Monday, April 24, 2006

giant buddhas

Here today...
We saw The Giant Buddhas at the Museum of Fine Arts on Friday, a documentary by the Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei about the Taliban blowing up three 1500+ yr old statues in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan in 2001. The local Taliban were following a directive from the half-blind Mullah Mohammed Omar to destroy "un-Islamic graven images", which covers a lot of ground. (What's it to Omar anyway, I wondered, he can barely see in the first place...)

I enjoyed the theatre and the company and the dinner afterwards, but didn't think much of the movie itself which was a collection of related stories stitched together in a non-linear (so "artistic" I guess) way. We heard from an al-Jazeera journalist who at great peril managed to film the explosions, a local Hazari family living in a nearby cave, an archaeologist looking for additional giant Buddhas nearby, and a glamorous Canadian-Afghan actress/novelist whose father had visited these statues years ago. We heard the director's point of view through a narrator. They visited China too to seek out a re-creation in a Buddhist theme park that had been stopped by the government.

Frei's camera lingered on Nelofer Pazira's pale green eyes for much longer than necessary. It seemed like she was Frei's true interest.

Angry fundamentalists who as good anti-modernists didn't even have the technical skills to blow things up, needed to rely on Saudi engineers to complete the task. Technology itself as part of modernism is an abomination yet an exception is made for it only insofar as it can help you murder your enemies. Thus, yet another religion that conveniently disregards theological purity in favor of expedience when something actually needs to get done. More routine hypocrisy.

...gone tomorrow
And what effect could this gesture have on the beliefs of Buddhism? The Taliban are angry ignorant boys, acting out on the world stage. We'll show you! No one pointed out the metaphysical irony of the act. All they did was prove the Buddha's point--impermanence is the only reliable condition. Like their one-eyed Mullah the Taliban are blind, to their own folly. They do not think, they only follow, like militant lemmings.

Do my bidding, my lemmings! Not by my authority but rather, because It Is Written! Do not concern yourselves with the struggle of education--I will save you the trouble and interpret the holy books for you, freeing you to devote yourselves to prayer. The fact that What Is Written happens to be what I want you to do anyway is a fortuitous coincidence! Worried about death? No problem--I shall provide the optimistic certainty you crave. You will live forever in the afterlife, I guarantee it! And with full-breasted virgins feeding you peeled grapes, and pistachios and those expensive Medjool dates. And a flying carpet--why not! In return for which I ask only that you blow up, or get somebody to blow up for you if the math is too difficult, anything or anyone who displeases me.

Who, my lemmings, can offer you a better deal than that?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


I took the Mass teacher's exams for English in March and the results arrived yesterday. I passed the Communications and Literacy, and the English subject matter tests. So now I'm qualified for a "preliminary" license. (But not the "initial" license because, in a terminology misuse reminiscent of "before you begin" syndrome, "initial" is not the first level of license, but the second.)

Everyone who wants to be teacher must take the Communications and Literacy test. Its proper name actually is, "Test to Exclude Non-Native Speakers of English." It focuses on such vital knowledge as the difference between a colon and semicolon, without which a teacher could not effectively communicate with his students. It is mostly a simplified version of the English subject matter test so if you are taking the English test, it's like taking the same test twice, only without the questions about Emily Dickinson. The test purports to test "communication" but mostly just tests picayune points of grammar. I bet it's because the testing company saved themselves the bother of designing a better communications test by just re-using questions left over from the English test. Less work for them and who does it harm anyway besides a few foreigners.

Non-native speakers of English have a difficult time with this test and that should be changed. Native speakers of English though ought to be able to get through it, at least with some study. The Globe published three stories of teachers who had failed these tests. For two, English was not their native language. For the third, a native English speaker with a master's degree in education, the problem was supposedly "test anxiety." I think anxiety is simply an indicator of your level of preparedness. It's a symptom, not a cause. And a person with a master's degree should be able to pass her subject matter test. I have some sympathy on the other hand--this teacher and one of the others they wrote about were dance or phys ed teachers. The test tests the wrong things for people doing these jobs. It has a kind of tone deafness.

I mentioned this to the members of a sparsely-attended meeting of my book club. One is a teacher retired after 32 years. I expected him to grouch, which I have heard from others in kneejerk fashion, about "low standards" but was surprised to hear him say, "you can't predict how people will react--people react differently." Some people won't fit into the cookiecutter of a standard test and we risk losing talented teachers as a result. But you do need some basis upon which to assess qualifications. Nothing is perfect but on balance testing seems like a reasonable solution. There ought to be some avenue of appeal, but that risks the development of yet another bureaucratic black hole.

The Globe also published a letter from a supposedly highly-qualified math teacher who seemed indignant that he was not considered highly qualified by the state since, apparently, he has not taken the math subject matter test. Shouldn't the solution to this grave injustice be obvious, to such a fine mind as his?

Sample question:

The paragraphs above contain:

--a spelling error
--a misuse of quotations
--a misplaced conjunction
--a sentence out of order
--none of these

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

java certification

I passed the Sun Certified Java Programmer (SCJP) 1.4 exam this week, getting 45 out of 61 questions. It's as much a memory exercise as a test of understanding--if you can pack your brain with enough mnemonic tricks to retain dozens of arcane details, you can pass, even without understanding how they function together. No, that's not really true--the number of details necessary to remember to pass exceeds my capacity for remembering arbitrary facts.

It's easier to remember that which you can understand. Memory via brute strength is inefficient. Understanding happens slowly by encountering a plain fact in enough different contexts that eventually you create enough associations that the conceptual basis for "interface methods cannot be static" for example, becomes apparent. Then it becomes easy to remember or better yet, you don't have to remember, you can reconstruct what makes sense from the web of associations built around a fact. The contextual basis of memory.

Or something. I don't expect to make much sense while recovering from memory overload.

For most of the questions you either know the answers, or not. There is little or no "figuring out", because it tests knowledge rather than problem-solving ability. And the multiple-answer style of many questions (select the two correct answers among the six) virtually eliminates the benefit of guessing.

The pissant erstwhile strictness of the exam, which includes several threats, is obnoxious and comical. The woman in charge of giving the test, though "Prometric certified", was easygoing and allowed me, in a breach of protocol, to take my coffee into the test room, to make up for the fact that I had to wait. Though I was scheduled for 9:30, anytime that day was fine she said. Since she was having trouble downloading the test I went to the library for an hour. Some people say that last-minute studying does no good but that last hour helped me--I got two or three questions right thanks to that last review.