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April 21st, 2012:

Saturday video break: Hallelujah

Song #72 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Hallelujah”, originally by Leonard Cohen and covered by everyone on the planet many artists, in this case Rufus Wainwright. Here’s the original:

That’s probably not the version you’re most familiar with; Jeff Buckley’s cover version, which was really covering John Cale’s version of the song, is the template that everyone uses these days. (Here’s that discussion of the song’s evolution I’ve linked to before; it’s always worth a read.) There are so many versions out there that Cohen himself called for a moratorium on new covers a few years back. I doubt that’ll stop anyone. Here’s the Wainwright version:

Yes, this is the version that was in “Shrek”, in the scene just before Dustin Hoffman Shrek interrupts Fiona’s wedding to Lord Farquaad. If you don’t like this version, there’s plenty more where that came from. And yes, this song will reappear later in the list. What’s your favorite version?

No calculators for you!

I’m OK with this.

Texas schoolchildren should not use calculators until they learn to work through math problems the old-fashioned way — on paper, State Board of Education members said Thursday.

The board on Thursday tentatively approved new math curriculum standards designed to add rigor while encouraging students from kindergarten through fifth grade to learn basic math without the aid of calculators.

“We hear more and more from parents that their kids in school are being allowed to rely on calculators without actually memorizing their math facts and building that firm foundation,” board Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, said.

Member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, cast the only dissenting vote against removing calculators from the early elementary grades. The board is expected to take final action on the new math standards Friday.


“Our objective today is that our kids are required to memorize their math tables and their basic math,” said David Bradley, R-Beaumont, who pushed for the restriction on calculators. “That will then lead to success.”

The board, he said, wants to send a message in the new standards that “calculators are not to be an instructional tool in K-through-5.”

Knight said she believes teachers need flexibility and should be allowed to use calculators as “an enrichment activity.”

“I think it’s nonsensical in this 21st century that we are not having students use the tools at the appropriate time and at the appropriate level because these are the tools that they will be using as they advance through school and in the work world,” she said.

The new math curriculum standards will not ban calculators in the early elementary classes as there is no way to enforce such a prohibition, but Knight said teachers “will interpret the standards as ‘we cannot use calculators.'”

The Board gave its final approval to this and the new math standards on Friday. I don’t really want to invoke the “back in my day” argument, but I did get a degree in math and never once used a calculator in any of those classes. I do think there’s value in using calculators for higher level math, mostly for graphing, and I don’t have a problem with using them in other classes where math is part of what you do – physics, for instance – but I have to agree with Cargill and Bradley here. There’s no substitute for knowing your multiplication tables. I’ve seen people whip out a calculator to multiply something by ten, or to add two two-digit numbers together. That’s crazy, and to my mind represents a failure of that person’s elementary education. Calculators have their place, and I agree with Knight that students do need to know how to use tools to help them do more things more efficiently, but knowing the times tables is a tool, too. Save the calculators till you’re at least in algebra.

See you later, alligator

In some parts of town, it’s more like See you sooner or later, alligator.

Hopefully there are none of these lurking about

This time of year, the proprietor of Janik Alligators in El Campo spends much of his time trying to keep that scenario from happening.

In the last week and a half in Fort Bend County, he says, 21 alligators were removed from the Sienna Plantation subdivision alone. State game wardens are being swamped by calls from residents across the region who have come across the wandering scaly reptiles.

The vast majority of those calls do not involve an alligator that is being a nuisance, says Amos Cooper, a Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist in charge of the department’s alligator program. More often than not they come from suburbanites who have bought a tract home in prime alligator habitat and have never seen one before.

And despite the fact that human-alligator interactions are increasing, such encounters rarely end badly – slightly more than a dozen times in the last 25 years – and no alligator-related deaths have ever been recorded in the state.

A nuisance alligator is defined as one that is killing livestock or pets, or has become a threat to human health or safety.

While one can sympathize with the rancher or pet owner over the loss of their animals, an alligator that takes them is simply doing what comes naturally. They become a threat to human health or safety when they interact with humans.

“If an alligator is in these subdivisions where they see people around the clock seven days a week, they become accustomed to people,” Janik says. “They’re not scared of people no more.”

On the one hand, I feel the smugness typical of urban core dwellers. On the other hand, I remind myself that I live half a mile from a bayou, so you never know. I guess the moral of the story is that just because you think your dog is barking at nothing doesn’t mean it really is barking at nothing. And given how cesspool-like the Chron story comments usually are, I feel compelled to give props to the person who said “When life hands you gators, make Gatorade” in response to this one. Well played, sir or madam.

The case for keeping the penny

The Canadian penny is about to become a collector’s item.

They clutter your dresser and cost too much to make. They’re a nuisance and have outlived their purpose.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was talking about the Canadian penny and why the Royal Canadian Mint will end its production this fall as part of his austerity budget.

“The penny is a currency without any currency in Canada, and it costs us 1.5 cents to produce a penny,” Flaherty told reporters.

Responses Friday were mixed, with some Canadians saying it would make life easier, while others worried it would become an opening for sneaky price hikes.


Flaherty said a Canadian senate committee held hearings on the penny last year and not one witness came forward to say it should be spared.

A government statement said New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Sweden and others “have made smooth transitions to a penny-free economy.” It said penny production cost $11 million a year, and that the coins, which feature two maple leaves and Queen Elizabeth II in profile, would remain legal tender until they eventually disappeared from circulation.

It said it expected businesses to round out the numbers on price tags where necessary.

This explains the details of rounding out the prices.

The 2012 federal budget states: “The government expects that businesses will apply rounding for cash transactions in a fair and transparent manner.”

The rounding will not be done on single items but on the total bill of sale. If the price ends in a one, two, six, or seven it gets rounded down to 0 or 5; and rounded up if it ends in three, four, eight or nine.

Businesses will not need to adjust their cash registers.

That’s only for cash transactions – if you pay via credit or debit card, you get charged the original, un-rounded amount. Call my cynical, but I have a sneaking suspicion that large retailers will have pricing software that is sophisticated enough to adjust retail prices on various items in a way to tilt the roundoffs in their favor. You’d never notice it, of course, but in the aggregate I bet it would add up to some real money.

Indeed, there’s some empirical evidence for that, which leads to the case for keeping the penny.

A 2001 economic analysis by Penn State’s Raymond Lombra found that a post-penny economy—in which we round to the nearest nickel—would probably hurt the poor disproportionately. In theory, rounding would balance itself out over time—with some transactions rounding up and others rounding down. Lombra’s simulations, however, which were based on the price book of a major retail chain, found that between 60 and 93 percent of transactions would round up, costing consumers nearly $600 million a year. Because the poor tend to use cash more often, they would shoulder most of that burden.

Admittedly, that’s just one study from a decade ago, but is there any reason to think it wouldn’t be at least as valid today? For sure, lower income folks disproportionately use cash, so even a relatively small effect, which $600 million in our economy would be, would still be mostly felt by those who could least afford it. I’m one of those people who likes the penny, for strictly sentimental reasons, but this is enough to make me want to defend that position. You’ll need to show me a fix for this problem before I’ll listen to any penny-elimination talk for the US.