Class Warfare Blog

October 23, 2020

Yes, I am That Bright!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 1:18 pm

Many people have commented upon how bright I am and I thank them for their perspicacity, for recognizing that. But how brilliant am I? If you will look at the photo below and look at the Earth. Do you notice the very brightest spot down there at the tip of Lake Michigan?

That’s me.

October 19, 2020

Intelligent Design . . . Right . . .

Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:31 pm
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Some claim that all order in nature is due to them being designed by some sort of intelligent designer. Here is an example.

This photo isn’t of an abstract painting. It’s a portrait of the crystals that form after two amino acids — L-glutamine and beta-alanine — were heated in a solution made of ethanol and water. One of the compounds, L-glutamine, is a building block for proteins and ensures that the immune system can function. The other, beta-alanine, helps with muscle endurance.

Look carefully. This phantasmagoric image was created by amino acids forming crystals all on their own.

Nature is self-organizing. This is not an article of faith. It is an observation.

Photo by Justin Zoll of Ithica, New York.

October 16, 2020

They Will Have to Pry the Money Out of My Cold, Dead Hands

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics,Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 1:01 pm
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You may remember when Charlton Heston was president of the National Rifle Association (NRA). He is famous for delivering, quite theatrically, the old saw “They will have to pry my gun out of my cold, dead hands.” Basically he was stating that he would defend, even violently, his right to “bear arms.” But physical violence is on the decline and now it has been replaced by economic violence. The rich have acquired more wealth (as a percentage) than they possessed in the previous greatest episodes of U.S. history. The Robber Barons had less, the Gilded Age tycoons had less.

A major book by Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler, claims that there are but four causes of reversals of this trend: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues. These are the only thing that have reversed the “normal” trend of wealth accumulation by the wealthy, by the simple expedient of repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich and, well, the rich themselves.

The 20th century, with two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the immense communist revolution created the greatest redistribution of wealth (and power) ever seen. Unfortunately, all of the wealth redistribution that occurred after WW2 has been reversed at this point and the “normal” state of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer has been reinstated.

What is at work here is greed, pure and simple.

Before you start to believe that there is some “invisible hand” at work here, there is not. What is at work here is greed, pure and simple. The dynamics at play here are these: the rich are few and the rest of us are many. This gives the rich a large advantage in organization. The power of the rich’s money is leveraged by buying politicians. I am sure that you have seen the studies that show that the rich get the attention of politicians to a very large degree, despite they being few and the poor get zero attention from politicians despite they being many. Apparently votes do not matter and money does. This is because money buys votes and the system is biased toward the elites. The two party, winner take all, system requires that the rich only need to influence, aka bribe, the two leading candidates for any office. Both current candidates for President, for example, are both acceptable to the rich as they have been vetted and supplied with suitable leashes. (Those of you who think that Mr. Trump’s wealth insulates him from their greed need to examine his tax returns. Mr. Trump only appears to be wealthy. There are lots of people, as Chris Rock says, who are rich, but few who are wealthy. Basically, star athletes and star performers, are rich . . . the people who sign their paychecks are wealthy.

The only way to solve this problem is for the many to tax the few: that is tax the rich so that they do not accumulate distorting amounts of wealth. The problem, of course, is this is a political solution, and they are few and we are many. Of the four actual forces that affect the wealthy the only that is even mildly attractive is “transformative revolutions.” Maybe we can learn from South Africa and do this bloodlessly, with a “forgive them they know not what they have done” attitude. But I suspect they know full well what they are doing, certainly the Koch Brothers did, so this will be a hard sell at best. Maybe lynching the uber-wealthy is the way to go, but that isn’t exactly non-violent.

October 14, 2020

Some Misunderstandings About Education

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 12:46 pm

First, the current understanding of what an education is, here in the U.S., is derived from a factory model. The raw materials/feedstock, our children, are fed into one end of the system and the output is, supposedly, educated citizens coming out the other. In this viewpoint, education is something done to children. And, if we want improvements in our school systems, we look at the buildings, the teachers, the curriculum, that is we look at the factory, because it determines the output.

Instead, I suggest that education should be something we do with children. It is clear that there are children who embrace the process and get a maximal benefit from it. This is often done at first to please parents but usually turns into a self-centered love of the process, including efforts to tailor the process to the needs of the student. At the other end of the spectrum are students who feel that education is a process aimed against them, by people pretending to be their friends. They often reject their teachings and teachers and, if this is prolonged, can result in such students being relegated to an educational wasteland we call “alternative schools.” Often these are people who end up dropping out of the system, whether in attendance or not.

Clearly, the children have enough power to shape this system and should be a significant focus and source of wisdom when considering how to improve the system. But we eschew this approach because, well, they are students, what do they know?

Education is a social system and ignoring most of the participants as non-stakeholders is foolish. Expecting a similar outcome from a process when engaging such a variety of starting points is also foolish.

* * *

Second, education is a social process in which people are taught how to think (not what to think) and how to act and how to work with others. You cannot teach people how to work with one another by replacing the other students and/or teacher with a computer. To only teach kids via computer is to doom them with a vastly inferior education. Those students on Star Trek learning lessons via their tablets have an artificial intelligence at the other end, not a piece of educational software. And that process is only to supplement their face-to-face educations. (Imagine learning to interact with aliens with no aliens to interact with.)

So, the “factory model” thinkers who are looking for more cost effective ways to teach kids are doomed to failure before they even start.

I will tell you what a really expensive education is: one that fails to educate students. It is much cheaper to spend more money on getting kids into high quality educational settings than anything else. Students who find self worth in such a system are less likely to be law-breakers, drug addicts, etc. and much more likely to be productive citizens in a society such as ours. The old line about car mechanics telling you “you can pay me now or pay me (more) later” really applies here.

* * *

Third, private education is not inherently better or even inherently different from public education. There is the perception in this country that “private” is better than “public.” There is nothing to support this attitude. When widely available test scores are compared and corrected for the socioeconomic standing of the students, students in public schools do as well as students in private schools. What the private schools do, though, is to exclude the poor from their pool of students and so raise, on average, their student performances. Their curricula are not superior. Their teachers are not superior. Their facilities are not superior, they just exclude poor students by the simple expedient of charging a lot of money. A private grammar school next door to our first condo when we moved to Chicago, charges $24,000 per year to attend. Poor students had access to this school . . . they just could afford to go. Just like their parent’s have access to health care, they just can’t afford to take advantage of it.

* * *

Fourth, poverty is the enemy of educational improvement. Eliminating poverty is not a job schools can tackle but there are things that can be done to offset it. For one, all public schools should offer free breakfasts and lunches to all students. The cost of this is far less than a recent major fighter jet system that was ordered but will never be used. If we do this, then no kid can use hunger as an excuse as to why they can’t pay attention, because they won’t be hungry.

Similarly there should be common health screenings and treatments for all school kids. This would be far cheaper than the diseases spread by children when they get infected through lack of care and exposure to disease. The current pandemic is teaching us this . . . again.

Schools should work to eliminate the stigma of being poor, something promoted only by the wealthy class.

October 11, 2020

Homo Sapiens Slackers

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 12:15 pm

As most of you know “Homo sapiens” means “wise man.” Our particular species, that of modern humans, is Homo sapiens sapiens (we are “wise, wise men”?). But maybe it should be Homo sapiens slacker.

Most people now argue that the modern human species, aka “us,” dates back at least 200,000 years and maybe 300,000 years. But the “cognitive explosion” didn’t happen until 50-100,000 years ago . . . some say 80,000 years but I don’t know how specific one can be here.

This “event” was a rapid expansion of cognitive skills in human beings.

So, if we were first on earth 300,000 years ago and we started acting like modern humans 80,000 years ago, what were we doing for that first 220,000 years or so? Slacking, that’s what.

It seems probable that there was a mutation that led to our brains being able to share information better between regions of specialized function and this, in turn, led to a great leap in cognition.

Prior to the point we were more animalistic. After that point we really started showing unique mental properties. These properties involved the development of a suite of mental inferences that supported enhanced communication and enhanced societies. In my humble opinion, it also allowed religion.

Prior to this cognitive transformation, people were limited to what was real, what one could point at and touch and taste, that is “sense.” Once we developed more imaginative functions, we could predict farther into the future and also we could live with imagined causes that today make no sense to us: trees and brooks that we sentient, mountains that watched over us. Ancestral spirits that guided us or punished us.

Many of these inference systems, e.g. agency detection, have no fact-checking function built in to them. So religious ideas tapped into these functions and “felt” right to many and so were acceptable, at least memorable. Then if those concepts were reinforced, they became more and more real.

So, “religion (it is not a monolithic block) developed along with these cognitive abilities. Scientific thinking, using different inference systems, with quite different motivations, is not at all as natural as the religious thinking. It is a little easier to see this as the difference between learning a playground game and learning math. The one is easy, the other hard . . . for everybody.

I still wonder about that roughly 220,000 year period in which our ancestors, having a lifespan of 25-30 years at best, were hunting and gathering and . . . slacking evolutionarily. It was like Waiting for Godot but waiting for a mutation instead.

As a long ago commercial meme had it “you don’t mess with Mother Nature,” but Mother Nature does mess with us. It is interesting that one of our major political parties yearns for the good old days, say 80,000 years ago when religion reigned unchallenged.

All Politics is Local . . . All Religion is Local

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 12:05 pm

You are probably aware of the saying “all politics is local.” While people may blah, blah, blah about this or that national policy, all political positions are shaped by the locality of the person who creates it. States rights seems to be localized in the American South, for example.

Similarly, I contend that all religion is local and I am not referring to the fact that one’s religion is determined by where one was born more than any other factor, although that is a consequence of my claim.

Whenever atheists and theists converse, which seems to happen only on the Internet, atheists are constantly bewildered by how the religious can believe such claptrap. (I am far from immune from this disease.) But, in actuality, the religious almost never think about the philosophical or historical fine points of their religion. Most Christians haven’t even read their scriptures carefully, even those who believe that the Bible is the literal word of their god. (This is stunning to me, even though I know why they haven’t done so.)

What the religious do think about are local things. (This is why church politics is so vicious.) They think about praying for sick friends who are in hospital. They think about their stint in the church’s thrift shop or food bank. They think about preparing to lead a session of Sunday School or filling in for an ill song leader or . . . or . . . .

The illogic of their beliefs are rarely brought up and almost never dwelt upon. Things that provide a “feel good” feeling are what draws attention and effort.

I, and I think this is also true for the vast majority of atheists, have no problem with ordinary Christians. Most are good people doing the best they can. (I don’t know enough about ordinary Muslims or Buddhists to claim the same for them.) It is the proselytizers, the apologists, and the Christian nationalists who are pushing their beliefs onto others who I have a bone to pick with. Those who want Biblical Creationism taught in public schools, those who want so-called “Christian morality” in the form of the ten commandments incorporated into our laws, those who want the USA to be declared a Christian nation, these are who I oppose and most strongly.

The locally religious  are usually harmless, except when they support the efforts of the people mentioned above. (Surveys of “ordinary” Muslims show they support Sharia law and the death penalty for blasphemy. Those taking the law into their own hands to perform executions of blasphemers and killing women in “Honor Killings,” receive much support from ordinary Muslims for their actions. Would not things be different if ordinary believers felt differently? The same is true for ordinary Christians.)

Oh, and in addition to the “All . . . is local” rules, there is also the dictum of “Follow the money” which applies both to politics and religion.

The War Between Religion and Science

Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:03 pm
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Plenty has been written on this topic, including by me. It is interesting as there really isn’t anything that can be called “religion” or really “science” for that matter. There are not real things.

Science is what scientists do, a set of behaviors and thoughts, maybe. At best it can be considered a culture. Religion is no one thing. The Cargo Cults and the Catholic Church have very little in common.

In his book, Religion Explained, Pascal Boyer makes the point that religions use ordinary mental processes (he actually uses the phrase “hijacks normal inference systems”) that were designed by evolution (for other purposes).

To vastly oversimplify this, consider the scheme of System 1 and System 2 thinking invented by Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow was his landmark book). Type 1 thinking is fast, intuitive, emotional, unconscious thought. The Type 2 system is slow, calculating, analytical, conscious thought (think math problems). The big difference between Type 1 and Type 2 thinking is that Type 1 is fast and easy but very susceptible to bias, whereas Type 2 is slow and requires conscious effort but is much more resistant to cognitive biases.

Religion uses the Type 1 system. Science uses the Type 2 system.

We have evolved both kinds of thinking for very good reasons. For example, if you hear a grizzly bear growl very loud behind you, you do not want to be cogitating over which species of Ursus that growl might belong to, you want to be skeedaddling as fast as possible. Similarly, if you want to master the game of chess, or design a self-propelled vehicle, or a computer, intuition won’t get you very far.

These two systems really can’t war with one another.

If I may quote Boyer: “The religion-versus-science debate took a special turn in the West because of the existence not only of doctrinal religion but of a monopolistic doctrinal religion that made the crucial mistake of meddling in empirical statements of fact, providing us with a long list of particularly precise, official and officially compelling statements about the cosmos and biology, supposedly guaranteed by Revelation, that we now know to be false.” (page 320)

This is the equivalent of the meme “I found your nose . . . it was in my business again.”

But having lost every single disagreement between religious facts and scientific facts has resulted in the religious retreating into their Type 1 thinking zone, saying that religion addresses a special domain of human existence. (The touchy-feely zone? The Twilight Zone?)

Actually there is no war. The religious drifted out of their lane because of ignorance, and got smacked around for it. There is no contest here, so there is no war. The lanes are not race lanes.

Interestingly I see many, many questions on Quora addressing such lane changes, so the “faith” of religion encourages Type 1 thinking in that it “feels right” intuitively but ends up with still many religious practitioners trying to start the car they took the engine out of last year. It is too much trouble to lift up the hood of the car to find out why it wont start, that would involve Type 2 thinking and that is discouraged in all religions. (Curiously Type 2 thinking is allowed in “church fathers” and other intelligentsia (apologists, etc.) as long as they are on a leash, a leash that is held by the church.)

October 8, 2020

The Limits of School Choice

Filed under: Education,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:28 pm
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I have written before about the “school choice movement,” a thinly disguised privatizing campaign seeking to suck up some of those public dollars being spent on public education. Basically, once “financiers” had ravaged all of the private economic segments, they decided that the vast untapped market of “education” was the last frontier for their rapaciousness.

Lets look at the idea from a cost benefit basis.

Suppose you live in a smallish town which supports a number of grade schools, maybe a middle school or two and a single high school. Your community does it best to create good schools with the highest community standards they can muster but, of course, there are limitations. This high school cannot offer every possible course that might serve a small cluster of students, so they focus on offering courses that will serve the majority.

So, is having a second school even an option for such a community? The answer is clearly no. Dividing the communities funds into two pools to offer the same curriculum doesn’t make any sense at all. This would involve and increase in infrastructure costs with no increase in capacity. So, could not each of the two schools focus their efforts, such as one being an arts magnet school and the other a science magnet school (just for example)? Again, this is problematic. What if the two clusters are of unequal size with the arts school having twice the number of students as the science school? And why spread them out? Why not have schools within the original school, so that classes in both areas could be available to all students? Why deprive the science students of the art classes being taught at the other school? (Scientists are often drawn to music; one of my chemistry professors was a performing cellist.)

Okay we now move up a notch. Our community is now large enough to support two high schools. Should competition between these two play a role in the running of these two schools? For example, let’s say that one school is clearly superior to the other, and you decide to let the parent’s choose which school to place their kids in. (I have seen this happen in public schools through the simple expedient of parent’s lying about where they lived, using an aunt’s address for example to get their kid into a desirable school.) In this case, knowledgeable parents will sign their kids up to the “good” school and desert the “bad” school. The “good” school will suffer from overloading issues (large class sizes, teacher burnout from trying to interact with too many students, wear and tear on facilities, etc.) and the “bad” school will suffer from small class sizes (limiting student interactions), inability to field sports teams, inability to offer classes in advanced topics due to low enrollment, etc.

Plus, you have to ask how it is that parents determine which school is good and which is bad. If we take how well they are informed when it comes to voting as an example, their education “decisions” won’t be as informed as we all might wish them to be.

Currently, schools are set up, mostly, to serve geographic communities. This does have some advantages for racists, of course, with the whole school busing movement testifies to, But there are legitimate reasons for this also. Would you want your child taking a one-hour bus ride, each way, every day for school? Would you want to drive them to school and back this way (four hours per day driving for you)? Such schools also can be more community oriented. Schools in farming regions can teach agriculture courses, for example. (I lived in a rural community in which the high school had a gunsmithing course.) Schools near technology centers can teach more tech classes, etc. That is these schools can teach topics that lead to employment in their community, which helps keep communities together, instead of kids drifting away from the community to find work. Community colleges exemplify these goals.

So, now let’s look at large school districts, having multiple high schools. Is competition between any of them at all good (outside of between student athletic or academic teams)?

To engage in competition that is considered healthy and which leads to superior “products” you have to ask whether or not the “competitors” are equipped to compete. In the major metropolitan area I now live in (Chicago), the athletic teams are segregated by school population. The really large schools don’t compete against tiny schools. The large schools have all of the advantages and would just crush the smaller school teams. The same issues apply to school academic issues. Large schools have thousands of candidates for any sport or academic team (e.g. debate, Math Olympiad, etc.). The really small schools may have only dozens. This is why they make sport movies, e.g. Hoosiers, about a small school team beating a large school team for a championship. Just through sheer numbers, the larger schools have great advantages.

So, let’s say that schools do compete. Do they have control over the tools of competition? Control over things like budget, coaching, teacher quality, etc? Largely they do not. In wealthier areas, there are alumni support groups who donate funds to support athletic teams. In poor areas, the parents cannot afford such things. In rich areas, the tax base is greater and financial support is better. In rich areas, teachers have better living conditions. School districts, no matter how much they recruit, do not determine who applies for teaching jobs at their schools, the teachers make those decisions.

Once teachers are hired, is there an infrastructure in place to determine which are really good, which are adequate and which are so poor as to deserve being fired? The answer is kinda sorta, unfortunately. Unlike in business, there are no production or sales parameters that can be used to determine which people are pulling their own weight. (My own experience is that the vast majority of teachers are “competent.” Very few are brilliant or exemplary and also very few are so bad as to need their contracts terminated.

Now, are their any examples of what competition does for the schools? It turns out there is. A recent survey determined the highest paid “state employee” of each state of the US. Who do you think it turned out to be highest paid state employee most frequently? The governors? The presidents of university systems? The heads of public healthcare networks or public utilities? In most states, the highest paid state employee . . . drum roll, please . . . was one of the state’s university’s football coaches. This is what competition gets you . . . vastly overpaid employees . . . which always have vastly underpaid employees elsewhere as a compensation. In a university system where Nobel-prize winning academics can only hope for a salary as high as $200,000 annually, football coaches make five, six, seven million dollars for the same term.

So, we must be very careful in determining who reaps the benefits of competition as it isn’t always the people being served.

I cannot fathom a scenario in which school competition benefits the students most. We have seen charter school after charter school close business, some do this before they have officially opened. In business this is acceptable, but in educating the youths of our community, this is unacceptable. Those students are required, by law, to be educated. The money spent to educate those students at the closing charter schools is gone. But those students will be lined up for admission at the public schools the very next day and they cannot be turned away . . . no “Sorry, you have already spent your allocation of public education money, you will have to wait until next year to continue your education.” Imagine having been sold a lemon of a car and then dumping that and lining up at a government office for free public transportation. Is that happening anywhere? Does anyone actually want that kind of “education insurance”?

The charter school movement is sucking the funds out of our public schools systems. They are enabled in this effort by supportive politicians which make up supportive laws just for them . . . and these politicians receive “campaign donations,” aka bribes, from the charter operators to do this, often using public funds they were given for other purposes. (Any public school system doing that would result in people in jail.) The charter operators claim to offer “school choice” . . . but do they? Testing shows that charter schools are little different from public schools in educational outcomes. They differ solely in their ability to go out of business, which they do at alarming rates. So, what kind of choice is this? It is a bogus choice. It is like a restaurant making extravagant claims about the quality of their food, so you go and find out that their food is awful. The restaurant doesn’t care because they already have your money and they aren’t dependent upon repeat business. This is the Achilles heel of the “competition” argument. Modern marketing allows people to be hoodwinked into buying what they are selling. When they don’t deliver, you have no recourse. And, they are not dependent upon you being a repeat customer.

There is a word for this kind of business, several actually: scam, con, Ponzi scheme, etc.

Now, I do not deny that there are some reputable charter schools, who serve students adequately. But are these really a “choice” that makes anything better? Imagine a community that has a dozen different car dealerships. Then someone opens up a second, say, Chevrolet dealership which offers the same models at the same prices as the one already there. Do you really have any additional choice or are you and the other car buyers just spreading your car buying money around into more hands?

A Fix for the Current Debate Problems

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:13 pm

What are called presidential and vice-presidential debates are not really debates. At best they are joint news conferences, so I don’t bother watching as they are neither a good source of political information nor amusement.

But there is a simple technofix to the Gish Galloping presidential debate style displayed by Mr. Trump.

At the start of the debate, candidates are told that they have a total of say, 40 minutes of speech. If they speak, their microphone starts their countdown timer. When they run out of time, their microphone shuts off and a Cone of Silence descends over the candidate’s head.

So, if one candidate wants to talk over another, his timer just keeps running. When he runs out of time, all of his opponent’s time can be spent, speaking freely, with the interrupter turned into a stage prop.

An alternative to this, that might be even more entertaining, is to give each candidate a kill switch to their opponent’s microphone. If one candidate is answering a question and gets interrupted, he can “kill” the other’s mic. If the interrupter retaliates by killing the answerer’s mic, all timings stop and we wait out the situation. Everyone will see who the interrupter was and who was stopping the debate from proceeding. Eventually, the candidate who is on the timer will have to be allowed to speak, and the longer he cannot, the more petty and small will be the interrupter sitting on his kill switch be seen as being.

Now, it gets interesting. You are in a “kill switch deadlock” and the person on the clock (having the right to speak uninterrupted) can let off the kill switch (lights can be rigged to see when these switches are activated, so this can all be followed. So, the interrupter’s mic is made live and if the interrupter speaks, his mic is killed again. If he continues to sit on his kill switch, depriving his opponent of the chance to speak, this “defense” can be repeated over and over. Each time the interrupter tries to speak out of turn is another rules violation.

To make it really interesting, you could combine these two in which the time spent interrupting could be transferred to the other candidate when a “kill switch deadlock” occurs through interruption.

Let the games begin!

Hey, if we are not to be informed at least let us be entertained. Even flies know this simple fact.

October 6, 2020

Everchanging Evangelicals

Filed under: History,Politics,Religion,Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 11:53 am

If you were to inform American Evangelicals from the past about what their brethren are doing now, they would be appalled.

During the debate over the adoption of the new Constitution, guess who supported church-state separation? Evangelicals.

During the abolistion period prior to and after the civil war, who was anti-racism, and anti-slavery . . . vigorously? Evangelicals.

What’s that rumbling sound, you ask? That stems from those evangelicals rolling over in their graves at the Chrsitian nationalist, racist Evangelicals of our age.

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