RSSCategory: Education

Elementary Election Protest Too Muchedness

July 31, 2012 | By | Reply More
Elementary Election Protest Too Muchedness

For the last few weeks I’d been receiving approximately daily post cards protesting the electric company considering a rate hike of more than a few percent in order to finance and build future power plants to replace some of the nearing dangerously obsolete ones. Some mailing came from a very liberal local politician with whom I generally agree. Someone is spending bales of money to encourage people to not-want to spend more for what they are already getting. Seems like sweeping the water downstream, to me.

But I’m a Tanstaafl skeptic: Rebuilding infrastructure without incurring crippling debt does not seem like such a bad idea, my knee jerks. Also, local electric rates are lower than when I was in college, when adjusted for inflation, so it seems about time for a rate hike, anyway.

Yesterday I finally got a rebuttal mailing that describes the finances behind this odd campaign: PAC affiliated with aluminum corporation at play in state Senate primaries. Yep, an aluminum company fears that it will have to raise prices, because a major part of the process of making it requires megawatts of electricity.

Here’s how aluminum is made, if you are at all curious:

So now we know who has the profitability to outspend a huge power company on a campaign to make people do what they want to do anyway, and things are making sense, again.

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Corporate corruption of college

July 30, 2012 | By | Reply More

Chris Hedges at Truthdig:

Corporate culture, which now dominates higher education, shares the predatory culture of the military. These cultures are about subsuming the self into the herd. They are about the acquiring of technical, vocational skills to serve the system. And with the increasing budget cuts, and more craven obsequiousness to corporate donors, it will only get worse. These forces of conformity are hostile to the humanities that teach students to question assumptions and structures, that prod them to seek a life of meaning and an ethical code that challenges the blind, utilitarian obedience to power and profit that corporations and the military instill. We will, I fear, continue to turn out the intellectually stunted and maimed, those who know school football records but no philosophy, drama, art, music, theology, literature or history. The goal of an education is not, in the end, to tell students what to think but to teach them how to think.

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Self-dimming of awareness to protect oneself against anxiety

July 25, 2012 | By | 3 Replies More
Self-dimming of awareness to protect oneself against anxiety

I’m mostly finished reading Daniel Goleman’s 1985 book, Vital Lies, Simple Truths: the Psychology of Self Deception (I found a copy of the book online here). He’s preaching to my choir, based on a paper I wrote in 1996 (“Decision Making, the Failure of Principles, and the Seduction of Attention), where I pointed out the critical and often unconscious role of attention in embellishing and distorting our moral decision-making. My targets were the many people who believe that morality is mostly founded on the conscious application of rules. I concluded that humans define and frame moral situations as a result of the way they attend (or don’t attend) to the situations. I warned that it is important that we become aware that we have great (often subconscious) power to define the situation as moral (or not). My thesis was as follows:

Attention is constantly steering us in directions which dramatically affect the application of principles [including moral principles]. For starters, if we completely fail to attend to a subject, we will likely be ill-informed about that subject, and likely less competent to make decisions regarding such matters. At the other extreme, excessive attention can bloom into an obsession, causing one to see the entire world through glasses colored by that obsession. Attention also works in subtler ways, however, rigging the machinations of legal and moral reasoning. Attention rigs decision-making in two ways:

1) by the manner in which we attend to our perceptions of the world, and
2) in the way by which we perceive and attend to the principles themselves.

I concluded that high-level decision making is based far more on attentional strategies than on traditional problem solving skills.

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American Higher Education as bait and switch?

July 19, 2012 | By | Reply More
American Higher Education as bait and switch?

Thomas Frank at Harper’s has decided to spend an entire article kicking what has become of higher education in America. Here’s an excerpt from the article, which is available only to subscribers online:

[T]he purpose of college isn’t education per se. According to a report issued last year by the National Survey of Student Engagement, American undergrads spend less time at their studies nowadays than ever. They are taught by grad students or grotesquely underpaid adjuncts. Many major in ersatz vocational subjects, and at the most reputable schools they get great grades no matter how they perform.

But we aren’t concerned about any of that. Americans have figured out that universities exist in order to man the gates of social class, and we pay our princely tuition rates in order order to obtain just one thing: the degree, the golden ticket, the capital-C Credential. Doubters might scoff that a college diploma is by the year turning into an emptier signifier. Nonetheless, that hollow Credential is what draws many of the young to campus, where they will contend for one of the coveted spots in that gilded, gated suburb in the sky. Choosing the winners and losers is a task we have delegated to largely unregulated institutions housed in fake Gothic buildings, which have long since suppressed any qualms they once felt about tying a one-hundred thousand- dollar anvil around the neck of a trusting teenager.

[More . . . ]

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What Being An American Means To Me

July 3, 2012 | By | 3 Replies More
What Being An American Means To Me

I am not given to setting out pronouncements like this very often, but in light of the last several years I thought it might be worthwhile to do so on the occasion of the 236th anniversary of our declared independence.

I don’t think in terms of demonstrating my love of country. My affection for my home is simply a given, a background hum, a constant, foundational reality that is reflexively true. This is the house in which I grew up. I know its walls, its ceiling, its floors, the steps to the attic, the verge, and every shadow that moves with the sun through all the windows. I live here; its existence contours my thinking, is the starting place of my feelings.

The house itself is an old friend, a reliable companion, a welcoming space, both mental and physical, that I can no more dislike or reject than I can stop breathing.

But some of the furniture…that’s different.

I am an American.

I don’t have to prove that to anyone. I carry it with me, inside, my cells are suffused with it. I do not have to wear a flag on my lapel, hang one in front of my house, or publicly pledge an oath to it for the convenience of those who question my political sentiments. Anyone who says I should or ought or have to does not understand the nature of what they request or the substance of my refusal to accommodate them. They do not understand that public affirmations like that become a fetish and serve only to divide, to make people pass a test they should—because we are free—never have to take.

[More . . . ]

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Does college make people smarter?

June 29, 2012 | By | Reply More
Does college make people smarter?

College can be thoroughly educational experience. Many people who graduate college are much smarter compared to when they entered college, but this is not true for all of those graduate.

An indictment of higher education came this year with a book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. As reported by the Washington Post, the authors of this book offer these stunning conclusions:

●Gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills are either “exceedingly small or nonexistent for a larger proportion of students.”

●Thirty-six percent of students experience no significant improvement in learning (as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment) over four years of higher education.

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Carbon-14 Itself Argues for an Old Earth

June 21, 2012 | By | Reply More
Carbon-14 Itself Argues for an Old Earth

I was reading The Cosmic Story of Carbon-14 and had a thought involving the Abundance of the Elements and isotopes. We now know how the elements formed, and have measured their relative abundances for a while and across the universe. The theory of how they form matches every measurement. Basically, Hydrogen and traces of Helium have been around for over a dozen billion years. Heavier elements form when the mass attraction of enough hydrogen squishes a star’s core to fuse together helium and some lithium, a star is born.

All the rest form from the extreme compression and sudden release of supernovas. All that hydrogen and helium (basically protons and neutrons as there are no attached electrons at those pressures) are squeezed to dissolve into a quark soup then expanded and quick-frozen before they can push themselves apart. What is expected from this is an asymptotic curve of element abundances with hydrogen at the high end, and slight peaks forming at iron, xenon, and lead (particularly stable elements).

This is what is measured in our solar system:


Don’t let the zig-zag pattern confuse you. Odd numbered elements are harder to hold together than even ones; each pair of protons needs a pair of neutrons to let them stick together. But odd numbered ones have that odd pair of singles; they are just less likely to form.

But how does Carbon-14 fit in? What really freezes out from the splash of quark soup is not so much elements as isotopes. Every possible isotope forms in its proportional place along the curve. Then the unstable ones follow a decay chain until either they reach a stable element, or we measure them somewhere along the way. Uranium, for example, has 3 isotopes that last long enough to have hung around the 5 billion years or so for us to measure them. Technetium, on the other hand, is only found today as a decay byproduct from other elements.

So back to carbon. The three most common isotopes of carbon weigh 12, 13, and 14 atomic units (aka fermion masses: neutrons or protons). C-12 is most of it, C-13 is 1.1%, and C-14 is about 1/1,000,000,000,000 part of it. Carbon 13 is an odd-numbered isotope, and therefore intrinsically rare. Carbon-14 has a half life of 5,730 years. So if it were created in the expected normal proportion to carbon-12 billions of years ago, we would expect to not see any left. Where it all comes from is recent nuclear collisions between protons (cosmic rays) and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. (More details here).

We see the amount of carbon-14 that we’d expect for a regular continuous influx of cosmic rays that we do measure. But if all the elements had been made 10,000 years ago, we’d expect about C-14 to be about 1/4 of the total carbon, not the mere 1/1012 of it that we know is produced by cosmic ray collisions.

It turns out that comparing the abundance of isotopes of any element indicates the age of the planet to be between 4,000,000,000 and 5,000,000,000 years.

But what (I can predict this argument) if God created the elements with the isotope distributions intentionally skewed to just look like everything is that old? The old God-is-a-liar and created the young world old to eventually test faith of careful observers argument. I counter this with:

Given God and the Devil, which one has the power to put consistent evidence in every crevice of this and other planets and throughout the universe for every method of observation in every discipline for all interested observers of any faith,
and which one might inspire a few men men to write and edit a book and spread its message eagerly that can be interpreted to contradict that massive universe of evidence?

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Address to graduating students: “If everyone is special, no one is.”

June 11, 2012 | By | Reply More

English teacher David McCullough, Jr. sharply challenged the new graduates of Wellesley Massachusetts High School by telling them that they were not special, because they were substantially like numerous other “special” students out there. He repeatedly warned the audience members that to become special, they would need to earn it.

Many of McCullough’s ideas walk the line between offensive and inspiring–they will offend some people because his message is a stinging indictment of the status quo. He delivered a message that we can’t become special by continuing to watch our TVs, or even by clicking on our keyboards. There is no substitute for self-critical thought, hard work in the real world, and a pure heart.

I admire McCullough for having the guts to say the things he said up at the podium. Watching him reminds me that excellent teachers are real heroes in a world filled with fake heroes. It makes me a bit sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to be one of McCullough’s students back in high school. Listening to his message mostly makes me proud that there is someone out there who can teach so much in twelve minutes.

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The danger of giving homage to mathematical incompetence

June 2, 2012 | By | 12 Replies More
The danger of giving homage to mathematical incompetence

Yesterday afternoon, a friend mentioned that in his experience people are usually embarrassed to be exposed as illiterate, but they don’t seem to care whether they are exposed as mathematically incompetent. That observation resonated with me. In fact, not only aren’t people embarrassed about being mathematically incompetent, but many people seem proud of being mathematically illiterate. They use their mathematical incompetence to socially bond with other people who are mathematically incompetent. More than a few times, someone in the room has mentioned that they’re not very good with numbers and several other people in the room immediately come to their rescue indicating that it’s okay to be mathematically incompetent because they too struggled with mathematics.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that American students are so deficient at mathematics compared to the students in many other countries while, at the same time, Americans have such bizarre public policy priorities (e.g., a zero tolerance policy toward terrorism at the same time that thousands of Americans are dying needlessly of treatable medical conditions and while millions of American children are subjected to terribly underfunded schools that will ruin their lives).

After yesterday’s conversation, I pulled out an 1988 book by John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. here’s what Paulos has to say right in his introduction:

Innumeracy, an inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of number and chance, plagues far too many otherwise knowledgeable citizens. The same people who cringe when words such as “imply” and “infer” are confused react without a trace of embarrassment to even the most egregious of numerical solecisms. I remember once listening to someone at a party drone on about the difference between “continually” and “continuously.” Later that evening we were watching the news, and the TV weather forecaster announced that there was a 50% chance of rain for Saturday and a 50% chance for Sunday, and concluded that there was therefore a 100% chance of rain that weekend. The remark went right by the self-styled grammarian, and even after I explained the mistake to him, he wasn’t nearly as indignant as he would’ve been had the weathercaster left a dangling participle. In fact, unlike other failings which are hidden, mathematical illiteracy is often flaunted: “I can’t even balance my checkbook.” “I’m a people person, not a numbers person.” Or “I always hated math.”

Paulos suggests that part of the reason for this ignorance of mathematics is that the consequences are often not as obvious as those of other weaknesses. On the other hand, the problems caused by innumeracy are serious, often times matters of life and death. Paulos lists the following examples:

Stock scams, choice of a spouse, newspaper psychics, diet and medical claims, the risk of terrorism, astrology, sports records, elections, sex discrimination, UFOs, insurance and law, psychoanalysis, parapsychology, lotteries, and drug testing…

Why do people struggle so much with mathematics? Paulos points to natural psychological responses to uncertainty, to coincidence, and how problems are framed, as well as anxiety, romantic misconceptions about nature and the importance of mathematics. One of the biggest consequences of innumeracy are “unfounded and crippling anxieties” and “impossible and economically paralyzing demands for risk-free guarantees.” Paulos mentions that politicians are rarely helpful, because they are often “loathe to clarify the likely hazards and trade-offs associated with almost any policy.”

It’s been a while since I read Innumeracy, but I highly recommend it. It is a timeless book filled with examples to remind us of the importance of a precise understanding of mathematics. Paulos indicates, “The book will have been well worth the effort if it can begin to clarify just how much innumeracy pervades both our private and/or public lives.”

By the way, if you know someone who is struggling with mathematics, Paulos book is a good place to start. He is an excellent teacher of math as well as a clear writer. If you know someone who wants to understand basic math, refer them to the many free video lessons at Khan Academy.

Once we master math, I would suggest that we turn to biology. It is my firm belief that all of us would be much better off with an understand of human beings based on the understanding that humans are human animals.

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