Is Lost Like Riverworld?

December 12, 2008

It recently dawned on me that the TV series, Lost, resembled the Riverworld series of books written by Philip Jose Farmer.  Given that I hadn’t read these books since I was about 13, I started to re-read them to see if there really were similarities and if the resolution of Riverworld might tell us something about what will happen in Lost.

Let me first say that you should re-read books you really liked at 13 with caution.  It wasn’t quite as great as I remembered.  I wonder what else I thought was really cool at 13 that turns out to be mediocre.  No wait, I don’t want to know.  In any event,  I was struck by the plot and thematic similarities to Lost.

The basic premise  of Riverworld is that every person who ever lived on Earth up until 2008, all 36 billion or so, is resurrected on a giant planet that consists of one super-long river that zig-zags from pole to pole and back again.  The river is lined by impassably huge mountains, so one can only move up or down the river, not over the mountains.  Everyone is reborn healthy at the age of 25 and is provided with food daily from special stones.  If they die in the Riverworld, they are just reborn somewhere else along the river.

The hero of the plot is the explorer, Sir Richard Francis Burton.  He is determined to discover who created the Riverworld and why.  He decides to find the headwaters of the great river, just as he strove to discover the headwaters of the Nile in real life.  Along the way he encounters all sorts of historical figures from different places and eras, including the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland (Alice Liddell), Hermann Goering, Samuel Clemens, and others.

Here are the similarities between Riverworld and Lost:

  • In both people are stranded (perhaps after “dying”) in a place and are trying to figure out who made that place and why they are there.
  • In both the need for food and shelter is largely eliminated — in Riverworld the stones provide food and clothing and the weather is mild, while in Lost the Dharma stockpiles provide food and the weather is mild.
  • In both the purpose of their being there seems to have something to do with their moral development.
  • In Riverworld the people controlling the planets (The Ethicals) plant spies among people when they are resurrected.  In Lost the “Others” also plant spies among the Losties.
  • In both the spies are detected and the control of the Ethicals/Others is challenged.
  • Both the resurrectees and the Losties form new “governments” and split into competing factions that fight against each other.
  • People do not appear to age on the Island or in the Riverworld.
  • In both it appears that dead people come back.  In Riverworld it is more obvious.  But in Lost the dead regularly visit the living (e.g. Christian Shephard, Harper Stanhope, Mikhail Bakunin, etc…). 
  • Amazingly there is also a character (based on the historical figure) Mikhail Bakunin in Riverworld.

And I’m not the only person who sees connections between Riverworld and Lost.  While searching for material to verify similarities between the two I cam across this post on the Entertainment Weekly site by “Doc Jensen” that concludes: “C’MON, PEOPLE! There MUST be a CONNECTION!”

Let’s say that the Lost writers were at least partially inspired by Riverworld.  If that’s the case we might expect that the purpose of the Island will be like the purpose of the Riverworld.  Both may be designed to identify who is morally worthy to reproduce and create future civilizations.  Perhaps the whispers are the spirits of the deceased who sometimes find a way to materialize in a new body.  Perhaps the obsession the Others have with getting babies born on the Island is to re-embody those spirits or to figure out a way to create the future civilization.  Perhaps Aaron is important either because he embodies an old spirit or because he has passed the test to carry-on the new civilization.

Of course, Lost is not bound by Riverworld.  And maybe the connections are largely coincidence or just common themes in sci-fi.  But I’m guessing that J.J. Abrams and the writers were influenced by Riverworld. After all, Abrams is my age and may well have read the same books when he was 13.  So, Riverworld may give us some clues about where Lost is heading.

Pass the Clicker — Pee Wee’s Playhouse

October 30, 2008

Go ahead and make fun, but the fact is that Pee Wee’s Playhouse was the most imaginative, interesting, and funny program ever to appear on Saturday morning TV (with the obvious exception of Bugs Bunny, which was actually made for movie theaters and only appeared on Saturday morning years later). 

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (PWP) had a budget per episode that was typical of prime time shows of its era rather than the typical budget of some chintzy, bad-animation 30 minute infomercial for a dumb toy (I’m looking at you, He-Man).  With that budget PWP was able to offer a mix of claymation, animation, puppetry, live-action, and a creative set.  And it had a long list of talented actors.  PWP regulars included Phil Hartman, Laurence Fishburne, and S. Epatha Merkerson (of Law and Order fame).  Special guests included Jimmy Smits and Grace Jones in this so awful it is great Christmas special singling Little Drummer Boy.  You have to see it to believe it:

OK, still don’t believe me that this was the greatest Saturday morning TV show ever?  It won 22 Emmys.  And it had this scene where Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne) prepares for a date by practicing with Pee Wee pretending to be Miss Yvonne (I know, it’s a stretch):

And who could resist repeat-gags like the secret word, when everyone would have to “scream real loud” whenever it was said.  Like this “time” when the secret word was “time”:

Don’t forget that Tim Burton also launched his directing career with the movie Pee Wee’s Great Adventure and Danny Elfman did the music for both the TV show and movie.

PWP was not bad-good, like the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon or Shazam/Isis.  It was good-good.

(I should add that I had the honor of meeting the actress who played Chairry this summer.  Barrymore never had Chairry on his resume.)

Policymaking By Anecdote

October 7, 2008

Is it good policy to reduce barriers to firing sub-par teachers?

According to Jennifer Jennings, the blogger formerly known as Eduwonkette, the answer is no.  We need to preserve teacher tenure, she argues, because she has found an example of a really great teacher, Art Siebens, who was fired when his DC school was reconstituted.  His case is “haunting for the glimpse it offers into the brave new world of unchecked principal autonomy.”

Well, Siebens wasn’t actually fired.  He wasn’t re-hired at the same school and was instead offered a job teaching a different science course at a different DC public school.  Don’t fret ye of weak hearts — continued employment for teachers is still essentially guaranteed even if not in the school and class of their choosing.

It’s puzzling why Siebens wasn’t re-hired given that he was an award winning teacher with what appears to be a strong record of excellent work.  But the fact that he wasn’t is hardly evidence against DC superintendent Michelle Rhee’s proposal to offer teachers significant pay increases if they give up tenure.  Perhaps there is more to Siebens’ story than is publicly known.  

More importantly, the case of Art Siebens is not evidence against abandoning tenure because it is a single case.  The plural of anecdote is not data.  We shouldn’t make policy by referencing anecdotes.  Instead, we should look “through the lens of social science,” as a wise person once wrote, and consider systematic evidence when formulating education policy. 

The remarkable investigative reporting by Scott Reeder has powerfully documented the problems with teacher tenure.  After filing 1,500 Illinois Freedom of Information Act requests with the state board and all 876 Illinois school districts, Reeder uncovered the following:

1) “Of an estimated 95,500 tenured educators now employed in the state [of Illinois] an average of only seven have their dismissals approved each year by a state hearing officer. Of those seven, only two on average are fired for poor job performance. The remainder is dismissed for issues of misconduct.”

2) “Of Illinois’ 876 school districts only 61, or 7 percent, have ever attempted to fire a tenured faculty member since the teacher evaluation reforms were imposed 18 years ago.”

3) “Of those 61 school districts, only 38 were successful in actually firing a teacher.”

4) “Not only is it exceedingly rare to fire a tenured teacher in Illinois, but it also is extraordinarily expensive. In fact, Illinois school districts that have hired outside lawyers in these cases have spent an average of more than $219,000 in legal fees during the last five years.”

5) “In the last 10 years, about 477,000 evaluations of Illinois tenured teachers have been performed, but only 513 received unsatisfactory evaluations… In other words, only 1 out 930 evaluations result in a tenured teacher receiving an ‘unsatisfactory’ rating.” Conducting those evaluations consumed 2.5 million administrative hours.

OK, so it is next to impossible to fire tenured teachers.  And we also know from systematic evidence that the quality of the teacher is the single most important factor within school control to influence student academic improvement. (See for example the research referenced here.)

Unless we believed that all but .007% of tenured teachers are doing a solid job, the current system is clearly keeping incompetent teachers in the classroom.  Any meaningful reform strategy has to involve getting rid of dud teachers and attracting better teachers as replacements.  Rhee’s proposal to increase pay in exchange for greater flexibility in terminating sub-par teachers seems like a promising idea to do just that.  The higher pay might attract better new people into teaching and the flexibility on termination could remove bad teachers from the classroom. 

Of course, the blogger formerly known as Eduwonkette makes a fair point when she asks, “Why are you confident that principals will always – or even often – pick the ‘best teachers?'”  For a system with reduced tenure protections to work, principals would also have to be properly motivated to distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers.  But this could be done either through meaningful merit evaluation and rewards for principals or through market accountability in choice programs.  If continued employment or pay raises for principals depended upon identifying effective and ineffective teachers, they are unlikely to let talented teachers like Art Siebens go and are likely to get rid of duds.

But we should all accept that any system of hiring and firing teachers will have its injustices.  The status quo tenure system has the injustice of protecting bad teachers in their jobs.  And if cuts have to be made it is newer teachers who have to be let go, even if they are better teachers than their senior colleagues.  A system like Rhee proposes will occasionally mistakenly let go of a good teacher.  But with well-designed incentives for the principals this should be the exception and not the rule.

Besides, we have to ask ourselves:  how many kids do you want to condemn to an ineffective teacher to avoid the possibility of unjustly terminating a good teacher?  If we care more about the kids than the adults in schools, then the injustice to the students should matter much more to us than the possible injustice to a few teachers.

I Miss Bill

September 22, 2008

I miss Bill. 

I miss significant expansions in free trade, like with the passage of NAFTA.  Instead, under Bush we’ve had new tariffs on steel, tariffs on underwear, and protectionism on catfish.

I miss welfare reform that encouraged work and discouraged irresponsible behavior.  Instead, under Bush we’ve just had $1 trillion in corporate socialism that simply transfers wealth from taxpayers who didn’t work for or invest with reckless financial institutions to the people who do.  Doing so discourages work and rewards irresponsible behavior.

I miss low inflation and unemployment partially sustained by fiscal restraint.  Instead, under Bush we’ve had runaway government spending with rising inflation and unemployment.

I miss an articulate, well-crafted speech that inspires us to support promising government efforts.  Instead, under Bush… well, you know.

Of course, divided government may have helped shape Clinton’s agenda and deserves some of the credit.  And of course, presidents can’t take full credit or blame for the economy or world events.  And I certainly wouldn’t say I miss everything about him.  But whoever helped shape Bill, whatever credit doesn’t belong to him, and despite his failings, those were good times and he was a good president.

A Feminist Critique Double-Standard?

August 5, 2008

I recently finished reading Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and found her story to be very compelling and well-written.  She makes a feminist critique of Islamic culture based on her own experiences growing-up in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya.  While one could wonder whether the horrible treatment of women that she describes is really inherent in Islam or just in the way Islam is practiced in certain places, she makes a powerful case that anyone interested in progress for women should consider.  Certainly anyone who would read Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, or Naomi Wolf, should add Ayaan Hirsi Ali to their reading list.

But then I wondered — given how often these American feminist authors are on high school recommended reading lists, how many of those lists also include Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

I did a quick Google search for the terms “Infidel,” “high school,” “reading list,” and “Ayaan Hirsi Ali.”  There were 158 entries after duplicates were removed.  Combing through those entries I found four high schools that had Infidel on a recommended reading list. 

I did a similar search, substituting “The Color Purple” as the book and “Alice Walker” as the author.  That yielded 575 entries (without duplicates).  After reviewing the first 158 of those entries I found 49 high school recommended reading lists containing The Color Purple in addition to statewide lists for New York and Florida.  There are also many Google entries describing efforts to ban The Color Purple or remove it from recommended reading lists, but it is clear that those efforts have largely failed.  The Color Purple is widely suggested for high school students to read by school officials.

Why is Ayaan Hirsi Ali largely absent from high school reading lists while Alice Walker is so common?  Perhaps the difference is explained by the literary quality.  Walker is read for her literary skill in addition to the themes she addresses, but I somehow doubt that literary quality fully accounts for the difference.  And I should emphasize that Infidel is very well-written.  Her detached, almost clinical tone, helps the reader grasp the horrors she describes.  And Ali writes without anger and with a fair level of sympathy, even for those who treated her very poorly.

Instead, I suspect that at least some of the difference is attributable to the fact that Walker’s feminist critique hits closer to home, while Ali describes issues that are more remote.  In part, this is reasonable because we legitimately have a stronger interest in things that are closer to us.  But in part this seems unreasonable.  If we feature only criticisms of Western treatment of women and neglect accounts of even more horrifying treatment elsewhere, we deprive students of a sense of perspective and proportion.  Students might fail to appreciate the accomplishments and progress of Western civilization because of the inability to compare it to the accomplishments and progress made in other civilizations.

Infidel contains many controversial and disturbing issues.  But so does The Color Purple.  It would be nice if we are willing to address those controversial and disturbing issues even when they don’t occur in our backyard.

Blog Rankings

July 14, 2008

This blog is not yet three months old but I am pleased to report that it is off to a good start.  According to Technorati’s rankings, is attracting more readers than the American Federation of Teachers’ blog, Edwize, more than Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier’s, Bridging Differences hosted by Education Week, more than the Reason Foundation’s Out of Control, and the Center for Education Reform’s Edspresso.  It significantly trails the educouple of Eduwonk and Eduwonkette as well as Cato at Liberty (although that’s not primarily an education blog).  Flypaper, which started about the same time as this blog, is also off to a good start.  The Queen of education blogs seems to be Joanne Jacobs.

Here are the Technorati rankings (as of this morning) of education sites that seem to share some of the same audience as this blog.  By no means is this a comprehensive list of education blogs.  And I have no idea how reliable or meaningful Technorati’s rankings really are.  I’d continue blogging no matter what the rankings were because it’s fun.  I imagine the same is true of most others.

  1. Cato at Liberty               3,662
  2. Joanne Jacobs                3,709
  3. Eduwonkette                27,419
  4. Eduwonk                      30,876
  5. Flypaper                       95,943
  6. Jay P. Greene               104,227
  7. Bridging Differences   107,924
  8. D-Ed Reckoning         107,924
  9. AFT’s Edwize              116,227
  10. Edspresso                  123,039
  11. Out of Control            123,039
  12. Core Knowledge         127,851
  13. Sherman Dorn            151,703
  14. EdBizBuzz                   184,730

What Are They Smoking?

June 27, 2008

On July 1 the University of Arkansas will become one of the first major universities to ban the use of all tobacco products on campus property.  This is not a smoking ban, it is a ban on all tobacco, including chewing tobacco.  And this is not just a ban on smoking inside buildings or within 25 feet of entrance-ways, which is already prohibited, it is a ban on using tobacco anywhere on campus by anyone.

The University has not specified the exact reason for the ban, but it cannot be to prevent second-hand smoking problems.  By including chewing tobacco, from which there can be no second-hand harm, it is clear that the motivation for the ban is to benefit the health of the users of tobacco themselves by pushing them to quit.

Forcing students, staff, and visitors to our campus to improve their health seems beyond the reasonable authority of the University.  What’s next?  How about banning people from bringing fast food on campus?  How about intentionally scheduling classes on opposite sides of campus to force people to walk more?

I see no problem with the University banning smoking inside or near buildings that may harm or seriously bother others.  And I see no problem with educating students and staff about the health hazards of smoking.  But the University also has a responsibility to respect and instill within students an appreciation for liberty.  To do that they have to allow people to make life choices for themselves, especially when those choices pose no direct harm to others.

There is a University web forum in which these issues have started to be discussed.

On July 1 it will be the University of Arkansas, but soon it may be at a campus near you.  As the University press release says, “people from several colleges across the nation have called university officials to get information about how they might create a similar policy on their campuses, and to find out what kinds of issues could arise when making this kind of policy decision.”

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