Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top 10 Albums of the 00's

#10 +/- - Self-Titled Long-Playing Debut

#9 The Church – Uninvited, Like the Clouds

#8 John Vanderslice – Cellar Door

#7 Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

#6 Radiohead - Kid A

#5 TV on the Radio – Young Liars EP

#4 The Fiery Furnaces – Blueberry Boat

#3 Sleater-Kinney – The Woods

#2 Notwist – Neon Golden

#1 Rumah Sakit – Rumah Sakit

runners up:
Tarwater – Animals, Suns & Atoms
Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
Fucked Up – Chemistry of Common Life
Madvillain – Madvillainy
Queens of the Stone Age – Songs for the Deaf
Dilute – Grape Blueprints Pour Spinach Olive Grape
Frog Eyes – The Golden River
Wilderness – Wilderness
Beirut - Gulag Orkestar

Real Education Reform

There's a lot of talk about education reform these days. Many on the left are accused of making excuses for teachers, opposing reform and doing nothing but complain about poor teacher salaries.

I'm on the left and I think teachers are underpaid, but would like to see reform. Just not in the form of union busting and straw charter schools. The bottom line is what we're all talking about are crappy student populations where the state is trying to make up for every conceivable social ill that comes to bear on each individual student.

There will be crap administrators. There will be crap teachers. But there will be great ones. No one complains about the high-scoring suburban schools, even though their structure is mostly no different than ghetto schools. In fact, I'll bet if you took the entire staff of a suburban school and swapped it with a ghetto school, your results wouldn't be that different.

We need to get out of the blame-the-schools model and focus on instituting neighborhood intervention, starting with pregnancy and continuing with early childhood home-visits, highly qualified pre-school, health services, parent support classes and incentives. Kids are entering the system 2-3 years behind, and then getting cobbled-together classroom interventions - basically requiring the teacher to single-handedly make up for a tidal wave of social capital-destruction happening outside school.

We set teachers up to fail. The amazing ones manage to achieve great things, and we then base our expectations off of them. We stick to our expensive, bloated and ineffective model - but when the vast number of teachers - as in any profession - are simply not in the 95%, we blame all teachers. Especially the ones who happen to teach in the most difficult environments, and getting the worst test scores. This is insane.

What we need will be expensive. But it will be effective. It won't require extraordinary sacrifice by teachers (whose sacrifice now is only "ordinary"). It will be scaleable nationally. It will be targeted and take into account demographic need. Suburbs won't be compared with ghettos. Parents will get the support they need. Difficult classrooms will be smaller. Poor schools will be smaller. Teachers and administrators in such schools will receive extra support. Social services personal will be on hand to intervene early and quickly.

While this may be expensive in the short term, it will pay out many times over in long-term dividends - not only in decreased late-childhood intervention, but also in social costs such as criminal justice and health services which end up costing much more. Not to mention the lack of a productive member of the workforce. Of course, those are only the practical benefits. The moral imperative is even stronger.

Which is what the real burden in all of this is: moral clarity. We need to acknowledge that poverty is being perpetuated by our current system. We need to take responsibility for those least among us and come to their aid in a real and urgent way. When a teen mother gives birth and brings her child in to school 5 years later, we cannot expect the teacher to be the only capable person in that child's life, one of 30 others, for a handful of hours a day. We can't wait that long. We can't do that little.

Before we expect more from the situation, we need to begin to expect more from ourselves.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Civics 101

Victor Davis Hanson doesn't like Liberalism:

It works like this: The ghetto resident, the denizen of the barrio, the abandoned and divorced waitress with three young children, can all chart their poverty and unhappiness not to accident, fate, bad luck, bad decisions, poor judgment, illegality or drug use, or simple tragedy, but rather exclusively to a system that is rigged to ensure oppression on the basis of race, class, and gender—often insidious and unfathomable except to the sensitive and gifted academic or community organizer.

So Obama combines the age-old belief that the state is there to level the playing field (rather than protect the rights of the individual and secure the safety of the people from foreign threats), with the postmodern notion that government must recompensate those by fiat on the basis on their race or class or gender. Remember all that, and everything from the Professor Gates incident, to the dutiful attendance at the foot of Rev. Wright to Van Jones become logical rather than aberrant. Michelle Obama could make $300,000 and she will always be more a victim than the Appalachian coal miner who earns $30,000, by virtue of her race and gender.

Apparently he doesn't comprehend liberalism.

Quick civics lesson:

White supremacists legally oppress minorities up through the 60's. Laws passed, culture slowly changes. "Legacy of oppression" still exists: high levels of minority poverty & dysfunction relative to whites. Liberals react against history of oppression and continue culture war: political correctness. After a few decades racism becomes socially unacceptable: miscegenation no longer considered terrible; conservatives "no longer see race".

Yet inequalities still exist: minorities fall behind in almost every indicator of demographic success. Paleo-liberals continue to argue its all because of active racism. Neo-liberals point to cultural and institutional factors that perpetuate poverty. Social research supports this thesis: general "risk-factors" are hypothesized to predict social outcomes; education, wealth, race are linked to success.

Conservatives deny that any of this is a factor. They "have a buddy" who grew up poor and is now wealthy; his daddy beat him but he didn't whine about it! They see liberals talking about inequality and dismiss it as a fantasy: everyone can succeed. They see liberal notions of equality as relics of a bygone era which doesn't exist anymore: Michelle Obama is doing great, Appalachian whites are suffering; race doesn't matter.

Yet this hypothesis would predict that all races would have equal rates of success. As would all incomes, educations, family backgrounds, etc: if "a buddy of mine" can truly be extrapolated to larger society. But they do not. The results contradict the hypothesis.

The liberal hypothesis predicts that success will be correlated with wealth, race, education, etc. It is. Year after year. This is a scientific fact. Race is just one factor of many; A bright black girl with a good family who goes to Harvard will almost always do better than a poor white man whose dad is drunk and drops out of school.

These are facts. They prove liberalism. Why conservatives continue to exist in their present form can only be explained by psychology. There is only so much you can do with people who continue to believe that 2 + 2 = 5.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Drill, Baby, Drill!

My morals on death are determined by reasonable social cost, and pain and suffering of the individual. Until a baby is birthed, into our society as an individual with a birth certificate, I see no real social cost in killing it. As long as its suffering is not too terrible, I see no problem killing it. A baby in the 8th month of gestation having its skull drilled in and crushed is fine with me.

The above may seem cruel and unsavory - but only in the context of a society in which many view the fetus (even the zygote, often) as a complete human being. I find the hunting of large mammals as cruel and unsavory - especially the part where they are stuffed and hung on the wall. But I recognize that my feelings are relative to my own moral compass, its bearings aligned with my religious, political, and cultural views. There is no overwhelming rational clarity that places either abortion or hunting into a clear moral category.

Unlike, say, the murder of a ten year old, the gutting of a family pet, or incest. Those fall into specific moral domains defined by broadly agreed upon - universal among humans - moral and social codes. These codes may someday change, and individuals may develop personal convictions contrary to norm, but until they achieve politically viable status, they will remain subject to democratically achieved laws. This has no bearing however, upon whether any of them are morally correct - that will be up to the individual to determine for him or herself.

But governing laws are not passed on the moral compass of individuals, but on that of the state, representative of the will of the people. Thus, while I personally feel hunting as despicable, not only do I respect my fellow citizens' moral trajectories, more importantly I respect the will of the people and all laws it passes within that context. Were my convictions strong enough, I would be well within my ethical rights to break the law in order to do what I felt was right. Legal rights, of course not, but ethically speaking, yes. If a ten year old boy was going to be murdered legally before me, I would be ethically obligated to stop the act, as long as I felt sufficient conviction (I would!).

So while it would be ethical to oppose abortion (or hunting), one would have to be sufficiently confident enough in their convictions to oppose its legal practice, much less otherwise illegal personal actions to stop it. And yet while I am confident in my ability to evoke powerful logical and rational arguments against murdering ten year old children and having most reasonable people accept them, I am not nearly as confident in my ability to persuade foes of abortion or hunting enthusiasts. Thus I cannot expect fellow citizens to consider banning either. Until abortion or hunting become as morally compelling to the will of society as murdering young boys, we cannot expect others to go along with our personal convictions on the matter.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Brokeback California

In his blog today Ross Douthat bemoans the current state of American government spending and warns of its impending slide into... California. This is an increasingly popular reference and one I'm not sure I'd disagree with. He points to 2 essays by William Voegeli which specify what, in tarnation, is wrong with California.

The first, The Big-Spending, High-Taxing, Lousy-Services Paradigm, lays out the crux of the issue:

What is surprising is the growing evidence that the low-benefit, low-tax alternative succeeds not only on its own terms but also according to the criteria used by defenders of high benefits and high taxes. Whatever theoretical claims are made for imposing high taxes to provide generous government benefits, the practical reality is that these public goods are, increasingly, neither public nor good: their beneficiaries are mostly the service providers themselves, and their quality is poor. For evidence, look to the two largest states in the nation, which are fine representatives of the liberal and conservative alternatives.

So basically, paying less for less ultimately gets you more than paying more for more. He goes on to lay out what he considers is wrong with California.

I must say I find his writing style graceful, yet his arguments unpersuasive.

His main point is that California pays too much and receives to little; its services are inefficient and ineffective. Yet while he does a good job cherry-picking some obviously distasteful-seeming expenditures, he then admits that they represent a small portion of the budget. Instead, he says, their continued defense simply illustrates California politicians' intransigence.

The real problem is the costly pension system, which apparently is too luxurious. Really? Even if this were the case, it hardly seems as though it can receive the blame for California's services being inefficient and ineffective. Unfortunately Voegeli spends almost zero time delving into just how and why these services are so poor. One could almost say that, if pensions were to blame, the only correlation might be to the funds they siphon away. Yet this doesn't make the case for inefficiency and ineffectiveness, but rather underfunding - a position of which I'm sure Voegeli would not approve.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Free Will and the Religious Tradition of Forgiveness

I'm often struck by how the disbelief in contra-causal free will seems to square up nicely with the sentiment of so many religious moral traditions. That is, "I am an agent of God, thus through Him I do my good work (while through the Devil I do evil). Your choices are simply the activations of (preordained?) Divine agency"

Of course this is an interpretation - but many for many pre-Cartesian traditions this is indeed the emphasis. You are an agent of the Almighty.

Now, say for a minute we simply substitute God for scientific materialism... Voila! "You are an agent of nature. Both your Good and Bad are manifestations of genetic and cultural evolution. Your choices are simply the activation of (determined?) natural agency".

I think religions evolved this construct as an insight into human behavior. We are silly animals. We do silly things. There is right and wrong: we desire what is "right", not what is "wrong". Yet we are HUMAN. We are frail and subject to forces beyond our control.

This tradition of religious interpretation is one of forgiveness, and a central narrative. In Hinduism it embodies the notion of Karma and reincarnation. In Christianity it embodies the redemption of Jesus' crucifixion. You are "free" to make any choice: but whatever you do will be ultimately determined by a grand play of Good vs. Evil.

And thus, if we simply replace the religious narrative with that of scientific materialism - nondogmatic and evidence-based as it is - we get the same ultimate insight: we are helpless to the greater forces at work; we are agents to its design. Fortunately for us, we are fancy humans with amazing brains that can do algebra and write poetry - nay, isn't our REAL luxury the ability to cure disease and defend against predators?

So our forefathers were on to something. They sensed it intuitively. They saw it when they played with their children; when they welcomed the grumpy neighbor in for tea; when they experienced the transcendent bliss of "letting bygones be bygones"; when they found humility. They just lacked a scientific means to place it in its true context. They were forced to invent a primitive scaffolding.

My naturalist outlook reminds me to be kind and patient, selfless and brave. It reminds me that I am merely a human caught up in a fantastic swirl of causal events. My choices and actions are nothing but manifestations of all that has come before. I do good because I was meant to do good.

If I were to choose differently it would be a lie - and yet one that I was meant to tell myself! But I do not. Nor do I stab myself with a knife. Why would I, as I do not desire pain. And as I am able to perform the mental geometry required to create a model of myself in others, neither do I stab them. I was created to seek out symmetry and harmony. And so I yearn for truth and justice. I vote accordingly. I speak accordingly. I think accordingly. I was determined to.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Climategate and True Belief

This whole climate gate thing is just bizarre. Who are these freaks that believe this stuff? First they didn’t believe in global warming. Then they didn’t believe it was anthropogenic. Now they think they have this smoking gun that proves the ENTIRE science (all the papers, researchers) is fraudulent.

What’s really weird is that creationists aren’t even this bold. They never say its all a big conspiracy paid for by wealthy Darwinist donors, or scientists knowing Darwinist research will get them grant money. No, that would be too retarded even for them.

Instead, they ignore the 99.9% of evidence FOR Darwinism, and focus on the “gaps” – trying their best to spread F.U.D. (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt). This is much of what the AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) denialists are doing with climategate, but taking it to a whole new level by attacking the scientists, not the science.

Of course, we all know what creationists’ real problem is: Darwinism doesn’t fit their dogma. And this is exactly what’s wrong for AGW denialists: it doesn’t fit their dogma. It is no coincidence they are all people who are fundamentally opposed to any regulation of business by government. They need to take a serious look in the mirror and ask themselves if any evidence would EVER be convincing enough. This is certainly the case with creationists. Evidence stopped being relevant a long time ago.

I fear AGW denialists have joined their ethereal ranks.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Question of Free Will and its Bearing Upon Governance

Governments can be, and are, defined in many ways. I think the modern world is pretty well discovering that, while not perfect, a capitalist social democracy is generally best. We enjoy electing our leaders, starting businesses, and the provision of public education. I think it’s safe to say that neither extreme communism nor libertarianism are sensible options.

At its most basic level, government is formed to provide for individual security and freedom. How these come to be defined, and then achieved, present a formidable philosophical and practical challenge. Yet I believe a key insight into where we must begin on this matter, is the question of Contra-Causal Free Will (CCFW). In order to define what government ought to be, you need to determine whether CCFW exists. A large enough subject in its own right (although one I firmly believe has been settled, due in no small part to the discoveries of modern scientific research), for the purposes of this discussion, I will avoid much of the arguments for and against the question of CCFW, and concentrate mainly on the implications of its resolution.

Because I don't believe in CCFW and the processes underlying what makes us who we are, I don't believe it is fair for a child born to a family poor in social capital to have to compete with a child born to a family rich in social capital. Therefore, any government system that does not actively seek to redress this inequity of means not only does not guarantee freedom, but through inaction actively promotes the continuation of a status quo that is anti-freedom.

For instance, in our modern economic system, if one man is able to live richly off the low wages of thousands of others, whose freedom are we talking about? Should his wealth be relative to the stability and basic fairness of the larger society upon which his market is based, or is it simply relative to what he can buy with it?

These are certainly not easy questions. And we see them being labored over intensely in current debates over healthcare - does our modern society owe it to each individual to guarantee a minimum of health services?

Conservatives know exactly where they stand on the issue of free will and why it is so central to their concept of government. They come back to it again and again as a justification for their interest in maintaining the status quo. They see a socially activist government as entirely unethical: not only does it seek to unfairly redistribute income through progressive taxation, but it seeks to fritter it away on services that would be unnecessary if people would only choose correctly (drugs, parenting, education, hard work, crime, etc.).

Liberals are the ones I always find oddly oblivious to the inconsistency in both holding that society has a responsibility to promote fairness, and that free will does indeed exist. I think the reason has more to do with free will having an entrenched philosophical advantage in being the incumbent world view, well, for most of recorded history.

But I think the paramount example of why CCFW matters is in constructing a criminal justice system. Currently, we inflict terrible punishment upon convicted criminals – a prison sentence is certainly cruel, if not unusual. Yet if CCFW does not exist, then what business do we have in exacting revenge upon people who could not have chosen any differently? Going back to my point regarding children: we treat them with forgiveness to the degree we attribute to them a lack of CCFW. The reason we treat them with the full harshness of the justice system when they reach 18 years of age is precisely because we deem them as suddenly possessing full CCFW: they could have made better choices.

Were we to instead deny CCFW, we would then have to treat adult criminals with the same sort of understanding that we do children: that they were not really responsible for their behavior: that society and genetic chance was. While acknowledging any continued threat they may pose society, as well as providing a message of deterrence, we should certainly still hold them accountable and protect society from them. But we ought to treat them with dignity, at least attempt rehabilitation, and certainly not subject them to the sort of violence and abuse rampant in today’s prisons.

On the flip side, neither does rejecting CCFW allow us to treat the millionaire as if he is responsible for his own success, rather than society and genes – at least in so far as he enjoys a level of power and privilege due to simple circumstance. This is why we no longer tolerate kings and aristocracy. What right does the wealthy man have to his wealth when it was obtained through no doing of his own? A civilized society is based in the concept that every man ought to be free to “pursue their own happiness at minimal detriment to everyone else's”. Implicit in this assumption is that we all ought to begin that pursuit at a reasonable level of equality of social capital.

So it would appear to me that not only does the question of free will have great bearing upon our personal values, but it must be dealt with if we are to structure a government that is able to best deliver freedom of opportunity to society. Fittingly, just as whether or not CCFW exists we must act as though it does, we must also structure our society according to whether or not we believe in CCFW. The consequences for either belief or disbelief could not have more dramatically different political implications.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Why Aren't the Liberals Interested in Poverty?

photo: Banksy

On the Secular Right blog, Heather Mac Donald asks, "Where are all the black fathers?"
It is an iron-clad rule, presumably taught in journalism schools, that when discussing black single mothers and their children, one must never, ever ask: Who and where is the father, and how many fathers are there? Tens of thousands of articles have been written about the struggles of black single mothers, and the appearance of their children is always treated as a virgin birth. Not only are there no fathers in sight in such articles, there is no curiosity about where the fathers are and why they’re not stepping up to the plate. ... But no amount of government programs can possibly compensate for the wholesale exemption of males from the responsibility of caring for their children. The fiction of the inner city virgin birth makes for a booming social service sector, but it otherwise spells disaster for a culture.
Where are they?

Oh, you know exactly where they are...

Conservatism, through its endless denial of how human society works (i.e. basic principles of economics, sociology, psychology, biology, neurology, and every -oly that actually took the time to study the reasons behind why we do what we do), stuck its head firmly in the sand and pretended that poverty would just "go away" if we continued to ignore festering social problems and went on thinking that we're all just snappy rational actors who choose our lots in life.

It denied that people are created by the societies in which they live. It influenced public policy and social thought, seeking to strip away any effort on the part of society to help people achieve equal access to success. It sought to limit access to quality public education. It sought to limit access to drug treatment and prevention. It sought to limit access to affordable mixed-income housing. It sought to limit access to public television programming.

It sought to limit progressive taxation to pay for any of these programs. It sought to limit minimum wages. It sought to limit the regulation of environmental pollution in poor communities. It sought to limit criminal rehabilitation programs, and instead maximize punishment for drug crimes. It sought to limit public parks. It sought to limit gun control laws that might have prevented the explosion in inner-city violence.

Lets continue. It sought to limit multiculturalism. It sought to limit the celebration of other forms of expression than the standard norms. It sought to elevate one particular "American" culture to a moral standing above all others - which just happened to be white, heterosexual, Christian, patriarchal and wealthy. It sought to limit intellectual inquiry and free thought. It sought to limit the types of journalism and academic study that intended to gather data and develop theories of how and why so many people have been so marginalized and mistreated throughout history. It sought to brand any who took part in such activities as traitorous and Unamerican.

So what happened to all those dead-beat black fathers?

In short, Ms. Mac Donald happened.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sarah Palin & Al Qaeda

I've been thinking about the trap so many liberals fall into with conservative ideologues. Basically, we're suckers. Our political enterprise is one of exploration. This is why academia & journalism, two pillars of civilization, are fundamentally liberal. Professors don't get to throw up their hands and say (as the modern conservative might), "There, all finished! We've got it pretty well figured out." Journalists don't get to simply report events that unfold, like automatons.

Liberalism is about genuine relativity - that all ideas are relative to one's perspective. It is corrosive to tradition and entrenched powers. But it is what it means to be a conscious human. It is an extension of the basic existential project: to reflect upon the world and find it's truth and meaning. This requires a certain amount of annihilation of self. Our model of the world is only as good as the model we are able to create. By this fact, everything then must be approached with a certain humility. When we engage the world, we must always allow for the fact that we do not have all the answers. There is no common sense for us. Skepticism begins with oneself, and then extends outward.

Yet none of this means that there is no Truth. It only means that we sometimes have a very hesitant relationship with it. Which causes problems when it comes to taking a stand for things. We may think we know what is true - but that could always change. When faced with fundamental injustice, dishonesty & illogic, we often struggle to rise above our hesitant stance and take the leap of faith that is declaration and certitude.

This isn't a problem for conservatives. Men are men. Women are women. God is god. Right is right. Love it or leave it. Real Americans. This is a fundamentalist mentality. Debates are not had in order to learn, they are to be won. - the model is perfect. It is one of obedience and authority. The model must not be questioned, because that is a slippery slope. Questions simply lead to more questions. There is a point where the questions just need to stop. The tap must be turned off and the sooner, the closer to the source, the less chance of contamination.

This is not communication. This is a fight. The same sort of mentality drives men to believe that infidels are expendable. It fits perfectly with the concept of God, because what could be more perfect, more authoritative, more true and worthy? What is more, every God comes with a special book! You don't even need to think for yourself. It's all right there in black and white. Just follow along. No stopping to critically reflect, unless as a way to more perfectly correct oneself in line with the Right way.

So do we argue with Al Qaeda? Of course not. And not only because they'd likely kill us. But because there is no point! Arguing requires an honest effort on both sides to try and understand each other. But these people do not want to understand us. How could they, when they don't even want to understand themselves?

Sarah Palin is not Al Qaeda. Glenn Beck is not Al Qaeda. (Although some of their follows I do sometimes worry...). But their thinking shares many commonalities. It arises out of an utter lack of self-reflection. At first principles, its core assumption is of inerrancy - an obedience to the tautological premise of an idea being so demonstrably true that it must not be questioned. A zeitgeist of such folk is now coalescing, almost in the way natural disaster builds to a critical mass that becomes self-sustaining. As a movement, what matters is not the legitimacy of its claims, but the size of its mass. The lack of tolerance for deviation is fascinating.

I'm not sure how to deal with these people. But engagement on the issues likely isn't an option. And to the degree that it is, success will come not from the strength of argument, but from the ability of the individual to reclaim some vestige of dialogue within their self. That process of self-reflection must be reacquired before any outsider can hope to have any impact.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Intelligent Dimension

Many are suspicious that Intelligent Design proponents are nothing more than creationist apologists in disguise. But God didn't do it. It was an advanced race of aliens. See, God is only one being, so he could not have possibly created himself. Whereas aliens were a race that evolved, by natural selection, from inorganic molecules. their technology become so advanced that they were able to travel back in time and initiate the big bang.

After our solar system had formed, they then devised advanced extra-dimensional machinery that allowed them to billions of years ago form organic Earth molecules. They have been covertly manipulating the DNA in our dimension ever since. Their technology is so advanced they they were able to reach in and design the mutations that created bacterial flagellum and dinosaur feathers.

But the real strange part of the story is that they are indeed here on Earth, living among us as members of the Discovery Institute. They had planned on giving a big reveal to the world but felt that Darwinists needed to first be dealt with in order to set the stage for an amenable public reception. However there were some slight setbacks in Dover where their clone of Judge Jones began to malfunction, thus thwarting their plans to kidnap the real justice and remove him into an extra dimension.

But despite Behe's controversial status, they are still 100% behind him and will continue to support him via wired money transfers of undisclosed sums into an off-dimension account.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Where Are the Conservatives?

photo: Pieter Dirk

My thinking has been thus for a while now: Modern conservatism is about as far to the right as communism is on the left. To communists, all business is bad; To modern conservatives, all government is bad.
What’s fascinating is how we got here. Where did the intellectual right go? Did they sell their soul for populism? Did a sort of fuzzy, emotional relativism get the people to follow – but then turn on the Svengalis in a sort of headless blood lust?
I’m wondering where the Christian right is in all this? I thought it was kind of ironic when the Stupac amendment ended up showing that the quickest way to outlawing abortion might just be through a single-payer system. I know there are two misaligned sides to the modern conservative coin, with Jesus on one side, and Ayn Rand on the other – a match certainly headed for trouble. But what gives?
And now with Obama escalating the conflict in Afghanistan, the Democrats have a liberal president who believes in using military force preemptively – at least in as Al Queda doesn’t seem to have any active training camps in Afghan territory.
The Democrats are firmly planted in the center, while the Republicans seem incredibly off-kilter.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Pedagogy and Controversy

Over at the Times, Stanley Fish has an interesting post up looking at a couple of views from the right and left on political correctness in the classroom.

The pedagogical issue of how a teacher presents ideas, whether as a part of the curriculum or not, is profound. And it does not begin in college. It begins in Kindergarten! (In any space where the teacher is teaching, really). The teacher is in a position of authority, and sets the tone, structure, content and direction of the instruction. And while Kindergarteners will likely not be discussing the notion of Democracy as a relative construct in post-colonial countries, they are still in the powerful grip of the teacher and all his subjective notions about the world.

As a high school science teacher, I was sensitive to this dynamic on a daily basis. Many students had religious and cultural perspectives that were entirely unscientific. But it would have been inappropriate for me to tell them that their perspectives were wrong, as their beliefs were part of a larger construct that was about more than merely facts - that would have been an abuse of my authority. I could, however give them the evidence - which was always overwhelming - and then let them decide for themselves.

But what then of issues where it isn't a matter of evidence, and is instead a matter entirely predicated upon cultural assumptions? There is no evidence for whether it is wrong or right to abort a fetus. Nor is there any that life begins at conception. But there is evidence of the dangers posed to some mothers due to complications. There is evidence of when a fetus begins to feel pain. Unless specifically studying the abortion issue, there isn't time in the classroom to fully explore it. However, as is often the case, controversial issues will come up, and should not be shied away from.

Teachers are facilitators of models. A students comes to class with a set of perspectives on the world, making up a model of reality. This model will be based upon core assumptions that form its supporting structure. The teacher's role is to enrich that model by presenting new information, but always explicitly based on a clear framework of assumptions. As new information is incorporated with the old, the student's models are then reconfigured accordingly, always starting at the base, and then building upwards. Some things may ultimately be be tossed out, while others more deeply carved.

In my science classroom, I always taught the evolution controversy starting with first principles. When any objection to evolution was raised (and it invariably was), I began with a definition of science as based on evidence, and then proceeded from there. I would state that religious objections to evolution are not based in evidence, and thus unanswerable by science. By starting with first assumptions, I created a model that the student could then get their hands around and authoritatively compare and contrast with their preconceived own.

If a student is feeling excluded in a classroom, it is because the teacher is not presenting their ideas in a way that is understandable and recognizable to the student; an attempt has not been successfully made to present that student with a model they can identify and legitimately contrast with their own. Of course, some gaps will just be too wide to fully address in one lecture, or even one course. But hopefully the student will come away with a deeper understanding of both their own, and the teacher's perspective.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Non-Retributive Justice

Tom Clarke has a post up on causation and culpability. He laments the common reluctance, on grounds that people could no longer be held accountable for their actions, in allowing that free will does not exist.

I'm always amazed at how difficult it is for many people to grasp the concept of non-retributive justice. We do this everyday with our children (or so we try!). Of course this is because we know full well - it is plainly obvious - that they are not the cause of their actions.

Imagine how tiresome it would be to have to summon for children the same sort of anger and vengefulness that we so easily dish out upon adults.

Our greatest human achievement, the Golden Rule, is predicated upon our ability to create a model of conscious being in others. It is the source of our greatest courage, our greatest humility, and our greatest compassion. By looking at our own lives, and realizing that we could only ever have made the choice that we indeed made - even if in the future we choose differently, we can thus realize in others the same model. We are them and they are us.

Like children, we are all learning to be human. If at times this means we must be rewarded handsome salaries, then so be it. If at other times it means we must be locked away in prison, then so be it. But neither will be because we have deserved anything at all. It will be so that we may learn, and others may learn by us, and nothing more.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Student Success vs. Patient Survival Rates

Man, the education debate is depressing. Not only is teaching often one of the most difficult jobs one can do - but you have an endless parade of politicians and pundits heaping criticism on your profession after demonstrating again and again that they possess an embarrassing lack of knowledge.

As part of the Obama administration's race to the top, states are being encouraged to use pay-for-performance schemes, a hot concept among current education reformers. Many believe it represents a chance to dramatically alter the nation's troubled schools by providing a sort of market-based, competition-driven prescription for success. If we could only just look at which teachers were doing a good job, and compensate them for it, we would create an atmosphere that rewards success and punishes failure. The process has been likened to other industries where monetary rewards are based on outcomes. Mayor Bloomberg of New York city recently pointed the finger at detractors:

In New York, the state legislature passed a law last year that actually tells principals ‘you can evaluate teachers on any criteria you want, just not on student achievement data.’ That’s like saying to hospitals ‘you can evaluate surgeons on any criteria you want, just not patient survival rates.’

Unfortunately, while the idea is not without merit, it is highly problematic.

Comparing teacher evaluation to patient survival rates is absurd. It displays a fundamental ignorance of basic issues. One is reminded of those who would make generalizations from government spending to household spending. But hey - its just common sense, right?!!

For starters, "patient survival rates" imply highly controlled situations with clear parameters and guidelines to follow. From Wikipedia:

"Relative survival is calculated by dividing the overall survival after diagnosis of a disease by the survival as observed in a similar population that was not diagnosed with that disease. A similar population is composed of individuals with at least age and gender similar to those diagnosed with the disease."

Teacher quality is certainly important - why wouldn't it be? But the problem is in drilling down how to precisely determine that in a way that scales up, allowing districts to set policy. But in any given classroom, the variables effecting student outcomes are immense. Any teacher who has taught at multiple schools with different demographics knows that some classrooms can be orders of magnitude more demanding than others. How then to determine which teacher s performing better?

For example, at school A, the 10th grade Biology class is reading at or above grade level. Most parents can be counted on to enforce academic performance both in and out of class. There are few absences. Students are generally well-fed, groomed and comfortable. Resources are available for field trips (thanks in part to active PTO fund-raising), and most students have access to high-speed internet connections.

At school B however, the 10 grade biology class is reading at the 6th grade level. Few parents can be counted on to enforce performance, many don't return calls or numbers have been disconnected. Absences are frequent, as well as tardies. Students come to class unprepared, nervous and potential for conflict is constant. There are not enough books to send home - and few would be read (or even returned) if they were. There is no money for field trips, requiring the teacher to raise money on their own time. Maybe one or two students have access to a PC at home.

So how would one come up with a formula that would apply to both situations? As any of these variables could rise and fall day to day, how would a results-based compensation system be designed that would be as fair to teachers at school B, as is is at school A?

When you can begin to legitimately respond to these questions, you are ready to enter this debate. Until then, you need to do some more homework.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Citizens vs. Representatives

As a sometime citizen-who-contacts-his-elected-representatives, I often ask myself if it really matters if I do so. Sure, if they’re a democrat and I have a bone to pick with their stance on some issue, I might be interesting to hear from. But what would a republican care if he votes opposite me?
I had a robocall recently urging me to stop by the office of Rep. Mary Bono (R-CA) and give her a piece of my liberal mind regarding the health care vote. Mind you – this was after the house passed its version – without her vote. I’ve corresponded with my Republican state senator regarding the legalization of marijuana.
But these people were elected by a majority, and thus – we’re going big picture here – are supposed to express their point of view. Sure – a brilliant twist of pen might sway them into my camp. But I doubt it. In fact I would hope I’m not the lone citizen out here that is the difference between them shifting on a position. This is after all, what they get paid to do.
Who the hell am I?

Financial Wizardry

I'd still like to know how in the world shareholders get suckered in to paying out such absurd salaries and bonuses to captains of the financial industry. The standard explanation is that good ones can bring in millions - even billions - for a company. But what does this have to do with the market value of each hiree?

I assume that prospective hires can demonstrate past success - and that compensation structures have to be competitive with other companies. But it all seems so arbitrary. It is a fact that the financial industry is incredibly nepotistic - many traders have little or no education and were hired based largely on who their father, friend or neighbor was.

It seems shareholders could easily pay millions of dollars less for people just as talented & who will work just as hard. Yet one must have a successful record, and thus have worked for some company - and that company was already in the position of paying outrageous sums to their employees. What are the starting salaries at these places? How did the incentive structure become so absurd?

Friday, November 20, 2009

What's Wrong With California?

Californians have been described as having “political schizophrenia” – they want to spend without paying the taxes to support it. Then they complain about their elected representatives…

Lately I’ve been thinking about the “starve the beast” concept in reverse. Proposition 13, which made it incredibly difficult to raise taxes, is now forcing the state to cut spending on services across the board. This is the idea behind starving the beast. And now class sizes are through the roof, clinics are closing, tuition is hiking, etc., etc. As people start to see the effects of low levels of spending, will they finally turn around and “put their money where their values are”?

I believe that people want these services. But they have bought into the conservative myth that cutting taxes will solve all of our problems – force government to be more efficient, stimulate the economy, create jobs and ultimately increase government tax revenue. Republicans repeat this over and over – their solution to everything is to cut taxes. And when government goes broke it isn’t because of low taxes, it is because of inefficiencies, unions, or illegal immigrants – that’s a really popular one. The strangest part of this to me is how little taxes end up being for so many of us. Supporting a wife and 2 kids on an income of $45K last year, with no property I paid $147. On a $250,000 home I would have paid a state average of $1500. That’s an average monthly payment of $137, or 3% of yearly income. And that’s for the privilege of living in the beautiful state of California.

Of course many simply don’t want to pay for health care, education, etc. – and although their political views are at least more consistent, they don’t represent anything like a, well, moral majority.

The worst analogy is the macro = micro. You know, the one where government budgets are equated with family budgets. “When our family can’t pay the bills, we have to cut spending”. Of course, no one would ever say, “when our family can’t pay the bills, we stop working and reduce our income”. But this is level at which many people approach economics.

I think in the end it is a fundamental ignorance of the citizenry – not of what they actually believe, but in their understanding of what policies will get them there.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Have Obama Liberals Embraced Realpolitik?

It seems to me there is still a rather large difference between the Kissinger/Kirkpatrick model and the sort that some liberals embrace. With the former, you would favor propping up this or that regime for reasons of both economic and political principle - namely to defend against foreseen anti-imperialism or communism.

Support for vicious, undemocratic brutality was justified by the greater threat of where these leftist movements were imagined to lead. Yet there was always a good deal of sympathy for the plutocratic regimes. Not only were they acting as proxies for western interests that stood to lose substantial investments, but their very existence was in large part a natural extension of the capitalist narrative: that in markets there are winners and losers, and pity he who ends up on the losing side.

Yet with modern liberal realism, concerned as it is inherently in the progressive concept of social justice, it seems you have less an apology for the propping of regimes’ right to exist, and more a pragmatic, short-term avoidance of instability so as to increase not only future democracy and economic prosperity but social equality. When undemocratic Afghanistan is given aid to go after the Taliban or Al Queda, no apologies are made for the paradigm – within the logic of liberalism it is certainly illegitimate.

What’s more, it is hard to compare the brutality of the Taliban & Al Queda with the Sandinistas or most other communist revolutionaries (although you could draw reasonable comparisons between the Taliban and Latin American Death Squads). Going further, Hamid Karzai – or even Gen. Musharaff are hardly Samoza or Pinochet.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Moral Justification for Progressive Taxation

The director of the Congressional Budget Office recently wrote a blog post about the fundamental disconnect between the American people's desire for government services - specifically entitlements - and their desire for low taxes.

I think the equations on this issue are pretty simple.

First, you have entitlement spending as a moral issue. Do people deserve these basic service guarantees?

Second, you have the efficacy of government spending. Is the government the most efficient delivery system for these services?

Third, is our economic system inherently fair? Did the winners and losers deserve their fate?

Fourth, what role does taxation play in growth? Do higher tax rates inhibit investment?

Fifth, do people really deserve their wealth? Is it justified to progressively tax higher earners?

For decades the right has railed against taxation with assumptions on all five counts: People don't deserve these guarantees; the government is wasteful and inefficient; our economic system is a meritocracy; Supply-side principles say high tax rates slow the economy; progressive taxation is immoral because it unfairly redistributes legitimately earned income.

Yet all of these assumptions hinge on a simple question: how fair is our economy - do all people have equal access to the means of success? If they do, then they should be responsible for their own fate. Neither the government nor the people have any responsibility to them. Therefore, guaranteed access to services is not necessary and they can be provided more efficiently and better by private markets. Whether or not supply-side theory is correct is really irrelevant - taxation is in principle unfair and inefficient anyway. One's income is one's own and should not be subject to redistribution.

Yet during these same decades more and more data has been collected that disproves the assumption that our economy is fair, and provides equal opportunity for all - something liberals have always known intuitively. Research in many fields has unraveled the complexities of human behavior and uncovered overwhelming evidence with only one conclusion: one's success in life is solely determined by the genes they were born with and the environment that activated them throughout their life.

Starting in the womb, human development progresses according to its environmental stimulus. This includes everything from what social scientists call "human capital" (an individual's cognitive development according to levels of lead exposure, parental linguistic feedback, peer group interaction), to what social scientists call "social capital" (an individual's exposure to the cultural information and procedures necessary for success). Any theory is only as good as its predictions. And this theory of human development and social interaction has been confirmed repeatedly.

A simple thought experiment gives you an idea of what to expect: take two embryos and place one in the belly of a happy white mother from a wealthy, educated, functional family in Connecticut. Place the other in a 17 year old black girl in Detroit who is 4 grade levels behind with anger issues, her father incarcerated, her mother addicted to methamphetamines , her home with high levels of lead and pests, etc. - you get the idea.

The obvious predicted outcomes for each child are intuitively quite different. One child would seem to have quite an advantage over the other. But what researchers have done is isolated specific factors that can be applied to each situation with powerfully predictive results. Zooming out to the macro level - looking at populations in the tens of thousands, this application of data analysis gives us a clear understanding of what it takes to be successful.
The most common reaction to all of this from the right is to dismiss it, with an appeal to free will. They will point to one or another example of a man who has "risen to the top" despite all all odds. Coming from truly wretched circumstances, he has faced down adversity and by sheer pluck and determination achieved success. If he could do it, goes the argument, then anyone could. They just have to "choose" it.

This narrative is appealing. America is full of stories such as these. Its very founding was in a sense an expression of this sensibility - the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity - writ large. And it seems reasonable: we have set up a society that encourages the freedom to achieve greatness through individual effort. It would seem that all one has to do is work hard, make the right choices and success is easily within reach.

But this story is deceptively simple. It overlooks some basic realities of human development. For starters, "the exception does not prove the rule". These individual examples indeed seem heroic. But this is precisely because we all understand intuitively that these men were outliers. The fact that we see them as exceptional is based on the reality that most in their circumstance do not fare the same. Statistical demographic data bears this out. The children of poor Detroit do not succeed at the same rate as the children of wealthy Connecticut. What must it be then about the poor children of Detroit that makes them "choose" to be unsuccessful? And what then allows the children of wealthy Connecticut NOT to choose to be unsuccessful.

Well, we know why. In fact, we know exactly why. And it has nothing to do with "choice". If a child born to poor Detroit had access to sufficient human and social capital, the likelihood of his success would be virtually guaranteed. He would make the right "choice" every time. And if the child of wealthy Connecticut only had access to low levels of human and social capital, his likelihood for success would be rather dismal.

This can all be backed up by data. Countless devoted people all over the country are working tirelessly on finding ways to close this gap. How it will be done is a difficult proposition. There are no easy answers. But one thing is clear: all people do not have equal access to the means of success; all people do not have access to the means of freedom to self-actualize. Accordingly, it is then our job as compassionate and rational, civilized citizens to do whatever it takes to achieve this. It is our constitutional obligation.

The only way to guarantee equal access to human and social capital is through government services. Charity or private industry might fill in the gaps here and there. But if we are to truly offer equal access to every citizen, government is the only entity with the means to do so. This of course requires funding, and thus taxation. As we have already established, success is dependent on genetic and social circumstance. Earned income is dependent on success. Therefore, earned income is dependent on genetic and social circumstance. It is perfectly moral then to enact a system of progressive taxation. In fact, it would be immoral not to do so.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Brooks Rematch: Choice and Cultural Psychopathology

Brooks' latest takes on the Ft. Hood massacre. I liked my comment and decided to submit it as a formal letter to the editor. (It worked before).

"Brooks sets up a false dichotomy when he describes Hasan as being either driven by psychological and emotional disturbances, or having selected from cultural and religious narratives. One is certainly at the mercy of one's mental state. But isn't one just as compelled by their cultural state as well? That is, aren't we all forced to choose from a limited palette of memories and social experiences?

Surely we are only able to "choose" one or another narrative to the degree that we possess the mental and experiential awareness to do so. This is why entire nations follow similar religions. This is why we raise our children the best we can.

Hasan chose his narrative, to the extent that he selected ideas that appealed to his experience and impulses. But this "choice" was no more his own than a neurological disorder or underdeveloped cerebral cortex would have been."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Standardized Testing = Yugos vs. Ferraris

So, as a requirement to get my credential to teach Secondary Science, I'm taking an online methods course from the UCLA extension. So far its been really fascinating. This week's reading has been on the subject of standardized testing.
Another difficulty stemming from the profusion of curricular aims that customized standards-based tests try to assess is that the tests themselves can’t possibly include a sufficient number of items to shed light on a students’ status regarding the curricular aims that do make the cut in a given year. More often than not, there’s only one item, or perhaps two, to assess students’ achievement of a specific curricular aim. Teachers really can’t get an accurate fix on a student’s mastery of a curricular aim based on only one or two items. Typically, the developers of customized standards-based accountability tests report students’ performances at more general levels of aggregation: amalgamations of students’ performance with respect to collections of a variety of curricular aims, some of them very different. This is what you see when accountability results are reported at the “strand” level or at the “content standard” level. But this kind of reporting obfuscates which curricular aims students have mastered.
Excerpted from “Transformative Assessment,” by W. James Popham, Copyright 2008, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA.

I'm not sure if I did this right, so someone correct me if I'm wrong. But what I did was create a hypothetical sample class of 10 students, (A-J). I showed the results of 10 concepts covered in class, and their respective true performance on each. They ranged from one student (A) getting 90% correct, to another (J) only getting 50%.

(click on image for larger view)
But as the reading pointed out, there is simply not enough time to test for every concept, and so they sample. Even if they try and target important, representative skills, you're still stuck with the problem of getting a poor reflection of what was taught in the classroom, much less that student's particular knowledge.

In my sketch, student B happened to miss one of the sampled concepts, and so scored a 50%, even though he was 80% mastery over all. And student J, only 50% over all, happened to get the sampled concepts correct, and so was scored 100%.

The author goes on to argue that what standardized tests end up showing is a student's SES (socioeconomic status) and inherited aptitudes. Which would explain high levels of correlation between test scores and demographics. To me this is basically what NCLB has highlighted, by making such a huge deal out of test scores with the public: that there are wide gaps in academic achievement across demographics.

Unfortunately, the take away for many here is simply that teachers are doing a terrible job. All you have to do is look at test scores as a measure of teacher performance and it looks like you have some really bad teaching going on. But of course the reality is that there are numerous other factors involved, and that while bad teaching is bad teaching, it is apples and oranges. I liken it to measuring the performance of two race car drivers, one in a Ferrari, and one in a Yugo. This would seem a terrible way to describe students (as cars), but what we are really comparing is the craftsmanship and materials used to create the individual. A student can be made into a Ferrari or a Yugo over the course of his life. But once he gets to the teacher, most of the raw materials are in place, and there is only so much the average teacher can do to get him up to speed.

Just a thought.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Thoughts on Lysergic Acid

Kleiman linked to a Nat Geo special on LSD, which made me ponder...

As a post-hippie child of Santa Cruz, CA I ended up doing LSD at the age of 9. I had scored it from an older brother and shared it with friends. I had a blast. I remember riding in the car with my mother days later and suggesting to her an insight I had developed while “frying”: maybe reality existed only “to the front of us… while what was behind us – what we could not see – was not really there.” I remember her responding to me that she had had the same thought once while on LSD herself. I had not told her about my illicit activities, but worried she was on to me. Had she only known!

A friend at the time saved a hit and later dropped it one morning before school. I heard later they sent him home after he began barking like a dog on the floor of his 5th grade classroom. As a teen he committed suicide.

Recently I reflected that during that period of time in my life my two closest friends were without fathers. One, a native American Indian (yet one more suicide statistic), lived alone with his mother in a small apartment. She was a house cleaner, and one of her ears had been burned off – I fuzzily recall it being a domestic case, but I’m unclear. The other had a father who was either dead or in prison. My father, on the other hand was our family’s sole provider, a high school teacher who cared deeply for us, but often seemed preoccupied – either physically or emotionally.

I dropped a few more times, but never close to the more than 100 my brother did. He ended up having a bad trip that induced in him an anxiety condition that he still medicates for today. Fortunately, it’s now in prescription form, with less side effects than the booze he spent his twenties downing.

I often attribute much of my lifelong battle with depression to a fracturing of my psyche received from LSD and marijuana. Of course, chronic neck pain has always been the primary causal factor. But when the shades of consciousness begin to unravel, and that dark lubrication begins to bubble, one curses anything that might have ever amplified the chaos.

And yet such bittersweet music it is. The human condition is one of fragility, defined by its penchant for wreckage.

Monday, October 26, 2009

What We Ought to Do

"But [whether or not we have free will] is PURELY IRRELEVANT because the knowledge that we lack free will does not displace that introspective awareness that we have of it. If the realization of a fact has no impact on what or how we think or do or say, then who cares?"

I completely disagree with this sentiment. I think it does have a profound on what we should think do or say. Sure, we are still determined, but we are the agents of the larger social organism and although we must do as it has created us to do, the fact that we are humans is integral to its vision - our vision - for what we ought to do. We are using this insight to extrapolate our localized behavior with our loved ones - how we wish to treat and be treated by them - to our larger community of fellow humans.

I came to my current position on free will (that we have none) from purely political and social considerations. How was it, I asked myself, that such inequality exists, especially in America as we have such a relatively robust infrastructure for personal success? As a liberal, I was troubled by conservativism's main argument for maintaining the status quo: that success is there for those who choose it. But many people don't choose it, and I began to see patterns.

When broken down by demographics, certain groups have very predictable life experiences. By adjusting variables, you can easily put life outcomes on a scatter plot and they will be highly determined.

At one end of the scale, we might have a white male born into wealth, with highly educated parents who love him and nurture him, push him academically and basically give him an optimal upbringing. On the other, we might have a black male who's father is in prison, his mother on drugs, whose school is filled with others from similar backgrounds, and he falls farther and farther behind in school.

It is obvious which child stands the better chance of success in life. Yet for all practical purposes, when the first child starts his own business and lives a life of rich luxury, we say it was his own choice - that he earned it. And when the second child drops out of school, begins selling drugs, and commits murder, we say it was his own choice - that he deserved it.

We have enormously complex social policies set up based on exactly that premise - that both of these men had a choice in their lives. Sure, occasionally individuals will perform outside the norm for our crude parameters. But the exception doesn't prove the rule, it simply calls for a more nuanced and detailed look at what those particular cases involved.

If people did indeed have free choice, we would be unable to come up with predictors for social outcomes. Education, family, neighborhood, income, etc. would have no relationship with outcomes. Every individual would be just as capable of breaking the rule, thus disproving it.

So if we are to truly take a determined view of human social behavior, we must be prepared to radically revision how we structure our society.