their girlfriends and parents and suchlike.” One of the guys in the dorm had “somehow,” he says, acquired his own personal pay telephone. And although students weren’t allowed to have telephones installed in their rooms, for some reason the dorm rooms still had telephone lines in them.

Barclay’s dorm had quite a few engineers in it—and engineers, Barclay allows, are a problem. The engineers soon determined that somebody had left the door unlocked to the building’s telephone closet, the little room where all the telephone wires come from. In the dark of night an operation was mounted. Certain wires were cross-connected. Et voilà: A pay telephone line from somewhere on campus ended up connected to the personal pay phone in Barclay’s dorm. Barclay and the other kids in the dorm could now make telephone calls by depositing money in the pay phone, just like usual. The difference was this: The owner of the pay phone—apparently not a business major—was a nice guy and returned the caller’s money after each call.

Maybe it was this pay phone hack that caused Bells to ring in Barclay’s brain when he spotted the article in the Bell System Technical Journal. The article laid bare the technical inner workings of AT&T’s long-distance telephone network with clarity, completeness, and detail. It was all there: how the long-distance switching machines sang to each other with single-frequency (SF) and multifrequency (MF) tones, how 2600 hertz was used to indicate whether a telephone had answered, what the frequencies were of the tones that made up the MF digits, how overseas calls were made—it even included simplified schematic diagrams for the electrical circuits necessary to generate the tones used to control the network. Nothing was hidden.

By the time Barclay finished reading it, the vulnerability in AT&T’s network had crystallized in his mind: “I thought, this is a better way than using a pay phone...this is a way to get around all that other stuff and do it directly.”

“It,” of course, was making free calls.

The ability to absorb 64 pages of dry, technical mumbo jumbo and spot the vulnerability is a rare one. The engineers from Bell Labs who designed the system and wrote the article didn’t see it. Thousands of engineers in the future would read that article and not see it. But 18-year-old Ralph Barclay did. The funny thing about it is, once the hole is explained to you, it’s obvious. But until it’s explained to you, most people would never think of it. Certain people have minds that are tuned in a particular way to see things like that. Ralph Barclay was one of those people.

To understand Barclay’s insight we have to think back to the things that made up AT&T’s automated long-distance network—things like the spectacularly named #4A crossbar switching system that was the brains of the long-distance telephone network, and how the machines talked to each other by speaking in tones. Because that’s what the Bell System Technical Journal described and that’s where Ralph Barclay spotted the flaw. Here’s what he came up with:

Say you’re in Seattle and, as always, you want to call your friend Bill in Denver. With Barclay’s hack, your first step is to pick up the phone and dial directory assistance in any city—let’s say New York just for fun: 212-555-1212. Unlike today, calls to directory assistance were free back then.

Seattle and New York are both big cities and have direct trunk lines between them. On a given long-distance trunk line between Seattle and New York, the switching machine in Seattle sends a 2600-Hz tone—7th octave E—to New York to indicate that the line is idle. New York sends the same tone back to Seattle to indicate that the line is not in use on its end either. Remember how in a flight of fancy an AT&T manager described the switching machines as “singing” to one another? This is the boring part of that song: You can think of it as the machines monotonously whistling this single note back and forth. It’s almost like they’re keeping each other company, reassuring each other that they’re both still there.

As you dial the last digit of the number for New York directory assistance, the fancy switching machines and their signaling systems spring to life to get your call through. Seattle finds an idle trunk to New York and stops whistling 2600 Hz on it. New York hears the trunk go silent, indicating that Seattle wants to make a call. New York sends back a “wink” signal—really just a moment of silence, no 2600-Hz tone, for about a quarter of a second. This wink tells Seattle that New York is ready and waiting for Seattle to tell it a phone number to call. Using either the SF or MF signaling language, Seattle sends New York the digits 555‑1212. In SF‑speak, this is a series of beeps of 2600 Hz. In MF‑speak, it consists of nine quick little pairs of tones that sound like brief musical notes: KP, 555 1212, and ST. The special signal called KP (“keypulse”) at the beginning tells New York to get ready, and the final note, ST (“start”), tells New York that it now has all the digits and it can start dialing.

Now that New York knows the number you want to call, it makes the local connection and the directory assistance operator’s telephone starts to ring. Up until now everything that has happened has been perfectly normal, just like Ma Bell intended. But now you, using Barclay’s hack, insert yourself into the process. Before the operator can answer, you—naughty you—hold a speaker up to your phone’s mouthpiece and play your own 2600-Hz tone down the line for a second.

It is loud and pure, and it sounds like this: “Bleeeeeeep.”

Seattle isn’t paying any attention to this, but the switching machine in New York sure is. New York hears your 2600-Hz tone loud and clear and thinks that the Seattle switching machine sent it. And since this tone indicates the trunk line is idle, New York figures that Seattle is done using that trunk line, probably because you hung up. New York disconnects the call to the directory assistance operator—maybe before she’s even answered.
But now you stop sending your tone. When you stop sending 2600 Hz, the long-distance switching equipment in New York City now thinks that Seattle wants to make another call. Just like before, New York sends a wink back to Seattle to say that it’s ready for a new call. Due to the nature of the circuitry involved, the wink has a bright, metallic, ringing quality to it. It sounds like this: “Kerchink!”

That noise tells you that you have just fooled New York into thinking that a new long-distance call is coming in. Once again, the switching machine in New York is waiting for Seattle to tell it digits to dial. But Seattle isn’t going to tell it anything, because Seattle is blissfully unaware of everything that has just transpired. The only thing Seattle knows is that you haven’t hung up—you’re still on the line, after all—and Seattle believes you can only make one call every time you pick up the phone. As far as Seattle is concerned, you’re still talking to New York directory assistance.

You, on the other hand, know better: You possess guilty knowledge. Using a simple little electronic circuit, you can generate the same pairs of tones that Ma Bell’s telephone switches use to serenade each other. Once again holding up a speaker to your phone, you play the tones needed to send New York the digits KP + 303 722 7209 + ST—that is, the number of your friend Bill in Denver. Now of course, area code 303 isn’t in New York City, but that’s okay: The telephone switch in New York is a brainy #4A and knows how to route calls from one place to another—after all, Bell Labs worked hard to give it the brains to be able to do that. New York happily finds a trunk line to Denver and puts your call through, sending out tones on your behalf to instruct Denver on what number to dial. Moments later, Bill’s phone starts to ring.

Congratulations: You’ve just hijacked a phone call to directory assistance in New York and rerouted it to Bill in Denver. But that’s only half the trick. The other half is this: Your phone call to Denver is free. Why? Because Seattle is responsible for the billing of your phone call. As far as Seattle is concerned, you’re still connected to directory assistance in New York—and directory assistance is a free call.

Barclay really had three insights when he read that article in the Bell System Technical Journal. The first was that sending a 2600-Hz tone down the line resets the remote switch but doesn’t affect the local switch. The second was that you could then reroute a phone call from the remote switch to wherever you want. And the third was that the local switch is in charge of billing, so it continues to bill you for whatever call it thinks you originally made. With those three insights, he now owned Ma Bell’s network.

A few weeks after reading the Bell System Technical Journal article, Barclay made the 3-hour drive west to his hometown of Soap Lake, WA, population 1200. Home may be where the heart is, but for Barclay, home was also where his workbench, soldering iron, and electronic components were. “I was an electronic tinkerer for years and years and years,” he says. A curious one, too: His older sister remembers Barclay plugging a bobby pin into an electrical outlet when he was 4. His father, a truck driver in rural Washington, used to bring him broken TVs to fiddle with, and his bedroom was littered with electrical equipment, telephones, and radios. Barclay landed his first job—repairing broken radios—when he was in the fifth grade.

Barclay’s first box took a weekend to build. It was a simple affair, housed in an unpainted metal enclosure about 10 cm on a side and perhaps 5 cm deep. Inside was a 9-volt battery and a single transistor oscillator circuit. On the outside the box sported a surplus rotary telephone dial and a red push button. The red button would allow Barclay to disconnect a call in progress—to “seize a trunk,” in both telephone company and “phone phreak” parlance—by producing a 2600-Hz tone for as long as he held it down. When spun, the rotary dial would make short blips of 2600 Hz. If Barclay dialed the digit 6, for example, it made six short beeps. In other words, it would allow him to send digits using the older SF language.

“I was surprised!” Barclay recalls. “It worked fine the first time!”

As it happens, it also worked best the first time. Barclay quickly ran into a problem: By 1960, fewer and fewer trunk lines used SF signaling. In its push for progress and dialing speed, the Bell System was well on its way to converting most long-distance trunks to multifrequency signaling. And those trunks didn’t respond to Barclay’s single-frequency beeps. The red button still worked—he could disconnect a call in progress and hear the “kerchink” come back from the remote end—but dialing was often a problem. “It worked sometimes, not consistently,” he says—maybe one in four calls.

“That’s when I discovered that I needed multifrequency,” he says—that is, he needed to generate pairs of tones for each digit as well as for the special “keypulse” and “start” signals. Barclay started work on his multifrequency box over Christmas break. It was more complicated than the first box, what with more transistor oscillators and associated wiring and all that, so it took a bit longer to build.

Barclay added a rotary dial for making blips of 2600 Hz, but that was really just for old times’ sake: The real way you’d dial with it, the modern way, was with push buttons. Touch-tone phones weren’t a commercial reality yet, so Barclay had to come up with his own telephone keypad. He ended up using keys from an old mechanical Burroughs adding machine. Each key was fastened to a push-button switch mounted underneath it. There were 12 keys in all: Ten for the digits 0 through 9, one for the KP signal that needed to be sent before the digits, and one for the ST signal that needed to be sent after the digits.

He had it finished by Easter and it worked like a charm. He and his device became popular among a small circle of friends in his dorm, where he made calls home for them. But mostly, he says, he used it to play with the telephone network, “to see where we could call.” As Barclay recalls it, “there were very, very few calls I made that were actual phone calls”—that is, calls in which he called somebody he knew and wanted to talk to.

His new device was housed in a metal box, 30 by 17 by 7 cm and happened to be painted a lovely shade of blue. Barclay did not know it at the time, but the color of his device’s enclosure would eventually become synonymous with the device itself: The blue box had just been born. Ω

This article is an excerpt from Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell © 2013 by Philip D. Lapsley; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic.

[Phil Lapsley
, an electrical engineer who received a B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California at Berkeley and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management, founded two tech companies near San Francisco before becoming a consultant for McKinsey & Co., accomplishments he cites to “look like an upstanding member of society.”]

Copyright © 2013 IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Today's Word O'The Day: Vocabulary (Repeated 3 Times)

Forget sticks and stones. Words are powerful. If this is the (fair & balanced) truth, so be it.

[x City Journal]
A Wealth Of Words
By E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

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A number of notable recent books, including Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality (2012) and Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence (2012), lay out in disheartening detail the growing inequality of income and opportunity in the United States, along with the decline of the middle class. The aristocracy of family so deplored by Jefferson seems upon us; the counter-aristocracy of merit that long defined America as the land of opportunity has receded.

These writers emphasize global, technological, and sociopolitical trends in their analyses. But we should factor in another cause of receding economic equality: the decline of educational opportunity. There’s a well-established correlation between a college degree and economic benefit. And for guidance on what helps students finish college and earn more income, we should consider the SAT, whose power to predict graduation rates is well documented. The way to score well on the SAT—at least on the verbal SAT—is to have a large vocabulary. As the eminent psychologist John Carroll once observed, the verbal SAT is essentially a vocabulary test.

So there’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

Early in the twentieth century, a well-meant but inadequate conception of education became dominant in the United States. It included optimism about children’s natural development, a belief in the unimportance of factual knowledge and book learning, and a corresponding belief in the importance of training the mind through hands-on practical experience. In the 1920s and 1930s, these ideas began spreading to teacher-training institutions. It took two or three decades for the new teachers and administrators to take over from the old and for the new ideas to revolutionize schoolbooks and classroom practices. The first students to undergo this new schooling therefore began kindergarten in the 1950s and arrived in 12th grade in the 1960s.

Their test scores showed the impact of the new ideas. From 1945 to 1967, 12th-graders’ verbal scores on the SAT and other tests had risen. But then those scores plummeted. Cornell economist John Bishop wrote in the 1980s of “the historically unprecedented nature of the test score decline that began around 1967. Prior to that year test scores had been rising steadily for 50 years.” The scores reached their nadir around 1980 and have remained low ever since.

Some scholars thought that the precipitous fall of verbal SAT scores simply reflected the admirable increase in the percentage of low-income students taking the SAT. But Bishop observed that the same downhill pattern had occurred in verbal scores on the Iowa Test of Educational Development—a test given to all Iowa high school students, who were 98 percent white and mostly middle-class in attitude. He argued that the declining effectiveness of American schools was a leading indicator for the shrinking income of the American middle class. The evidence today suggests that he was right. The decline in the educational productivity of our schools tracks our decline in income equality. For 30 years after 1945, Stiglitz observes, economic equality advanced in the United States; after about 1975, it declined.

Later, another Cornell scholar, the sociologist Donald Hayes, showed that the decline of the verbal SAT scores was indeed correlated with a dumbing-down of American schoolbooks. Following the lead of the great literacy scholar Jeanne Chall, Hayes found that publishers, under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies. Hayes demonstrated that the dilution of knowledge and vocabulary, rather than poverty, explained most of the test-score drop.

Vocabulary doesn’t just help children do well on verbal exams. Studies have solidly established the correlation between vocabulary and real-world ability. Many of these studies examine the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), which the military devised in 1950 as an entrance requirement and a job-allocating device. The exam consists of two verbal sections (on vocabulary size and paragraph comprehension) and two math sections. The military has determined that the test predicts real-world job performance most accurately when you double the verbal score and add it to the math score. Once you perform that adjustment, according to a 1999 study by Christopher Winship and Sanders Korenman, a gain of one standard deviation on the AFQT raises one’s annual income by nearly $10,000 (in 2012 dollars). Other studies show that much of the disparity in the black-white wage gap disappears when you take AFQT scores—again, weighted toward the verbal side—into account.

Such correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research. Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter. And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.

Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it’s possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” For everyone, even geniuses, it’s a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again. Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one has to make sense of at any moment. The psychologist George A. Miller called that process “chunking.” Telephone numbers and Social Security numbers are good examples. The number (212) 374-5278, written in three chunks, is a lot easier to cope with than 2123745278.

Words are fantastically effective chunking devices. Suppose you put a single item into your working memory—say, “Pasteur.” So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems. Extend this example to whole spheres of knowledge and experience, and you’ll realize that a large vocabulary is a powerful coping device that enhances one’s general cognitive ability.

If vocabulary is related to achieved intelligence and to economic success, our schools need to figure out how to encourage vocabulary growth. They should understand, for starters, that word-learning occurs slowly and through a largely unconscious process. Consider the word “excrescence.” Few know the word; fewer still encounter it in their everyday lives. Maybe you do know it, but imagine that you don’t.

Now suppose I gave it to you in a sentence: “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of the plane’s cabin.” That single exposure to the word is probably insufficient for you to grasp its meaning, though if you know something about aerospace engineering, you’ll be likelier to make a good approximation. Here’s an encounter in another context: “Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.” Perhaps now you have a vague understanding of the word. A third meaningful encounter will allow you to check your understanding or refine your sense of the meaning: “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.” By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of the word, and one more encounter in a familiar context should verify your understanding: “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.”

You’ve probably figured out that the word “excrescence” means “an outgrowth.” That’s an accelerated, artificial example of how word-learning occurs. The sense of a word that a listener or reader gains from multiple exposures to it isn’t a fixed and definite meaning but rather a system of meaning possibilities that get narrowed down through context on each occasion. As Miller showed, knowledge of a word is a memory residue of several meaningful encounters with the word in diverse contexts. We retain bits of those past contexts in memory as part of the word’s meaning-potential. Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

As the example also shows, it takes knowledge of surrounding words to guess a new word’s connotations. “Domed building” and “cliff” helped you guess the meaning of “excrescence” better than “drag” and “valves” did. And the context for an unfamiliar word isn’t just the other words surrounding it in a text but also the situation referred to by those words. Familiarity with the relevant subject matter ensures that a student’s unconscious meaning-guesses are likely to be right.

So the fastest way to gain a large vocabulary through schooling is to follow a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts, thereby enabling the student to make correct meaning-guesses unconsciously. Spending large amounts of school time on individual word study is an inefficient and insufficient route to a bigger vocabulary. There are just too many words to be learned by 12th grade—between 25,000 and 60,000. A large vocabulary results not from memorizing word lists but from acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.

The dependence of language comprehension on specific domains of knowledge comes into clear focus when we turn our attention from all-purpose words like conjunctions, adverbs, and verbs, and look at nouns. We used to be taught that “a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.” That wasn’t a full definition, since it left out abstract ideas, but it was useful in emphasizing that a noun names something in the world—there’s no escaping the referential character of language. You can’t know what the noun means without knowing the thing that it names; conversely, you rarely know the thing without also knowing its name.

The trick in speeding up word-learning is to make sure that the subject matter that the words refer to has already been made familiar to the student. The speed with which students learn new words increases dramatically when schools create familiar subject-matter contexts within a coherent sequential curriculum, as the cognitive scientist Thomas Landauer has demonstrated. The fastest way to learn words is to learn about things—and to do it systematically.

Plenty of evidence backs up that proposition. The reading researcher John Guthrie has shown how well a system called “concept-oriented reading instruction” works. Similarly, in classrooms all over the world, including in the United States, children and adults are successfully being taught foreign languages through a method called “content-based instruction.” The content varies with the age of the student; kindergartners may learn another language by studying farms, while college students do it by studying social psychology. The method has proved to be one of the most effective ways to learn a second language.

The advantages of content-based instruction are enormous. One is that the topic itself is interesting, so the student has a strong motivation to understand what is being said or written. But an even more important advantage is that immersion in a topic provides the student with a referential and verbal context that is gradually made familiar, which encourages correct guesses of word meanings at a much more rapid pace than would be possible in an unfamiliar context. Psychologists refer to certain skills as being “domain-specific,” so perhaps a better name for content-based language acquisition would be “domain immersion.” The idea is to immerse students in a domain long enough to make them familiar with the context—and thus able to learn words faster.

For the purposes of teaching vocabulary, a “domain” could be defined as a sphere of knowledge in which concepts and words are repeated over the course of two or three weeks. Such repetition happens automatically in a classroom unit on, say, plants and photosynthesis. Students then learn not just the theme-based words of a domain—such as “seeds” in the kindergartners’ lessons on farms, or “empathy” in the university social-psychology class—but also the meanings of more general words, such as “however,” “conversely,” “credible,” and “annual.”

The domain-based approach to literacy—using a coherent, content-based curriculum to teach language—is the educational policy of the nations that achieve the best verbal results for both advantaged and disadvantaged students and narrow the gaps between them. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has devoted massive resources to international comparisons of educational effectiveness, with particular attention to gap-narrowing between demographic groups. Its most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report identifies the nations that best combine excellence with equity as Korea, Finland, Japan, and Canada. In these places, the report says, “everyone knows what is required to get a given qualification, in terms both of the content studied and the level of performance that has to be demonstrated to earn it.” In those countries’ classrooms, opportunities for a student to make correct meaning-guesses and build vocabulary occur frequently because the schools follow definite content standards that build knowledge grade by grade, thus offering constant opportunities to learn new words in contexts that have been made familiar.

Four decades ago, France led the world in both academic achievement and equality of educational opportunity. Today, it’s absent from the PISA list of the highest-scoring, highest-equity nations. According to my colleagues in France, the decline began in the 1980s, when French elementary schools, which once followed a very specific sequential curriculum, began to diversify according to the American mode, with each elementary school developing its own plan.

The old French system didn’t just have coherent, cumulative elementary schools; it had coherent, cumulative preschools as well. These schools have not degenerated as the elementary schools have; indeed, the French preschool system is still the best in the world. Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects. A very early start, followed by systematic elementary schooling, can erase much of the achievement gap, though the payoff isn’t fully apparent until the later grades—a delayed effect that is to be expected, given the slowness and cumulativeness of word-learning.

To grasp the significance of this remarkable result, it’s important to grasp the extreme difficulty of narrowing the verbal gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. The problem has been called the Matthew Effect, an allusion to Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Advantaged students who arrive in the classroom with background knowledge and vocabulary will understand what a textbook or teacher is saying and will therefore learn more; disadvantaged students who lack such prior knowledge will fail to understand and thus fall even further behind, relative to their fellow students. This explains why schooling often fails to narrow the gap and may even widen it.

The French data show that the Matthew Effect can be almost fully overcome—with an early start and curricular coherence. But how? Why didn’t the Matthew Effect sink those very early preschool children in France who started out as cognitive have-nots? Part of the explanation is simply quantitative: disadvantaged children at age two are at less of an absolute disadvantage. If the more knowledgeable kids start school knowing 200 words while the less knowledgeable know just 100, the latter may be far behind percentage-wise, but still, they’re just 100 words behind in absolute terms. The French preschools help fill in that gap by teaching the less knowledgeable kids enough words and things to enable them to understand the language of the classroom. Yes, they have to guess more meanings than their more advantaged classmates do—but they can do so correctly because of the careful way in which the curriculum puts all the children in the catch-up zone of content familiarity.

The picture is complicated by the fact that the advantaged children continue to hear and learn much more from their parents and peers outside school. (That’s why it’s so much easier for less knowledgeable children to catch up in math than in language: math is chiefly a school subject, while language is learned constantly outside school, where differences in background remain significant.) So again: How did the disadvantaged French children catch up with their advantaged peers?

Here’s how. Systematic schooling using a coherent and cumulative curriculum covers a wide range of domains as the years go by. The cognitive scientist Keith Stanovich has shown that the vocabulary of the classroom and of books is far richer than that of everyday conversation even among highly educated groups. Hence, as schooling covers more and more subjects, it imparts an ever-broader vocabulary. Under those conditions, disadvantaged students do have to keep successfully guessing more words than their advantaged peers do. But eventually, the knowledge and vocabulary gap is virtually closed.

To make the necessary school changes in the United States, an intellectual revolution needs to occur to undo the vast anti-intellectual revolution that took place in the 1930s. We can’t afford to victimize ourselves further by continued loyalty to outworn and mistaken ideas. Of these, the idea that most requires overturning is how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge. These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future.

How-to-ism has failed because of its fundamental misconception of skills, which considers them analogous to automated processes, such as making a free throw in basketball. In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary. The increasingly desperate pursuit of this empty, formalistic misconception of reading explains why our schools’ intense focus on reading skills has produced students who, by grade 12, can’t read well enough to flourish at college or take a good job.

Another mistaken idea that must be scrapped is that curricula don’t need to build knowledge coherently and cumulatively. Consider the topics or “themes” that one best-selling reading program covers in the first grade. Theme Five, called “Home Sweet Home,” includes lessons called “Moving Day,” “Me on the Map,” and “The Kite.” The lessons of Theme Six, “Animal Adventures,” are “The Sleeping Pig,” “EEK! There’s a Mouse in the House,” and “Red-Eyed Tree Frog.” Then come Theme Seven, “We Can Work It Out” (“That Toad Is Mine!,” “Lost!,” “If You Give a Pig a Pancake”), and Theme Eight, “Our Earth” (“The Forest,” “Butterfly,” “Johnny Appleseed”). Theme Nine, “Special Friends,” and Theme Ten, “We Can Do It!,” contain equally helter-skelter stories. As the names indicate, the texts have little substantive connection with one another and therefore offer few chances to speed word-learning through subject-matter familiarity.

Well, you might say, that’s just first grade; surely more coherence will come later. Actually, no. Theme One of fourth grade is “Journeys” (“Akiak,” “Grandfather’s Journey,” “Finding the Titanic,” “By the Shores of Silver Lake”), and Theme Two is “American Stories” (“Tomas and the Library Lady,” “Tanya’s Reunion,” “Boss of the Plains,” “A Very Important Day”). In sixth grade, Theme One is “Courage” (“Hatchet,” “Passage to Freedom,” “Climb or Die,” “The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle”), followed by Theme Two, “What Really Happened?” (“Amelia Earhart, First Lady of Flight,” “The Girl Who Married the Moon,” “Dinosaur Ghosts”).

Since large parts of the school day—usually two morning hours—are spent teaching literacy, the opportunity costs of such incoherence and fragmentation, especially for disadvantaged students, are easy to imagine. The misguided approach fails to do what domain immersion does: repeat words and concepts steadily, teaching students not only the subject under study but also an abundance of words.

Because vocabulary is a plant of slow growth, no quick fix to American education is possible. That fact accounts for many of the disappointments of current education-reform movements. For example, the founders of the KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program] charter schools, which have greatly helped disadvantaged children, recently expressed concern that only 30 percent of their graduates had managed to stay in college and gain a degree. But note that KIPP schools typically start in fifth or sixth grade, and while KIPP’s annual reports show that their students achieve high scores in math, they score significantly lower in reading. I interpret those facts to signify that middle school is too late to rectify disadvantaged students’ deficits of vocabulary and knowledge. Word-learning is just too slow a process to close those initial gaps in time for college. The work of systematic knowledge- and word-building has to begin earlier.

I would make three practical recommendations to improve American students’ vocabularies, and hence their economic potential: better preschools, run along the French lines; classroom instruction based on domain immersion; and a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool. Of these, the last is the most important but also the toughest to achieve politically. But the new Common Core State Standards for language arts, now adopted by more than 40 states, may offer a ray of hope (see “The Curriculum Reformation,” Summer 2012). One statement in the new standards reads: “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” A second encouraging passage: “The Common Core Standards do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.”

These two statements are big steps forward from the failed how-to approaches of the recent past. Their sentiments should be imported into all state and district standards and then followed up concretely. My hope is that some influential district superintendent will require a specific grade-by-grade knowledge sequence. The striking success of one major urban district could transform practice throughout the nation.

The best schools and teachers have already taken some of the steps that I’ve advocated. After James S. Coleman and his colleagues completed Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966), he became distressed that the only lesson people took from his great work was that American schools of the 1960s made far less difference to educational outcomes than family and economic status did. There was another finding at least as important: exceptionally good schools, though better for all students, were especially valuable for disadvantaged ones. Inferior schools, by contrast, harmed disadvantaged students much more than they harmed advantaged ones.

Distressed by the oversimplification of his work, Coleman proceeded to do important research on the success of Catholic schools in raising all students, rich or poor, to high levels of achievement. He found that a key factor in their success was their strong focus on subject-matter knowledge. Many other factors were at work: discipline, focus, expectations, all the many complexities that help determine school outcomes. But at the heart of the matter were the lessons themselves, which, in these Catholic schools, followed a cumulative sequence. The schools employed domain immersion avant la lettre [before the letter].

It isn’t overstating the case to say that the most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class is to focus on the question: Is this policy likely to expand the vocabularies of 12th-graders? The physicist Max Planck once said that professors never change their minds. But teachers and principals can, when shown a better way. Educators and policymakers should inform themselves about the critical importance of factual knowledge and about the need for a specific and coherent yearly curriculum to impart that knowledge and language effectively. That won’t just improve students’ vocabularies; it will help restore the Jeffersonian ideal of equality of opportunity. Ω

[Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr. was, until his retirement, the University Professor of Education and Humanities at the University of Virginia and he remains the Linden Kent Memorial Professor of English Emeritus at UVA. Hirsch is best known for his writings about cultural literacy. His most recent book is The Knowledge Deficit (2006). For a critical view of Hirsch, see The Schools Our Children Deserve by Alfie Kohn, Critical Literacy by Eugene Provenzo, Jr., and Literacies of Power by Donoldo Macedo. Hirsch is the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation.]

Copyright © 2013 The Manhattan Institute

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Best Description O'The Day: Wayne LaPierre Is A Glib Sociopath!

Tom Tomorrow speaks truth to gun-power today. The gun-nuts are sociopaths. If this is a (fair & balanced) diagnosis, so be it.

[x This Modern World]
Gun Talk
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

(Click to embiggen — H/T to Daily Kos — or use the zoom feature of your browser) Ω

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly.

Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002.

When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001.]

Copyright © 2013 Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Good Golly, Les Mis Mali

Today, this blog's poet-in-residence, Calvin Trillin, looks at the French adventure in the Republic of Mali and senses a disaster just over the horizon. There has already been blowback to the French incursion in Mali: the disastrous hostage-taking of hundreds of foreign workers by Al Qaeda-linked militants in the Sahara Desert. The hostages worked at a remote BP gas refinery and the Algerian government shot first and sorted the bodies later. The U.S. Benghazi-Hawks in Congress have been notably quiet about this quagmire-in-the-making. Where's the outrage over Victor Lynn Lovelady, Gordon Lee Rowan and Frederick Buttaccio (U.S. citizen-victims in the hostage crisis)? Actually, it's because the Dumbos don't have a clue as to an appropriate response to the tragedy at the Algerian gas plant. If this is a (fair & balanced) revelation of Dumbo-hypocrisy, so be it.

[x The Nation]
A Message From Americans To France
By Calvin Trillin

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created at
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“As French troops intervene in Mali, the French take
pride in their military capacity and in their independence
of action.” —The New York Times

We’re pleased to hear you like to intervene.
We praise both your commitment and your style.
Ourselves, we’ve wearied of this sort of thing.
Perhaps you could take over for a while. Ω

[Calvin Trillin began his career as a writer for Time magazine. Since July 2, 1990, as a columnist at The Nation, Trillin has written his weekly "Deadline Poet" column: humorous poems about current events. Trillin has written considerably more pieces for The Nation than any other single person. A native of Kansas City, MO, Trillin received his BA from Yale College in 1957. He served in the army, and then joined Time.]

Copyright © 2013 The Nation

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Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Saturday, January 26, 2013

January 21, 2013 — The POTUS 44 Unchained

Today, Eags offers a post-mortem of the second inaugural address proclaimed by the POTUS 44. The verdict? The Dumbos are terminally ill. It was the biggest butt-kickin' taken by the old white guys since the final scenes of "Django Unchained." If this is a (fair & balanced) example of life imitating art, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
The Tomorrow Majority
By Timothy Egan

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Oh, the horror: a gay bar mentioned in the same sentence as Selma and Seneca Falls, a call to fix a gasping planet, a stirring defense of health care for the elderly and citizenship for 11 million people living in the American shadows. And now, women in combat. What’s become of this country?

“One thing is clear from the president’s speech: the era of liberalism is back,” said the perpetually puckered Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell.

“Unapologetically liberal,” was the takeaway quote in a video sent out this week by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS.

Liberal, liberal, liberal! The wedge label is the last weapon of people who are out of step with their era. Rove and company are betting that “liberal” still has the power to scare. But did you notice that these opponents of President Obama’s Inauguration Day aria didn’t take issue with the substance of what he said? Are they for a legal system that excludes gays from rights that other citizens share? Do they favor global warming? Do they intend to deport the millions of immigrants without papers, and further alienate the fastest-growing block of voters?

A larger question for those who want to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” is whether a majority of Americans now favor all the things that Obama alluded to on the first full day of his second term. In fact, they do. The electoral realignment is happening so quickly it looks like an Alaskan river thawing before our eyes. In opposition, Republicans speak for a fast-fading past, or a permanent winter.

And that sneaky, Machiavellian Obama: he made them do it. He’s trying to “just shove us into the dustbin of history,” said House Speaker John Boehner this week. No shoving was required — the Republicans climbed right into the dustbin and put the lid on to keep out the light.

McConnell believes Obama’s words in the 57th Inaugural Address were “unabashedly far-left of center.” Maybe in 1956 that was true. Or 1981. But not in 2013. Obama’s framework is the new center. Call him a liberal. But if you forget the label, and poll on the substance of his remarks, you find a broad, fresh coalition siding with the president on all the major issues he highlighted.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the country is more “liberal.” But it does mean, at the least, that the center has moved, and Republicans have not.

On climate change, a Pew poll at the height of last’s fall’s election found strong bipartisan support for taking steps against many of the effects of global warming. There was a significant increase in those who say the storms, fires, droughts, record-high-temperatures and ice-melting of the last decade or so are human-caused. Only 12 percent — and here’s where the talk radio and Fox wing of the Republican party are glaringly out of step — believe it’s some kind of hoax.

Gay marriage support has surged so quickly, and across the board, that only an aging cohort of Republicans is still against it. Among young people, those 18 to 29, it’s no contest: 73 percent favor it, according to Gallup last November.

Immigration reform is another loser for Republicans. An Associated Press survey released this week had 62 percent in favor of allowing illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. The Republican Party cannot survive without Hispanic support, and this poll recognized that: 53 percent of G.O.P. members now favor the “liberal” solution — amnesty! — up an astonishing 22 points in just two years.

On and on, from protecting Medicare and Social Security against voucher plans like those advocated by Representative Paul Ryan, to increasing taxes on the wealthy, a big majority prevails. Guns? About 9 in 10 Americans favor criminal background checks for gun buyers, which is the one idea that seems most likely to pass, despite opposition from leading Republicans.

If the era of liberalism is back, as McConnell said in deriding Obama’s speech, it has metastasized and taken on a new form. It’s nonwhite, young and urban. It’s college-educated women. It’s West Coast and East Coast, the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and, soon, Arizona. It’s the upper Midwest, and the Philadelphia exurbs. In the South, it’s Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and maybe Georgia to follow within a decade.

Of course, the Democrats can always overreach. Arrogance breeds hubris. What do not have majority support are huge new government spending programs. And Obama, in his speech, did not call for such things. (His health care law is the product of Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation, and relies on free enterprise “exchanges” rather than a government takeover, despite what critics say.)

But Obama did defend the two great government programs that work and must be shored up: Social Security and Medicare. “These things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” Obama said. “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” If those words are the distillation of liberalism, bring on the chisels and scratch them into marble.

So, who is out of step? Who is to the far side of the center? In 1958, just four percent of those polled by Gallup were in favor of allowing blacks and whites to marry each other. That figure now is 86 percent. The Republicans of 2013 can stand still, like those Eisenhower-era opponents of interracial marriage. But they cannot call their opposition to gay marriage, climate change measures, immigration reform and raising taxes on the wealthy mainstream positions.

Looking at the coming battles in Washington, Representative Justin Amash, Republican of Michigan, spoke more political truth in one sentence than Boehner and McConnell have in four years of speeches. “The public is not behind us,” he said, “and that’s a real problem for our party.” Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company

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