Biology Comes Alive in New E-Book!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has a preview of a new biology e-book that is being published by Nature (as in the journal Nature) Publishing that will be available next month. The book was designed to be digital-only. Students will pay not for a printed edition at a bookstore, but for permanent access on the Internet ($49).

When they open the book on their laptops, tablets and smartphones, they will find other differences, too. “The text is packed densely with definitions and diagrams — it is meant to teach college-level science, after all.  The pages have some pizazz: they are replete with interactive electronic features — from dynamic illustrations to short quizzes meant to involve students rather than letting them plod, glassy-eyed, from one section to the next. Audio and video clips are woven into the text.”

“Principles of Biology” is the brainchild of Vikram Savkar, who is a Harvard graduate with degrees in physics and classics.  In describing the project, Savkar says he wanted to move beyond early e-textbooks that were essentially static electronic reprises of the print versions.

Most science e-books “are still PDFs of print books that are scanned and put online,” he said.

Savkar’s design takes greater advantage of the Internet’s interactive and media technology.


Capture and Death of Osama Bin laden – Top News Story of 2011!

Dear Commons Community,

As reported in the Huffington Post, the annual top news stories of the year were announced by the Associated Press yesterday.  The capture and death of Osama Bin Laden received the majority of first place ballots as voted on by U.S. editors and news directors.

Here are 2011’s top 10 stories in rank order:

OSAMA BIN LADEN’S DEATH: He’d been the world’s most-wanted terrorist for nearly a decade, ever since a team of his al-Qaida followers carried out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In May, the long and often-frustrating manhunt ended with a nighttime assault by a helicopter-borne special operations squad on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was shot dead by one of the raiders, and within hours his body was buried at sea.

JAPAN’S TRIPLE DISASTER: A 9.0-magnitude earthquake off Japan’s northeast coast in March unleashed a tsunami that devastated scores of communities, leaving nearly 20,000 people dead or missing and wreaking an estimated $218 billion in damage. The tsunami triggered the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl after waves knocked out the cooling system at a nuclear power plant, causing it to spew radiation that turned up in local produce. About 100,000 people evacuated from the area have not returned to their homes.

ARAB SPRING: It began with demonstrations in Tunisia that rapidly toppled the longtime strongman. Spreading like a wildfire, the Arab Spring protests sparked a revolution in Egypt that ousted Hosni Mubarak, fueled a civil war in Libya that climaxed with Moammar Gadhafi’s death, and fomented a bloody uprising in Syria against the Assad regime. Bahrain and Yemen also experienced major protests and unrest.

EU FISCAL CRISIS: The European Union was wracked by relentless fiscal turmoil. In Greece, austerity measures triggered strikes, protests and riots, while Italy’s economic woes toppled Premier Silvio Berlusconi. France and Germany led urgent efforts to ease the debt crisis; Britain balked at proposed changes.

US ECONOMY: By some measures, the U.S. economy gained strength as the year progressed. Hiring picked up a bit, consumers were spending more, and the unemployment rate finally dipped below 9 percent. But millions of Americans remained buffeted by foreclosures, joblessness and benefit cutbacks, and investors were on edge monitoring the chain of fiscal crises in Europe.

PENN STATE SEX ABUSE SCANDAL: One of America’s most storied college football programs was tarnished in a scandal that prompted the firing of Hall of Fame football coach Joe Paterno. One of his former assistants, Jerry Sandusky, was accused of sexually molesting 10 boys; two senior Penn State officials were charged with perjury; and the longtime president was ousted. Paterno wasn’t charged, but expressed regret he didn’t do more after being told there was a problem.

GADHAFI TOPPLED IN LIBYA: After nearly 42 years of mercurial and often brutal rule, Moammar Gadhafi was toppled by his own people. Anti-government protests escalated into an eight-month rebellion, backed by NATO bombing, that shattered his regime, and Gadhafi finally was tracked down and killed in the fishing village where he was born.

FISCAL SHOWDOWNS IN CONGRESS: Partisan divisions in Congress led to several showdowns on fiscal issues. A fight over the debt ceiling prompted Standard & Poor’s to strip the U.S. of its AAA credit rating. Later, the so-called “supercommittee” failed to agree on a deficit-reduction package of at least $1.2 trillion — potentially triggering automatic spending cuts of that amount starting in 2013.

OCCUPY WALL STREET PROTESTS: It began Sept. 17 with a protest at a New York City park near Wall Street, and within weeks spread to scores of communities across the U.S. and abroad. The movement depicted itself as leaderless and shied away from specific demands, but succeeded in airing its complaint that the richest 1 percent of Americans benefit at the expense of the rest. As winter approached, local police dismantled several of the protest encampments.

GABRIELLE GIFFORDS SHOT: The popular third-term congresswoman from Arizona suffered a severe brain injury when she and 18 other people were shot by a gunman as she met with constituents outside a Tucson supermarket in January. Six people died, and Giffords’ painstaking recovery is still in progress.

Among the news events falling just short of the Top 10 were the death of Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs, Hurricane Irene, the devastating series of tornados across Midwest and Southeastern U.S., and the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred gays from serving openly in U.S. military.



Crippling the Right to Organize – Collective Bargaining at Risk!

Dear Commons Community,

There  is an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times by William B. Gould IV, a law professor at Stanford, who  was also chairman of the National Labor Relations Board from 1994 to 1998.  He makes the case for serious concern over the vacancy that is about to occur on the NLRB:

“UNLESS something changes in Washington, American workers will, on New Year’s Day, effectively lose their right to be represented by a union. Two of the five seats on the National Labor Relations Board, which protects collective bargaining, are vacant, and on Dec. 31, the term  of Craig Becker, a labor lawyer whom President Obama  named to the board last year through a recess appointment will expire. Without a quorum, the Supreme Court ruled last year, the board cannot decide cases.

What would this mean?

Workers illegally fired for union organizing won’t be reinstated with back pay. Employers will be able to get away with interfering with union elections. Perhaps most important, employers won’t have to recognize unions despite a majority vote by workers. Without the board to enforce labor law, most companies will not voluntarily deal with unions.

If this nightmare comes to pass, it will represent the culmination of three decades of Republican resistance to the board — an unwillingness to recognize the fundamental right of workers to band together, if they wish, to seek better pay and working conditions.”

He also calls out President Obama for injecting partisanship into the selection process:

“Mr. Obama is also partly to blame; in trying to install partisan stalwarts on the board, as his predecessors did, he is all but guaranteeing that the impasse will continue. On Wednesday, he announced his intention to nominate two pro-union lawyers to the board, though there is no realistic chance that either can gain Senate confirmation anytime soon.”

This should be of serious concern to those of us who have supported the rights of workers to collective bargaining and who have also benefited significantly from our union affiliations.



Stanford University Withdraws its Bid for a NYC Campus!

Dear Commons Community,

Stanford University withdrew its bid for a new campus in New York City.  Until now, unofficial reports were that Stanford was among the finalists for the coveted new science and engineering college to be built on Roosevelt Island.  Below is the text of the statement released by Stanford’s Office of Communications.

Too bad!





Palo Alto, Ca – December 16, 2011 – Stanford University has withdrawn its application to the city of New York to construct an applied sciences and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island.

After several weeks of negotiations with New York City, university leaders and the Stanford Board of Trustees have determined that it would not be in the best interests of the university to continue to pursue the opportunity.

“I applaud the mayor’s bold vision for this transformative project and wish the city well in turning that vision into a reality,” said Stanford President John Hennessy. “Stanford was very excited to participate in the competition, and we were honored to be selected as a finalist. We were looking forward to an innovative partnership with the city of New York, and we are sorry that together we could not find a way to realize our mutual goals.

“Stanford put forward an ambitious and serious proposal and worked hard to see that vision fulfilled,” Hennessy said. In the end, Hennessy said, the university could not be certain that it could proceed in a way that ensured the success of the campus. He said that the university decided to withdraw so that the city can move forward with its selection process and meet its tight timelines for the completion of the project.

“I appreciate the tremendous effort put forth at all levels of the university and the city. We are grateful for the enthusiastic support of the tech community both in New York and in Silicon Valley, the efforts of our alumni and the welcome we received throughout New York and from residents of Roosevelt Island in particular,” Hennessy said. “We gained through this process a fruitful partnership with our colleagues at the City College of New York, a partnership that will strengthen both of our programs and will continue to benefit New York City students for many years to come.

“We learned much from this process and know there will be exciting opportunities in the future to explore the issues that were at the forefront of this effort—the challenge of expanding our ability to deliver Stanford’s high-quality education to more outstanding students,” Hennessy said. “Great universities need to continue to take risks, to innovate and to explore new opportunities where we can make contributions to supporting economic growth and expanding knowledge. Stanford will continue to follow this path.”

Media Contact: Lisa Lapin, University Communications, 650-725-8396,



End of the Iraq War – Some Thoughts on an Unstable and Divided Land!

Dear Commons Community,

Yesterday, American flags came down on bases signaling the end of our involvement in the Iraq War.  We are grateful that the men and women who are serving in Iraq are coming home. Appropriately there was no “Mission Accomplish” banners or bravado rhetoric by any officials.  We are not sure what was accomplished and are concerned about what the future holds.  There is an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times by Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, and the author of “A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010.”  His sobering analysis is that:

“WHEN the last remaining American forces withdraw from Iraq at the end of this month, they will be leaving behind a country that is politically unstable, increasingly volatile, and at risk of descending into the sort of sectarian fighting that killed thousands in 2006 and 2007…. [Furthermore] American officials overlooked opportunities that once existed in Iraq but are now gone. Thanks to their own flawed policies, the Iraq they are leaving behind is more similar to the desperate and divided country of 2006 than to the optimistic Iraq of early 2009.”

We surely hope that this is not the case.  We also hope that our president, whoever that may be, exercises extreme caution in the future in deciding whether we need to be involved in or are capable of building the Iraqi nation.


A Baker’s Dozen Myths About Higher Education – UC President Mark Yudof!

Dear Commons Community,

​University of California President Mark G. Yudof presented a list of 13 myths about higher education during a speech at the California Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors meeting. While based mostly on data at the University of California, they have applicability to higher education in general including CUNY.  Here is a sample:

“Myth#1: The cost of producing UC degrees and credit hours has gone up over the last decade

I hear this myth all the time. And it’s frustrating, because this cost has actually dropped by more than 15%, in constant dollars, since the 1990s.

This cost has dropped in part due to a broad range of system-wide efficiencies: common IT systems; reduced employee travel; thousands of unfilled faculty and staff positions; one-third fewer employees at the UC Office of the President; a higher student-faculty ratio, and so on.

What has gone up, however, is the student contribution, or co-pay, to these degrees. At the same time, the state’s contribution per student has plummeted—by 60% in the last two decades.

To put this see-saw in perspective, UC students now cover roughly 46% of general fund support. But 20 years ago, their share hovered around 12%.”

Worth the quick read!



Maureen Dowd on Newt Gingrich Again!

Dear Commons Community,

In her New York Times column today, Maureen Dowd looks at Newt Gingrich the man, his past, his present, and as the future president. (Yikes)  Here is her opening:

“By the time he was 16, Newt Gingrich was sure of two things.

He would marry his high school geometry teacher [which he did].  And he would save Western civilization.

Gingrich has moved on to younger wives.  But he’s still obsessed with numbers and rescuing the planet.

In 1994, he described himself to me as “a conservative futurist,” which seems like an oxymoron. The man George Will once called a “cherub with a chip on his shoulder” finds the future simultaneously apocalyptic and massively fun.

You can picture President Gingrich on his first day in the Oval Office, emanating an impish doomsday aura of “Let’s see what happens if we press this button!”

In his own feverish, gee-whiz imagination, Newt is both the arsonist and the fireman.”

Dowd comments that Gingrich has been drawn to the likes of Isaac Asimov, Alvin Toffler and George Lucas’ Star Wars.  He has also been a big fan of virtual reality and gave a talk called “From Virtuality to Reality,” where he declared that:  “In a sense, virtuality at the mental level is something I think you’d find in most leadership over historical periods.” Sounding Newt Age-y, he mused: “We are not at a new place. It is just becoming harder and harder and harder to avoid the place we are.

She concludes:  “Torn between the virtual and the virtue-crats, Gingrich this week endorsed the “marriage pledge” of an evangelical group in Iowa opposing same-sex marriage and abortion and vowed fidelity to [his wife] Callista. Hasn’t he taken that vow and broken it twice before?

In sum, “Sometimes you go with “Future Shock.” Sometimes you go with present schlock. “

Incredible that our supposed advanced developed society would seriously be considering this man for president!!!





K-12 Online Learning Goes to Wall Street!

Dear Commons Community,

The NY Times has an investigative report today on K-12 online learning as provided by charter schools managed by a for-profit company, K-12, Inc..  Specifically, it concentrates on the commercial segments of the school choice movement, as rooted in the theory that corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost.  Unfortunately, the results paint a portrait of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.  K-12, Inc. was founded by the likes of William Bennett, former Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration, and bankrolled by Michael R. Milken,  of junk bond fame.   The report uses the  Agora Cyber Charter School as a case study because it is one of the largest in a portfolio of similar public schools across the country run by K12. Eight other for-profit companies also run online public elementary and high schools, enrolling a large chunk of the more than 200,000 full-time cyberpupils in the United States.

The report concludes that:

“[Agora] is failing…

Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.

By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K-12, Inc. the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.”

The report goes on to cite many of the problems we have seen with some of the for-profit online colleges including high pressure recruitment and enrollment of students, high drop-out rates, low teach pay, intense government lobbying, and generally poor results.

The article points to the need to keep Wall Street out of public education.



Education Reform: Why Federal Policies Keep Failing?

Dear Commons Community,

Helen Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke, and Edward B. Fiske, a former education editor of the New York Times, have an op-ed piece today, that criticizes federal education policy and why it is doomed to continue to fail unless the socio-economic condition of poor children is addressed.   Citing the historic Coleman Report in 1966 as well as new research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University, they assert that the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families over the last 50 years far exceeds the gap between white and black students.  Essentially, school-based reforms as required by No Child Left Behind and its progeny, Race to the Top, can go only so far and will not do anything to solve the effects of poverty on low-student achievement.

They cite the Finnish system, with its famously high-performing schools, as providing food and free health care for students;  where developmental needs are addressed early and where counseling services are abundant.

They also rightfully comment on charter schools where the the evidence does not support the view that the few success stories can be scaled up to address the needs of large populations of disadvantaged students.

Their conclusion:

“The Occupy movement has catalyzed rising anxiety over income inequality; we desperately need a similar reminder of the relationship between economic advantage and student performance.”