Monthly Archives: November 2013

Vanished: The search for answers

Vanished book cover

I received Wil S. Hylton’s new book, Vanished: the sixty-year search for the missing men of World War II, from LibraryThing.com’s Early Reviewer program. I was a little apprehensive about requesting it, I spent most of the 1980s reading World War II history, and I was a little worried about falling back into that obsession. But this is not your everyday book of war history. I don’t believe this book could have been written thirty years ago, maybe not even ten years ago. Hylton writes about the true face of war, not Hollywood glory but death and suffering and loss. Loss that can carry forward over generations.

I need to say that the title is a little misleading. The book’s focus is on the efforts to find the crew of B-24 #453. That crew, and more importantly the families that survived them, are proxies for every MIA, and MIA’s family, in every war. Perhaps the book should be called Vanished: the search for war’s missing.

Hylton is obviously a first-rate writer and researcher. His book is laid out like a well plotted mystery, which it is, and is documented like a scholarly work of history, which it could have been if Hylton were not such a good writer. This book pulled me in and was difficult to put down, except for when my eyes filled with tears as Hylton exposes the heart wrenching loss that MIA families endure even decades later. The dead sometimes appear in wars history, the missing are noted, but their families are never mentioned. This book reveals that they are also casualties of war, as deeply scarred as any battlefield casualty.

Hylton’s first book is as good as any first non-fiction I have read since David McCullough’s “The Johnstown Flood”. His style is somewhere between McCullough and Cornelius Ryan, an admirable mix of intimate first person interviews and an ability to bring archival documents to life. I think that you will like this book.

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Success? Failure? How should we measure MOOCs?

One of the most common comments made about MOOCs seems to be about their high dropout rate. But so what? We should be concerned with how many succeed and in that MOOCs shine. In the class at the bottom of this pyramid, Think Again: How to Reason and Argue Successfully, only 2% of the students completed the course. But we need to look at those that finished it. 2% of the 226,652 students that started the class is 4533 people.

In a traditional brick and mortar university one professor can teach three classes a semester with an average of 20 students in each one.  Let’s say our professor is ambitions and also teaches a class in the summer session. That is 140 students each year. In a traditional classroom setting it would take over 32 years to teach that class to as many students as completed the MOOC in 12 weeks. Nearly a lifetime’s work for one professor in a traditional setting completed every 12 weeks in a MOOC. This idea did not originate with me, I heard it from one of the professors in one of the MOOCs I have taken. I would like to add that just like I sometimes have to read a sentence several times to grasp what the author meant it is possible for any of the 97% who did not finish the class to try again. And again if necessary.

After all, with a MOOC all you lose is your time and all you gain is knowledge. (We all know that the “Certificate of Completions” and “badges” are not worth the paper they could be printed on. We take the classes to learn something.) If something keeps you from learning it the first time why not go back?

If you are a graduate student looking forward to a career teaching on a traditional campus the fact that a MOOC can teach as many students in a few weeks as you will your entire career might worry you. Judging from the few MOOCs I have taken the best ones are often introductory courses, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, Think Again: How to Reason and Argue Successfully, and Archeology’s Dirty Little Secrets could all be classified as introductory, Mathematical Logic 101, Rhetoric 101, Archeology 101, if you would prefer.  I believe that these high quality introductions will encourage students to pursue the subject rather than discourage them as often happens today in “101” level classes. The American History 101 class I took at Miami might very easily caused me to reconsider history as my major if I had not already spent several decades reading history.  These are the classes that are traditionally taught by inexperienced graduate students. In a MOOC the professor has years of experience and very often a deep love for the subject coupled with seemingly boundless enthusiasm. The three classes I named above were all like that. In addition there are many graduate students working in the background, gaining experience that will help them teach the more interesting, advanced courses, that students intrigued by high quality MOOC introductions may one day demand.

If you are a businessperson looking for a cheap source of educated labor this might look promising. However, the only “career” oriented class I signed up for, Georgia Institute of Technology’s Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application, collapsed in its early weeks under the the crushing weight of flawed planning and application. I am sure that not all of them are failures but I doubt that they will be as valuable to companies as internal training courses would be. I have never worked for a company that did not have very specific ideas on how software was to be used, even when I was in charge. A student that learned from a professor to use a bell, when company policy is to only use whistles, could have a difficult time in the workplace.

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Book Review: A Mind of its Own

A Mind of its Own

A Mind of its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis

The first chapter of David M. Friedman’s book “A mind of its own: a cultural history of the penis” explains why it is so awkward to write a book review for it. According to St. Augustine the most evil thing a person, make that a person in “western civilization”, could have is a penis. Well, except for a vagina, unless your name is Mary and God himself certifies you a virgin. How do you write about, even speak of, the physical representation of original sin?

Somehow Friedman managed to write a very interesting book on the subject without suffering from mortal embarrassment or being struck by lightning. In the book he covers many topics, the cultural origins of circumcision, the practice of castration to preserve a singer’s voice, full frontal castration as practiced in some religious orders to preserve their members “purity” The substitutes that female members of those orders suffered are every bit as perverse. The perceived differences in human male’s endowments based on their ancestors continent of origin is discussed in the chapter“The Measuring Stick”. In “The Cigar” Sigmund Freud’s fixation on humanities fixation with having and or losing external genitalia are examined.

The book does present a predominantly male perspective of the topic but that is not its biggest weakness. Given what western civilization has been for the last two millennia I doubt you can find any topic where the predominance of written opinion is not from a male perspective. In chapter five, “The Battering Ram” women’s opinions and evolutionary biology take center stage.

The last chapter, “The Puncture Proof Balloon” looks at the long history of medical interventions to keep men’s little friends fully functioning. Some were particularly gruesome such as grafting sections of various large mammals testicles to a humans testicle. Only in the last few decades has there been real medicinal solutions to “ED”, erectile dysfunction, first injections into the base of the failing member, then a very well-known pill.

Overall the book was extremely interesting. It did have one major failure. I am almost certain that the penis is found worldwide but the book only looked at “the West’s” cultural confusions. What about the rest of the world, China, the Middle East, Mongolia, Africa, the pre-Columbian Americas, and India? Is the culture that wrote the book on sex as socially dysfunctional over the penis as we are? Are any of them?

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