Thursday, December 31, 2015

readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic….a little history

American schools have been around since the Boston Latin School was opened in 1635.

Yet, what we think of today as public education, K-12, hasn’t been around all that long.

In 1644 the Dedham (MA) town meeting established the first tax-supported public school. Of course, it was for boys only. For long decades, girls might learn to read (so they could read the Bible, for instance), but it wasn’t thought important for them to be able to write or do their ciphers.

Rural Oklahoma, early 20th century
In New England, in the 18th century, “common schools” were established, mostly in the form of one-room schoolhouses for students, who often paid a fee to the teacher.

For most kids, the development of reading, writing and math skills was mostly a family concern until about the middle of the 19th century. By that time, public education and public high schools were becoming common, and attendance was in the process of being made mandatory.

What was taught in this evolution of schools was largely a local concern, often tied to the training and interests of the teacher.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that a nationwide standardized curriculum was established, mandating roughly the same array of classes that students are taking today: mathematics, English, science and history.

I guess you could say we’ve come a long way, baby….but I guess that Americans have never been less proud of our public education than we are today.

I wonder what an 18th century schoolmarm would have thought about the Common Core standards?

My guess is that she probably wasn’t giving passing grades to students who just weren’t getting it….that seems like the bottom line to me.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

First flight—unbelievable

For many people around the world, it was literally unbelievable.

On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright cranked up the biplane that he and his brother had built in the back room of their Ohio bike shop, and did what no man had done before: he traveled through the air, perched on a machine.

That first flight wasn’t much to write home about: 120 feet, lasting 12 seconds. Orville and Wilbur flew four times that day, and Wilbur handled the last, spectacular feat: he traveled 852 feet in 59 seconds.

A lot of folks thought it was impossible, or at least impossible for two Dayton bicycle mechanics to pull off.

The Wright brothers were deliberate in their strategies to develop and patent their airplane, so they didn’t talk it up much. The world-wide press was not largely impressed in the early years. Five years after the first flight, Orville and Wilbur went to France and did the first highly publicized demonstrations of their heavier-than-air craft. The world went nuts.

da Vinci's flying machine

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519) had the idea for a flying machine back in the 16th century, but he couldn’t get the thing to work.

David McCullough's book on the Wright brothers

The other British colonies....

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"We the People..." -- wait a minute

Our Constitution: the people did not speak

The U. S. Constitution is the primary legal and political document in our history, our heritage, our political organization and our culture.

It was written largely by wealthy white men (about two-thirds of them were lawyers), and about 4% of the population voted for the delegates who ratified it.

Vox populi had nothing to do with it, just saying.

“We the People…” is a bit of an exaggeration.

How we got the Constitution is not a well-known story.

I guess some folks may imagine that it was originally written on tablets by those mythical great men, The Founding Fathers.

To make a very long story short, the Constitution is a grotesquely politicized document that was conceived more or less on the sly by colonial delegates whose mandate merely was to fix up the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (ratified 1781).

The Articles of Confederation permitted little centralized power in the brand new republic, and they proved close to useless in the initial efforts to effectively govern the independent colonies, defend their sovereignty and manage their internal trade and civil affairs.

On February 21, 1787, the Congress convened state delegates in Philadelphia for the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation" and to “render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union."

Generally, the delegates were the same elite group of men—wealthy and politically connected—who dominated the state legislatures after the Revolutionary War.

They went hog wild and cooked up the Constitution with centralized “federal” powers that were feared by many political and commercial interests. They did back room bargaining and political horse trading in Philadelphia and among the states to ultimately engineer ratification of the Constitution by state legislatures or specially convened assemblies in 11 states in late 1788. North Carolina and Rhode Island finally joined the crowd in 1790.

By the way, there was no popular vote on the Constitution. In fact, only about 150,000 white men voted for the delegates to state conventions that ratified the document. In 1787, the total white population of the 13 former colonies was about 3,671,000.

First flight—unbelievable

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

“Music in my own house? Wow!”

OK, turn off the iPod and just listen to this for a minute.

1920s crystal radio

Scientific American went out on a limb 95 years ago and told its readers:
"It has been well known for some years that by placing a form of telephone transmitter in a concert hall or at any point where music is being played the sound may be carried over telephone wires to an ordinary telephone receiver at a distant point, but it is only recently that a method of transmitting music by radio has been found possible."

Crikey, mate. Music through the air!?

Soon after World War I ended, scientists in the United States, Britain and elsewhere were actively experimenting with ways to improve radio technology that would enable its practical transformation into a full-blown communications and entertainment medium.

1920s radio station
A laboratory of the National Bureau of Standards in Washington— it owned station WWV—relied on help from amateur radio operators to explore the technical details of radio transmissions. It had some successes as early as 1919.

Scientific American was ponderously enthusiastic:
"Music can be performed at any place, radiated into the air through an ordinary radio transmitting set and received at any other place, even though hundreds of miles away…the music received can be made as loud as desired by suitable operation of the receiving apparatus…The possibilities of such centralized radio concerts are great and extremely interesting."

Until the 1920s, the only way to hear live music was to go to the concert hall. The only way to hear whatever music you chose, any time you chose, was to own the record and a phonograph machine.

Let’s not even get started on television.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The yin and yang of productivity

Productivity is a late-blooming concept in human society.

Before the invention of at least conceptually accurate clocks (mid-13th century in Europe) and the subsequent advent of modern timekeeping, the notion of productivity in terms of work per unit of time was mostly unknown.

Medieval clock tower

David Landes, in Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, points out that in the late medieval period, “the great virtue was busyness—unremitting diligence in one’s tasks.”
In today’s workplace, “keeping busy” is most definitely not the acceptable definition of doing good work and being productive. As anyone who’s read “Dilbert” recently knows, it’s possible to stay busy without actually doing anything.

When workers and bosses could accurately keep track of time, they created an inescapable transformation of workplace culture. If Hans made six shoes while Jakob made five shoes and Gretel (with six hungry kids) made four shoes, and Hans could do this repeatedly during measured time periods that everyone acknowledged, then it was obvious who was doing more work and thus who was more productive.

That is to say, it was obvious if each of them had the same training, and each of them had the same access to raw materials and similar tools, and each of them had the same working conditions, and if….

David Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983), 25 and passim.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Evolution “deniers”

Charles Darwin went to his printer 156 years ago with the book that stood science, philosophy, religion and mankind on their collective heads.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life  was a smash hit—in the bookshops, at least. The first press run of 1,250 copies sold out quickly, and the book went through six editions in 13 years.

A few years ago a first edition copy was sold by Christie’s for $194,500. Bibliophiles guess that perhaps 1,000 copies of the first edition are still tucked away in institutional and private libraries. Several of them are sold every year.

You probably know that, although the book enjoyed some degree of popularity among both scientists and late 19th century popular science readers, Darwin’s startling conclusion--that human beings evolved from ape-like ancestors--was wildly debated and disputed immediately after he published the book. The debate, dispute and denial continues today.

It seems to me that the “evolution deniers” got a 100-year head start on the today’s global climate change deniers.

For some folks, it is an apparently enduring capacity of human nature to ignore facts and scientifically rigorous thinking when some combination of ignorance, myth, belief, greed and fear makes it comfortable to do so.

Read here about the other evolution theorist, Alfred Russel Wallace

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.