Monthly Archives: May 2007

Vacuous Vocabulary? #

The Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries and the Houghton Mifflin Company have published (2003) a book titled 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know.

It’s an interesting list. Some words are used in science (chromosome, gamete, mitosis, quasar), some in history/politics (antebellum, gerrymander, laissez faire, oligarchy). Others are useful to understand modern society (notarize, plagiarize). Interestingly, there are a significant number of words that may be used to insult your less-enlightened friends. (churlish, feckless, supercilious, unctuous).

Do high school graduates know these words? Probably not.

The same group has similar books for high school freshmen, college graduates, and those of us who, despite formal education, still struggle with the English language.

No, I’m not getting paid to advertise these books. I just thought the lists were worth sharing.

UPDATE: KSL radio ran a news segment (13 June) on this topic, and quoted yours truly. An audio version is also available.

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Board Voucher Action (Press Release) #

The following is the full text of a news release from USOE. I’ve added links to relevant documents; the final order is available too.

SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah State Board of Education voted 10-4 today not to implement a voucher program in Utah based solely upon the provisions contained in House Bill 174, an amendment to the state’s original voucher bill, House Bill 148.

The Board’s action came in response to a petition brought by Utah State Reps. Sheryl L. Allen, R-Bountiful, Kory M. Holdaway, R-Taylorsville,and Steven R. Mascaro, R-West Jordan along with Utahns for Public Schools and Vik Arnold, director of Political Action & Government Relations at the Utah Education Association. The petitioners asked the Board to refuse to implement House Bill 174 as a stand-alone measure in light of a recall ballot on House Bill 148, the original voucher measure. Utahns will vote Nov. 6 on whether to recall House Bill 148. The amending bill, House Bill 174, passed by a margin that precludes any recall election.

Voting not to implement vouchers were Board Members Dixie Allen of Vernal, Laurel Brown of Murray, Kim R. Burningham of Bountiful, Janet A. Cannon of Holladay, Greg Haws of Hooper, Michael Jensen of West Valley City, Randall Mackey of Salt Lake City, Denis Morrill of Taylorsville, Debra G. Roberts of Beaver, and Teresa Theurer of Logan. Voting against the measure were Board Members Mark A. Cluff of Alpine, Bill Colbert of Draper, Thomas Gregory of Provo, and Richard Moss of Santaquin. Board Member Richard Sadler of Ogden was excused from the meeting.

The DesNews and Electronic Voting #

I’ve been meaning to write a small post taking the Deseret News to task for their biased and uninformed editorial on electronic voting. I didn’t get to it as quickly as I’d have liked—the voucher issue (in addition to a rather hectic work schedule) has kept me a bit busy. Today, Phil Windley commented on it, with a better argument and bit more moral authority than I could have provided.

If nothing else, the editorial was good for a laugh. [1]

Right now, some people are worried there are gremlins in the current voting machines — that electronic voting is unreliable and open to tampering. They spout anecdotal evidence of irregularities here and there to fuel their fear and want paper ballot backups to fend off any conspirators. It’s the same kind of itchy-witchy thinking that leads people to hide bags of money under their mattresses.

And dare we say that almost all of those those skittish souls are likely older than 40? The younger generation sees the outcry for the tangible comfort of paper ballots as a hallmark of the fuddy-duddy. The notion sounds, to young ears, like people demanding election results be chiseled into granite for security.

We agree.

Utahns do not have the time, money or obligation to create a “security blanket” of paper ballots for Luddites to wrap around themselves in the night. The electronic voting era is upon us. Our state leaders have done a superb job of getting the new system up and running and trouble-shooting glitches as they have surfaced.

Deseret News, “Vote ‘no’ on paper ballots”
Referenced 29 May 2007, 20:44 (MDT)

That’s the first time I’ve heard the Slashdot crowd—probably the most broadly technical online community around—called Luddites. The prevailing feeling there is that paper backups are absolutely essential. It’s not because they’re scared of technology. It’s because they’re intimately familiar with it. Besides, I suspect more than a handful could crack the voting machines if they chose.

Notes

  1. The Trib was a bit more reasonable. They argued the retrofit would be an unnecessary intrusion on state rights. That’s an argument I could agree with. And they did it without fear-mongering and name-calling. ^
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Debate and Groupthink #

I’ve refrained from posting on the voucher debate for a variety of reasons. But I realized some of my comments on other blogs were longer than some of my posts here.

The following comes with the hopefully unnecessary caveat that the opinions stated here are my own, and may not be representative of any group or government body I may be affiliated with.

The nature of groups

It is the nature of groups to villainize some amorphous group or ideal and simultaneously deify their own position. Groups gain validity and cohesion by identifying enemies. [1] It’s one of the central themes of Orwell’s 1984 that an irreconcilable conflict is essential to influencing group behavior.

In the Slashdot community, condemnation Microsoft is almost expected, as is praise of Apple or Linux. At sporting events, fans form an unofficial group. At first the “enemy” is the opposing team. This focus can shift quickly to a particular person such as a dirty player, or referee. At first, the shouts of disdain come from a single source, and left unchecked, spread to an increasing number of fans. [2]

Whether it’s technologists’ rants against Microsoft, a sports fan blaming the referee, or the increasing partisianship in national politics, groupthink is a potent force if there is an identifiable enemy.

Validation

There is something personally validating about being part of a group. It’s encouraging to know others think as we do. We feel more important when we identify with a group.

As a result of self-indentifying with groups, defensive behavior is common. An attack on our group is somehow personal. Left unchecked, the group’s arguments stray from logic and principles and become overly broad, emotional, and fallacious as members rationalize and defend their association. (I think we can all point fingers at someone else who has skipped the first step and jumped straight to unfounded vitriol.)

Applicability

How does this apply to the voucher debate? If you’ve made it this far, it’s a fair bet you have the intellectual perspicacity to figure it out on your own. I’ll highlight a few points anyway.

I’ve said before that most of the PCE radio ads offend me, particularly the ones they were running at the beginning of the year. The ads offended for several reasons: the ads depicted overly broad generalizations poorly disguised as metaphors while simultaneously vilifying public education. It’s okay to lobby for more choices (I might even agree with you!), but if you try to tell me a parent has no options in the public system, you lose credibility.

The Utah Taxpayers Association has done a good bit of research into the fiscal impact of voucher programs, and regularly cites well-known authorities like the Friedman Foundation and the Cato Institute. Their recent post crossed the line from factual advocacy to the emotional groupthink behavior I described above. The post smacks a bit of ad hominem. In other words, I hear them making the following argument in their post: this other group (but not us) will behave poorly, so clearly we’re right, and their wrong.

The UTA post also lumps together moderates and extremists. They predict a series of actions if the referendum fails. They miss two key points: a) the farther down the list one goes, I suspect the number of people supporting the action decreasing, until only those on the wings are left, and b) the list applies to both sides of the issue.

To be fair, voucher opponents like Utahns For Public Schools have (more subtly) inserted their own variation of ad hominem, believing that perhaps discrediting the source cripples the argument. You’ve heard the rationale: The voucher movement is being funded primarily by out-of-state interests (as part of a national experiment/conspiracy), ergo, vouchers aren’t good for Utah.

What to do?

We live a country where reasonable people have disagreed since before its founding. Even our bicameral national congress is a form of compromise. If we recognize the dangers (and inherence) of group mentality, it is easier to keep discussion useful and productive.

Notes

  1. It was Clay Shirky’s article, “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy”, that enlightened me to this phenomenon. I first found the article in Best Of Software Writing I, edited by Joel Spolsky. In the article, which is primarily concerned with group behavior in social software, Shirky pulls much of his analysis of group dynamics from a book by psychologist W.R. Bion titled Experiences in Groups. ^
  2. As a soccer referee, this is eminently clear. Particularly so as we’re in the middle of the state youth soccer championships. Interestingly, this derisive behavior has a significant detrimental effect to the team on the field: it deflects attention to their failures to a third party. If failure comes from someone else’s actions, there is no reason to work harder. Sometimes it starts with a parent; sometimes it begins with a coach. But time and again, if the referee is blamed for the team’s failure, cohesiveness, fair play, tenacity, and determination take a downward spiral. ^
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Not tonight #

Much like Lee Benson, I exercised my freedom to not watch the Rocky/Hannity “debate.”

In researching something else [1], I came across the following quotation which summarized my thoughts on tonight’s contest:

“It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in an argument.”
William Gibbs McAdoo

Guess neither of them will win this evening.

  1. The quotation I was actually looking for was mentioned today by Chief Justice Durham as she cited Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.” ^
  2. As I surfed the ‘net, I also came across a wonderful tidbit from Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
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