October 2010 Archives

83 mil. Germans compete with 1.4 bil. Chinese. Why can't 300 mil. Americans?

Quick: What country is the world’s #1 exporter?

Yes, it’s China. But only by a whisker over Germany. And from 2003 through 2008, the correct answer was Germany!

In “Why Germany Has It So Good — and Why America Is Going Down the Drain”, Terrence McNally engages lawyer Thomas Geoghegan — a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School and author of Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? — in an excellent discussion. Geoghegan says Americans are dismissive of European socialism but that it works, and holds up as Exhibit A 83 million Germans' ability to compete with 1.4 billion Chinese:

“Since 2003, it’s not China but Germany, that colossus of European socialism, that has either led the world in export sales or at least been tied for first. Even as we in the United States fall more deeply into the clutches of our foreign creditors — China foremost among them — Germany has somehow managed to create a high-wage, unionized economy without shipping all its jobs abroad or creating a massive trade deficit, or any trade deficit at all. And even as the Germans outsell the United States, they manage to take six weeks of vacation every year. They’re beating us with one hand tied behind their back.”

Geoghegan says America hollowed itself out by outsourcing most everything except marketing while Germany focused on producing high-quality manufactured goods that people around the world — even in China — are willing to pay extra for.

My favorite portion of the interview was the two men taking turns bashing America’s insane worship of GNP:

McNally: Let’s make a quick comparison of GDP. The problem with GDP is that it has only an addition side, it doesn’t have a subtraction side. So an auto accident increases GDP; crime increases GDP.

Geoghegan: Waste and fraud and gambling; Katrina increases GDP; urban sprawl especially increases GDP. Hours stuck in traffic increase GDP.

McNally: plus the fact that we’ve monetized so many things that we used to do for ourselves or for our families

Geoghegan: You’re shelling out $50,000 in tuition for NYU law school and your counterpart in Europe is getting it for free. How pathetic for the poor European adding nothing to GDP. In America we’re increasing GDP, but dragging down people’s standard of living.

It’s a very perverse system of accounting. You say it’s all addition and no subtraction, but it’s not even all addition. Nothing increases your well-being or your material standard of living as much as leisure time. Among the untouchables in India, of course, that’s absolutely not the case; leisure is a nightmare, unemployment is a nightmare. But for many, a loss of leisure is a loss of material value.

For example, leisure to go to a free concert at Millennium Park in Chicago. It’s a glorious experience. People in Europe are gaga about it, because it’s the one thing in America that seems to them the most European — wonderful orchestras, pop bands, jazz bands, playing right in the middle of the city; gorgeous lawns; people picnicking, etc. — and it’s all free. It’s so un-American, there’s no money going out the door. It makes a mark on your life but you can’t turn it into a sum of dollars, so it doesn’t mean anything — even though of course it means everything.

Posted by James on Oct 14, 2010

Al Franken extends Obama's car metaphor

Obama is being blamed for George Bush’s economy, as Al Franken humorously explains:

When the president took office not only had the car gone into a ditch but the car had flipped over and was rolling down a steep embankment. We, the American people, were in the back seat and the Bush administration had removed all the seat belts. So we were all flying around the interior of this car, as it was rolling and flipping and careening down this steep embankment heading to …a 2,000-foot cliff. And at the bottom of that cliff were jagged rocks and alligators.

Now at noon on January 20th, 2009 as the car was careening toward the cliff, George W. Bush jumped out of the car. President Bush jumped out of the car and President Obama somehow managed to dive in through the window, take the wheel, get control of the vehicle, just inches before it went over the precipice. And he and Congress starting inching this wrecked (car) back up the embankment.

Now, you can’t push a car up an embankment as fast as it careens down an embankment. But we got it going in the right direction and slowly we’ve gotten ourselves up that embankment, pas[t] the ditch, up on the shoulder of the road.

Don’t agree with the analogy? Former President George W. Bush apparently does:

When a member of the audience asked why he had signed off on the bailout of major financial institutions, Bush said he took that action after his economic advisors, Henry Paulson, the former treasury secretary, and Ben Bernanke, the current head of the Federal Reserve, urged him to do so.

“I did not want to be a president overseeing a depression greater than the Great Depression,” Bush said.

I’m disgusted by the trillions of dollars the Federal Reserve and the Obama Administration gave to big banks and the minimal help they gave to states, towns and ordinary Americans. But blaming Obama for our burst-bubble economy is stupid. Things would possibly be better if they had allowed some big banks to fail. But it’s not Obama’s problem that the banks and real estate — two giant economic motors — were broken when he took office.

Posted by James on Oct 25, 2010

Astonishingly good -- and frightening -- article exposes the Tea Party mindset

Journalists should acquire information, analyze it, and present it honestly. Instead, many “journalists” do little research, get most of their “facts” by recycling what other journalists and media talking heads have said, and force facts to fit a false apolitical balance by striving for “neutrality,” i.e., presenting left- and right-wing arguments as equally valid, regardless of the facts. Many “journalists” today are even worse… they don’t even analyze the substance of politics, instead focusing almost exclusively on the horse race and the latest political poll.

Matt Taibbi, America’s most entertaining political writer, has been studying the Tea Party movement in person for almost a year. He uses his painfully gained knowledge to eviscerate the entire movement — leaders and supporters — in this outstanding article.

Taibbi begins by exposing a core Tea Party hypocrisy: That the free Medicare scooter crowd is outraged by wasteful government spending:

Scanning the thousands of hopped-up faces in the [Sarah Palin rally] crowd, I am immediately struck by two things. One is that there isn’t a single black person here. The other is the truly awesome quantity of medical hardware: Seemingly every third person in the place is sucking oxygen from a tank or propping their giant atrophied glutes on motorized wheelchair-scooters. As Palin launches into her Ronald Reagan impression — “Government’s not the solution! Government’s the problem!” — the person sitting next to me leans over and explains.

“The scooters are because of Medicare,” he whispers helpfully. “They have these commercials down here: ‘You won’t even have to pay for your scooter! Medicare will pay!’ Practically everyone in Kentucky has one.”

A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can’t imagine it.

Taibbi chats with a couple at the rally — Janice and David Wheelock — who don’t back down when Taibbi points out their hypocrisy:

“I’m anti-spending and anti-government,” crows David, as scooter-bound Janice looks on. “The welfare state is out of control.”

…“Are either of you on Medicare?”

Silence: Then Janice, a nice enough woman, it seems, slowly raises her hand, offering a faint smile, as if to say, You got me!

“Let me get this straight,” I say to David. “You’ve been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?”

“Well,” he says, “there’s a lot of people on welfare who don’t deserve it. Too many people are living off the government.”

“But,” I protest, “you live off the government. And have been your whole life!”

“Yeah,” he says, “but I don’t make very much.”

So, their real anger is at being lower middle class. Without the government, they’d probably be lower class or homeless. Yet their anger is directed at government taxes, which they probably don’t even pay (aside from David’s Social Security payments)!

Taibbi concludes:

after lengthy study of the phenomenon, I’ve concluded that the whole miserable narrative boils down to one stark fact: They’re full of shit. All of them. At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending — only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry’s medals and Barack Obama’s Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them.

The rest of the article talks about the hypocrisy of the Tea Party candidates and the eagerness with which Tea Party members ignore their candidates' blatant violations of core Tea Party values.

Taibbi also predicts the future of the Tea Party movement:

what [Tea Partiers] don’t realize is, there’s a catch: This is America, and we have an entrenched oligarchical system in place that insulates us all from any meaningful political change. The Tea Party today is being pitched in the media as this great threat to the GOP; in reality, the Tea Party is the GOP. What few elements of the movement aren’t yet under the control of the Republican Party soon will be, and even if a few genuine Tea Party candidates sneak through, it’s only a matter of time before the uprising as a whole gets castrated, just like every grass-roots movement does in this country. Its leaders will be bought off and sucked into the two-party bureaucracy, where its platform will be whittled down until the only things left are those that the GOP’s campaign contributors want anyway: top-bracket tax breaks, free trade and financial deregulation.

The rest of it — the sweeping cuts to federal spending, the clampdown on bailouts, the rollback of Roe v. Wade — will die on the vine as one Tea Party leader after another gets seduced by the Republican Party and retrained for the revolutionary cause of voting down taxes for Goldman Sachs executives.

Taibbi also offers this delicious definition of “the Tea Party”:

So how does a group of billionaire businessmen and corporations get a bunch of broke Middle American white people to lobby for lower taxes for the rich and deregulation of Wall Street? That turns out to be easy. Beneath the surface, the Tea Party is little more than a weird and disorderly mob… which makes them easy prey for the very people they should be aiming their pitchforks at. A loose definition of the Tea Party might be millions of pissed-off white people sent chasing after Mexicans on Medicaid by the handful of banks and investment firms who advertise on Fox and CNBC.

The brave Taibbi even visted “one of the world’s most extraordinary tourist attractions: the Creation Museum, a kind of natural-history museum for people who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old.” I’ll let you read for yourself what he discovered and why I’ll never, ever live in Kentucky.

Posted by James on Oct 04, 2010

A super-easy way to improve American schools and teacher performance

Pro football players improve by studying film of top players at their position.

CEOs improve by observing and sharing ideas with other CEOs.

Programmers improve through “code reviews” with other programmers and through “pair programming,” in which two programmers write code collaboratively.

Furthermore, the best people in every field frequently reflect on their performance, eagerly seeking flaws they can remedy to become even better. For example, the New England Patriots use their off (“bye”) week each season to scout themselves. They watch themselves on film to identify tendencies and flaws they would exploit if they played themselves.

One obvious way to improve American education — at very little cost — is to encourage, enable and require teachers to watch one another and themselves teaching. Teachers should sit in on one another’s classes, provide positive and negative feedback to teachers whose classes they observe, and extract useful ideas they can apply in their own teaching. And classes should occasionally be recorded and evaluated, by the class teacher and other teachers. The sharing of ideas, self-observation and self-reflection would greatly improve many teachers' teaching.

Chattanooga’s Benwood Initiative is living proof. Before the initiative, city student performance seriously lagged suburban student performance. Six years into the initiative, city students are learning at a faster pace than suburban students. Students are learning more, and teachers are thrilled:

Chattanooga’s Benwood Foundation… realized there were a lot of ineffective teachers in failing schools. But they also discovered there were really great teachers there too. Why not figure out a way for the less effective teachers to learn from the superstars?

So the school district set up a mentoring system. One distinctive feature of the system is that teachers spend time in their colleagues' classrooms, watching each other teach. “What we believe is you have to recognize where greatness is and help other teachers see and learn from great teaching,” says Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga…

“As a teacher you don’t really know — what’s good teaching?” says Maggie Thomas, a former teacher who is now involved with efforts to improve teaching in Washington, D.C., public schools. Thomas travels from school to school, observing teachers as part of the District of Columbia’s new teacher evaluation system. “I came to this job with a certain set of teaching practices in my repertoire,” Thomas says. But after watching 200 other teachers, she’s learned all kinds of new techniques and approaches. She says this is what teachers need — a chance to see great teachers in action….

“Of all of my years of teaching, these last eight to 10 years I probably have done a better job than I’ve ever done before,” says Linda Land, a Chattanooga teacher with 37 years of experience. Everyone used to close their doors and do their own thing. Now they work together on everything: They plan lessons, trade advice and give each other feedback. Land says the school is a more open and collaborative place. And it’s more fun to come to work.

Posted by James on Oct 21, 2010

Big banks intentionally hired idiots to illegally foreclose on homes

The rot in this once-great nation is everywhere:

to rush through thousands of home foreclosures since 2007, financial institutions and their mortgage servicing departments hired hair stylists, Walmart floor workers and people who had worked on assembly lines and installed them in “foreclosure expert” jobs with no formal training, a Florida lawyer says.

In depositions released Tuesday, many of those workers testified that they barely knew what a mortgage was. Some couldn’t define the word “affidavit.” Others didn’t know what a complaint was, or even what was meant by personal property. Most troubling, several said they knew they were lying when they signed the foreclosure affidavits and that they agreed with the defense lawyers' accusations about document fraud.

“The mortgage servicers hired people who would never question authority,” said Peter Ticktin, a Deerfield Beach, Fla., lawyer who is defending 3,000 homeowners in foreclosure cases. As part of his work, Ticktin gathered 150 depositions from bank employees who say they signed foreclosure affidavits without reviewing the documents or ever laying eyes on them — earning them the name “robo-signers.”

The deposed employees worked for the mortgage service divisions of banks such as Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, as well as for mortgage servicers like Litton Loan Servicing, a division of Goldman Sachs.

Why did mega-banks hire incompetents and fail to train them? To illegally foreclose on homes they had no right to foreclose on because they and their trading partners had previously failed to properly complete mortgage transactions. A real foreclosure expert would not have allowed many of these fraudulent foreclosures.

Posted by James on Oct 14, 2010

Bloomberg declares war on soda

From The New York Times:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg sought federal permission on Wednesday to bar New York City’s 1.7 million recipients of food stamps from using them to buy soda or other sugared drinks….

Mr. Bloomberg and his health commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, said the ban would help curb the city’s obesity epidemic, which they contend has been fueled by rising soda consumption over the past 30 years.

City statistics released last month showed that nearly 40 percent of public-school children in kindergarten through eighth grade were overweight or obese, and that obesity rates were substantially higher in poor neighborhoods. City studies show that consumption of sugared beverages is consistently higher in those neighborhoods.

I despise soda. We don’t buy it or drink it in our family. Anything that helps Americans — especially our kids — drink less soda is a good idea.

A heavy “sin tax” on soda — like the taxes we charge to discourage alcohol and cigarette purchases — is a better idea.

But the poor would benefit greatly if buying soda were less convenient. It would send a strong message that soda is bad for you and your kids. A heavy tax would send this message to all Americans. But the poor consume much more soda and suffer far more bad health effects from it. So, barring them from buying soda with food stamps is beneficial, not a punishment.

Besides, why should federal tax dollars, a.k.a. food stamps, be subsidizing a soda-and-junk-food industry that is making so many Americans sick (or dead), costing billions of dollars in sick leave, and costing perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars in medical expenses for diseases such as diabetes?

Soda should be taxed heavily, and the money raised should be poured into Medicare and Medicaid because soda consumption is a significant factor in America’s skyrocketing healthcare spending.

Posted by James on Oct 07, 2010

Bush Administration war crimes: More evidence

From Truth-Out.org:

In 2002, as the Bush administration was turning to torture and other brutal techniques for interrogating “war on terror” detainees, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz loosened rules against human experimentation, an apparent recognition of legal problems regarding the novel strategies for extracting and evaluating information from the prisoners.

Wolfowitz issued a little-known directive on March 25, 2002, about a month after President George W. Bush stripped the detainees of traditional prisoner-of-war protections under the Geneva Conventions. Bush labeled them “unlawful enemy combatants” and authorized the CIA and the Department of Defense (DoD) to undertake brutal interrogations.

Despite its title – “Protection of Human Subjects and Adherence to Ethical Standards in DoD-Supported Research” – the Wolfowitz directive weakened protections that had been in place for decades by limiting the safeguards to “prisoners of war.”

…It has been known since 2009, when President Barack Obama declassified some of the Bush administration’s legal memoranda regarding the interrogation program, that there were experimental elements to the brutal treatment of detainees, including the sequencing and duration of the torture and other harsh tactics.

However, the Wolfowitz directive also suggests that the Bush administration was concerned about whether its actions might violate Geneva Conventions rules that were put in place after World War II when grisly Nazi human experimentation was discovered. Those legal restrictions were expanded in the 1970s after revelations about the CIA testing drugs on unsuspecting human subjects and conducting other mind-control experiments.

Andy Worthington writes:

[Torture] is not only illegal, morally corrosive, counterproductive and unnecessary, but also… at its heart, the Bush-era torture program continued work in the field of human experimentation that the US took over from the Nazis, and also involved treasonous lies on the part of senior officials, who pretended that the program was designed to prevent future terrorist attacks, when, from the very beginning (in late November 2001, according to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff), it was actually being used to extract false confessions about connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that could be used in an attempt to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Posted by James on Oct 25, 2010

For healthy life, walk, walk, walk!

I just emailed this to my parents:

PLEASE walk daily. Go with the dogs. Go with the neighbors. Go with the grandkids. Go by yourself/selves. But get out there every day, please!

Jane Brody writes:

Lifestyle choices made in midlife can have a major impact on your functional ability late in life, [Dr. Mark Lachs, director of geriatrics at the NewYork-Presbyterian Healthcare System] emphasized. If you begin a daily walking program at age 45, he said, you could delay immobility to 90 and beyond. If you become a couch potato at 45 and remain so, immobility can encroach as early as 60.

“It’s not like we’re prescribing chemotherapy — it’s walking,” Dr. Lachs said. “Even the smallest interventions can produce substantial benefits” and “significantly delay your date with disability.”

“It’s never too late for a course correction,” he said.

Posted by James on Oct 27, 2010

Fraud, fraud, fraud... Students should be studying and debating morality

Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Sunbeam, Global Crossing, Xerox, Bernie Madoff, AIG, Lehman Brothers… We’ve uncovered a LOT of accounting fraud among major U.S. corporations this past decade.

But, as bad as things are here, things are apparently ten times worse in China, where hucksters — some even willing to kill infants with fake baby formula for a quick buck — abound. (My in-laws frequently watch Chinese TV health shows, some of which strike me as quackery.)

The New York Times reports many examples of academic fraud. It’s not just the students. It’s the professors too. And it’s not just a handful of anecdotes. It’s systemic and cultural. Some excerpts:

“If we don’t change our ways, we will be excluded from the global academic community,” said Zhang Ming, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “We need to focus on seeking truth, not serving the agenda of some bureaucrat or satisfying the desire for personal profit.”

Last month a collection of scientific journals published by Zhejiang University in Hangzhou reignited the firestorm by publicizing results from a 20-month experiment with software that detects plagiarism. The software, called CrossCheck, rejected nearly a third of all submissions on suspicion that the content was pirated from previously published research. In some cases, more than 80 percent of a paper’s content was deemed unoriginal.

A recent government study [shows] a third of the 6,000 scientists at six of the nation’s top institutions admitted they had engaged in plagiarism or the outright fabrication of research data. In another study of 32,000 scientists last summer by the China Association for Science and Technology, more than 55 percent said they knew someone guilty of academic fraud.

In July, Centenary College, a New Jersey institution with satellite branches in China and Taiwan, shuttered its business schools in Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei after finding rampant cheating among students. Although school administrators declined to discuss the nature of the misconduct, it was serious enough to withhold degrees from each of the programs’ 400 students. Given a chance to receive their M.B.A.’s by taking another exam, all but two declined, school officials said.

Arthur Lu, an engineering student who last spring graduated from Tsinghua University, considered a plum of the country’s college system, said it was common for students to swap test answers or plagiarize essays from one another. “Perhaps it’s a cultural difference but there is nothing bad or embarrassing about it,” said Mr. Lu, who started this semester on a master’s degree at Stanford University. “It’s not that students can’t do the work. They just see it as a way of saving time.”

We need to teach let students learn ethics and philosophy in schools. It shouldn’t be preachy. Teachers shouldn’t pretend to have all the answers or even advocate for any specific moral position. Kids should be introduced to the ideas of various great thinkers, like John Rawls, and then encouraged to debate morality in the context of hypothetical moral dilemmas and actual moral dilemmas they encounter in their lives and classroom. While grappling with various moral arguments and discussing them with their classmates, kids will come up with pretty good answers on their own… answers that will help guide them through life. The very process of thinking about what’s right and what’s wrong also fosters metacognition, a skill of great value.

I’m even more concerned about my kids growing up to be good, decent, caring, contributing members of society than about their academic achievement. It scares me that — no matter how caring and thoughtful my kids grow up to be — they and I live in a selfish, fraud-filled world. Morality is a legitimate academic subject.

If all students were given regular opportunities to wrestle with moral arguments in school, people would make better individual decisions in their lives, and the world would be a better place.

Posted by James on Oct 08, 2010

Have we sunk to "If you're not cheating, you're not trying"?

I’m sick of humanity’s cheating and lying! Why are so many human beings so willing to cheat to win, to get rich, to get whatever prize or possession they lust after?

Life is a journey, not a destination. What matters is not winning but striving. And you can be genuinely proud of yourself only if you strive fairly and honestly.

Yet, entire fields of human endeavor are apparently 100% tainted by cheating. The latest example: cycling:

Bernhard Kohl, the Austrian rider who was stripped of his third-place finish at the 2008 Tour [de France] for doping, said Monday that he was not surprised a top cyclist had tested positive for more than one banned thing.

“It’s impossible to win the Tour de France without doping,” said Kohl, who was in Leesburg, Va., to speak at the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s science conference. “You can tell by looking at the speed of the race. Every year it has been about 40 kilometers per hour. It’s the same the year I raced, the year Floyd Landis won, this year. It shows riders are still doping.”

Kohl, who said he retired from the sport to avoid having to think about doping every day, has no specific knowledge of Contador’s case but said most of the top riders rely on transfusions of their own blood and of designer, undetectable drugs like different types of the blood-booster EPO.

“I was tested 200 times during my career, and 100 times I had drugs in my body,” he said. “I was caught, but 99 other times, I wasn’t. Riders think they can get away with doping because most of the time they do. Even if there is a new test for blood doping, I’m not even sure it will scare riders into stopping. The problem is just that bad.”

Posted by James on Oct 05, 2010

Industrial chemical hospitalizes many iPhone makers for many months

In China, people are being sickened by chemicals, both when manufacturing high-tech devices and when tearing apart and recycling outdated tech devices:

In a small factory space workers apply a solvent to a well known computer logo before affixing them to laptops. They suffer chronic illness and end up in hospital with an uncertain future. Elsewhere we find workers from another much bigger factory convalescing from their protracted exposure to the same solvent used in their stage of the manufacturing process – cleaning the touch-screens of new generation devices. Some of these workers have been in hospital many months as their central nervous systems slowly repaired as best they could.

“I am back at work but my symptoms are still with me. My legs still hurt. This will accompany me for the rest of my life. It’s very painful.” COMPUTER ASSEMBLY WORKER

…This hospital in Suzhou has been treating more than a hundred workers who breathed in the vapours of a dangerous chemical. It was being used in the production of computers and in particular they say Apple products. We snuck into visit some of the workers who are still being treated. They didn’t want to show their faces.

WOMAN #1: I’ve been hospitalised for more than six months. I think as I’m getting better I’ll probably be able to leave hospital at the end of this year.

WOMAN #2: At first the symptoms were pretty obvious. My hands were numb. I could hardly walk or run.

MCDONELL: These young women use to finish off laptop computers by gluing on, measuring and then polishing Apple logos. For this they used a chemical used N-Hexane. One of the women has kept some of the logos they used to show that their work was connected to Apple products.

WOMAN #3: I think they knew it was poisonous to humans but if they used another chemical our output would not have been increased. Using N-Hexane was much more efficient.

MCDONELL: The workers have recovered considerably in recent months. They met us outside the hospital and showed us what it was like when they couldn’t walk properly. Doctors say that prolonged exposure to N-Hexane can harm the nervous system, lead to muscle damage and even cause paralysis.

WOMAN #2: The workspace was very small with no air circulation equipment.

MCDONELL: …Hu Zhiyong, Jia Jingchuan and more than 100 of their workmates also became sick after breathing in the vapours from the chemical N-Hexane. They, and 60 of their colleagues, were hospitalised for more than nine months.

As bad as this sounds, many times more Chinese workers are sickened while ripping apart dead machines, lighting the components on fire, and then smelling them to determine which recycling pile they belong in!

Posted by James on Oct 30, 2010

Inside the mind of Steve Jobs

I loved this interview with former Apple CEO John Sculley for its many insights into Steve Jobs.

Posted by James on Oct 20, 2010

iPad: Great... and lousy

After a teacher at our son’s school touted an iPad program for tracing letters — “Intro to Letters” by Montessorium — my wife decided it was time to buy an iPad. We envisioned our son learning Chinese characters with some of the apps, drawing pictures with his fingers (rather than the mouse, as he has on my computer), learning math, etc. And we envisioned ourselves watching educational videos while relaxing on the sofa, while exercising at the YMCA, etc.

Several weeks later, all these things have happened, much as we anticipated. It has become a very useful tool. Perhaps most usefully, my wife has been able to watch some great Stanford university lectures on machine learning at the gym and will likely start watching them on her train rides to/from Manhattan next week.

And we’ve found some unexpected uses. Whenever our 1-½-year-old daughter sees me sitting at mommy’s computer, she begs me to watch videos of babies on Youtube. But mommy’s old computer is ridiculously slow. And both our kids end up sitting on my lap waiting and waiting for videos to play. No longer. We can now effortlessly and comfortably watch babies or baby pandas or baby elephants or trains. And the kids enjoy putting their finger on the iPad to choose the next video.

Real estate apps — like Trulia and Zillow — are fabulous on the iPad. And I enjoy some apps I’m using to read Chinese news (The Financial Times, The People’s Daily, etc.) and watch Chinese TV news (CCTV). I can just carry the device as I roam around the house. And as I wade through the apps, I keep discovering interesting new stuff, like talking children’s books in English and Chinese, some of which also highlight the words as they’re read and read them when you point at them.

But the iPad has a dark side. It’s incredibly, annoyingly difficult to transfer data to the device. Want to download a PDF from the Internet to view later? Too bad. Want to download a video from the Internet to watch later? Too bad. Want to download free (and legal) books from Gutenberg.net to read on your iPad? You can’t download files and save them to your iPad.

If you have iTunes on a desktop, you can put data onto your device through iTunes. But that data goes only where Apple wants it to go.

And if your Apple computer is running too old a version of MacOS — as my wife’s does — you can’t use iTunes to sync with an iPad. And if your computer runs — as mine does — Linux (Ubuntu), you can’t use iTunes at all. I have a ton of photos I’d love to copy over to our iPad, but I haven’t found a way to do so that doesn’t involve copying them all to my in-laws' Windows computer (the only computer in our house that can sync to our iPad), then loading them into iTunes and then syncing them. The same is true of videos. I’ve got many programming-related videos on my laptop that I’d love to watch on the iPad. But copying them over via iTunes on another computer would take forever. My laptop can see the iPad’s hard drive and copy files over to directories, but doing so accomplishes nothing, apparently because the files are useless unless registered with apps via iTunes.

Virtually everything happens through an app. And apps aren’t easy to search through. I’d like to see, for example, just the free apps. But that’s not possible. I’d like to see just the book apps written in Chinese, but you can’t do that either. I apparently must page through all 180 pages of book apps to determine which of the 8,054 book apps interest me. (I’m also unsure whether it’s even possible to enter Chinese characters on the iPad. If not, how can I search for Chinese content?)

Interestingly, China’s Communist Party newspaper, The People’s Daily, recently ran a negative review of the iPad. According to The Christian Science Monitor, The People’s Daily complained the iPad is too locked down:

“There are many disadvantages” to the gadgets, it wrote. “For example you cannot install pirate software on them, you cannot download [free] music, and you need to pay for movies you watch on them.”

OK. The Chinese government complaining that the iPad makes it hard to steal software, music and movies is pretty revealing/embarrassing. But China has a real point. It’s really hard to download content to the iPad or transfer content you own — or even free music and videos — to the iPad, esp. if you’re running Linux.

The iPad seems like the ultimate device for viewing family photos and videos, but I can’t get our thousands of photos and videos onto the device.

Posted by James on Oct 24, 2010

Learning about learning from a learning computer

Computer scientists are enabling computers to learn about the real world by reading and parsing massive quantities of text. This article discusses some cutting-edge research.

What I find interesting is the critical importance of human intervention to correct mistaken inferences:

For the first six months, NELL ran unassisted. But the research team noticed that while it did well with most categories and relations, its accuracy on about one-fourth of them trailed well behind. Starting in June, the researchers began scanning each category and relation for about five minutes every two weeks. When they find blatant errors, they label and correct them, putting NELL’s learning engine back on track.

When Dr. Mitchell scanned the “baked goods” category recently, he noticed a clear pattern. NELL was at first quite accurate, easily identifying all kinds of pies, breads, cakes and cookies as baked goods. But things went awry after NELL’s noun-phrase classifier decided “Internet cookies” was a baked good. (Its database related to baked goods or the Internet apparently lacked the knowledge to correct the mistake.)

NELL had read the sentence “I deleted my Internet cookies.” So when it read “I deleted my files,” it decided “files” was probably a baked good, too. “It started this whole avalanche of mistakes,” Dr. Mitchell said. He corrected the Internet cookies error and restarted NELL’s bakery education.

His ideal, Dr. Mitchell said, was a computer system that could learn continuously with no need for human assistance. “We’re not there yet,” he said. “But you and I don’t learn in isolation either.”

The longer such errors go uncorrected, the worse the computer performs because one mistaken inference cascades into more and more mistaken inferences. Untangling those mistaken inferences requires time and consumes valuable processing cycles that would otherwise be used to learn new things.

The implication for learning is obvious: Consuming information is not sufficient because we inevitably draw mistaken inferences from that information. The earlier we can catch and correct an individual’s mistaken beliefs, the more rapidly that individual — human or computer — will learn. Educators and parents should strive to shorten the gap between the development of false beliefs and the correction of those false beliefs. This requires active listening and observation to quickly detect and correct mistakes.

Posted by James on Oct 05, 2010

McDonalds' outrageous "food"

After 180 days, a McDonald’s Happy Meal burger and fries look almost exactly as they did when “fresh”!

If microscopic bugs refuse to eat something, you should too.

I’m very glad I’ve almost completely avoided beef over the two decades since I ate many of those burgers while doing a master’s degree in London. (British food — steak and kidney pie, anyone? — makes even McDonald’s look appetizing!)

Posted by James on Oct 13, 2010

McDonald's outrageous "health care plan"

What a sham!:

McDonald’s lowest-level policy costs employees about $700 a year, but if illness or accident strikes, workers get only $2,000 of coverage and then have to pay out of pocket, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal. (Workers at McDonald’s corporate offices have no limits on health-care benefits, according to the company’s Web site. The company declined a request for interview, but said in an earlier statement that the plans are of “highest quality”.)

To some, the plan falls short. “The principal purpose of health insurance is to prevent serious illness or injury from causing financial ruination,” says Henry Aaron, a health-care expert at the Brookings Institution. ”The only way a trip to the hospital is costing you $2,000 is if there is a clerical error.” Call these limited-benefit plans McHealthcare.

I knew McDonald’s is making its customers sick. I didn’t realize the mega-corp was only pretending to care about its (rank-and-file) employees' health.

Posted by James on Oct 13, 2010

No more electronic voting!!!

I’ve been screaming about this for many years, and I won’t stop until we return to paper ballots.

Electronic voting is inherently insecure.

Whether these claims are true or not, the fact that they COULD be true is unacceptable.

Some voters in Boulder City complained on Monday that their ballot had been cast before they went to the polls, raising questions about Clark County’s electronic voting machines.

Voter Joyce Ferrara said when they went to vote for Republican Sharron Angle, her Democratic opponent, Sen. Harry Reid’s name was already checked.

Ferrara said she wasn’t alone in her voting experience. She said her husband and several others voting at the same time all had the same thing happen.

“Something’s not right,” Ferrara said. “One person that’s a fluke. Two, that’s strange. But several within a five minute period of time — that’s wrong.”

Far worse, any reasonably intelligent computer hacker would not display a vote for Candidate X if the voter selects Candidate Y. That’s too obvious. Instead, a hacker with half a brain would make it APPEAR as a vote for Candidate Y but internally register it as a vote — or three votes — for Candidate X. The voter would believe he/she had voted for Candidate Y when their vote was really given to Candidate X.

Electronic voting is hackable, has been hacked repeatedly to steal elections, and will be hacked many more times to steal future elections… until we return to paper ballots.

Posted by James on Oct 26, 2010

No one knows who owns trillions of dollars of mortgages

If I’m reading this correctly, smart, informed people believe:

1) Trillions of dollars of U.S. mortgages are not owned by the parties who believe they own them because the necessary paperwork to transfer ownership was never completed.

2) In many cases, the parties that actually own the mortgages are now defunct!

3) The massive mortgage industry fraud that has recently come to public attention is likely an attempt by parties — who believed they owned mortgage debt but recently realized the paperwork was never completed — to fake the documentation to make it appear it was completed.

This could become the mother of all legal morasses, unless the U.S. government steps in and overrules contract law history by declaring that ownership was transferred even though necessary paperwork was never completed.

Posted by James on Oct 13, 2010

Our banks knowingly sold crap to customers while appearing to endorse its quality

This illustrates our big banks' immorality:

Clayton Holdings, a company which was hired by various investment banks — Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, everyone — to taste-test the mortgage pools they were buying from originators…. reviewed 1,280 loans on behalf of Citigroup in the first quarter of 2006. Of those, it accepted 554 outright: they lived up to the originator’s underwriting standards. It also waived another 144, on the grounds that there were mitigating factors (a large downpayment, say). And it rejected 582 for a rejection rate of 45%…

If there had been any common sense in the investment banks, that would have been the end of the deal. But there wasn’t. Rather than simply telling the originator that its loan pool wasn’t good enough, the investment banks would instead renegotiate the amount of money they were paying for the pool.

This is where things get positively evil. The investment banks didn’t mind buying up loans they knew were bad, because they considered themselves to be in the moving business rather than the storage business. They weren’t going to hold on to the loans: they were just going to package them up and sell them on to some buy-side sucker….

Now here’s the scandal: the investors were never informed of the results of Clayton’s test. The investment banks were perfectly happy to ask for a discount on the loans when they found out how badly-underwritten the loan pool was. But they didn’t pass that discount on to investors, who were kept in the dark about that fact.

I talked to one underwriting bank — not Citi — which claimed that investors were told that the due diligence had been done: on page 48 of the prospectus, there’s language about how the underwriter had done an “underwriting guideline review”, although there’s nothing specifically about hiring a company to re-underwrite a large chunk of the loans in the pool, and report back on whether they met the originator’s standards.

In other words, banks told their marks customers, “Of course, we did due diligence on these mortgages!” But the banks never mentioned that nearly half the mortgages they had tested didn’t measure up to their purported underwriting standard.

Posted by James on Oct 14, 2010

Pilot: TSA's porno pics and genital groping are unconstitutional

The Constitution guarantees that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

Images produced by the new airport full-body scanners are so vivid and revealing as to be pornographic. And the alternative, if you refuse letting the government take porno photos, is an “enhanced pat-down”… having your genitals groped by some TSA employee. (Didn’t we learn after “enhanced interrogation” that we shouldn’t entrust government with the ability to “enhance” anything in the name of national security?!?!)

Forcing millions of Americans to choose either a porno pic or genital groping seems pretty “unreasonable” to me, esp. since these scanners and invasive “enhanced pat-downs” haven’t — to my knowledge — caught a single terrorist. The idea that we’re going to stop the next 9/11 by frisking pilots' and passengers' genitals is insane. Terrorists can think of a million ways to kill Americans, and genital groping of airline passengers won’t stop them. They can still drive a truck full of plastic explosives into a crowd, for example. The idea that we can make America completely safe by photographing and feeling enough airline passengers' genitals is ridiculous.

This clearly violates the Constitution. So I’m glad this pilot is challenging the TSA’s illegal rule:

Michael Roberts, a pilot for ExpressJet Airlines, refused a full-body scan last week at a Transportation Security Administration check point at Memphis International Airport in Memphis, Tennessee.

Opting out of scanning is permitted, but those who opt out must receive an enhanced pat down from a TSA employee.

“Pat down is misleading,” Roberts said. “They concentrate on the area between … the upper thighs and torso, and they’re not just patting people’s arms and legs, they’re grabbing and groping and prodding pretty aggressively.”

Roberts said TSA security measures are ineffective, and cited concerns for his rights and privacy in refusing the procedures.

“I was trying to avoid this assault on my person, and I’m not willing to have images of my nude body produced for some stranger in another room to look at either,” Roberts told CNN.

Posted by James on Oct 21, 2010

Social species evolved morality long before humans

About fifteen years ago, I began reading books by primatologist Frans de Waal because I’m fascinated by the similarities and differences between humans and our closest animal relatives. de Waal’s article in today’s New York Times is well worth reading.

de Waal’s main argument is that morality evolved in our primate cousins long before humans existed. Our species inherited — and has enhanced, over millions of years — what our common primate ancestors (something like a modern chimp or bonobo) bequeathed us. If anything, our religions grew out of our innate sense of morality, not the other way around:

Reverend Al Sharpton opined in a recent videotaped debate: “If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there’s nothing in charge.” Similarly, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that “If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!”

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. …[Religion] is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.

…female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today.

de Waal observes that we are naturally attracted to other mammals because they seem to feel for and behave toward their loved ones as we feel for and behave toward our loved ones:

A typical example is how chimpanzees console distressed parties, hugging and kissing them, which behavior is so predictable that scientists have analyzed thousands of cases. Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need. The whole reason people fill their homes with furry carnivores and not with, say, iguanas and turtles, is because mammals offer something no reptile ever will. They give affection, they want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs.

Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good. Nature often equips life’s essentials — sex, eating, nursing — with built-in gratification. One study found that pleasure centers in the human brain light up when we give to charity.

Elephants are one of my favorite animals because they care so deeply for one another and experience intense grief when their loved ones pass away.

de Waal also notes how little about humanity sets us apart from our fellow non-human animals:

humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. This is why we don’t hear anymore that only humans make tools, imitate, think ahead, have culture, are self-aware, or adopt another’s point of view.

And he describes some very interesting human-like moral primate behaviors, including this one:

A few years ago Sarah Brosnan and I demonstrated that primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. The cucumber-eaters become agitated, throw down their measly veggies and go on strike. A perfectly fine food has become unpalatable as a result of seeing a companion with something better.

We called it inequity aversion, a topic since investigated in other animals, including dogs. A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets pieces of sausage for the same trick. Recently, Sarah reported an unexpected twist to the inequity issue, however. While testing pairs of chimps, she found that also the one who gets the better deal occasionally refuses. It is as if they are satisfied only if both get the same. We seem to be getting close to a sense of fairness.

Many religious people fear atheists because they believe a world without God (or gods) would be an amoral or immoral world. This is absolutely false. Just as there are good and bad people in every country, so too there are good and bad people in every religion, and the same is true among atheists. Disbelief in supernatural gods is completely compatible with strongly held moral principles and practices. You need not be a Christian to embrace — or, at least strive to embrace — doing unto others as you would have done unto you.

Posted by James on Oct 18, 2010

Trilingual... bilingual... ignorant American

Many Tea Partiers really are as ignorant and bigoted as they appear on television:

I was shopping with my friend, and her tea party niece. Actually we kind of got stuck with her.

There were some people in Meijers who appeared to be Mexican. They were not bothering any one or being disruptive. They were just talking to one another.

The tea party queen said “if they want to speak Spanish, they should go back to Spain!” After we got back to the car we tried to explain all that was wrong with her statement, but she was oblivious.

That is the kind of ignorance we are up against.

Every school in America should teach Spanish and English er… American. Exposure to a second language (and its associated culture) is mind-stretching and xenophobia-reducing. I feel sorry for anyone who feels threatened by Spanish speakers. Their closed minds must feel so cramped and dark.

Posted by James on Oct 05, 2010

U.S. Treasury lied about TARP loss: Calls $45 bil. AIG loss $5 bil.

I’ve been reading everywhere, including BusinessWeek, about how TARP didn’t really cost Americans anything.

Well, now that the propaganda has spread far and wide, it turns out the U.S. Treasury lied:

The United States Treasury concealed $40 billion in likely taxpayer losses on the bailout of the American International Group earlier this month, when it abandoned its usual method for valuing investments, according to a report by the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“In our view, this is a significant failure in their transparency,” said Neil M. Barofsky, the inspector general, in an interview on Monday.

In early October, the Treasury issued a report predicting that the taxpayers would ultimately lose just $5 billion on their investment in A.I.G., a remarkable outcome, since the insurance company was extended $182 billion in taxpayer money in the early months of its rescue. The prediction of a modest loss, widely reported as A.I.G., the Federal Reserve and the Treasury rushed to complete an exit plan, contrasted with an earlier prediction by the Treasury that the taxpayers would lose $45 billion.

Posted by James on Oct 26, 2010

Want a secure job? Become a Republican Party hack

I’ve long thought that the easiest money in America is being a shill for mega-corporations and the Republican Party (which are pretty much one and the same). Sell your soul to the moneyed Devil, and you too can be handsomely rewarded for knowing and doing little (like Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity, Jeff Gannon, Ann Coulter, Bay Buchanan, etc.).

Paul Krugman makes this point well:

As Politico recently pointed out, every major contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination who isn’t currently holding office and isn’t named Mitt Romney is now a paid contributor to Fox News. Now, media moguls have often promoted the careers and campaigns of politicians they believe will serve their interests. But directly cutting checks to political favorites takes it to a whole new level of blatancy.

Arguably, this shouldn’t be surprising. Modern American conservatism is, in large part, a movement shaped by billionaires and their bank accounts, and assured paychecks for the ideologically loyal are an important part of the system. Scientists willing to deny the existence of man-made climate change, economists willing to declare that tax cuts for the rich are essential to growth, strategic thinkers willing to provide rationales for wars of choice, lawyers willing to provide defenses of torture, all can count on support from a network of organizations that may seem independent on the surface but are largely financed by a handful of ultrawealthy families.

And these organizations have long provided havens for conservative political figures not currently in office. Thus when Senator Rick Santorum was defeated in 2006, he got a new job as head of the America’s Enemies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank that has received funding from the usual sources: the Koch brothers, the Coors family, and so on….

Nobody who was paying attention has ever doubted that Fox is, in reality, a part of the Republican political machine; but the network — with its Orwellian slogan, “fair and balanced” — has always denied the obvious. Officially, it still does. But by hiring those G.O.P. candidates, while at the same time making million-dollar contributions to the Republican Governors Association and the rabidly anti-Obama United States Chamber of Commerce, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns Fox, is signaling that it no longer feels the need to make any effort to keep up appearances.

Posted by James on Oct 05, 2010

What you don't know about air travel

Reader’s Digest offers up “50 Secrets Your Pilot Won’t Tell You”.


“Here’s the truth about airline jobs: You don’t have as much time off as your neighbors think you have, you don’t make as much money as your relatives think you make, and you don’t have as many girlfriends as your wife thinks you have. Still, I can’t believe they pay me to do this.” -Commercial pilot, Charlotte, North Carolina

Useful (beware using your laptop):

“If you’re going to recline your seat, for God’s sake, please check behind you first. You have no idea how many laptops are broken every year by boorish passengers who slam their seat back with total disregard to what’s going on behind them.” -John Nance

“It’s one thing if the pilot puts the seat belt sign on for the passengers. But if he tells the flight attendants to sit down, you’d better listen. That means there’s some serious turbulence ahead.” -John Greaves, airline accident lawyer and former airline captain, Los Angeles

“You may go to an airline website and buy a ticket, pull up to its desk at the curb, and get onto an airplane that has a similar name painted on it, but half the time, you’re really on a regional airline. The regionals aren’t held to the same safety standards as the majors: Their pilots aren’t required to have as much training and experience.” -Captain at a major airline


“I’m constantly under pressure to carry less fuel than I’m comfortable with. Airlines are always looking at the bottom line, and you burn fuel carrying fuel.” -Captain at a major airline

“The truth is, we’re exhausted. Our work rules allow us to be on duty 16 hours without a break. That’s many more hours than a truck driver. And unlike a truck driver, who can pull over at the next rest stop, we can’t pull over at the next cloud.” -Captain at a major airline

“Is traveling with a baby in your lap safe? No. It’s extremely dangerous. If there’s any impact or deceleration, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose hold of your kid, and he becomes a projectile. But the government’s logic is that if we made you buy an expensive seat for your baby, you’d just drive, and you’re more likely to be injured driving than flying.” -Patrick Smith


“We’re heading into some thunderstorms.” What they’ll say instead: “It looks like there’s some weather [or “rough air” or “rain showers”] up ahead.”

“One of our engines just failed.” What they’ll say instead: “One of our engines is indicating improperly.” (Or more likely, they’ll say nothing, and you’ll never know the difference. Most planes fly fine with one engine down.)

“Well, folks, the visibility out there is zero.” What they’ll say instead: “There’s some fog in the Washington area.”


“Some FAA rules don’t make sense to us either. Like the fact that when we’re at 39,000 feet going 400 miles an hour, in a plane that could hit turbulence at any minute, [flight attendants] can walk around and serve hot coffee and Chateaubriand. But when we’re on the ground on a flat piece of asphalt going five to ten miles an hour, they’ve got to be buckled in like they’re at NASCAR.” -Jack Stephan, US Airways captain based in Annapolis, Maryland, who has been flying since 1984

Posted by James on Oct 18, 2010

Why ed reforms are doomed: U.S. can't become Finland through piecemeal change

A year ago, I asked a veteran educator why all American schools aren’t International Baccalaureate programs because the program so brilliantly cultivates holistic, creative thinking. She responded that few American teachers are capable of teaching higher-order thinking.

There are, sadly, no quick fixes for U.S. education, but what would a great system look like? Just look at Finland’s. Finland has the world’s top school system, according to Newsweek. (Maybe Finland’s cheating; Newsweek gives them 102 on education, the only score across all countries in five categories that’s above 100.) Though Finland conducts no other standardized testing at all, Finnish students have dominated the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) international standardized test in reading, math and science since PISA was launched in 2000.

And Finnish kids aren’t bookworms. They’re also well informed about the world around them: “Finnish and Danish eighth-graders tied for first place in a study of civic knowledge conducted in 38 countries by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.”

As I read it, Finland’s success boils down to a simple formula for managing any great organization: 1) Hire great people; 2) Train your great people well; 3) Pay your great employees well and respect them; 4) Give your great employees whatever resources and support they request; 5) Give your great employees excellent working conditions (in education: nice facilities, great colleagues, and small classes); and, 6) Give your great employees general guidance about what you consider “success” and then trust them to deliver.

Factors likely boosting Finnish students' success include:

  • “Prior to the OECD test, the 15-year-old Finnish students who participate in the assessment never experience any standardized testing in school.”
  • “Schools have aroused student interest in reading, and students are interested in and engaged in reading.”
  • “Students read highly diverse materials.”
  • “Finland has a comprehensive network of libraries, which have separate departments for children and youth.”
  • “The math and science curriculum emphasize the use and application of knowledge and problem solving.”
  • “Finland… recruits highly qualified teachers in all schools.”
  • “The comprehensive school is for each child; hence, it has to adjust to the needs of each child.”
  • “The interests and choices of students are taken into account when schools plan and select the curriculum, content, textbooks, learning strategies, and methods of assessment.”
  • “A flexible, school-based and teacher-planned curriculum along with student-centred instruction, counselling, and remedial teaching.”
  • “Class sizes in Finland are among the smallest… Finnish teachers are constantly worried about what they consider too-large class sizes, finding it demanding to look after the individual needs of different students.”
  • “In Finnish culture, teaching is one of the most important professions of society, and substantial resources are invested in teacher education.”
  • “Teachers are trusted to do their best as true professionals of education. They are entrusted with considerable pedagogical independence in the classroom”
  • “Finnish teachers are relied on when it comes to student assessment, which usually draws on students’ class work, projects, teacher-made exams, and portfolios. In Finland, teacher-based assessment is all the more important because at Finnish comprehensive schools students are not assessed by national tests or examinations during the school years or upon completing school.”
  • “Teachers are vested with considerable decision-making authority as concerns school policy and management. They have almost exclusive responsibility for the choice of textbooks and have more say than their counterparts in the OECD countries in determining course content, establishing student assessment policies, deciding which courses the school should offer, and allocating budgets within the school.”
  • “the national curriculum has become flexible, decentralized, and less detailed.”
  • “Finland has established national grading guidelines for performance that allow for student effort and activity to be taken into consideration.”

In Finland, becoming a teacher requires talent and a strong educational track record, and teachers are trained, respected, well paid and given substantial resources and autonomy.

In American education as a whole, we’ve done the opposite of Finland: 1) Hired mostly people who have done relatively poorly in school; 2) Provided little training… and what little training we provide is widely seen as worthless (or worse, because jumping through time-wasting certification hoops scares off potentially good educators); 3) Pay our teachers poorly and disrespect them; 4) Cut funding for art, music, history, etc. and force our teachers to shell out of their own pockets for school supplies and textbooks; 5) Make teaching painful (run-down, dreary buildings with leaks and malfunctioning HVAC and large, unruly classes); and 6) Give our teachers long, detailed lists of specific things they must teach for the frequent standardized tests and little freedom to teach what and how they see fit.

Changing any one or two of these will not have a big positive impact. The system would have to be overhauled to become like Finland. That’s why U.S. educational reforms have been as effective as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and tend to faddishly yo-yo back and forth between flavors of the month (like greater standardized testing vs. less standardized testing).

Until (and unless) we reboot our entire system, we’ll never be able to teach the initiative, creativity and higher-order thinking skills that International Baccalaureate and Finnish schools both stress.

Compare America’s watered-down standardized tests to what Finnish public schools are teaching:

According to the Finnish National Board of Education, the main purpose of assessing students is to guide and encourage students’ own reflection and self-assessment. Teachers give students formative and summative reports both through verbal and narrative feedback. Inquiry is a major focus of learning in Finland, and assessment is used to cultivate students’ active learning skills by asking open-ended questions and helping students address them.

In a Finnish classroom, it is rare to see a teacher standing at the front of a classroom lecturing students for 50 minutes. Instead, students are likely to determine their own weekly targets with their teachers in specific subject areas and choose the tasks they will work on at their own pace. In a typical classroom, students are likely to be walking around, rotating through workshops or gathering information, asking questions of their teacher, and working with other students in small groups. They may be completing independent or group projects or writing articles for their own magazine. The cultivation of independence and active learning allows students to develop metacognitive skills that help them to frame, tackle, and solve problems; evaluate and improve their own work; and guide their learning processes in productive ways….

During the 1990s, the country overhauled preparation once again to focus more on teaching diverse learners higher-order skills like problem-solving and critical thinking in research-based master’s degree programs. Preparing teachers for a research-based profession has been the central idea of teacher education developments in Finland.

Finnish educators practice what they teach. Just as they teach students to be more creative, they also work together to teach more creatively and effectively:

Within these model schools, student teachers participate in problem-solving groups, a common feature in Finnish schools. The problem-solving groups engage in a cycle of planning, action, and reflection/evaluation that is reinforced throughout the teacher education program and is, in fact, a model for what teachers will plan for their own students, who are expected to incorporate similar kinds of research and inquiry in their own studies. Indeed, the entire system is intended to improve through continual reflection, evaluation, and problem-solving at the level of the classroom, school, municipality, and nation.

Teachers learn how to create challenging curriculum and how to develop and evaluate local performance assessments that engage students in research and inquiry on a regular basis. Teacher training emphasizes learning how to teach students who learn in different ways, including those with special needs. It includes a strong emphasis on “multiculturality” and the “prevention of learning difficulties and exclusion,” as well as on the understanding of learning, thoughtful assessment, and curriculum development. The egalitarian Finns reasoned that if teachers learn to help students who struggle, they will be able to teach all students more effectively and, indeed, leave no child behind.

Wow! Sounds like almost every child in Finland is being equipped with strong 21st Century skills.

As if to prove my point, I just realized I’m typing this blog post on my Linux computer, “Linux” being the marvelous operating system invented by Finland’s own Linus Torvalds!

Posted by James on Oct 04, 2010

Why software patents are stupid: "many people see the next step forward at the same time"

Software patents exist, in theory, to spur innovation. In reality, however, they stifle innovation by making it extremely difficult to write programs without violating an existing patent or — more often — many existing patents. Patents do little to encourage innovation because most software inventions are pretty obvious to multiple people by the time they’re patented because the ideas underlying them emerge naturally from other recent innovations.

Ezra Klein nails the essence of why most software patents are ridiculous:

[I]t’s not the details of Zuckerberg’s life that mislead so much as the decision to focus on Zuckerberg at all. The movie recasts a story of inevitable technological change as the saga of a socially inept genius, two or three of his most important relationships and the social pressures of Harvard University. That makes for a better film, of course. But it misses the richer drama behind transformative innovations like Facebook, and it’s part and parcel of the way we misunderstand, and thus impede, innovation.

“The idea of the lone genius who has the eureka moment where they suddenly get a great idea that changes the world is not just the exception,” says Steven Johnson, author of “ Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation ,” “but almost nonexistent.”

And that’s because innovation isn’t really about individuals.

I was not born physically or mentally superior to my grandparents. But I would have been much likelier to invent Facebook than they were. The natural capabilities of human beings don’t change much from year to year, but their environments do, and so do the technology and store of knowledge they can access. Better sanitation lets people live in cities, where they can learn from one another. Transportation and communication advances allow ideas to mingle across distances that, a thousand years ago, they would never have traversed. The development of the Internet makes the coding of social networks possible.

When these advances happen, they happen to many people simultaneously, so many people tend to see the next step forward at the same time. In 2003, we were all social network geniuses, at least compared with everyone in 1993.

Posted by James on Oct 13, 2010

Yet another benefit of multilingualism

From The Wall Street Journal:

A lifetime of speaking two or more languages appears to pay off in old age, with recent research showing the symptoms of dementia can be delayed by an average of four years in bilingual people.

Multilingualism doesn’t delay the onset of dementia—the brains of people who speak multiple languages still show physical signs of deterioration—but the process of speaking two or more languages appears to enable people to develop skills to better cope with the early symptoms of memory-robbing diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

Scientists for years studied children and found that fluently speaking more than one language takes a lot of mental work. Compared with people who speak only one language, bilingual children and young adults have slightly smaller vocabularies and are slower performing certain verbal tasks, such as naming lists of animals or fruits.

But over time, regularly speaking more than one language appears to strengthen skills that boost the brain’s so-called cognitive reserve, a capacity to work even when stressed or damaged. This build-up of cognitive reserve appears to help bilingual people as they age.

Posted by James on Oct 13, 2010

Young bullies: Mean moms, mean girls

Growing up, I enjoyed classic television shows like Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, The Cosby Show, The Lone Ranger, Superman, and The Brady Bunch. They taught decency while also entertaining. My impression of 21st Century television for older children — even ignoring the atrocious ads — is that it’s full of violence, materialism, competition, sex, and kids acting like (violent, greedy, status-seeking, hyper-sexualized) adults. If that’s what kids watch every day, it’s no wonder they’re acting that way at younger and younger ages.

(I completely control what my kids watch. I’ve found many wonderful shows for young children, like Little Bear, Curious George, Toot & Puddle, The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That, Team Umizoomi, Dinosaur Train, Thomas & Friends, Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, etc. And we own some great shows, like Pororo and Peppa Pig that we watch in Chinese. But I fear there are few such quality shows for older kids and that my kids will feel pressured into watching “cool” shows that are entirely inappropriate.)

It’s even worse than just television because our culture has also become more violent, greedy, status-conscious and hyper-sexualized, and many parents reflect this reality. When kids see their parents acting aggressively toward others, they naturally do the same.

Consequently, bullying has become a huge problem in our schools, sometimes even starting in kindergarten! It’s possible we’re just more aware of the problem now, but those on the front lines believe it has trickled-down from the coarsening of our television shows and adult culture.

What especially angers me is not the lax parental supervision or the poor examples many parents set. It’s that many parents are worse-than-ignorant of their child’s bullying; they’re willfully complicit! Experts say the worst bullying is done by children whose parents (esp. moms) encourage the bullying!

A kindergarten teacher at one of New York City’s top private all-girls schools observed, “The mean girls are often from mean moms.” She was thrown back by the “venom” among 5-year-olds. They’ll say, “You only read ‘Biscuit,’ and we’re all reading chapter books.” Or, “Why don’t you brush your hair? You don’t look nice today.” And they’re not afraid of getting into trouble with a teacher. “Perhaps they can act that way at home without repercussions,” she said. “It’s untypical of this age group because they’re usually adult-pleasers.”

In certain cases, the parents themselves seem to be pleased. When her daughter Julia was in first grade last year, said Lea Pfau, a mother of two in Sherman Oaks, Calif., one girl threatened that, unless Julia did as she ordered, “I’m going to tell my mommy, and she’ll set up a meeting with your mommy, and you’ll get in trouble.” The girl then orchestrated a series of exclusive clubs in which girls could be kicked out for various infractions. “I was surprised by the fierceness,” Ms. Pfau said. “But I was more surprised at the other parents. Rather than nip it in the bud, they encouraged it.”

Eileen O’Connor, a lawyer and mother of five girls in the Georgetown section of Washington, has also witnessed trickle-down meanness in her daughters’ classrooms. “To be honest with you, the parents not only enabled it, they engaged in it,” she said. “The parents of mean girls often think, Great, our daughter is so popular!”

Across town, in southeast Washington, Rosalyn Rice, the associate principal of a public elementary school until last year, continually held mediations among young grade-school girls. “They were reporting deeply held grudges from the first grade,” she recalled. One first grader was shunned because she didn’t have the “in” classroom supplies — sparkly glue and a Powerpuff Girls carrying case. She stopped going to school because her parents couldn’t afford them. “The other girls kept accusing her of stealing theirs, which wasn’t true,” Ms. Rice said. Children who didn’t have their uniforms regularly laundered or had to borrow one from the school office were mocked mercilessly. Even at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, “Girls were judging how much people cared about them based on what they owned.”

…“The girls who are the victims tend to be raised by parents who encourage them to be more age appropriate,” Ms. Rosenman said. “The mean girls are 8 but want to be 14, and their parents play along. They all want to be top dog.”

Posted by James on Oct 11, 2010