September 2010 Archives

"1278 verified architectural and engineering professionals" demand real 9/11 investigation

I blogged recently about hearing an experienced structural engineer on a train platform tell a bunch of construction industry colleagues that the World Trade Center was absolutely blown up, not knocked down by planes. He told me later that anyone who is anyone in structural engineering knew this immediately.

Today, I stumbled on proof that he’s correct.

After listing many facts that collectively prove the three World Trade Center buildings were destroyed by explosion, Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth say:

An AE911Truth petition calling for a new investigation has been submitted this week to every government representative in Congress. The petition now contains over 1,270 architect/engineer signers – altogether over 10,000 around the world have signed the petition.

That’s a TON of people, especially given the tremendous pressure NOT to speak out.

Learn more at their website.

Another impressive list of those who believe the official government story of 9/11 is patently absurd can be found at PatriotsQuestion911.com.

I ask again, why the news blackout? Why don’t we want to know the truth about the most significant event of the century?

Posted by James on Sep 10, 2010

Americans prefer Sweden, want rich/non-rich wealth ratio of 2 (it's currently 21)

The average American wants the average rich person to own 1.9 times what the average non-rich person owns. In fact, the average rich person owns 21 times what the average non-rich person owns! (Details below.)

This clever survey asked Americans about America’s income distribution and about their ideal income distribution under a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” (i.e., assuming you don’t know which individual you would be, which society would you want to live in?).

Almost all Americans prefer Sweden’s relative equality to America’s staggering inequality:

92% of Americans preferring the Sweden distribution to the United States.

Few Americans appreciate just how concentrated wealth is at the top of the U.S. wealth distribution:

respondents vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest quintile [20%] held about 59% of the wealth when the actual number is closer to 84%.

The average American wants the average wealthy American to have 1.88 times the average non-wealthy American’s wealth (the richest 20% owning 32% of wealth and the other 80% owning the other 68%). In reality, the average wealthy American actually has 21.0 times the wealth of the average non-wealthy American (the richest 20% owning 84% and the other 80% owning just 16% of wealth):

respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution, reporting a desire for the top quintile to own just 32% of the wealth. These desires for more equal distributions of wealth took the form of moving money from the top quintile to the bottom three quintiles, while leaving the second quintile unchanged, evidencing a greater concern for the less fortunate than the more fortunate.

Posted by James on Sep 24, 2010

America the ignorant and apathetic

Why do politicians behave as if Americans are stupid? Because many of us are stupid and many more of us don’t bother to pay attention to what politicians are doing:

The Pew Research Center asked people this summer to identify the current chief justice of the United States from among four possibilities: John Roberts, Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens and Harry Reid. Only 28 percent correctly picked Chief Justice Roberts. The late Thurgood Marshall came in second, with 8 percent. Fifty-three percent could not make a selection, answering “don’t know.”

The result was surprising; after all, people weren’t asked to pull a name out of thin air. And the alternatives to the real chief justice were scarcely plausible: Justice Thurgood Marshall died 17 years ago…; Senator Harry Reid has never been a justice at all; and Justice John Paul Stevens was prominently in the news this summer not for being chief justice, but for retiring.

In other words:

  • 53% of Americans admit to being clueless about the federal government
  • 19% claim to understand the federal government but are plain wrong
  • 7% or 8% more answered correctly but probably made lucky guesses
  • Only the remaining 20% of Americans have a basic grasp of who’s who in Washington

Congress and presidents serve corporations — not the people — because of our widespread ignorance and apathy. We the people are ignorant and can be won over with slick ad campaigns financed by mountains of corporate cash.

Posted by James on Sep 10, 2010

Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion

The L.A. Times reports:

a survey that measured Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowledge among some of the faithful may give new meaning to the term “blind faith.”

A majority of Protestants, for instance, couldn’t identify Martin Luther as the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, according to the survey, released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Four in 10 Catholics misunderstood the meaning of their church’s central ritual, incorrectly saying that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion are intended to merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ, not actually become them.

Atheists and agnostics — those who believe there is no God or who aren’t sure — were more likely to answer the survey’s questions correctly. Jews and Mormons ranked just below them in the survey’s measurement of religious knowledge — so close as to be statistically tied.

So why would an atheist know more about religion than a Christian?

American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.

“These are people who thought a lot about religion,” he said. “They’re not indifferent. They care about it.”

Atheists and agnostics also tend to be relatively well educated, and the survey found, not surprisingly, that the most knowledgeable people were also the best educated. However, it said that atheists and agnostics also outperformed believers who had a similar level of education.

This matches my experience. I grew up attending a wonderful church, the Sudbury United Methodist Church. The pastors were wonderful. The congregation was wonderful. The annual retreats along the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee were fabulous. It was a caring, supportive, loving community. And I loved Jesus' moral teachings, esp. the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (a philosophy I later learned predated Jesus… but I give him credit for emphasizing it).

I even enjoyed teaching Sunday School for several years while in high school and gave two sermons… well, one sermon that was so well received they asked me to give another, but my second sermon’s topic was the importance of non-conformity, and my parents insisted I wear a suit and tie rather than the sweater and tie I was wearing. I refused, and my parents refused to let me go, so I never gave that second sermon!

There was just one problem with my love of SUMC: I never believed in God or the mystical aspects of Christianity, like the idea Mary was a virgin, Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus was literally the son of God, etc.. That all struck me as nonsense. And I saw plenty of internal contradictions within the Bible, most significantly the angry, vengeful God of the Old Testament and the loving, accepting, forgiving God of the New Testament. But I loved the community and Jesus' moral teachings so much that I overlooked my dislike of the magical stuff, until my hand was forced. I attended 13 weeks of confirmation classes, intended to help us understand the religion better before we attended a confirmation ceremony when we confirmed our parents' decision to christen us as children.

The classes were great. The pastor who led them was a close friend and did a marvelous job. I had long attended weekly sessions (called a “covenant group”) with her and other teens that were mind-stretching experiences. So I wanted to believe in God. But, no matter what I read or heard, I just couldn’t find anything to convince me of the existence of God (or gods). There were too many reasons to disbelieve (all the evil in the world, the contradictions between various religions, the ability of science to explain much that had previously been attributed to gods, the inability of a “creator” to truly explain the origin of the universe… because you then must ask ‘Who created the creator?’, etc.).

I was urged to “take a leap of faith.” But that seemed ridiculous. I finally decided — to the great disappointment of my parents, grandmother, classmates, Scout Master, and others — that I just couldn’t go through with a confirmation because I just didn’t believe all the magical elements of Christianity.

Given my experience (and discussions I’ve had with tech friends who were raised in religious families but eventually abandoned their parents' faith), I find it quite plausible that atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about religion than religious believers.

Posted by James on Sep 28, 2010

Buddhist economics

This interesting 1966 article on “Buddhist economics” suggests — quite accurately — that modern economists are blind to the value of job satisfaction:

the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it can not be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.

The consequences of these attitudes both in theory and in practice are, of course, extremely far-reaching. If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that “reduces the work load” is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called “division of labour” and the classical example is the pin factory eulogised in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Here it is not a matter of ordinary specialisation, which mankind has practiced from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs.

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

Posted by James on Sep 21, 2010

Buying the support of America's underclass

Because I’ve been vacationing since Thursday, I’m a week late on this, but Frank Rich’s piece, “The Billionaires Bankrolling the Tea Party” is too good to ignore:

Their self-interested and at times radical agendas, like Murdoch’s, go well beyond, and sometimes counter to, the interests of those who serve as spear carriers in the political pageants hawked on Fox News. The country will be in for quite a ride should these potentates gain power, and given the recession-battered electorate’s unchecked anger and the Obama White House’s unfocused political strategy, they might.

All three tycoons are the latest incarnation of what the historian Kim Phillips-Fein labeled “Invisible Hands” in her prescient 2009 book of that title: those corporate players who have financed the far right ever since the du Pont brothers spawned the American Liberty League in 1934 to bring down F.D.R. You can draw a straight line from the Liberty League’s crusade against the New Deal “socialism” of Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and child labor laws to the John Birch Society-Barry Goldwater assault on J.F.K. and Medicare to the Koch-Murdoch-backed juggernaut against our “socialist” president.

Only the fat cats change — not their methods and not their pet bugaboos (taxes, corporate regulation, organized labor, and government “handouts” to the poor, unemployed, ill and elderly). Even the sources of their fortunes remain fairly constant. Koch Industries began with oil in the 1930s and now also spews an array of industrial products, from Dixie cups to Lycra, not unlike DuPont’s portfolio of paint and plastics. Sometimes the biological DNA persists as well. The Koch brothers’ father, Fred, was among the select group chosen to serve on the Birch Society’s top governing body. In a recorded 1963 speech that survives in a University of Michigan archive, he can be heard warning of “a takeover” of America in which Communists would “infiltrate the highest offices of government in the U.S. until the president is a Communist, unknown to the rest of us.” That rant could be delivered as is at any Tea Party rally today….

Tea Partiers may share the Kochs’ detestation of taxes, big government and Obama. But there’s a difference between mainstream conservatism and a fringe agenda that tilts completely toward big business, whether on Wall Street or in the Gulf of Mexico, while dismantling fundamental government safety nets designed to protect the unemployed, public health, workplace safety and the subsistence of the elderly.

Yet inexorably the Koch agenda is morphing into the G.O.P. agenda, as articulated by current Republican members of Congress, including the putative next speaker of the House, John Boehner, and Tea Party Senate candidates like Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, and the new kid on the block, Alaska’s anti-Medicaid, anti-unemployment insurance Palin protégé, Joe Miller. Their program opposes a federal deficit, but has no objection to running up trillions in red ink in tax cuts to corporations and the superrich; apologizes to corporate malefactors like BP and derides money put in escrow for oil spill victims as a “slush fund”; opposes the extension of unemployment benefits; and calls for a freeze on federal regulations in an era when abuses in the oil, financial, mining, pharmaceutical and even egg industries (among others) have been outrageous.

The Koch brothers must be laughing all the way to the bank knowing that working Americans are aiding and abetting their selfish interests.

Posted by James on Sep 05, 2010

Carnivore morality

I appreciated this extended moral analysis and thought experiment regarding how — if at all — humanity should respond to animal suffering due to carnivorous animals. Most reader comments (that I read) were quite negative. But I largely agree with the author, a philosophy professor at Rutgers, who concluded:

If I had been in a position to design and create a world, I would have tried to arrange for all conscious individuals to be able to survive without tormenting and killing other conscious individuals….

It would be good to prevent the vast suffering and countless violent deaths caused by predation. There is therefore one reason to think that it would be instrumentally good if predatory animal species were to become extinct and be replaced by new herbivorous species, provided that this could occur without ecological upheaval involving more harm than would be prevented by the end of predation. The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species. I am therefore inclined to embrace the heretical conclusion that we have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species.

My 4-year-old son is fascinated with dinosaurs, and we’ve spent a lot of time discussing herbivores, carnivores and omnivores. When we learn about a new dinosaur, “What did it eat?” is always our first question… and we can almost always figure that out immediately by looking at its teeth. That some dinosaurs ate other dinosaurs simultaneously fascinates and disturbs my son, as it does me. It’s a hard topic to discuss but impossible to ignore because we can’t help but feel sorry for the poor triceratops being eaten alive by a pack of hungry T. Rexes.

I also have a hard time answering my son’s questions about the meat we’re eating having recently been a pig or a chicken. I explain that, hopefully, that pig or chicken lived a normal, happy life and died a quick and painless death before becoming unfeeling “meat.”

What haunts me — but I don’t share with my son — is that most animals we eat have suffered pretty miserably, due to the primacy of humans' concern for “economic efficiency.” I’ll go out of my way and pay extra for meat raised humanely, as much of Chipotle’s meat has been. But eating ethically raised meat is seldom feasible because “animal welfare” is practically a hippie, anti-American concept. It should be our primary concern, as the Rutgers professor notes:

We should start by withdrawing our own participation in the mass orgy of preying and feeding upon the weak.

Our own form of predation is of course more refined than those of other meat-eaters, who must capture their prey and tear it apart as it struggles to escape. We instead employ professionals to breed our prey in captivity and prepare their bodies for us behind a veil of propriety, so that our sensibilities are spared the recognition that we too are predators, red in tooth if not in claw (though some of us, for reasons I have never understood, do go to the trouble to paint their vestigial claws a sanguinary hue). The reality behind the veil is, however, far worse than that in the natural world. Our factory farms, which supply most of the meat and eggs consumed in developed societies, inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey, in contrast to the relatively brief agonies endured by the victims of predators in the wild. From the moral perspective, there is nothing that can plausibly be said in defense of this practice.

Posted by James on Sep 23, 2010

China's rich shun Buffett and Gates because they fear philanthropy

Instead of summarizing “China’s wealthy ponder whether to help others”, I recommend you read it.

I found this wonderful quotation from the hero of the Washington Post article, Chen Guangbiao: “I don’t want to become a slave to my wealth. Every dollar I made was with the help of others — so I want to give it back to society and make my life more meaningful and valuable.”

Posted by James on Sep 17, 2010

Damn Daily Show

Just this week, I praised The Daily Show for making 2010 American politics bearable through humor.

But the show angered me Thursday when Jon Stewart TWICE ridiculed those who suspect 9/11 was not what the government told us it was.

It’s bad enough all TV shows apparently must self-censor all discussion of sensitive topics like 9/11, never presenting dissenting voices (except the occasional show that presents absurd strawman conspiracy theories — rather than plausible, factually grounded conspiracy theories — just to knock them down and sour the public on all conspiracy theories).

But it infuriates me when an otherwise sensible program like The Daily Show goes out of its way to ridicule the 9/11 Truth movement — without presenting a shred of evidence — and to imply that the many men and women who have searched for truth where the government did not are crazy loons. Bill Maher does the same. Daily Show staffers are free to reject those conspiracies. But ridiculing the millions who suspect we were told lies about 9/11 without even investigating the evidence honestly is WAY beneath The Daily Show. The official story is patently false, as you can plainly see watching this TV appearance by veteran architect Richard Gage.

And I’m also upset at The Daily Show for falsely equating right-wing nuts with left-wing liberals when it calls for a “million moderate march.” Most left-wing liberals are not unglued from reality. We’re angry because we have many real reasons to be angry. Many far right extremists are angry at all the wrong things. For example, many of the Tea Partiers pay little tax yet are angry about taxes and fighting to cut the taxes of the richest of the richest Americans. The Tea Partiers who screamed at politicians to keep Washington’s socialist hands off their beloved Medicare tell you everything you need to know about some of these people. They’re well-intentioned and legitimately angry, but they haven’t a clue what’s really keeping them down, and that ignorance allows (and is caused by) the powerful — through their control of Fox News, Republican think-tanks, astroturf “grassroots” movements like the Tea Party, etc. — to direct their anger in all the wrong directions.

Those who think it took more than two airplanes to completely pulverize THREE gigantic World Trade Center towers are realists looking at facts and evidence. Fox News regularly willfully misleads and manufactures “facts” out of thin air. The Daily Show — which covers government malfeasance very well — should know better than to falsely equate truth seekers with Murdoch’s lie mongers and the millions of naive people who rely almost exclusively on his lying mouthpieces for their news.

Posted by James on Sep 20, 2010

Economic elites peddle market efficiency myth to masses to justify regulatory inaction

As an economics graduate student, the questions that most interested me were seldom the “right” questions, and what I considered the best analytical frameworks and methodological tools for studying those questions were seldom the “correct” ones. (I felt economics needed a major infusion of ideas and tools from psychology and biology; the field has since moved somewhat in that direction.) Ideas were worthwhile, it seemed, only if they could be boiled down into a mathematical proof or simple econometric model. And, back in the mid-90s, studying China’s economy — or any economy other than America’s or perhaps Europe’s — was career suicide.

So I really enjoy this kind of article attacking academic economists for clinging to their bedrock assumptions that people are rational and extremely well informed (or act “as if” they were omniscient) and that human behavior can be predicted by assuming people are rational and omniscient:

one problem is that the economics profession “has gotten much more intolerant of divergence from orthodoxy,” says Philip Mirowski, an economic historian at Notre Dame. “The range in which dissent happens is so narrow. In a sense they still cannot imagine the system can operate to undermine itself. That is not a position that is allowed anywhere in the economics profession. The field got rid of methodological self-criticism. This Great Moderation stuff was just arrogance, hubris.” Indeed, the joke on economists, says one of them, Rob Johnson, is that they create simplistic models that depend on people behaving as rational actors motivated by self-interest, yet “they have a blind spot regarding themselves.” The way they squabble mulishly to defend now-indefensible positions is itself evidence of how flawed those rational-actor models are.

it was largely because the field of economics came to be dominated by “neoclassical” thought—or the idea that markets are rational and can reach “equilibrium” on their own—that so-called financial innovation on Wall Street was allowed to run amok in recent decades. That led directly to the crisis of 2007–09. No matter how crazy or complex the products got, the theory was that, with little government oversight, the inherent stability of markets would keep things from getting too out of hand. It was in large part because of this way of thinking that government intervention of any kind in the markets, including regulation, came to be seen as a kind of heresy, especially after the Soviet Union collapsed and command economies and “statism” were thoroughly discredited.

I’ve been slowly reading through old Economist magazines we received before realizing there was no way in heck we could read a steady stream of such thick magazines. (My wife ordered it. I’ve never been a huge fan of The Economist because its articles are unattributed and include virtually no direct quotations. Journalism without direct quotations irks me because I like to know who’s telling me something.) Anyhow, The Economist in March 2009 noted this major hypocrisy:

Belief in efficient-market theory made the authorities reluctant to restrain either the dotcom or the housing and credit bubbles.

…it is important not to throw out all the insights of efficient-market enthusiasts. Although it is theoretically possible to make money by outperforming the markets, it is extremely difficult in practice….

If regulators thought markets were too efficient to interfere with, how come they allowed banks to get involved in an activity which, after bonuses, was a game they could not collectively win?

My answer: market efficiency is a myth peddled by economic elites to the masses to justify government regulatory inaction (“laissez-faire”). Economic elites know it’s a myth because they profit handsomely by exploiting market inefficiencies. Even in theory, market efficiency exists only when there are MANY SMALL COMPANIES producing similar products and services. The logic of capitalism drives companies to dominate their markets and crush their competitors. Therein lies the monopolistic/oligopolistic profit opportunity… and economic elites' strong motivation to prevent government anti-trust regulations that keep markets efficient and prices and profits low.

What amazes me is not that the masses fell for the market efficiency myth but that so many academic economists do. Very simple economic models that everyone studies in first-year microeconomics show how monopoly power enables companies to get rich at consumers' expense. Yet many economists seem wedded to the idea that markets are magical invisible hands that alway fairly match supply and demand and cannot possibly be improved upon through government regulation.

Posted by James on Sep 17, 2010

For such a religious nation, Americans are shockingly ignorant of basic religious facts

I just took this 15-question religious knowledge quiz.

I got 13 correct but would have gotten 14 had I not assumed an Internet glitch had given me the same question twice. Consecutive questions began with “According to rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, is a public school teacher permitted to…” and I didn’t read the rest of the second question.

13/15 puts me ahead of 93% of Americans and behind only 3%.

Given how easy the questions seemed — many had just two or three possible answers — it’s shocking the average American scored only 50%! Random guessers should have scored about 35%, so 50% isn’t much better than random guessing. For such a religious nation, the average American is shockingly ignorant of basic religious facts. (There’s a strong negative correlation between national income and national religiosity. When you plot national income against religiosity, America is FAR more religious than our national income predicts.)

I was going to say “the average American is shamefully ignorant,” but I suspect many Americans are not at all embarrassed that they know so little about Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc. Many would call these “false religions” despite scarcely knowing anything about them.

Posted by James on Sep 29, 2010

Humans eliminated 90% of oceans' fish by 2003, aiming for 95% by 2013

Many people believe the oceans are far too vast for humans to have much impact.

They are dead wrong. Between 1950 and 2003, humans caused the populations of most large fish species to plunge by 90%:

“From giant blue marlin to mighty bluefin tuna, and from tropical groupers to Antarctic cod, industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean. There is no blue frontier left,” said lead author Ransom Myers, a fisheries biologist based at Dalhousie University in Canada. “Since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10 percent—not just in some areas, not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles.”

The problem continues intensifying, as Japan demonstrates:

[Japan]’s voracious appetite for eel and other fish has depleted the ocean’s supplies and raised international outcries to halt Japan’s overfishing…

Dramatically lower eel catches from local river habitats have led to an overwhelming dependency on expensive fish farms and imports, forcing restaurants like Takayasu’s out of business.

Last year, for instance, eelers caught 267 tons from natural habitats, a drop of two-thirds from the amount caught a decade earlier, according to the Nihon Yoshoku Shinbun, a publication that tracks marine resources. Last year’s catch was less than 1% of the nearly 35,000 tons consumed; farming provided nearly 11,000 tons, and imports from China and Taiwan accounted for the remainder, the publication said….

The Fisheries Agency of Japan said the market for domestic fish in 2008 dropped to $11.7 billion, down more than one-third from $18.8 billion a decade earlier, based on current exchange rates. The agency also has warned that half of the marine resources in the waters surrounding Japan have dropped drastically in the last two decades.

For example, less than 20,000 tons of horse mackerel, a fish widely eaten because of its affordable prices, is caught annually, down from 70,000 tons in 1991. And Pacific saury, a fall delicacy, is now fetching as much as $8 a fish — eight times as much as two years ago.

The government agency attributed the low catches to rising sea temperatures that are affecting spawning and growth of fish and to overfishing.

If we lost 90% of fish from 1950 through early 2003 and if Japan’s fishing catch is falling by roughly 50% a decade, we’ll have eliminated about 95% of fish from our seas by 2013.

The same people who assume oceans are too gigantic for humans to substantially impact also argue the Earth is too enormous for humans to substantially change Earth’s climate. Even in the face of overwhelming statistical evidence proving their assumptions utterly wrong, these people cling blindly to their (society-destroying?) beliefs.

Humans' ability to ignore or wish away even dire global problems is why I’m so pessimistic about our collective future.

Posted by James on Sep 08, 2010

Hurry up, Billy, it's time to go play games!

I enjoyed “Learning By Playing”, which explores the potential of games as educational tools.

Games can provide the kind of instantaneous feedback I praised a few days ago. Also, kids respond positively to failure in a game — by learning and trying new strategies — whereas failure in a classroom can be humiliating. Additionally, well-designed games can replace testing altogether because completing a game can prove the student has mastered the material necessary to complete the game:

Getting to the end of even a supposedly simple video game can take 15 or more hours of play time, and it almost always involves failure — lots and lots of failure.

This concept is something that Will Wright, who is best known for designing the Sims game franchise and the 2008 evolution-related game Spore, refers to as “failure-based learning,” in which failure is brief, surmountable, often exciting and therefore not scary. A well-built game is, in essence, a series of short-term feedback loops, delivering assessment in small, frequent doses. This in the end may be both more palatable and also more instructive to someone trying to learn. According to Ntiedo Etuk, the chief executive of Tabula Digita, which designs computer games that are now being used in roughly 1,200 schools around the country, children who persist in playing a game are demonstrating a valuable educational ideal. “They play for five minutes and they lose,” he says. “They play for 10 minutes and they lose. They’ll go back and do it a hundred times. They’ll fail until they win.” He adds: “Failure in an academic environment is depressing. Failure in a video game is pleasant. It’s completely aspirational.”

It is also, says James Paul Gee, antithetical to the governing reality of today’s public schools. “If you think about kids in school — especially in our testing regime — both the teacher and the student think that failure will lead to disaster,” he says. “That’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll never get to truly deep learning.” Gee and others in the games-and-learning field have suggested that someday, if we choose to channel our resources into developing more and better games for use in classrooms, the games themselves could feasibly replace tests altogether. Students, by virtue of making it through the escalating levels of a game that teaches, say, the principles of quantum physics, will demonstrate their mastery simply by finishing the game. Or, as Gee says: “Think about it: if I make it through every level of Halo, do you really need to give me a test to see if I know everything it takes to get through every level of Halo?”

Games are also generally more fun than lectures, which means students are more likely to become engaged, active learners:

Neuroscientists have connected game play to the production of dopamine, a powerful neuro­transmitter central to the brain’s reward-seeking system and thought to drive motivation and memory processing (and more negatively, addictive behaviors) — all of which could have implications for how, when and what type of games should be used to advance children’s learning….

Paul Howard-Jones, a neuroscientist who teaches in the graduate school of education at the University of Bristol in Britain and coordinates the NeuroEducational Research Network, says that dopamine sends a “ready to learn” signal to the brain, essentially priming it to receive new information pleasurably. His research has shown that children’s engagement levels are higher when they are anticipating a reward but cannot predict whether they will get it — or, as Howard-Jones put it to me, “when you move from a conventional educational atmosphere to something that more resembles sport.” He is careful to add that games are not meant to supplant teachers nor undermine the value of more traditional learning. “Children need to learn how to read a book,” he says. “They need to learn how to ask questions.” But as our understanding of both cognitive science and game design continues to advance, he says that game play will find a central place inside schools. “I think in 30 years’ time,” he says, “we will marvel that we ever tried to deliver a curriculum without gaming.”

I especially like the idea of using games to teach in a more multi-disciplinary way because mixing disciplines together in the context of solving problems is more engaging, holistic, organic and natural than presenting math (and other subjects) in sterile, context-free teaching silos:

Once it has been worked over by game designers, a lesson doesn’t look like a lesson anymore. It is now a quest. And while students at the school are put through the usual rigors of studying pre-algebra, basic physics, ancient civilizations and writing, they do it inside interdisciplinary classes with names like Codeworlds — a hybrid of math and English class — where the quests blend skills from different subject areas. Students have been called upon to balance the budget and brainstorm business ideas for an imaginary community called Creepytown, for example, and to design architectural blueprints for a village of bumbling little creatures called the Troggles….

The traditional school structure strikes Salen as “weird.” “You go to a math class, and that is the only place math is happening, and you are supposed to learn math just in that one space,” she told me one day, sitting in the small room at the school that served as Quest to Learn’s operational headquarters. She was dressed in a purple skirt with a hot pink scarf knotted around her neck. “There’s been this assumption that school is the only place that learning is happening, that everything a kid is supposed to know is delivered between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and it happens in the confines of a building,” she said. “But the fact is that kids are doing a lot of interesting learning outside of school. We acknowledge that, and we are trying to bring that into their learning here.”

Posted by James on Sep 16, 2010

If humanity is self-destructing, is throwing yourself in society's gears moral?

“They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.” — Willard to Kurtz, Apocalypse Now

When I read the news about James Lee taking hostages at Discovery Communications after “the man’s years-long protest campaign against what he saw as the company’s failures to adequately program shows that made clear the threat to the planet from overpopulation and animal extinction,” I immediately thought of The Unibomber, Theodore Kaczynski, who also turned to violence in what he considered a desperate effort to stop humanity from destroying itself.

I disapprove of both men’s methods. Yet I can understand their desperation. Society seems hell-bent on pushing technology and our precious environment beyond the point humanity can survive itself. We’re already responsible for the fastest mass extinction in Earth’s history. Previous mass extinctions required tens of thousands to millions of years. Humanity is killing off millions of species in an evolutionary eye-blink. We’ve pulled most of large fish from the oceans in just a century. And we know of no parallels to our current pace of scientific and technological progress, which brings both benefits and dangers. It’s no one’s job to ask, “Is our current pace of scientific and technological advance too fast?” And that frightens me. We think of something cool and rush to do it before thinking through the many possible negative impacts. I bet Chernobyl looked like a great nuclear reactor to the engineers who designed it. And the Germans aquarium managers at the Wilhelma Zoo really loved the “a cold-tolerant and fast-growing strain of the species Caulerpa taxifolia” they developed, and many aquarium owners shared their love until the species escaped into the wild and quickly “smother[ed] other algal species, seagrasses and sessile invertebrate communities,” first in the Mediterranean and now all over the world. I fear we’re gaining enough knowledge to be extremely dangerous without adequate wisdom about how to deploy — or not deploy — our new technological toys.

Since society seems so unwilling to consider — or incapable of considering — such questions, I wonder at what point it becomes a moral imperative to throw oneself into society’s gears and try to slow down the process or force people to pay attention.

Though he has been painted as a loon, Ted Kaczynski was in many respects a brilliant man. Sadly, after identifying a potentially society-destroying threat, he couldn’t conceive of a better way to force society to slow down and act more deliberatively than by mailing bombs to scientists whose work he feared. Given the futility of actions taken by such men — so desperate to shake society from what they perceive to be our collective insanity — I doubt there’s much hope any of us can restrain society since society refuses to ask itself whether the rapidity with which we jump from idea to application is making our world better or increasing the odds we destroy ourselves and the amazing planet that sustains us.

Posted by James on Sep 02, 2010

If you're not exercising, you're shortchanging your brain

We all know exercise can help us live longer, healthier lives. Fewer of us appreciate the importance of exercise for brain health:

Previous studies found that fitter kids generally scored better on [cognitive challenges involving… filter[ing] out unnecessary information and attend[ing] to relevant cues]. And in this case, too, those children performed better on the tests. But the M.R.I.’s provided a clearer picture of how it might work. They showed that fit children had significantly larger basal ganglia, a key part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and “executive control,” or the ability to coordinate actions and thoughts crisply….

a second group of 9- and 10-year-old children were also categorized by fitness levels and had their brains scanned, but they completed different tests, this time focusing on complex memory. Such thinking is associated with activity in the hippocampus, a structure in the brain’s medial temporal lobes. Sure enough, the M.R.I. scans revealed that the fittest children had heftier hippocampi.

…the researchers, in their separate reports, noted that the hippocampus and basal ganglia regions interact in the human brain, structurally and functionally. Together they allow some of the most intricate thinking. If exercise is responsible for increasing the size of these regions and strengthening the connection between them, being fit may “enhance neurocognition” in young people, the authors concluded.

Posted by James on Sep 16, 2010

I oppose and support more student testing

I enjoyed “Testing, the Chinese Way” for its support of frequent, low-stakes “formative” student testing:

President Obama’s Race to the Top educational competition… includes and encourages more reliance on what educators call “formative tests” or “formative assessments.” These are not the big once-a-year or once-in-a-lifetime exams, like the SATs, but a stream of smaller, less monumental tests, designed in theory, at least, primarily to help students and their teachers know how they’re doing.

Some education experts hail the change as a step forward from the ideological dark ages. “Research has long shown that more frequent testing is beneficial to kids, but educators have resisted this finding,” said Gregory J. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Of course, the tests have to be age-appropriate, Professor Cizek notes, and the Race to the Top program includes funds for research to develop new exams. Filling in three pages of multiple-choice bubbles may not be appropriate for young children. Likewise “high stakes” tests — like the Chinese university entrance exam, which alone determines university placement — create anxiety and may unfairly derail a youngster’s future based on poor performance on a single day.

But Professor Cizek, who started his career as a second-grade teacher, said the prevailing philosophy of offering young children unconditional praise and support was probably not the best prescription for successful education. “What’s best for kids is frequent testing, where even if they do badly, they can get help and improve and have the satisfaction of doing better,” he said. “Kids don’t get self-esteem by people just telling them they are wonderful.”

Ideally, the feedback loop between a student answering a test question and receiving feedback would be 0 seconds. Immediate feedback maximizes the student’s opportunity to learn from her mistakes, especially if feedback includes an explanation of the correct answer.

Instantaneous feedback is impossible in traditional teacher-centric classrooms. But it is totally feasible with computers, at least for concrete tasks, like solving math problems or learning new words in a foreign language. Even in more creative subjects, like creative writing, computers have automated some of the analysis, grading, and feedback that teachers have traditionally done. Also, studies have shown that contemplating a question before delving into the relevant material enhances the student’s ability to grasp that material.

So, there are many reasons to embrace such testing and weave it into the learning process to let students quickly identify and correct errors. Instead, the Bush Administration pushed infrequent, high-stakes tests that provide students little or no useful feedback. In short, America embraced the exact wrong kind of tests — time-wasting, anxiety-producing, curriculum-narrowing tests.

Posted by James on Sep 13, 2010

Is E.T. protecting us from our nukes?

This Reuters/PRNewswire story is very hard to believe, but I hope it’s true because it would mean aliens are watching us and trying to prevent us from destroying ourselves:

Witness testimony from more than 120 former or retired military personnel points to an ongoing and alarming intervention by unidentified aerial objects at nuclear weapons sites, as recently as 2003. In some cases, several nuclear missiles simultaneously and inexplicably malfunctioned while a disc-shaped object silently hovered nearby. Six former U.S. Air Force officers and one former enlisted man will break their silence about these events at the National Press Club and urge the government to publicly confirm their reality….

Declassified U.S. government documents, to be distributed at the event, now substantiate the reality of UFO activity at nuclear weapons sites extending back to 1948.

Posted by James on Sep 23, 2010

Jehovah’s Witnesses angry atheists are expressing their views

This belongs in the Hypocrisy Hall of Fame:

You can now download the latest issue of Awake, the Jehovah’s Witness’s strange little magazine. The theme of this issue is those marching militant atheists, so it’s a little bit personal.

Unfortunately, I was only able to read as far as the second sentence before I was blinded by the irony: “A new group of atheists has arisen in society. Called the new atheists, they are not content to keep their views to themselves.”

That’s right. The door-knockin’, rabidly proselytizing cult is rebuking atheists for not keeping their views to themselves.

Posted by James on Sep 07, 2010

Jon Stewart: "Monkeys are gonna throw shit. I get angry at people who don’t go 'Bad monkey!'"

There’s no better way to enjoy Jon Stewart than by watching The Daily Show, as my wife and I have religiously since 2004. (The Daily Show’s frequent vacations make us rather grumpy.) But this profile is pretty good. I especially liked the description of how The Daily Show found its formula:

The road trips to Philly and to the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles reshaped The Daily Show, but not in the way Stewart had anticipated. “We were at that point merry pranksters—guys on a bus going, ‘That guy looks like Richard Gephardt!’” he says. “The more we got to meet people [in the media], it was—‘Oh! You’re fucking retarded! You don’t care!’ The pettiness of it, the strange lack of passion for any kind of moral or editorial authority, always struck me as weird. We felt like, we’re serious people doing an unserious thing, and they’re unserious people doing a very serious thing.”

I also liked Stewart’s SpongeBob analogy:

[A]s appalled as Stewart was by the politicians, his greater scorn was increasingly aimed at the acquiescent and co-opted news media. “I assume there are bad actors in society,” Stewart says. “It’s inherent in politicians to be disingenuous. And a mining company wants to own the company store—as it is in SpongeBob. Mr. Krabs just wants to make more money. He’s not concerned with SpongeBob’s working conditions—although SpongeBob is putting in hours that are not humane, even for an invertebrate. I assume monkeys are gonna throw shit. I get angrier at the people who don’t go ‘Bad monkey!’ or who create distraction that allows it to continue unabated. The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, ‘Boy, I wish I could say what you’re saying.’ You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can’t say it?” Stewart says.

But I most enjoyed this Brian Williams endorsement:

“Jon has chronicled the death of shame in politics and journalism,” says Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor who is a frequent Daily Show guest. “Many of us on this side of the journalism tracks often wish we were on Jon’s side. I envy his platform to shout from the mountaintop. He’s a necessary branch of government.”

Jon Stewart must be cracking up about this because the article quotes Stewart saying, “You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can’t say it?” and because Stewart and Williams love razzing each other. Three or four of Williams' Daily Show appearances are among my favorites because the two men so cleverly and viciously tore into each other.

Posted by James on Sep 17, 2010

Liberals and conservatives

Liberals protest spending taxes to kill people; conservatives protest spending taxes to heal people

Posted by James on Sep 11, 2010

Linda "Greed Is Good" McMahon

Linda McMahon — Connecticut’s shallow, coarse, vain, manipulative, self-centered wanna-buy-myself-a-Senate-seat-to-lower-my-taxes Republican nominee for U.S. Senate — is as unlikable and phony in person as she appears from afar. Why is she running for the U.S. Senate? To help people? No, she wants:

to slash or freeze a slate of corporate taxes, while also abolishing the estate tax and the gift tax and creating a series of new deductions for capital expenditures. Businesses will create jobs, McMahon says, when the government stops taking so much of their money away and wasting it on so-called public investments.

The estate tax — which, before its repeal, did not touch estates worth less than $3,500,000! — is about as good a tax as you can find. If you’ve got to tax someone, taxing rich dead people is a good place to start. Even many billionaires, like Warren Buffett, give their children almost nothing because they believe children who inherit millions are handicapped by their inherited wealth. Pretending that eliminating the estate tax has anything to do with improving America is a shameless lie.

Anyhow, what made the article worth reading skimming was this sad story that illustrates how far America has fallen:

I was discussing the mood in [Connecticut] recently with Tom D’Amore, a former state Republican chairman who has long since bolted the party, when suddenly he told me a story about his father, an Electrolux vacuum salesman who smoked more than a pack a day for most of his life. “One day, it must have been in the 1960s sometime, he just quit,” D’Amore told me. “Cold turkey. I said to him, ‘Dad, why did you suddenly decide to stop smoking?’ And I’ll never forget it. He pointed a finger at me… and he said: ‘The surgeon general of the United States says smoking can kill you. And they wouldn’t lie about a thing like that.’”

“I mean, can you imagine anyone saying that now?” D’Amore asked me. “In that generation, government really displayed by its actions that it was a force for good.” He leaned back in his chair and shook his head.

“Nobody here thinks that way anymore.”

Posted by James on Sep 23, 2010

Money can't buy happiness... unless you earn less than $75,000

I just read a very interesting new study on the relationship between wealth and happiness by two distinguished Princeton professors, economist Angus Deaton and Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman.

In line with current happiness research, they separately investigate the impact of wealth on short-term happiness (which they call “emotional well-being”) and long-term life satisfaction (“life evaluation”). Someone could be very happy with their life overall but miserable today because a close friend was hit by a bus. Conversely, they could be very unhappy about the life they’ve led but overjoyed today because they hit the lottery.

The study’s main conclusion:

Income and education are more closely related to life evaluation, but health, care giving, loneliness, and smoking are relatively stronger predictors of daily emotions. When plotted against log income, life evaluation rises steadily. Emotional well-being also rises with log income, but there is no further progress beyond an annual income of ∼$75,000. Low income exacerbates the emotional pain associated with such misfortunes as divorce, ill health, and being alone. We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being.

Because income — over and above $75,000 — does not affect short-term “emotional well-being,” the correlation of long-term life satisfaction with income is likely due to the power and prestige of jobs that pay very high salaries, not the extra money itself.

So, money can buy happiness… up to about $75,000. Beyond that, as I interpret this finding, money doesn’t make us happier. People who work in jobs that pay extremely well do feel greater satisfaction when they reflect on their lives, but that’s likely because highly remunerative jobs tend to be more fulfilling, empowered, creative, prestigious, etc.

Posted by James on Sep 10, 2010

"Not my problem" big problem for China

A “collective action problem” arises wherever individual self-interest leads people to take actions that leave everybody worse off.

Overfishing to the point that fish stocks collapse is one example. Everyone driving downtown at rush hour is another.

Collective action problems are especially common and severe wherever people are focused on me, me, me and today over tomorrow and government (or management) is too weak to compel socially desirable behavior. One obvious example: Wall Street’s wildly irresponsible behavior following massive financial market deregulation (and the neutering of the SEC) eventually required multi-trillion-dollar bailouts and crashed the U.S. economy.

As a crowded country newly obsessed with getting rich, China’s economy, transportation, environment, and politics all suffer horribly from rampant individualism. Bribery is practically required to accomplish many things. (I read in the book Mr. China that an anti-corruption officer demanded a car and cash before he would investigate charges that a joint venture’s head had disappeared with millions of dollars from the firm’s bank account.)

The L.A. Times offers this shocker:

In Anhui province in eastern China, six environmental inspectors were fired last spring because, as China Central Television reported, they were working too hard: They had the effrontery to check on a tire factory three times in one month. “Doing that to a business really affects our development environment,” a local official explained.

My best personal example comes from my days working at MeetChina a decade ago. We had a horrible problem with bad data, and I was charged with cleaning it up and preventing more bad data from being added. After we cleaned up the bad data, we strengthened the database schema so bad data could no longer be added. To add new data, you now needed to input it properly. We kept in San Francisco one copy of the database, which was used to power our website. In China, our colleagues kept another copy of the database into which they added new data as they collected it. After several weeks, we noticed China had uploaded very little new data. We called to find out what was going on. They eventually told us they were having too many problems adding data to the database (because they were trying to enter improperly formatted data), so they had turned off the database constraints! Our jaws dropped. The whole point of database constraints is to prevent bad data from entering the database. Rather than fix their bad data and enter it properly, they instead turned off the constraints. Now, their database was again full of bad data, which could not be uploaded to the San Francisco database. This occurred because our Chinese colleagues — many of whom were compensated based on how many companies' data they collected rather than whether those companies prospered once in our system — were obsessed with adding data to their database as easily as possible and unconcerned with how that data would be used.

Posted by James on Sep 24, 2010

Oh, Canada!

From “Tightened muzzle on scientists is ‘Orwellian’”:

The Harper government has tightened the muzzle on federal scientists, going so far as to control when and what they can say about floods at the end of the last ice age.

Natural Resources Canada (NRC) scientists were told this spring they need “pre-approval” from Minister Christian Paradis' office to speak with journalists. Their “media lines” also need ministerial approval, say documents obtained by Postmedia News through access-to-information legislation.

The documents say the “new” rules went into force in March and reveal how they apply to not only to contentious issues including the oil sands, but benign subjects such as floods that occurred 13,000 years ago.

They also give a glimpse of how Canadians are being cut off from scientists whose work is financed by taxpayers, critics say, and is often of significant public interest — be it about fish stocks, genetically modified crops or mercury pollution in the Athabasca River.

“It’s Orwellian,” says Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria. The public, he says, has a right to know what federal scientists are discovering and learning.

Posted by James on Sep 14, 2010

Overwhelming force

Military strategists love talking about “asymmetric warfare” and “overwhelming force”.

Even if you believe the official U.S. government story of 9/11 (which I don’t), the American “War on Terror” response to 9/11 has killed so many Iraqis and Afghans that all 9/11 deaths and subsequent U.S. soldier deaths combined look like a rounding error in comparison.

My heart totally goes out to every American who died on 9/11 and to every soldier who has died in Iraq or Afghanistan… and to their devastated families. None of them should have died. Each such death is a tragedy. And soldiers' willingness to place their lives in jeopardy for their nation is most admirable and heroic. My point is, in terms of total deaths, we have inflicted more than 100 deaths on Iraqis and Afghans for every one we lost 9/11 and in Iraq and in Afghanistan!

Even worse, virtually no one we killed had anything to do with 9/11! Even if the U.S. government’s story were true, virtually none of the Iraqis and Afghans we’ve killed had anything to do with 9/11. The Bush Administration even confessed that Saddam Hussein and Iraq — where most of those we killed in the name of fighting “terror” — had NOTHING to do with 9/11.

You can quibble with the body counts. I actually think the evidence suggests far more than 1,000,000 Iraqi civilian casualties. (JustForeignPolicy.org estimates 1,366,000.) But whether we’ve killed 50 foreigners or 100 foreigners or 200 foreigners for every American, Americans have barrels of blood on our collective hands. We’ve killed way too many people, almost none of whom were involved in any attacks on America… at least until after we invaded and occupied their nations.

Posted by James on Sep 13, 2010

Rich Charlie's Almanack: "Suck it in and cope" & "thank God" for bank bailouts

The author of Poor Charlie’s Almanack is more famous for being Warren Buffett’s business partner. Charlie Munger aimed harsh words at Americans suffering unemployment and foreclosure and at everyone complaining about trillions of dollars handed to big, bankrupt banks by the Fed and the Treasury:

Charles Munger, the billionaire vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., defended the U.S. financial-company rescues of 2008 and told students that people in economic distress should “suck it in and cope.”

“You should thank God” for bank bailouts, Munger said in a discussion at the University of Michigan on Sept. 14, according to a video posted on the Internet. “Now, if you talk about bailouts for everybody else, there comes a place where if you just start bailing out all the individuals instead of telling them to adapt, the culture dies.”

Bank rescues allowed the U.S. to avoid what could have been an “awful” downturn and will help the country as it deals with the housing slump, Munger, 86, said…

“Hit the economy with enough misery and enough disruption, destroy the currency, and God knows what happens,” Munger said. “So I think when you have troubles like that you shouldn’t be bitching about a little bailout. You should have been thinking it should have been bigger.”

Munger’s heartlessness and lack of compassion for ordinary Americans isn’t even the biggest problem with his words. Far worse, Munger — a hard-core Republican, not coincidentally — presents a false dichotomy. If the Treasury and Fed hadn’t handed trillions of dollars to Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, and other pigs-at-the-trough megabanks, Munger claims, the economy would have plunged far more than it did, so we didn’t have any choice.

But we had a far superior third alternative. In fact, the third alternative is the way capitalism is SUPPOSED to work. If a bank (like any other business) goes bankrupt — meaning the value of its liabilities exceeds the value of its assets — then the bank is supposed to fail. Failed banks are “restructured”: seized by the government’s banking experts, re-capitalized if necessary, and sold off to new owners (often to a solvent bank). Stock holders of bankrupt banks should be wiped out, and executives who led the banks into bankruptcy should be fired. Failed banks create opportunities for new banks to rise up and compete, and failure acts as a disciplining force that restrains risky behavior.

Failed banks should have been restructured, sold to new owners, and run by new leadership. Instead, government taxpayers gave them trillions of dollars to escape the consequences of their horrible, horrible actions.

Worse still, those banks have hogged the cash we gave them, rather than lend it out to businesses that might have expanded and created new jobs for the tens of millions of unemployed Americans.

The trillions given to bail out failed banks could, and should, have instead gone to new banks and to financially sound banks that managed their depositors' deposits responsibly. New banks unencumbered by bad debts would have far more eagerly lent out that money.

Charlie Munger is dead wrong for many reasons. Were he not Warren Buffett’s business partner, I might forgive him for not considering this third option. But if Munger truly is ignorant of this third option, then he certainly SHOULD have known about it. Many, including Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz and Simon Johnson (the first two of whom won economics Nobel Prizes), argued loudly and persuasively for restructuring failed banks. Even I, with about 1% of Charlie Munger’s knowledge of business, argued for it repeatedly here on my blog 19 months ago. The bailouts were anti-capitalistic, esp. since they were pure gifts to bankrupt firms, with no strings attached.

Munger probably does know what should have happened to failed banks. He’s defending the bailouts because his Berkshire Hathaway profited so handsomely. Berkshire Hathaway is the largest shareholder of Wells Fargo. Berkshire owns more than 6% of Wells Fargo, 4.5% of M&T Bank and 3.6% of U.S. Bancorp. Berkshire also bought $5 billion of Goldman Sachs perpetual preferred shares at the nadir of the financial crisis. Berkshire also received “warrants granting it the right to buy $5 billion of Goldman common stock at $115 a share, which is 8% below [its value at the time]. At Goldman’s roughly $50 billion market value, based on that closing price, exercising those warrants would give Berkshire about a 10% stake in Goldman.”

With so much Berkshire Hathaway money invested in giant banks, it’s hardly surprising to see Warren Buffett defend Goldman Sachs or Charlie Munger defend the bailouts.

But don’t be intellectually dishonest and insult our intelligence (or delusional… if you really do believe bailouts were in Main Street’s best interest). We know your support of big bank bailouts is about maximizing your financial investments, “poor” billionaire Charlie Munger.

Posted by James on Sep 21, 2010

Studying without studying

I’ll occasionally start listening to a Mandarin news broadcast and then start doing something else. When I realize it’s still playing, I often wonder, “Am I learning something from this, even though I’m paying it no attention?” My intuition is that my brain does process some of the “background noise.” This is plausible because MUCH, MUCH more goes on inside our brains than we’re conscious of.

It’s also plausible because those who want to concentrate on a task usually try to minimize background noise. This also suggests our brains are doing something with that “background noise,” even if we’re not consciously paying it any attention.

A new study by scientists at Northwestern claims not only that our brains can learn from “background noise” but that such unconscious learning can — under certain conditions — be as effective as focused, conscious learning!

Wired reports:

listening to relevant background stimulation could be just as effective as slaving away at the task itself, at least when the subjects had practiced first. In fact, the scientists found that we don’t even have to be paying conscious attention to the stimuli – subjects still benefited from the stimulation even when distracted by an entirely unrelated task.

One of the study’s authors, Andrew Sabin, explains, “you do have to do the task, just not for the whole time. The main result is that if you practice for 20 minutes, and then you are passively exposed to stimuli for 20 minutes, you learn as if you have been practicing for 40 minutes. You can cut the effort in half, and still yield the same benefit.”

This suggests listening unconsciously to Mandarin in the background may strengthen my audio comprehension if I listen to something I’m generally able to understand when I pay attention to it. Listening to a Chinese university professor lecture on quantum physics or Chinese medicine wouldn’t benefit me because (s)he would use too many words I don’t already know. But I probably can improve my Chinese by listening to a conversation about business or education or international relations (subjects in which I have already learned many Chinese words), even if I don’t pay attention.

This principle also applies to anyone learning a language. But you must choose your background material to match your knowledge. And it’s presumably most effective if you re-listen to material you have just studied consciously. So, when you stop studying your Spanish lesson and move on to math, replay your Spanish lesson in the background and see how you fare on your next test.

Posted by James on Sep 29, 2010

The media blackout continues

I brought my son to The American Museum of Natural History on Wednesday. We had a nice visit and a pleasant walk through Central Park.

But the most interesting thing that happened was what I heard standing on the platform waiting for our train. A senior structural engineer was talking to some of the construction crew. Initially, I heard bits and pieces of what he said:

  • Many New Yorkers will be sickened by their exposure to asbestos from the Twin Towers
  • Larry Silverstein, who had recently purchased the buildings and got billions in insurance payouts, knew that cleaning up the asbestos inside would have cost at least a billion dollars
  • There’s absolutely no way airplanes brought down those buildings because huge numbers of incredibly strong steel supports came down at, basically, free-fall speed, as if there were no resistance at all. The only way those buildings could have come down as they did was with explosives.
  • The bases of the steel supports were cut clean at an angle, exactly as professional demolition teams dynamite such support columns. The collapse looked like a textbook demolition, and what remained after the collapse looked exactly how those buildings should have looked after being dynamited.

I’ve previously read such comments on various websites, and I find them far more persuasive than the official account. But here I was hearing them out loud in broad daylight from a senior structural engineer chatting with his professional colleagues.

As luck had it, the engineer was standing right next to us after we got off the branch line train and waited for the main line train to Manhattan. We started chatting, and I mentioned the 47-story WTC 7, which had collapsed on its footprint, even though it was not impacted by any plane or significant debris. He named some of the occupants of the building and casually said WTC 7 is where the Twin Towers' attack was coordinated from before they destroyed that building to obliterate the evidence. He also claimed that most large buildings are pre-wired for explosives because they must be prepared to take them down quickly if they start to lean.

I mentioned that I had read that a Bush cousin had been in charge of security for the Twin Tower buildings before 9/11 and that bomb-sniffing dogs had been removed in the days before the attack. He confirmed that and immediately added that he personally knew men who had worked in financial trading in the Twin Towers and that power to the buildings had been cut during that last week or two, something he said NEVER happens to financial trading firms. He also claimed that anyone who is anyone in structural engineering KNEW immediately that the Twin Towers had been taken down with explosives. He added that Russia and China absolutely must know that “we” took down those buildings.

I’m not saying any of this is true. But this experienced structural engineer basically repeated to me the exact story I’ve read online and found far more plausible than the official story. And he says it’s common knowledge in structural engineering circles.

If that’s so, why the heck doesn’t our media at least talk about this? Of course, the answer is obvious. Our media is bought and paid for. Even the good ones, like Rachel Maddow, know that questioning the official account of 9/11 is verboten.

Land of the free, huh?

Posted by James on Sep 02, 2010

Those who can do; those who can't teach (except in Finland, Singapore & S. Korea)

From a NewYork magazine article on the new movie Waiting for “Superman":

Whereas the best public-school systems in the world—Finland, Singapore, South Korea—recruit all of their teachers from the top third or better of their college graduates, in America the majority come from the bottom two-thirds, with just 14 percent of those entering teaching each year in high-needs schools coming from the upper third. And the numbers may be getting worse. According to a recent survey conducted by McKinsey, a meager 9 percent of top-third graduates have any interest in teaching whatsoever….

[McKinsey’s] report makes clear that in the countries with the best schools, teacher quality is a national priority: Educators are paid competitively; education schools are highly selective; jobs are guaranteed for those credentialed; and professional development is ample and subsidized. In America, none of that holds true: Schools of education are largely open admission; credentialed teachers often can’t find jobs; professional development is pitiful; and the pay is lousy and, more important, it is seen as lousy by top-third graduates. “Most of them think they could earn more as a garbage collector than as a teacher,” says Matt Miller, a senior adviser to McKinsey and one of the study’s leaders.

…According to the study, a Rhee-style compensation package—starting salaries of $65,000, top salaries of $150,000—plus funding for teacher training could raise the percentage of top-third grads among new teacher hires in the one-in-six neediest schools from 14 percent to a whopping 68 percent. The cost at current teacher-student ratios: just $30 billion a year, or about 5 percent of total K–12 education spending.

Posted by James on Sep 10, 2010

To save money, don't be cheap

“Twenty rules to live by for cheapskates” offers some good advice, such as “Make one lasagna at home and have it for your sack lunch every day in the week.”

My favorite two are counter-intuitive:

Save money by buying expensive paint. It may sound goofy, but as Tom Kraeutler, WalletPopper and host of the syndicated radio program, The Money Pit Home Improvement Show, insists, “Always buy good quality paint, even if it costs a little more. Cheap paint doesn’t last, and since most of the work is labor, your cost-per-year is a lot less if you buy better paint.”

Save money by spending a little more…. I’ve tried to save a lot of money over the years, and while that mindset is great, it can backfire if you aim too cheap on important purchases. Like the car insurance I bought for cheap back in my ‘20s, car insurance that, when I wound up in a wreck, turned out to be worthless (the office workers or whomever I sent money to, had all left the country, according to someone I spoke with at the attorney general’s office). There are plenty of instances where saving money — like on baby cribs, smoke alarms or sump pumps — can be very costly if something goes wrong. And there have been numerous occasions where I spent cheaply and then, for the life of the product, found myself feeling like I had wasted my money, since I hadn’t been happy with the purchase.

How true! Years ago, I bought a recumbent exercise bike primarily because it was cheap, perhaps $200 or $250. I quickly discovered that it was pretty uncomfortable for my butt and legs, not nearly as comfortable as those I had used at gyms. I’ve used my bike a lot, esp. when the weather has been too hot or too cold to run. But I can’t use my bike for more than 30 or 40 minutes because it hurts my butt and legs, whereas I can ride gym bikes for over an hour without discomfort. Every time I use my cheap bike — and many times I think about using it but lose interest thinking about discomfort — I think, “I should have paid $400 or $500 for a higher quality bike!” I would have used a better bike more and felt better using it, making it well worth paying twice the price.

I’m learning. This week, I bought my son — who just began skating — skates and a hockey helmet. I paid more for a better helmet, partly because my son’s skull is well worth protecting and partly because it was much more adjustable than the cheap models. A helmet that doesn’t fit snugly and comfortably isn’t useful, even at half the price. And a helmet that can’t grow as my son’s skull grows isn’t going to be useful for long.

Posted by James on Sep 10, 2010

Tracking terrorists... er, citizens worried about gas drilling in their towns

This is awful:

According to recently leaked documents, the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security has been tracking anti-gas drilling groups and their meetings — including a public screening of the film “Gasland,” a documentary about the environmental hazards of natural gas drilling.

The office has included the information in its weekly intelligence bulletins sent to law enforcement agencies.

The bulletins are also sent to gas companies drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

It’s bad enough that our tax dollars are being used to spy on Americans engaging in completely protected political activities… and in the “terrorist activity” of watching certain educational movies. But for public servants to take the information they gather about us — using our tax dollars — and turn it over to the very same private companies we’re worried about… that’s a severe breach of the public trust.

Posted by James on Sep 16, 2010

Traffic light cameras, please

After New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s car was smashed by a van running a red light at high enough speed that it went airborne during the collision (and injuring the driver’s father so severely he may die), Massachusetts is abuzz about cars driving through red lights.

In line with my perceptions, data suggest our collective driving habits are getting worse:

In southeastern Massachusetts, the number of crashes caused by a driver running a red light has more than doubled in an alarmingly short time. …nearly 1,300 such collisions occurred from 2006 to 2008. During the three-year period ending in 2004, the number barely topped 600.

People, on the whole, just seem ruder, more hurried, and more distracted by non-driving tasks.

While I wish we could do more about speeding, illegal parking, people swinging their car doors into other cars, cutting other people off, etc., there is one danger that is both especially dangerous and especially easy to detect and punish: red light running.

The unusual thing about Tom Brady’s crash is that someone in the car running the red light was severely injured while the occupant of the innocent car was unharmed, partly because Brady was wearing his seatbelt and partly because Brady’s car was hit at a lucky angle. Far too often, the innocent car with the green light is struck broadside by the lawbreaker accelerating through a red light, causing the offending car’s engine to drive right through the driver’s door, crushing the innocent driver.

I don’t like Big Brother, but the deaths of so many innocents means it’s absolutely time for camera-equipped traffic lights that issue tickets to drivers running red lights:

According to the Insurance Institute, red-light runners caught on camera are more than three times as likely to have multiple speeding convictions than drivers who had the chance to run a red but chose not to. So the well-meaning “dilemma-zone” driver has little to fear from a red-light camera.

Cameras target only the most blatant commission of a common traffic violation that can have deadly consequences, not just for the violator but for innocent drivers in other vehicles.

Drivers who repeatedly run red lights should lose their licenses for a while. Those who continue offending after re-earning their licenses should be banned from driving.

Posted by James on Sep 15, 2010

Why are public schools lousy, universities so expensive, and ed debt non-dischargeable?

NakedCapitalism.com’s Yves Smith asks “Why is There No Political Outlet for Anger on the Left These Days?” and suggests partly it’s because “young people in America are worried about survival (aka getting a job) and up to their eyeballs in school debt, which they can’t discharge even in bankruptcy. School loans in particular seem an almost Machiavellian device for forcing students into bourgeois conformity.”

Moments earlier, I was reminded of another educational conspiracy theory, George Carlin’s rant on American education in which he explained:

There’s a reason education sucks and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you got. Because the owners of this country don’t want that.

I’m talking about the real owners now. The big, wealthy…The real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians, they’re an irrelevancy. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything….

I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking.

They’re not interested in that! That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. That’s right! You know something? They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. They don’t want that! You know what they want? They want Obedient Workers – Obedient Workers. People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. And, now, they’re coming for your Social Security money. They want your fucking retirement money. They want it back, so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street. And you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all from you, sooner or later, because they own this fucking place. It’s a big club – and you ain’t in it!

If the Tea Partiers were smart enough listen to George Carlin, Bill Hicks and America’s other brilliant political comedian-philosophers, they could redirect their misguided rage at the sources of our nation’s troubles and shake things up for the better, rather than serve as tools of the powerful people and corporations who benefit from their ignorance. (I’m using “who” rather than “that” because our Supreme Court says corporations are people — when it comes to “free speech” and unlimited political spending, though not when it comes to criminal liability for illegal behavior, of course!)

As Yves Smith suggests, liberal anger apparently can’t effect any change in this country. Instead, our “Democratic” president lectures us angry liberals for not being team players, even though we’re legitimately angry because our coach is always playing for a draw and never letting us win a game.

Posted by James on Sep 29, 2010