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Beware the auto-renewal beast!

Call me a procrastinator. I plead guilty. (I have also been very busy with a move and a job search).

For a while I have been meaning to transfer my domain hosting from greengeeks to a slightly more powerful hosting service to accommodate future  web projects. I kept delaying the decision for 2 years (costing me an extra $50 a year), and then I just decided, no, I will just stick with greengeeks for a year (I have had no real complaints about them).

A few months ago I decided that there was no special reason to stick with godaddy for 5 or 6 personal domains. The cost adds up, and godaddy has no real reason to stay competitive. Then, astonishingly they auto-renewed one of my domains for 3 years in advance! I understand that it’s easy to forget about auto-renewals, but no sane human would have authorized a 3 year renewal.

I complained and then technical support said, “Sorry, there’s no backsies.” Well, maybe that’s true, but godaddy’s renewal reminder emails only mentioned a one year renewal price. There was absolutely no mention that renewals would be in 3 year increments.  I would have expected at least some kind of courtesy credit for future domain renewals.

After doing a little bit of research and checking domcomp.com , I finally decided to go with namesilo. They didn’t appear to be that much better than godaddy, but there’s no reason to reward godaddy’s awful customer service.

On another note, I have noted at how easily companies are adding auto-renewals to the terms of service. Microsoft helpfully auto-renewed my Office account at full price without reminding me it was about to expire. (To their credit, they reversed the charge immediately  after I complained). Since then, I have purchased an MS Office license at a reduced rate.

It can be hard to keep track of renewals and expiration dates, and forgetting can have serious financial consequences. What if your 12 month no interest purchase is about to come due?

Luckily, it is not hard to set up reminders. Google Calendar has some way to set up events and then set up reminders. Unfortunately to do so, you first have to go through the rigmarole of  setting up a full-fledged event and change the default notification to email. But it works….

Update: One hour later, the domain transfer completed. Horray!



Only Chumps with a Rump vote for Trump (Poem)

Only Chumps with a Rump vote for Trump.
He will pump this country into a slump.
Don’t make me a grump.
Don’t be a lump.
If you thump for Trump,
You might as well jump into a dump!

Let’s get over this mad callithump
and dump this Trump.
He’s no Forrest Gump.
He’s just a mean-spirited clump
of hypocrisy and plump
who will gladly gazump
any voters not paying attention.
We don’t need a chump to pump
our brains with harrumps.
Let’s not flump into a sump of disdain
Or treat every non-beauty-queen as a frump
Or be the guy who’s always yelling at the ump.
A little bit of determination
is all one needs to get over this hump called Trump.
Decades later, books will recall the time
that democracy survived a slight bump
and the towering tree of haughtiness
was quickly leveled to a stump.


(By Robert Nagle,  ex-mugwump, with the help of several online rhyming dictionaries! )


Social Media Posts (May 1 to May 30)

See also: Index of all Social Media Posts

Probably the most interesting question about the Trumpification of USA is how many TV entertainment outlets will refuse to invite TRUMP THE INSULT DOG on their show — damn the ratings and ad dollars. Lorne Michaels, Stephen Colbert, the Today Show, The View, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon all snicker at Trump’s ugliness as they continue to invite him on their shows for the ratings and ad money; for this, they bear responsibility and deserve criticism. Perhaps now is a good time as any  to read (or re-read) some Adorno.

2 Afterthoughts: First Conan never had Trump as a guest during election season. Second, I have no problem with news programs interviewing Trump as a guest. But entertainment shows have no obligation to feature unhinged politicians on their show (although perhaps you can make the argument that current law requires that other candidates be entitled to “equal opportunity” for free time on the network.   ) [click to continue…]


Social Media Posts (April 1 to April 30)

Two interesting studies about minimum wage. About a recent law to raise minimum wage to $15 in Seattle, a report finds: ” “Our preliminary analysis of grocery, retail, gasoline, and rent prices has found little or no evidence of price increases in Seattle relative to the surrounding areas,” Second, “hiking the federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $12 would reduce crime by 3 percent to 5 percent, as fewer people would be forced to turn to illegal activity to make ends meet. By contrast, spending an additional $10 billion on incarceration — a massive increase — would reduce crime by only 1 percent to 4 percent. (Source about crime statistics).
Two cool things about Google. First, you can adjust the likelihood of a news source from appearing in the Google News feed. Second, for people on Google Plus, Google Searches will show at the top relevant G+ wall posts you have made. (Apparently FB has never figured out how to do this). Speaking of which, Google Play Books (GPB) released a new version a little while ago; it’s my preferred choice for reading ebooks on the cloud.

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Social Media Posts (March 1 to March 30)

See also: Index of all Social Media Posts

This fascinating 3 minute video essay tries to explain why people rarely smiled in older photos. (Be sure to watch until the end to see a Chinese man smiling!).

Here’s a fierce 1996 Ukrainian rock song which has been zipping through my head all day. As luck would have it, I got to see Bilyk perform the song live in Lutsk (a double billing with the Russian singer “Linda”). PS, Ukrainian music videos look way better now than they used to 🙂 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUtLyZxlCUE .Might as well include a Linda track here as well. She’s really into mysticism/gothic rock, that sort of thing.https://youtu.be/ErJbOaNIWlM

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Social Media Posts Feb 2016

See also: Index of all Social Media Posts

I suspect that within 48 hours, the hilarious Donald Trump takedown video by John Oliver will be shared thousands (if not millions) of times on social media. Up to now, talk show hosts and political satirists have used Trump as an object for humor, not really an object of contempt. Oliver (and his predecessor John Stewart) satirize with overt political purposes. Just laughing at the video clip is not enough; you have to take action. Two reactions: 1)Why hasn’t the partisan Fox channel tried to pull off their own John Oliver show? (Is it somehow incompatible with the sensibilities of their conservative audience?) and 2)do political critics in China/Russia/Iran view this kind of satire as something peculiar to the U.S. or something that could also work in their own country? The assumption behind John Oliver’s “satirical advocacy” is that citizens can be persuaded to change their minds and take action. I’m just not sure this is true in closed political systems (and I don’t just mean that a government could block Youtube). Even if a Chinese version of “John Oliver” produced an effective takedown of Xi Jinping, a Chinese citizen might be able to enjoy it, but never think that it could make any difference politically. In contrast, the US political system may be rigged, but at least it be occasionally unrigged during moments of political clarity.

It’s behind a paywall, but New York Times wrote a feature article about Ukrainian protest songs and music videos.

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Here is some news (or pre-news!)

I have been busy publishing the first ebook story collection by Jack Matthews, the first collection he has published in 23 years. Despite the somewhat small size, I consider this to be a major work — perhaps one of his best story collections. My company will be publishing his contemporary microfiction title, Abruptions this summer.

I have started to offer ebooks at Smashwords. Frankly I will be turning my focus more towards Smashwords; it has been on the cutting edge on ebooks; unfortunately it doesn’t get a tenth of Amazon’s traffic and it doesn’t have the Createspace infrastructure, but they are doing a lot of amazing things. Mark Coker seems to seem trends sooner than most; here’s his latest end-of-the-year prediction.

I plan to start posting a few small things on Teleread over the next few months. If you remember, I used to contribute lots of things between 2004-2009 or so, but then I had to put it aside. Now I’ll resume posting on a smaller scale. I still would like to start some kind of literary site which is something more than a blog. Every time I get ready to do this, I get sidetracked by real life events. Right now I’m of the mind that I should just publish SOMETHING and then over time add features and specific kinds of content so it accumulates more heft.

I’m a lot more experienced in deployments, so I’m reluctant to implement something unless I can do it right. I also want to create a method to test changes more easily; that’s the biggest problem with trying to add features to weblogs. Also, I want to create something which one person could run and maintain by himself because — guess what, collaboration is an extra not a vital feature for most literary sites.

Last night I created a static html page based on an annotated bibliography of Civil War fiction from the Soldier Boys ebook. (Take a look at it; it’s great!). I really just wanted to steal a simple template which uses responsive web design principles (and look good on various kinds of devices). But I realized a few things: responsive web design is hard! Even the simple templates are practically content frameworks because you have to incorporate NAV elements. Having designed ebooks for different readers and devices, I know all about css media queries and breakpoints and inspecting css; even though ebooks have NAV elements, my production method just spits them out via Docbook XSL.

Also, I know I could figure out breakpoints and screen dimensions, but I became aware of REMs which are kind of like ems, only they are not. Anyway, designing web pages only occasionally, I’m used to being behind a few years on standard practices, but I feel a lot more behind than normal. Maybe it has to do with the value I place on my time, but I’m quickly growing content with just inserting a store-bought or community-written template and hoping everything works. When inspecting these templates, I am more confident of my capability to ruin the css than to fix something….

That said, I grow weary of current web design, even unassuming ones for blogs. Everything is so focused on social media and signing up for newsletter and shaming the surfer for using an an-blocker. Third-party ad networks are draining your bandwidth and browser memory. Frequently Facebook and sites with videos cause my browser to choke — especially on Firefox. So much content is delivered in-process, so you constantly need to scroll down to fetch more items. The very thought of having to dig up some thing I posted on Facebook 4 months ago fills me with dread. I would spend a good 10 minutes just hitting the More button and waiting for Facebook to serve me another teaspoon of content. Suddenly every listicle must become a photo gallery — not for any functional reasons, but simply to increase the number of clicks you need to make and the time you need to wait.

Two exciting bit of news which I haven’t shared on FB or G+.

First, BBC announced that some listeners have found lost episodes of Alistaire Cooke’s Letter from America radio series. I’ve been listening to them religiously (I’m currently at about 1993, and I have noticed that the 1970s decade was missing a lot of weekly episodes!)

Second, I have become excited at some video essays which I have seen on youtube (usually about artistic or cultural topics). See Nerdwriter1’s playlists and Every Frame a Painting’s playlists. These are thoughtful, well-edited video essays; I’m tempted to try my hand at a few of these — although I honestly can’t imagine how much time is involved. By now, either video essayist can probably crank these things out daily, but novices might find it overwhelming and time-consuming. As good as those video essays are, writing essays is just a more efficient way to produce thoughtful ideas and a fast way to receive them. Sure, video essays can say things which videos cannot; at the same time, can you justify the extra expenditure of time?


god-complexTitle: God Complex

Musician: Monk Turner (songwriter) and various singers and performers.

Where to Find: Free download on bandcamp and FMA; Youtube playlist.

Recommended if you like: Allen Touissant, Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtracks, Randy Newman, modern retelling of Greek myths

Summary: Charming  suburban rock opera with mythical overtones

Monk Turner is a talented and prolific songwriter who has glommed onto the “concept album” genre (producing about 25 concept albums so far). I wrote a long profile of Monk Turner a few years ago and have followed his recent releases over the years. A few years ago the concept was “Emergency” (imagining disaster in Los Angeles). More recently the concept was colors; each song was about a different color — and that includes a lot of obscure colors like fuchsia, cerulean,  Zymenchlora (yes, it’s a color — I checked). (Check out my 6 word review of it).  A central aspect to the concept album is that it lets the artist  explore a variety of moods and styles within a certain theme. Turner mashes a lot of retro pop styles with contemporary instruments and idioms.  All the albums have elements of 50s  rock and 60s folk and funk, but they still feel “new.”

For this concept album, each song is sung by a different Greek god or goddess (but transplanted into an era of modern suburban angst).

My questions when approaching a Monk Turner concept is to ask: will individual songs stand out more than the concept itself?  Is the melody decorating the lyrics or vice versa? Also, how much do the songs abide by    traditional pop song formats (in terms of catchiness and production values)?

For this album, I feel that the overall concept stands out more than individual songs, that the lyrics drive  the melodies (PS, they’re also hilarious!) and that the songs are quintessentially anti-pop; I don’t even think it would fall into the category of alternative (though there are certainly rock elements on the edges). In fact, the songs strike me as very theatrical — something which belongs  onstage or (heaven forbid!)   a Disney animation movie. To invent a category for this album, the first thing which comes to mind is    offbeat suburban rock opera.

Turner wants to make the Greek gods recognizable to modern audiences, so he depicts them with  modern personalities. We are supposed to sympathize with their perspectives and  see a little bit of ourselves in them.

I had a lot of fun trying  to recognize  the essence of each Greek god in the song bearing their name. Sometimes the musical  connection  is tenuous though never forced. The Hermes song is about delivering a message from the gods; The Poseidon song adopts the stance of a young adult who feels that he has “missed the boat” in growing up and missing the opportunities of life. (This contrasts to the Artemis song which is about a woman who is a “lone hunter” who “would rather be stuck with Hades than tied down with a crying baby.”)    Not only do the singers really capture the archetypal emotion of each god, both  lyrics and the instrumentation  capture the mythological essence with humor and sympathy.

In “Bad Luck”,    Hephaestus sings with remorse. The song (performed by Chris Warrior) begins as a plaintive country song, then transforms into a kind of soul duet with organ backing (where a distant female voice — Aphrodite coos light retorts). In “But then I got Married” (sung with a humorous touch by Christine Gengaro),  Hera laments how being married was much less glamorous than she expected:

My life was full of smiles
Until I walked down the aisle
Now all I want to do is die
Ohh I used to be so carefree
Sipping wine with the bourgeoisie
But then I got married

Athena’s song “A strong foundation” is a warm and gentle ballad about the benefits of moderation and having realistic dreams. (It has the warmth of a James Taylor or Carol King song). Hades’ “It’s a wicked life” (my personal fave) is a slow/moody song reminsicent of Leonard Cohen. Probably the most provocative and fascinating  song is the Hermes song “You Won’t Go with a God”about spiritual abandonment:

Do you think I deceive you?
Do you think this is all a myth?
Are you having a break through?
Or are you falling into an abyss?
You won’t go with a god
Go with a god

In general the melodies remain upbeat and fast even though the lyrics themselves are pretty cynical. This is particularly true about the Ares song (“I’ll destroy everything”). Melodically this song seems less dark than bombastic — like a cartoon villian in a Broadway musical (ably sung  by Jacke Karashae who also sang that brilliant and gleeful song “The Illuminated Self” on Kaleidoscope“).  All the performances are strong and the singers all give a unique take on each god’s personality.  If I could single out two incredible  performances, it would be the elegiac Hermes song (sung by Princess Frank)  and Athena’s song about “A  Strong Foundation” (sung with warmth and care by Malynda Hale).

It’s a little unusual that a songwriter like Monk Turner would lead a collaborative studio project like this, especially one  with so many outstanding performers.    (Allen Touissant and Gamble and Huff are two examples which came to mind).

Another very unusual thing about this album is that there are “video liner notes” on youtube about each individual song (View the playlist). I resisted watching them before writing this review, but after the review was essentially finished, my curiosity got the better of me and I ended up watching them  all.   Nowadays artists are expected to expose the creativity process to the online audience (so it can be retweeted and linked to on social media to generate interest). But Turner takes it one step further and puts together   funny vids which describe the making of each song from inception to production. We get to hear how Monk Turner circulated demos of his music to friends and used their feedback to improve the songs. We also are treated to  “melodic re-enactments”  where Turner returns to the locale where he received musical inspiration or overcame a creative roadblock. In a few cases Turner reveals obscure  aspects of the Greek myths that inspired him to write the song.  These video liner notes also include cameos from  performers who talk about how they  helped shape final production.  I guess these video liner notes add to the album and help the audience appreciate the lyrics. They certainly helped me to notice and appreciate certain aspects to individual songs.  On the other hand  I’d hate to imagine a future where every produced song needs to have  a “making of” video associated with it in order to become more widely known. I recommend that listeners give the “making of” videos a look only after you’ve had ample time to process the song on your own so your impressions of the song won’t be shaped (and limited)  too strongly by the artist’s conceptions.

Except for maybe the Hades song, none of the songs grabbed me at first, but each listen brings additional rewards (appreciating the subtleties both of lyrics and the musical arrangements). All the songs (even the deep ones)  make  for fun and light-hearted listening; they  sound good on a playlist (and stand out perfectly well on their own). But  they might shine even more in some kind of theatrical setting where the audience  pays more attention to character and lyrics.  Songs like  “Let Me Heal You (Apollo’s Song)” are obvious candidates for  musical theatre —  taking advantage of all the funny lyrics — and to certain extent, the video liner notes seem almost to anticipate this possibility (with humorous cutaways).

It’s unusual for a pop music album to focus on portraying different characters  (you’d probably have to go back to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to find  a successful example).  It’s definitely pushing boundaries.  Like Persephone’s partial  betrayal of her family by eating pomegranate seeds while in the underworld, I have to wonder  whether  Turner’s instincts are pulling him away from the bright world of pop music and dragging him down into the fiery  underworld of musical theatre.



TITASPEED: A new acronym for chat

TITASPEED is an acronym which means: “Texting is too awkward; speaking produces easy effective decisions.” It is useful in chat and email.

TITASPEED: Acronym for “Texting is too awkward; speaking produces easy effective decisions.” When used in a text conversation it can mean

  1. I recommend speaking over the telephone to discuss this matter.
  2. I feel that answering the original question as a text message oversimplifies the matter considerably and may provide misleading information.
  3. I am way too busy to provide a detailed answer now. A telephone call is more convenient for me.

Here is the context when it is needed.

I have noticed the tendency of some people to try to ask  questions via text which requires complex answers.   Sometimes a person will text this complex question because they know that answering it fully is impossible; perhaps they honestly fail to appreciate the effort involved to give an adequate answer. The asking of this complex or open-ended question thus places a burden on the recipient to either oversimplify or to spend a lot of time writing an answer.

But this is an unfair burden on the recipient. In rare cases, it may be necessary, but more often  complex thoughts, directions and nuances can be more effectively communicated over the phone. (Yes, I realize that face-2-face is even better, but that is rarely practical).

I faced this question often in email communication as a technical writer.  When you ask a question via email, you are placing a burden on the recipient. Sometimes this burden is necessary and useful, but sometimes it asks the recipient to do more work. Recipients sometimes assume that emailed questions are better because the recipient can answer them asynchronously, but actually the opposite is the case because when writing, you have to give a complete answer to take into account every possible nuance.

Responding  to emails is cumbersome; that is why it is good for the asker always to give the recipient the choice to answer by text or by phone. 9 Times out of 10, it is easier to communicate by phone; the reason people avoid doing so is that they usually fear getting sucked up in a longer social conversation.  The problem is, texting or emailing a series of questions can be extremely awkward and confusing; when you talk, you can check for understanding or clarify something right then rather than having to write something in reply.  Often the responder has no idea what the asker doesn’t understand. But when you are actually talking, it is easier to pinpoint the source of the misunderstanding.

I have written before that  texting messages is an inefficient method of communicating — and should be limited to a small number of contexts. Alas, people are relying more on their phone and voice-activated dictation to communicate. This has a cost; it can sometimes take forever to arrive at a thought, and it can be tedious for the recipient to engage in such a strung-out conversation.  Asynchronous and abbreviated conversation can be useful when you seeking a specific bit of information (the room number, the cost, the flight number) and the matter is  not terribly urgent.  Also, it can be useful when you are sure that the person is actively checking messages. But often that isn’t the case.

The TITASPEED acronym is a short way to communicate your belief that having a text chat is an inferior way to have a conversation.  More generally it can make people ask themselves what is the best way to seek information and advice.


Update, Plans, Etc

Hi, there. It’s been a while since I’ve posted updates. I’ve been busy with many things, but I wanted to throw out some news.

First, I have been reading a ton of books recently — the majority of them are related to pedagogical methods. I plan to post one or two batches of brief book reviews on education books eventually. I just posted a lengthy book review about a math book.

Speaking of book reviews, I published a long book review of a recently published Jack Matthews Note: this is not one of the books my Personville Press has been publishing.

I think this year I will be reading Chinese literary classics mostly. Also, fiction for pre-teens and teens.

In 2015 I never got around to posting a list of things read and movies watched. In 2016 though I plan to maintain a 2016 list (and include some of the major finds from 2015).

I have been listening to a ton of music and posting a list of my recent emusic purchases here.  I’ve also been contributing a lot of posts to the emusic forum and finding some great stuff. The list is presented in chronological order, and it’s worth skipping down to the SXSW section (between March and April 2015) to see the latest albums which have struck me.   In addition, I’ve started to post on Google Docs a list of capsule music reviews of new and old albums (which are either used purchases or library CDs). So far I’ve posted 154 album reviews and have given my highest rating to about 30-40 of them. (I tend to be picky about what I review). When I get around to it, I’ll create a link to these reviews which is easier to read.

I’m in the middle of publishing a Jack Matthews fiction title (probably his best).  I was going to produce a drupal 8 site for my Personville Press, but plans for that were derailed somewhat. I’ll get back to that when I get the chance.

I’ve mentioned before that despite the dearth of blog posts, I post lots of meaty posts on Facebook and Google Plus. I post identical content on both social networks. About a year ago I explained the technical difficulties of syndicating my blog posts to different social networks. I’ll take another stab at it when I get the chance. I really hate ignoring my blog so much.

Last year I maintained a blog for my creative writing class. It had a lot of fun stuff, but at the end of the semester I wrote a letter to my middle school students about writing.

Oh, yes, it occurs to me that I should repost my “Best of 2015” list I emailed my friends. I’ll do that very soon. Speaking of end of the year, I recently celebrated my 50th birthday and decided that at the end of each year I will compose a list of lessons learned from the past year. As exhibitionist as I am,  I won’t be sharing this list online  (not soon anyway). But I’m sure over the years it will be interesting to see how my perspectives and lessons changed.

A few days ago I was amazed to learn that my 15 year old nephew and 16 year old nephew take about 30 photos of themselves each week.  I doubt that when I was that age I took that many photos (and certainly not selfies!). Recently even I haven’t had any reason to pose for pictures. But here’s a pic from my 50th birthday dinner with my sister and mother.

Robert Nagle at 50

What I’ve posted here hardly scratches the surface of what I’ve been into or writing. I think in 2016 my blog will return to normal again.


Making Sense of Algebra (Book Review)

making-sense-algebraTitle:  Making Sense of Algebra: Developing Students’ Mathematical Habits of Mind

Author:  E. Paul Goldenberg, EDC, Inc., June Mark, EDC, Inc., Jane M. Kang, EDC, Inc., Mary Fries, EDC, Inc., Cynthia J. Carter, The Rashi School, Tracy Cordner, EDC, Inc.

Publisher: Heinemann,  (Download Sample Chapter)

ISBN:  978-0325053011

Publishing Date: April 2015

Where to Buy: Publisher’s Web Site. Amazon.com, BN

Price: $22.50 for print book (no ebook is available)

Summary: Excellent CC-oriented guide for getting students to adopt the “algebraic” habit of mind with a particularly strong chapter on using puzzles in the classroom.

I’m a first year middle school math teacher  trying to broaden my pedagogical understanding of the subject. I have come across many impressive math  education books by  Jo Boaler, Cathy Seeley, Marilyn Burns and  John A. Van de Walle. I’ve also picked a few recent titles which are “Common Core” aware (such as Cathy Humphreys’ Making Number Talks Matter, Building Powerful Numeracy for Middle and High School Students by Pamela Weber Harris and finally Making Sense of Algebra by  E. Paul Goldenberg and others). All are excellent in their own way. “Making Sense of Algebra” selects a small number of topics and covers them in depth; the problems and puzzles it presents  would fit perfectly well in high school algebra as well as a class for advanced middle school students. At the same time, the book covers some fundamental topics which properly should be taught at the middle school level (or  earlier).

Making Sense of Algebra  does not contain lesson plans or activity worksheets. While the book alludes frequently to CC math standards, it doesn’t try to review these standards or at least provide a reference to them (that might have helped). Although the book has multiple names in the byline,  it has a good logical flow and certainly doesn’t read like an education textbook (it’s much better!)  With an important  exception noted below, the book doesn’t really cover geometry, nor does it refer to trigonometry or calculus in any in-depth way. Still, the general principles of solving math problems elucidated here do apply to all kinds of higher math.

Rather than trying to plan a class or curriculum, the book covers the development of mathematical habits of mind.

The first chapter introduces the concept of “algebraic habits of mind” and how it relates to the Common Core’s Standards for mathematical practice. Chapter 2 discusses problems in contemporary math education and the special challenges facing certain kinds of struggling learners. Chapter 3 covers how puzzles can be used in class to promote algebraic habits of mind. Chapter 4 talks about how  teachers can help students to  investigate problems and formulate solutions. Chapter 5 talks about the importance of revising certain mental models commonly used in lower grades to illustrate multiplication and negative numbers. It shows why  using number lines to illustrate addition and subtraction obviate the need to teach certain rote rules (like “multiplying two negatives cancels each other out”) and that using the metaphor of area  to illustrate multiplication lays the groundwork for explaining how to multiply polynomials.The last chapter covers how a teacher can monitor and tighten  language used in the classroom to best facilitate learning. It also provides insights into how a teacher can overcome a student’s reluctance to  talk in math class.

I found the chapter on puzzles to be the most remarkable and helpful to me as a teacher. It can be a challenge though to use them in class. Some  puzzles that are too hard (or too dependent on non-mathematical skills) can end up segregating the class into those willing to try hard puzzles and those who don’t even bother. For example, I — like many other math teachers — introduced the infamous Cheryl’s birthday math problem to  my middle school students. My top students found it challenging but  perplexing while a good  chunk of my students didn’t even try (despite some pre-teaching about how to systematically record guesses, etc).  The puzzle chapter makes a case about the pedagogical value of having students experience frustration and  try a variety of approaches to solve something. It covers lots of different puzzle types which are more specifically about math (unlike the Cheryl’s birthday problem),  more inviting to students and apt to lead  students down algebraic paths. The book discusses the  learning opportunities of various puzzle types and the advantage of using puzzle types which are easy for a teacher (or student) to  create on their own. The idea of students creating math puzzles was  intriguing  to me, but it makes perfect sense; it helps students with  “posing interesting problems” which is another  habit of mind which  the book believes to be important.

The book suggests that puzzles be used as  “stand-alone investigations” rather than introducing them during units when a specific topic is studied. The book defends this practice by saying: “Life’s real problems arrive at any time, not just when you are conveniently studying how to solve them. We investigate when we don’t know how to solve a problem. We must not start out by thinking, ‘Oh, I’m supposed to factor because that’s what we’re studying now.'”  The book argues that cultivation of  “stamina” is important when when trying to solve math problems and that  “problems which are too short or too scaffolded don’t increase students’ investigation skills or stamina.” For this reason, it’s helpful to give students problems with a “low threshold, high ceiling” (translation: problems which are easy to play with, but might involve concepts beyond their zone of proximal development).

The book offers several strategies for helping to cultivate student’s investigative skills. First, it emphasizes the importance of gaining experience about the problem itself before trying to formalize a solution. This can involve plugging in a few haphazard numbers or  using experimental aids.   Second, the teacher can give “tail-less” or “headless” problems whereby students are given a set of facts without an actual question being asked and must  write a list of assumptions implied by this set of facts (or conversely,  the student is given a problem and asked to speculate about what data is needed to solve it). What a good idea! Often  failing to recognize the implications of a mathematical statement can prevent the student from reaching a solution. Third, presenting students with redundant quantitative  information  in a problem can make it easier for  struggling students to make connections. Fourth, providing additional questions (i.e., “have you found ALL  the solutions?”) can  be a challenging and interesting way to extend the assignment for advanced students.

While the first half of the book did a great job of explaining how students think mathematically and how to make them think more productively, I was beginning to think that the book offered little real insight about how to run a math class and organize students effectively. Some questions spring to mind: 1)how do you do assessments of puzzle solving or habits of mind? 2)what kinds of topics lend themselves better to small group activities and what kinds require more teacher-prodding? 3)How do you  integrate the need to teach habits of mind with the need to teach mandated objectives?

The second half of the book  tackles these kinds of questions. The investigations chapter ends with a fairly good discussion of how to structure whole class discussions of investigations after students have collaborated on clarifying examples. The subject of the last chapter “Thinking Out Loud” is about the best ways how  to teach students  to discuss mathematical ideas in the classroom. The book stresses the importance of encouraging students to “think first, then talk,” but argues that discussions are a way to “vary the texture of the class.” I recently finished Cathy Humphreys Making Number Talks Matter and feel that this book provides a exhaustive treatment of the value of a more communicative approach to math and how to implement it. The  chapter in Thinking Algebraically covers some of the same ground (without as many examples), but it makes several important new points. First, the teacher should encourage and model precision in speech. For example, when discussing a cube, using the word “side” invites misunderstanding; if you use “vertices,” “edges”, “faces”, that reduces the possibility of confusion. (Of course, it is impossible for students to avoid using “sloppy” language, but it is possible to make students aware of the need for precision). It’s important to choose topics which are actually discussable and to give the student enough time to formulate an answer (the book says “counting to 20 in your head….is not unreasonable”).

The book analyzes in great detail the various reasons why students prefer not to talk in a math class. Perhaps the question seems too trivial, or the student may lack confidence in their own math skills to express their ideas. It offers ways that teachers can encourage productive discussions. For example, instead of saying “close” or “you are getting warmer,” the teacher can respond to a wrong answer with supportive    statements like “the answer needs to be even” or “were you thinking that 7×7= 49?” The book offers ways for the teacher to make the student feel empowered in the classroom and links the ability to solve puzzles appropriate to their level as a confidence-builder. One  recommended technique  is to present written fictional  “math dialogues” about a math situation, and have students read along and critique the approaches of the fictional students. Although these dialogues may sound corny, “the student reading it can imagine — even without knowing this is fiction — how characters who are never told what to do or how to do it can believe and demonstrate that they can figure out mathematical ideas for themselves using what they already know. This invests mathematical authority in these characters, repeatedly giving the message that mathematical knowledge can be built logically rather than from some external source.”

This is a brilliant insight and a great way to model student conversations  and habits of mind. The book provides one extended example of a fictional dialogue and references to other books which contain additional dialogues.  (I would have liked the book to have a second example, but this is fine).

My only complaint is that I wish the book had covered how technology and videogames can be incorporated in class. In Texas, all middle schoolers are expected to follow self-guided online lessons and videogames called Think Through Math. I have recently been wowwed by the Dragonbox Algebra 12+ mobile app/game (described in detail in Greg Toppo’s book The Game Believes in You). For various organizational and budgetary reasons, math departments are having to use these kinds of courses and modules, and  teachers could benefit from guidance about whether these methods can be academically rigorous and easily integrated into the classroom. I suspect that the book’s authors would  be skeptical of algebra via videogames. At the same time, students have lots of access to math resources via the web; are these “cheats” pedagogically useful? Or should the teacher make some attempt to discourage students from finding the answer online so they may arrive at their own insights?

OVERALL this compact book is a pretty dense read, but full of insights  and really fun to read. (I enjoyed trying out many of the puzzles myself).   This book  showed an awareness of existing scholarship and provided an ample bibliography, making it invaluable for the novice teacher (though the experienced math teacher will find useful insights here as well). I fear that the book will be known mainly for exploring the use of puzzles in the classroom. But the book covers a lot more ground than that.


Here’s a message I sent via email (and Twitter)  to the PBS Newshour:

Dear PBS Newshour:

I have been watching your news show for more than 25 years. It is a fantastic source of news and commentary.

Recently you changed the look of your show. Nothing wrong with that.

However, on today’s program (July 29) I noticed that you have a chyron on the bottom left of the screen which rotates nonstop during the entire program. It shows two things: #pbsnews (the twitter hashtag) and pbsnews.org/newshour (the URL).

In theory I don’t have a problem with the display of either thing. But it is extremely distracting — so much that I cannot concentrate on anything else.

Actually you already have the newshour logo above these things, so either thing is actually unnecessary.

Also, do you you really worry that people don’t know the URL? You don’t even need to show that!

From your viewpoint, you may wish to publicize these things, but a lot can be said for keeping the screen clear of unnecessary information. Generally I have always appreciated the visuals for your stories and how un-glitzy your presentation is. Now with those rotating chyrons, though I am afraid I cannot look at the TV screen for any more than a minute before I want to throw a sneaker at it.

Let me stress that I don’t have a problem with captions or even the logo itself. But the URL and hashtag add nothing to the presentation.

Perhaps my reaction is atypical. I don’t know.

Here are some solutions:

  1. Show these things during the first minute of the story and then hide them after that.
  2. Lengthen the rotation time. Currently you seem to rotating every 10 seconds between the hashtag, the URL and nothing. It would help to put everything on a 30 second rotation instead of a 10 second rotation.

Please consider my feedback when you plan the visuals for the Newshour. Thanks.


P.S. Thanks for beefing up your climate change coverage. About 2 years ago it was fairly skimpy and you really didn’t choose good guests. Now it’s much better.

P.S.S.  I greatly enjoy the regular features (Art Beat, Paul Solman, Mark Shields, Education coverage, Ask the Headhunter). The Website rocks!


It needs to be said: books, books, books!

I am aware of how my sparse my blog posts have been recently. But I have been reading lots of good stuff. (Ironically I began a lot of stuff last summer which I didn’t get around to finishing until recently). Also, I’ve been reading lots of books about teaching and education which are worth mentioning. I may not get around to posting a lot on my blog for a while, but you will surely be seeing some reviews pronto.


First Post from my Galaxy Tab Pro

I’m creating this test post to verify that I can post from my TABLET. Check out my Jack Matthews author page for more fun..

UPDATE: The wp client for android doesn’t seem to sync with desktop updates. THAT IS GOING TO BE A PROBLEM.

OTHER USABILITY ISSUES:  the tablet guide will save your update only after you have backed out of the new screen. NOT SMOOTH EITHER. I constantly am searching for a nonexistent save button when I just need to click the Go Back button on the tablet.

Update 2: I guess I can live with a tablet wp client which publishes only one way….

Also, I am absolutely hating having to type from the onscreen keyboard. The android is particularly bad about guessing what I want to say.

Update 3. Well, it seems that the android client does refresh/update the post’s content, but it does it quietly so you never know for sure whether it has done it or not.


Bringing the blog back to life

I have been furiously busy with my teaching job — and as of yesterday now have time to reclaim my writing projects. I plan to do a facelift on this blog within the week. Stay tuned!

Update 1: Ok, I’ve going to be doing a lot of bug fixing and design tweaks. (What the heck is up with those navigation menus?) At least now the comments display properly.


I am way too busy with teaching now to do anything about it, but I just noticed that my default Thesis wordpress theme somehow doesn’t show comments anymore. My database still has the comments; they just don’t appear!

I think it’s now time to move to a more modern and generic theme. That’s an afternoon project, and I expect I’ll be able to fix everything next week. Actually I might look at enabling some other design features while I’m at it.