May 20, 2017: First Flight

Flight log demonstrating one hour of flight
Flight log demonstrating my first hour of flight, from BFI to BFI

I proudly logged my first hour of flight this week as a student pilot. I met my instructor in the late afternoon at Boeing Field, and after a thorough inspection of the Cessna 150 and taxiing to the runway we departed from the north end of Boeing Field. We did some loops around the lakes and sloughs of west of Seattle, flew over the University of Washington, and then returned to Boeing Field.

Some things were just like the simulator: to fly you go fast and then you can go up. It’s a bit like time traveling in Back to the Future, only when you hit that critical speed the third dimension that opens up to you is z instead of t. And crosswind landings are tough: you have to fly straight with respect to the ground below you but at an angle with respect to the wind. Every landing that I’ve done in the simulator so far must have been with little to no cross wind; I’ll be sure to adjust that.

My biggest note is that landing a plane is not something you do in real time. It seems that landing is an action that you set up a minute or two ahead of time: get to a proper elevation at a proper distance from the airport with a proper rate of descent dialed into your elevator trim tab with the help of a proper flaps setting. If you get it all perfect, then your landing is already “made” hundreds of feet in advance of the runway; the pilot only has to make adjustments and perform the final flare.

Now I’m waiting on my medical certificate before further flights! My flight exam turned up a couple of conditions that require further documentation. I’m aiming for a second class medical rating, which will qualify me to ultimately pursue a commercial pilot’s license.

June 29, 2013: When You Ask a Student a Question

Included in a post from a blog that I follow:

[A mentor advised me that] when you ask a student a personal question, you need to be aware of your own stake in the answer. What he meant, roughly, was that when you ask a student a personal question, you need to be aware of your own reasons: are you asking because talking will help the student, or for the emotional buzz of reinforcing your relationship with the student, or to validate your own self-image as “the teacher who cares.” It’s easy, he warned, to think of yourself as asking for the student’s benefit, when really it’s about you, which is problematic: as an authority figure, you’re in a position to demand a response, even when you shouldn’t.

May 11, 2013: The Good We Can Do

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.

—Ecclesiastes 1:2-4

I don’t want to try to enact the myth of the hero teacher.

Tribal education in Southwest Alaska has many systemic problems. Alcohol abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, English language acquisition, traumatic head injury, and cultural clashes. The first six months of a teacher’s tenure here are wasted working in familiar ways against unfamiliar problems, rebuffing the students’ mischievious gestures of friendliness as disobedience.

Above all of these is the fact that there is no life here for teachers from the outside. Though as an outsider you cannot own land or settle here, a rare few teachers will find reason to stay here as many as five years. The rest will leave after two or three, leaving place for a new teacher to come and struggle with the students against their situation and misunderstandings.

What does it mean to do good for these students? Giving them tools to take advantage of modern opportunities can only be considered a good. And yet many teachers will also lay pressure on students to conform to the demands of western civilization, pressure as subtle as singling out the college-bound for praise. When students find that they cannot meet these demands, that they were given only expectations but not ability or motivation, severe psychological distress can result. Feelings of inadequacy can perpetuate the cycle of alcohol abuse and annual suicide. Teachers with long tenures here might bury as many kids as they send to college.

Whatever I do here as an individual will be lost. I will leave in short time and my name and works will be forgotten. The best thing I can do for my students is to support them in their own goals, emotionally and academically. And I can hope to support the teacher that takes my place with systems that will help guide them towards a quicker understanding of the students that they are working with.

The best I can work towards, day by day, is to be happy and help those around me be happy too.

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April 26, 2013: A Well-Ordered God

When I was born,
I had installed a clockwork mind:
the very best and most efficient,
at pursuing clockwork ends.

But I have watched time grow long,
and space grow long with it too,
cracking gaps,
letting levers loosen from cogs,
and clockwork fall in heaps.

So come with me now
to where the summer sun never sleeps,
only rests,
to damn the world of time,
and rules,
and regain ignorance of our creators.

April 13, 2013: In Loco Parentis

I don't need a photo release to show you this, because I'm his dad.
I don’t need a photo release to show you this, because I’m his dad.

In loco parentis got a little more literal with the shop teacher out of town. His son became mine, and I used my parental power to whisk him away to Kongiganak, where I was to chaperon a Native Youth Olympics meet.

I’ve had a hard enough time these last few weeks, surrounded by too many people and in beds not my own. We spent this weekend at the Kong school, and my sanity creaks under the weight of being unable to escape the herds: sleeping on a hard classroom floor with our team of boys, being followed and following everywhere. And yet it is in a way the most privacy some of these kids get; if I had to sleep seven to a bedroom in a 500 square-foot house, I might find my only retreat in humming myself a tune. And I would rarely be able to find the attention for homework.

In loco parentis is Latin for in the place of the parent and describes the broad authority of schools and teachers over students. Teachers here don’t perform the most important parental roles: we do not teach a child what it means to be loved or nurtured, we do not transmit the bulk of culture or provide a safety net of lasting support. And yet, I have fewer students in most of my classes than most local parents have children in their homes. I have more time to focus individual attention on my students than their parents do.


On Friday night a few local students brought out drums. Yup’ik song and dance is a tradition hanging by a thread, but you can get a fair impression of it from these videos by Anchorage-based band Pamyua.

Pamyua Bubblegum:

Pamyua Ocean Prayer:

Modern Yup’ik song and dance are usually performed in a school basketball court, because these are the largest meeting spaces available in most communities. Here’s an example of the tradition as I found it Friday night:

And here’s a sample of my own poor recording:

The repetitive, choral verses and the beat of the drums put me into a meditative state which I could imagine floating over the whole audience. And I wonder if the musical style could be performed in English, with words drawn from the western mythos, and what effect it would have on an audience in a small space. I’ll try to find better examples of music similar to what I heard.

A few pictures:

A local picked us up from the airstrip in a sled attached to a snow-go, like this, for the mile-ride into school.
A local picked us up from the airstrip in a sled attached to a snow-go, like this, for the mile-ride into school.

Puppy guarding a snow-go, Kongiganak in the distance.
Puppy guarding a snow-go, Kongiganak in the distance.
The view from our host-classroom window, Friday morning.
The view from our host-classroom window, Friday morning.
The Alaskan High Kick
The Alaskan high kick. The athlete grabs an ankle with one hand, supports himself on the other, and kicks up with his free foot. The best competitors can enter a momentary one-handed stand with their free leg pointing straight up.

To see a perfectly executed and photographed kick, click here. The picture is from another teacher’s blog post.

March 23, 2013: NWEA Conference Presentation

I’ll be presenting at the 2013 NWEA Fusion conference in June on the statistics of using student-growth for teacher evaluation. How sure can you be?will address:

  • The meaning of “a typical year’s growth” as defined by NWEA.
  • How NWEA identifies a historical cohort for evaluating student growth.
  • The best statistics that NWEA provides for contextualizing student growth.
  • How to quantify the uncertainty of a teacher evaluation derived from student growth data.

February 17, 2013: Fire, I

All of our friends had warned me not to talk to him again. It wasn’t my fault; he came to me.

A new batch of results had trickled in over the radio Tuesday night. And though I owed a heavy debt to pedal away on the dynamo, Wednesday morning found me at my desk writing another gridded sheet.

My pen dipped ink. Into the second column of all forty-eight rows I had already transcribed each patient’s initial pain-scale report beside their study subject-number, and now moved through each of the forty-five slips of paper delivered to me from the transcriptionist. Matching subject-number to subject-number, I noted each new pain report in the third column. One slow sip of tea for every ten entries.

Then the column of differences. I worked my pen to fill in forty-five deltas: changes between pre-treatment and post-treatment pain. The subtraction column came more slowly than the transcription that preceded it, and I worked slowly and carefully. Methodically, he might have said, if he was in a good mood.

The next column was the squares. After every product I glanced up to the window, beyond which the moving sun kept time against the branches of a eucalyptus tree, and ravens, indifferent to science, called out to each other in throaty rasps. Even at twenty-five I had begun to lose my perfect vision, and I had decided to allow my eyes frequent and regular breaks, breaks which I will admit to taking some pleasure in.

This was my tri-monthly ritual. My life was a circle that I walked from the garden, to the lab, to the radio, to my desk, and back again. Every three months I produced several new strains of comfrey. The most promising I sent out by post to doctors up and even down the coast, for burn treatment. They applied these new strains as salves and recorded their effects upon patient-reported pain. I received the results by wireless, and on that Wednesday morning I was computing standard deviations and t-tests. Tomorrow I would return to the radio to pedal back in all the power my work had consumed: garden, lab, radio, desk.

The results of three months of work came into focus as I summed squares for the control and experimental group. That’s when I looked up to the eucalyptus and saw him standing at the edge of my door. Cycle interrupted.

I felt a mild wave of nausea, indicating either fear or excitement; I didn’t know which.

“James”, he said.

I nodded at him, hesitant to speak.

As he turned his eyes away from mine, biting his lip, digging his hands into his pockets, the nausea eased a bit.

“Right. I know I said I wouldn’t.” He paused, “I was in the library and I saw something on comfrey, alkaloid content and color. I…”

After two moments of wordless hesitation, one hand emerged from its pocket with a slip of paper, holding it out to me to take.

There is a small set of delicate bones which lever against each other to carry the vibration of sound from the ear drum to the cochlea. When the brain perceives some disaster of enormous magnitude, a tree about to crash within feet of the listener, a fall from some great height, the flash of an explosion, a set of muscles in the middle ear move to pull these bones apart, to save them from beating each other to fragments in the immanent clamor and leaving the ear deaf. And as I considered reaching out to take the slip of paper, the possibility of reaching out to him, these muscles strained heavily in an effort to protect my hearing from any possible catastrophic result.

All sound muffled out into the beating of ocean waves. My balance reeled and my mouth went dry. My nausea became acute. And in this state I moved too quickly to stand and reach out and grab the paper, and our fingers touched.

The moment ignited a fire which suddenly inflamed my stomach and lungs. Adrenaline locked my muscles to my frame, preparing them to move with explosive action. My brain stumbled through fantasies of shallowly buried desire. Half of me struggled to pin him against the wall and tear off his clothes; another half struggled to put my fist through his repentant fucking face. The two managed barely to keep each other from action as I stared at the ground, afraid of letting his image rally either impulse to victory.

After what must have been less than three seconds of deep and rapid breathing, I managed to raise my eyes back to the window to stare at the sun beyond the tree and tried to focus my racing mind on silent counting.

“Right,” he said, following my gaze beyond my office. “I’m…I know I said…” He let the words trail off for a moment, and then turned towards the door to leave.

November 7, 2012: History as Logos, History as Pathos

History is the record-taking of past or present events for the benefit of future audiences. In A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman states that modern scholars have a particular difficulty discerning precisely what occured in medieval times:

The chronic exaggeration of medieval numbers—of armies, for example—when accepted as factual, has led in the past to a misunderstanding of medieval war as analogous to modern war, which it was not, in means, method, or purpose. It should be assumed that medieval figures for military forces, battle casualties, plague deaths, revolutionary hordes, processions, or any groups en masse are generally enlarged by several hundred percent.

Tuchman explains the reason for this inflation:

This is because the chroniclers did not use numbers as data but as a device of literary art to amaze or appall the reader.

Modern scholars have a difficult time discerning precisely what occurred because medieval scholars were not concerned with recording precisely what occurred. They practiced an alternative mode of history.

To the modern, western mind, the method of the chroniclers seems corrupt. We use history as a means to preserve true records of cause and effect in social/ecological systems. Realism in history helps us understand our actions in a historical context, and better guides our decision-making. Fantasy in history corrupts our decision-making.

The medieval mind used history to a different purpose. The chroniclers provided their histories as a means to inspire action through emotional effect. Some realism would have been required to provide a shared context between a chronicle and the experience of the audience. But embellishments, which strengthened the emotional persuasiveness of the histories, were well suited to the medieval uses of history.

The modern decision-maker relies on realism in record-keeping to make logical decisions, while the medieval mind relied on fantastic embellishment in record-keeping to inspire action through emotion. These historical traditions conflict with each other, but are well suited to the purposes of their creators and their intended audiences.

In future posts, I’ll build two threads that generalize on idea:

  • If you impose a perspective of realism on a historical tradition rooted in ethos or pathos, you destroy that historical tradition. If the audience of that historical tradition is still alive, you have impovershed that audience.
  • That logical arguments carry cumulative effects that do not diminish with time. Emotional arguments are more persuasive individually, but do not build upon each other and decay in persuasiveness over time. The accumulation of logical arguments is a component of the effectiveness of Western civilization.

November 4, 2012: What is Love?

Practicing the bass line and chorus “What Is Love?”

This is a style I’ve never tried before—holding down a key and getting rhythm with the bellows—and it’s also testing my ability to move around the bass keys.

The chorus is pretty easy, but there are other parts of the melody that will be harder.

From this guy’s video.

October 10, 2012: All Through the Night

Here I am on the accordion I brought to play up here.

This is my first try at transposition. My sheet music was in the key of G, but I felt most natural singing it in C. Music theory seems very interesting, and I’ve ordered a book to fill myself in.


The accordion.