A new temporary art installation,  called Eye and Cardinal.  Cardinal is elsewhere, this is Eye.

The noonday sun does not reach this part of the Chicago Loop canyon.  Still, I saw half a dozen people photograph this thing in the few minutes I was walking around it.

The installation rests on an older base with quotations about knowledge around the bottom. The one visible here says “The power to question is the basis of all progress.” -Indira Gandi

This post was written with the free blog editor Windows Live Writer, recommended on the WordPress support forums, after the WordPress image editor was too broke to even upload an image. The image handling part of the program is much easier than WordPress, but the text editing is more difficult. And there seems to be no way to retrieve the html code after writing something, which makes the program worthless for creating links to post in blog comments. And in the end, it wouldn’t upload to my blog at all, after at least 20 retries, so I had to cut and paste everything to the WordPress editor after all. Big waste of time.

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Above Average

In Garrison Keillor’s (and my) home town of Lake Wobegon, according to the tag line, the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average. If I had a nickel for every time I was told I was above average–usually around report card time–I would, well, I suppose I’d  have a lot more nickels than I have now.

But it surprised me to see that someone has actually studied what happens to children who are told they are above average.  The interpretation of the results surprised me even more.

The study was done by psychologist Carol Dweck on 400 New York fifth graders.

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his [sic] score, then gave him [sic] a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test.

So far, so good.   An interesting set of assumptions, an interesting study.

Now come the interpretation:

The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Let me get this straight.  The researchers define the name of the game for the kids as being smart, then define smart as doing well on a test, but when the kids pick up on the rules and win by them by figuring out how to do well on tests, the researchers get all surprised and huffy and ridicule the kids for “taking a cop-out”.

There is more, about how kids who are praised “become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy”, exhibit “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions”, “image maintenance becomes their primary concern”, and “the child may come to believe failure is something so terrible, the family can’t acknowledge its existence.  A child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can’t learn from them.”  Well, duh.  And not completely unlike a real-life work environment.

The comments aren’t much better.  They trash efforts to instill self esteem — “they are used to being praised just for existing”.  I look out my window at my drunk landlord screaming at his kids as they fumble their halfhearted attempts to take the cellphone away from their mother, the one with the bruises on her throat who is trying to dial 911.  “Boy!”, he screams at the eleven-year-old, who is buying time for the police to arrive.  (They don’t have names anymore.) “What’s the matter with you, Boy, that you can’t control a woman?” They are used to his screaming.  If he ever once said “good job”, they would probably fall over in astonishment.

The commenters complain that praise has given them “perfectionism…massive fear of faliure[sic]…. terrified to take the big risks that would be a career breakthrough”. Poor dears.  But where are these jobs that value failure, jobs that value autonomous employees who take risks, jobs that value employees who have no clue about the value–no, necessity–of image before substance? Oh, they exist all right, but not for the children of Lake Wobegon.  Those jobs are for the sons and daughters of the the wealthy and the well connected.  The people who are too important to ever get in trouble, no matter what they do, or don’t do.

Lake Wobegon children would do well to remember they are above average, then keep their heads down and keep on doing the things that keep those good test scores–and later on the good paychecks– coming.  Their strong mothers and their good-looking fathers are teaching them well the skills they will need to survive.

Posted in Education. Comments Off on Above Average

Work and passion

A while back I discovered the Study Hacks blog.  Mostly it examines strategies for students, but sometimes  it takes apart common cultural assumptions about other topics, like life and work.  The blog is mostly finished, and the archives are the big attraction, but every once in a while, blogmeister Cal Newport comes back to take a stab at topics like dream jobs or Romantic Era scholars in the classroom. This week he tackles The Passion Trap: How the Search for Your Life’s Work is Making Your Working Life Miserable, a re-thinking of all the “do what you love and the money will follow” type of career advice books of the last twenty years or so. As usual, some of the most provocative ideas are in the comments.  Here’s one:

Mary Arrr wrote that passion became the touchstone in 1970, when going to college became the norm, and the first generation of kids raised in suburbia entered the workforce. As she wrote, “This meant that people had to decide what career they were interested in without necessarily having any knowledge of what people in that field actually did, or even any notion of what people who had jobs did all day.” It meant that people did not grow up watching their fathers work, let alone assuming that they would follow their father’s path. And the fathers, the people who had chosen to move the family out to the sociable suburbs, said, “My work is too hard.” They didn’t just say, “Become a lawyer, become a doctor,” they also said, “We’ll be behind you, no matter what you decide to do.” So young people had infinite choices, little information, and little guidance.

or conversely, “you have the capability to do anything you want to do, but we will not be behind you, no matter what you do”, a battle I am currently engaged it, again, …and the story is different it you tell it from the aspect of the mothers instead of the fathers–the values gulf between the American baby-boomer generation of daughters and their mothers is legendary….

But what happens when you chose a path for its sensibleness but don’t follow it because it lacks passion?  Or if you chose a path for its passion and then lose that passion, do you continue because it is sensible? And will your path be littered with the remains of family relationships that didn’t survive because you made autonymous decisions….

Here’s another:

Just try to look at potential projects and relationships as open-ended projects, hypotheses, and experiments. Avoid Grand Pronouncements like “Life’s Work” before you get started – reserve them for when you get older and want to tell a nice story about your life. Distrust these stories, by the way – it’s only in the rear view mirror that your life path looks obvious.

But what if you are older and closer to retirement than to the beginning of your work life–can you still maintain an open-ended attitude about work?

Posted in Curiosities. Comments Off on Work and passion

Lorca by moonlight

Does Federico Lorca’s gypsy poem La Casada Infiel (which I ran through Google Translate here) take place in the moonlight or in the dark? And can you see colors in the moonlight?

To answer these and other nycthémèrish questions, I set out a few hours after the start of the full moon Friday night to take some pictures, and ended up at the confluence of, er, Wolf Lake and Indian Creek.  Yeah, Chicago has some real world-class rivers and lakes, and undoubtedly more prestigious confluences, and maybe some day I’ll take the trouble to conduct experiments on those too, but this one is within walking distance.  I have also seen a wolf here with my own eyes, so quite possibly this is a lycanthropic stream, although I’m not sure of the effects of last century’s reversal of the stream to flow into the Calumet River on any of its magical properties.  Probably the same as before.

I used a hundred-dollar camera (Cannon Powershot 560), timed exposures, and no tripod. The photos are more, or maybe less, associated with a line or phrase in the poem.  More details after the photos.


yo me la llevé al río
[I took her to the river]

Se apagaron los faroles y se encendieron los grillos.

[The lanterns were extinguished. The crickets were kindled.]

como ramos de jacintos

[like hyacinth buds]

me sonaba en el oído

[they sounded in my ear]

como una pieza de seda

[like a piece of silk]

Sin luz de plata en sus copas

los árboles han crecido

[without the silver light in their crowns, the trees have elongated]

y un horizonte de perros

ladra muy lejos del río.

[a horizon of dogs barks far in the distance]

bajo su mata de pelo

hice un hoyo sobre el limo

[under its mat of hair I made a hole over the inundated terrain]

Ni nardos ni caracolas

tienen el cutis tan fino

[neither petals nor shells have skin so delicate]

ni los cristales…

[not crystals…]

…..con luna

[…in the moonlight]

relumbran …


… con ese brillo

[…with such shining]

como peces sorprendidos

[like surprised fish]

montado en potra de nácar

[mounted on a mother-of-pearl steed]

sin bridas y sin estribos

[without bridles or stirrups]

La luz del entendimiento

[the light of understanding]


And here is a gratuitous photo of the full moon at the end.

The objects brought to the lake were materials from this and other Lorca poems:

  • silk–one a light blue-green, and the other with a black and white pattern
  • crystals–manufactured crystal globes, a natural crystal polished in the shape of an egg (a crystal will reverse print), and a natural white pointed crystal with facets
  • silver colored hand of Fatima and blue protective eye with beads
  • a dark purple crystal from Mount Sinai, a metal key chain with a picture of the pope on it blessed by the pope, a cross of Ethiopian silver, red and yellow Palestinian-style cross stitch, and a paper straw sewing basket with a blue satin lining, none of which photographed successfully in the moonlight.

Yes, I could see color; I was wearing blue jeans and green sneakers, and could determine the colors of both in the moonlight.

The shell was a conch (in the Carribean pronounced conk) from the thrift store–they were popular tourist items in the last century and are now scarce. The flower was a moonflower from the back fence.  I photographed some of my irises but they didn’t really turn out or look very scary.

I started out by walking around Wolf Lake by way of the alleys on the south end, but there was a lot of ambient light, nothing good to rest the camera on for timed exposures, and not very good access to the lake, not to mention no river as in the poem. So once again I ended up sneaking into the park after hours.  After taking pictures for some time, I suddenly became aware that it was late, and I was alone in the middle of deserted park in a dangerous city. As if to underscore the need for alarm, I saw a movement close to me.  Not Lorca’s barking dogs or the intruders they were presumably barking at, but a raccoon lumbering under the foot bridge.  Then came a huge splash on the other side of the creek.  Turtle?  At night? Or a surprised fish?  At any rate, the vegetation suddenly seemed unfriendly and it seemed wise to leave the park as quickly as possible and move towards the road where there was still some occasional traffic.  As I left the park area, a stranger in a silver sports car stopped and offered me a ride. I declined with a wave of the camera and he quickly drove off.

Posted in photography, Poetry. Comments Off on Lorca by moonlight

First frost

This morning I went across the street for some mint for my morning tea and found frost on the ground. It won’t be long now ’til the trees start to turn.

and do I see space in this garage for some books?….

Arab Heritage Month 2010

I always realize it’s Arab Heritage month in Chicago about two weeks after it starts and I have missed almost everything I want to see.  The events for this November have already been scheduled.  Here is the calendar:


I was at the Cultural Center today, but no literature is out yet, it’s supposed to start appearing soon.

Posted in Adventures. Comments Off on Arab Heritage Month 2010

Las Posadas

The other day I grabbed an old notebook to make yet another To Do list and found this recipe for hot guava punch from an advanced ESL class I substituted for once upon a time. The local Mexicans make this for Las Posadas in December, to commemorate the journey of Mary and Joseph to Nazareth. It follows a few days after the hugely important mañanitas, a sunrise mass on Dec. 12 (it actually starts the night before and goes all night) in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Hot Guava Punch for Las Posadas December 16-24

(feeds 20)


8-10 prunes

4 lbs. guavas, cut in half (fresh or frozen)

1 lb. tejocate (yellow Mexican crapapples) frozen is much less expensive

2 sticks cinnamon

3 apples cut in quarters

1 20″ stalk sugar cane (peel and cut in 4″ pieces)

1 orange–sliced with peel on


put in a large pan with water to cover

boil about one hour

put in cups, including fruit (some don’t like it with the fruit)

at the table, add sugar to taste

optional: add tequila, rum, or brandy

eat with spoon

say “salud”

Also on the menu for this holiday:

atole-(hot milk drink)

milk, cornstarch (1 teaspoon per glass), cinnamon, sugar, heat while stirring

buñelos-flour tortilla (fry on both sides in oil)

put on plate

add cinnamon and sugar from a shaker

tamales-an entire block might go together


Las Posadas

–(student description from an essay, retaining some refreshingly expressive fractured English)

The Virgin and St. Joseph

“Las Posadas” those celebrations are representations of the journal who have the virgin Mary & St. Joseph wher they need to return to their origen land to the inscription.

Every day a group of persons have a reunion.

-9 days duration

-meet with rosary in front of Nativity

-sing litany walking

-two persons carry shelf with figures of & the Holy Couple

-carry a candle & stay in front of closed door

-singing a song requesting to enter because the Virgin is pregnant and the night is cold.  This representation is made 2 or 3 times until the last door is open everyone comes in and all is cheer.  Then on the patio the piñata is ready for the youngest ones.

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These bloom at night, presumably to attract night-flying insects for pollination. The sun is barely below the horizon and they have already unfurled themselves.

Chicago’s Channel 9 botches weather

Channel 9 used to have the best weather graphics in all of Chicago.  It was in grad school that this was first pointed out to me, in a course that talked about imparting information visually, and I marveled at how quickly one could take in so much complex information with just a quick glance at Tom Skilling’s weather map.

So when I wanted a button on the front of my blog so that I could check the weather instantly, for example, to see if I should mow the lawn now in case it was supposed to rain tomorrow, it was WGN Channel 9 I linked to.  Their weather page opened on a five day forecast with little weather icons.  A quick scroll down got you the radar map. With another click you could animate the weather map to see any incoming storms. Here it is (on the right), in all its simplicity, from the Wayback Machine.

But all good things come to an end, and this link deteriorated. Now it displays nothing but the current temperature, something you can find out more quickly by opening a window, if you don’t have one already open.

Looking a little further, you can find Channel 9’s current weather page, but it isn’t any better. Across the top is a photo montage of their TV personalities, whoever they are, then the cutesy photographs for the day.  In the summer they show darling children playing at the beach, today they have the pretty, pretty trees turning color.  Very nice if you have ADD and need to be reminded of what seasons are, but not so good if you want to know the weather forecast quickly on your way out the door.

Fortunately there is an alternative.  An oddball site called Wunderground uses pretty much the same format as the old Channel 9 page,with a few obligatory commercials thrown in. When you open the page you get the five day forecast complete with cloud and sun icons, and radar map, all above the fold, then scrolling down there is almanac and airport information, then at the very end, information about sunrise and moon phase.
Goodbye blunderweather, hello Wunderweather.


Posted in Curiosities. Comments Off on Chicago’s Channel 9 botches weather


Calder’s Flamingo at the Federal Building at 230 S. Dearborn in Chicago. Photos were taken July 18, 2010.

The work stands in a small plaza that is frequently used for demonstrations and political gatherings. This area is in the south loop area, and has always given me the sort of look-over-your-shoulder feeling of the South Side.  But when it is filled with a crowd, it has an intimate connected feeling, with the patterns of the impersonal city rising in the background like the walls of a protective canyon.

After considering it from afar in the context of its urban space (and shaking a mental fist at the frequent cloud cover), I walk up to it  and try to interact with it in three dimensions.  Carrying a camera seems to make me look at it differently, as color, texture, geometry, light.