Class Warfare Blog

January 28, 2019

Not a Very Capital Idea

Filed under: Culture — Steve Ruis @ 12:11 pm
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When I was a babe, acronyms were punctuated. For example, the IRS was “the I.R.S.,” to alert people to the “shorthand” being employed. (It was also standard, to use the full name followed by the intended acronym or contraction in parentheses, when first mentioned, for example “. . . the Internal Revenue Service (I.R.S.) . . . ” again to alert people of the use of the shorthand version. We dropped the periods some time ago. Afterward we just used “all caps” to signify an acronym.

All of that is now out the window (is there an abbreviation for defenestration?) and AIDS has become Aids, the FBI the Fbi, the IRS became the Irs, NASA became Nasa, NOAA became Noaa, and so on. These are now thrown in with no explanation or clarification, you are supposed to know them already.

As casual as people have become with capitalization (due to cellphone typing?) we are setting ourselves up for even more miscommunication with this new practice.

And … at around the same time, titles have been decapitalized, e.g. The Sound and the Fury has become “The sound and the fury.” even so far as to have a full stop/period at the end of the title! (Note Titles are rarely sentences requiring a period.) I do not see how these changes improve our ability to communicate.

As mentioned, I think the source of these changes has probably crept into ordinary usage because of cell phones. The “keyboards” of these little fuckers are arcane at best. Earlier on, if you hit the “All Caps” button, it stayed on. Now, often as not, it lasts for only one character, so if you want to type “NASA” you have to hit <Caps Key> then N, <Caps Key> then A, <Caps Key> then S, <Caps Key> then A! Eight strokes whereas if the caps key stayed on until taken off, it would be five. No wonder that people send messages looking like they have been written by e.e. cummings.

I think article and book titles got screwed up by magazines, trying for ever more trendy looks in their pages. Most ordinary creativity comes through breaking rules (extraordinary creativity involves setting new rules). So magazine article titles, which were ordinary in their capitalization became eye catching by “breaking the mold” or “breaking the rules.” Actually I think this began with advertisements which are in the “Hey, look at me!” business big time. From there it spread to the rest of the magazines pages. (Can you remember back when people were complaining that they couldn’t tell the adverts from the articles in trendy magazines? This was because they were copying one another’s styles. Now, we are used to it, although still fooled as to which is which from time to time.

Punctuation evolves. We no long hyphenate fireplace (fire-place) or tomorrow (to-morrow). We no long use periods between the letters of an acronym. Most of these things are good things as they pare away unnecessary characters (FBI doesn’t need periods (F.B.I.) because of the all-caps being used as a signifier already. I sincerely hope that when such changes occur and they are found to be unhelpful, that we either change them back or to something else that is.


May 29, 2018

GMO Skepticism

A recent research effort showed than in some areas, anti-science attitudes are strongly correlated with religion (surprise, surprise). In other areas, there were correlations with science knowledge or rather the lack thereof, supporting those who think that science education is an effective way to combat anti-science attitudes.

One such example of the latter involved the safety of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The researchers found that those who possessed more science knowledge favored GMOs and those with less science knowledge did not.

I have a fair amount of science knowledge and I do not favor GMOs … currently. My attitude was bolstered by the release … finally …. of studies that show that, once again, Monsanto Corporation is bilking the public. Monsanto created “Roundup” a weed killer that actually worked. The problem with Roundup is that if you spray it on a weed and accidentally spray a patch of lawn, it dies too. Roundup is a vegetation killer. So, Monsanto created GMO crops (corn, wheat, potatoes, whatever) that would resist the effects of Roundup, boosting the sales of Roundup as a weed-control agent for farmers and by creating a massive market in their new Roundup resistant seeds.

Monsanto promised increased yields using the new seed and Roundup weed control. So, is that what happened. Well, the study is now in and the difference between Monsanto-focussed fields and control fields is zero, zip, nada. Gosh, you spend that much more money and you’d think it just has to be better. well, it is … better for Monsanto’s bottom line.

Now I will not argue that GMOs do not have benefits, that would be silly. I would argue that we need to look carefully at the benefits and the costs, especially the potential costs. In the Roundup study, the costs were high and the benefits almost nonexistant.

When I first became aware of GMOs, the big “product” was a more “machine harvestable” tomato that had better eating properties. The way this was achieved was to splice into the tomato’s genome some DNA contributed by a trout, yes, a fish. My argument to “go slow” on GMOs goes like this:

We have been genetically modifying crops since the beginning of agriculture. We did this first by choosing to use the seed from plants that gave the best harvest or the best quality of produce and eschewing using seed from lesser plants. Further down the road, we learned how plants propagate and learned how to cross breed plants to make sturdier hybrids. (This is how we pulled off the Green Revolution; we made “dwarf” versions of wheat and rice that had shorter, stronger stalks that could support heavier grain heads, then we used chemical fertilizers up the whazoo to boost the seed cluster sizes (and as a side effect, we have polluted our waterways with these chemicals creating dead zones in our seas the size of small planetoids).)

These “traditional” processes allow nature to have veto power over anything we try. Each stage of a hybridization either produces a viable plant or not. If not, it produces no seed and that possibility is vetoed. It is a little like breeding horses. If horses are bred to horses, the offspring are viable and can breed. If horses are bred to donkeys, you get mules which are viable but cannot breed (end of the road). If horses are bred with cats … ? No one has ever tried this you say. Hmm,  I wonder why?

In the modern GMO process, the genetic material itself is changed directly and nature only has a say as to whether the end product is viable. The result has not been vetted by nature other than in this manner.

So, how do you cross breed a tomato and a trout? If you thought a horse-cat hybrid was crazy, what the hell do you think of a tomato-trout hybrid?

Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. What happens to the trout genes in the tomato when the tomato’s genome gets out and interacts with the world at large? But, but, but farmers are used to hybrids that can’t reproduce, you argue. You should take it up with the farmers who are in court suing their neighbors who said the GMO crops they planted couldn’t possibly “get out” and start growing in their neighbor’s fields. (They did.)

Plus, hybridized crops do breed, they just don’t “breed true,” meaning you are much more likely to get the parent stock sprouting than the hybrid stock. I remember my father gathering up the tomato plants that sprouted in our compost heap each spring, replanting them, culling the “bad” ones, but then harvesting “heritage tomatoes” before that term was made common. They breed, just not true.

More info here.

December 18, 2017

Where Do Thoughts Come From?

Filed under: Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:31 am
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My free will post has suggested a couple of follow-ups. One such topic is the illusions of consciousness. A common manifestation of one of these is the general idea that we control our thoughts, that we create our own conscious thoughts, well, consciously.

It ain’t so, I am afraid.

Any one who has spent time learning to meditate can attest to this. Part of meditation is clearing one’s mind of thoughts, to experience some “peace of mind,” as it were. This is a bitch, if you will excuse the expression. Our consciousness essentially bubbles with unbidden thoughts. If we create them, why can we not just turn them off?

The simple answer is we can’t because “we” do not create them. The obvious question then is, “Well, then who does?”

I do not know and I do not think anyone else knows, but I can hazard an educated guess. It all stems from imagination. Imagination seems to be a mental ability that manifests itself in us creating a simulacrum of reality in our heads and then we can “imagine” or basically do experiments in that imaginary world with no real repercussions if “mistakes are made.” This ability leads to a much greater ability to survive and pass on our genes, aka evolutionary success. Consider an animal operating on instinct, that is hardwired mental programs. We are out of the African savanna, where humans evolved to our current form, and there is tall grass with a rustling in it a bit of a ways off. It could just be a gust of wind, or it could be a predator, moving through the grass coming their way. The animal becomes more alert, using vision and hearing to detect clues as to what it is. If there is no further disturbance, they go about their business. Predators, of course, learned from this behavior, learned to advance toward the prey stealthily … and then stop from time to time in utter stillness, to get the prey to ignore the stimulus of its approach. The prey animals, if they see or hear certain stimuli run away (the response is “fight or flight” and prey animals are better at the latter).

When we developed imagination as a mental tool, then we had more options. For one we could imagine that the disturbance was due to a wind zephyr and then imagine it was due to a predator. The consequences of the disturbance being due to a predator are far worse, so adopting a strategy of moving off now would be the most prudent. (This, of course, led us to believe in unseen movers and shakers we called spirits, demons, gods, etc.)

Now, if we were thinkers only in the conscious sense, we would have to stop what we were thinking, analyze the situation, run a few simulations through our imagination, and then act or not on what we learned. If this were the basis of the mutation/adaption that gave us imagination, we would have ended up in the bellies of predators too frequently and that mutation/adaption would have proved “non-viable” because it is too slow. Instead, our subconscious mental processing power kicks in to create all kinds of such things at a rate much faster than we can do consciously. (Remember, subconscious mental activities are the “fast” in Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow.) So, the subconscious “us” has the job of rapidly exploring myriad scenarios and alerting the conscious “us” if one of them reaches “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” levels.

We have evolved to generate thoughts that correspond to real reality and imagined reality. So, these come at us fast and furiously. Most of these subconscious thoughts that leak into our conscious are ignored as they carry little weight. If something is really serious, we get signals we cannot ignore, including heart palpitations, sweating, panting breaths, etc. As I mentioned, we do not have much, if any, conscious control over our bodily functions.

Some of us are better at this and some are worse. If we are better at generating images, thoughts, patterns, etc. then we find meditating more difficult, because of the sheer volume of such things flitting about. If we are less imaginatively energetic, meditation comes easier. (One is not necessarily better than the other, just different.)

I suspect an individual’s creativity comes from an ability to access that river of thoughts and images and feelings that are running through our brains subconsciously. Those people will have more options for artistic expression or really any other form of expression.

This is all quite speculative, of course, but I suspect there may be a grain or two of truth in it. We will see as currently we are learning a great deal more about non-conscious modes of thought. (Thank you, inventors of brain scanners.) But do keep in mind that we do not yet know how memories are storied, a basic function of our mentality, so we are just at the beginnings of understand such subjects. We might even get a handle on whether there is such a thing as free will.

January 7, 2017

A Thought About the Universal Basic Income, Feminism, and “Family Values”

I just had a massive collision in my mind while reading about the possibilities of having a Universal Basic Income. It was caused by three things colliding simultaneously (a very rare feat, even in physics): the idea of a universal basic income, the feminist idea of a wage for “homemakers,” and a smattering of conservative family values.

As you may recall, conservatives have this ideal family meme that appears to be out of the 1950’s. Mom and Dad live with their two children, a boy and girl, in a lovely home with green grass and a white picket fence defining its perimeter. Dad goes to work, Mom stays at home, raising the kids and caring for the home and Dad. They go, of course, to a protestant church and the kids attend good schools and all is well.

This ideal had a massive dent put in it during the reign of … wait for it … President Ronald Regan. It wasn’t exactly his fault, but Presidents get more of the credit and so get more of the blame, so that principle applies. The lifestyle of middle class Americans had become so eroded and RR had increased taxes enough on everyone (to pay for the tax cuts for the rich)—many people forget about Reagan’s massive tax increases, especially in payroll taxes (which do not affect the wealthy much)—that many “homemakers” found themselves in the workforce and no longer “at home moms.”

Feminists, on the other hand, showed us that women were trapped in this model family, in a role of caretaker for husband and children, with little power over their own lives and family directions. (Studies showed that as women earned more and more money starting in the Reagan years, they had more and more say over the family money.)

So, if conservatives really wanted to support their so-called “family values” (that is, were that support not a scam), why not give all women who have “under 18” children at home, a Universal Basic Income? This would recognize important work the government, that is all of the people, want done well—raising the next generation of citizens. It would clear a lot of people out of the job markets who really would rather not work (at least during this time), which would expand employment opportunities for other people. It would provide for the possibility of the better raising of kids, and it would reduce the wear and tear on mothers, eliminating their need to work, while allowing them to work if they wish but not requiring them to work, if they wish.

This would be “universal” only in that it would apply to all mothers.

And, yes, I can hear the conservative’s heads exploding that such a system would incentivize the lazy and shiftless to keep popping out babies in order to continue on the dole. Obviously, some standards of care for children need to be applied to avoid obvious abuse, but such situations would be rare, very rare, and the idea itself is colored by the imaginations of conservatives, because when they think of such hypothetical people, they are invariably black or brown. They will need to get over this and come up with useful ways to avoid having children abused for economic gain, something conservatives reserve for their charter schools.

Make it work, people! You can do it!

January 4, 2017

Conservatives Find this Lack of Greed Un-American

Filed under: Business,Culture — Steve Ruis @ 8:44 am
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The owner of a bookstore business is just going to give the business away! Shocking!

Final Chapter for Petaluma Bookstore

I am sure conservatives are scurrying to find away to block this abominable action, before it becomes a trend!

May 12, 2016

American Exceptionalism Triumphs

In the most recent New York Times Magazine there is an article with the intriguing title “When Do You Give Up On Treating A Child With Cancer?” I am sure that title was carefully crafted by some editor to evoke a significant emotional response. Unbeknownst to him/her, the American Healthcare System, the Best System in the World (according to Donald Trump and most conservative drudges) has made this question moot.

Parent’s need not struggle with heart rending existential problems any more, at least not in the medical arena. The answer to the question “When do you give up on treating a child with cancer?” is answered by the system itself. The answer is …

… when you run out of money.

May 16, 2014

Incredibly Stupid Questions

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 12:18 pm
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Apparently my former profession (education) attracts the dumbest ideas. The latest is clearly defined in an on-line debate in the pages of the N.Y. Times. The debate question was “Should Young Children Learn Coding?”

What a purely idiotic idea. Move it into any other field: should children learn automotive mechanics before being allowed to drive? Should children learn how food is grown before being allowed to eat? Should children learn how to write computer code before being allowed to use computers?

Did we ask students to learn how typewriters work before allowing them to take typing? No, learning how to type comes first.

Dumb, dumb, dumb. A computer is a tool. Craftsmen learn how to use their tools. Later they might be interested in how they work, but that is a different sort of desire, an academic desire, from learning how to use them. The useful learning is in how to use the tool. The work a computer does is far removed from the coding. We tap keys and stuff happens on the screen. Learning what keys cause what to happen in what software package is useful learning. Learning to write code that will be totally useless in ten years is just stupid.

Plus, do you know what a job in computer coding pays? I’ll tell you: squadoosh, squat, zippety doo doo. Most of the coding jobs are low paying because they are tedious and repetitious. The ones who make money are the software designers and the software sales people.

The only thing a child could learn from learning how to code is that we can control what a computer does. I learned that by accidentally kicking the electrical plug out of its socket for a teletype terminal that was rattling off uncontrollably. They all stop when the plug is pulled. That’s real power, real control.


February 4, 2014

Making the Same Mistake Over and Over

In his column today (What Machines Can’t Do, N.Y. Times) David Brooks takes a whack to being a seer, this time looking forward to what mental abilities people will need more of in the future. To wit: “As this happens, certain mental skills will become less valuable because computers will take over. Having a great memory will probably be less valuable. Being able to be a straight-A student will be less valuable — gathering masses of information and regurgitating it back on tests. So will being able to do any mental activity that involves following a set of rules.

All of this will turn out to be quite mistaken. Oh, there I go, being a seer myself!

I am basing my opinion on history. Let’s take “Being a straight-A student will be less valuable” and it’s linked idea of “gathering masses of information and regurgitating it back on tests.” Our first college of any note was Harvard. Its goal was to create ministers of religion and maybe a few lawyers and such. To graduate one necessarily had to read aloud from Latin and/or Greek texts, that was basically the culmination/final examination of one’s education. One didn’t need things like biology or chemistry, certainly not computer science or engineering, as they didn’t exist yet. One studied things like rhetoric and philosophy.

What one studies today to get a BA degree is vastly different, even at Harvard. And if all one is doing is “gathering masses of information and regurgitating it back on tests” one is not getting much of an education. My education is 50 years old at this point and while there was a sizeable portion of such “learning,” as I progressed there was less and less of it. Instead we had to take our learning and apply it. (As chemistry majors we joked that a common test question was “show the synthesis of DNA from Fire, Air, Earth, and Water.”) Questions were convoluted and tough. I remembered a senior level course final exam on which I scored 40%. I had the second highest score. We had seen nothing like the questions we got on that test. We were even allowed to use our textbooks. (I didn’t because it was a sign of being clueless.)

Mr. Brooks idea that an education involves little more than the regurgitation of facts leads me to challenge his own education. Was that what his was like?

In any case, what a “straight-A student” is like now is vastly different from any time period in the past and will continue to morph as we move into the future. The whole point of “being a straight-A student” is relevance. If it becomes irrelevant we will have hugely lost our way.

Moving on to “Having a great memory will probably be less valuable.” There is a bit of truth to this but only a bit. This is a common trope amongst people that “you can just look stuff up on the Internet.” A stupid comment if there ever was one. For example: open up a browser window and ask Google how to spell a word you do not know how to spell. Type that word in carefully; just because you don’t know how to spell it is no excuse. I am being clever, but we faced the same thing in grade school when we were encouraged to use dictionaries to help with word spellings. The prerequisite to finding a word in any dictionary was knowing how to spell it.

Studies have shown that the more you know, the easier it is to find what you want to find, no matter the source being searched. So, having a good memory will always be useful, always be prized. This may change when we get around to making small personal devices with near human AIs built in, but I can see the comedy sketches already where artificial intelligences are frustrated by being chained to such stupid humans, humans who can even accurately describe what it is they want their AIs to do.

Predictions a la those of Mr. Brooks have been made in the past. They have been invariably wrong. But we seem to be driven to speculate about such things as the value and kind of an education, even though we haven’t a clue, really, of what the future will hold. What we have learned is that it is important to change what “being educated” means as it does change over time. Apparently, how it will change is anybody’s guess.

December 17, 2013

Getting an Education

There is a movement to use various test scores as indicators of educational quality and teacher quality. A recent MIT study shows that such tests don’t do what people assume they do. Most people think of a test as a “difficult” task and that you either do well or not and it means something. How this has been reshaped to become an evaluation of the test giver is beyond me. A small part I can understand, a major part, no.

The MIT researchers found, among other things, that students who were randomly selected to attend high-performing charter schools did significantly better on the math test than those who were not chosen, but there was no corresponding increase in “fluid intelligence scores.” Such skills are described as “fluid” because they require using logical thinking and problem solving in novel situations, rather than recalling previously learned facts and skills. “It doesn’t seem like you get these skills for free in the way that you might hope, just by doing a lot of studying and being a good student,” said the study’s senior author, John Gabrieli, in a statement.

I was a teacher for 35 years. Along the way I told every group of students that “what you get by coming to class is “schooled;” an education is what you get between classes.” What I meant by that is the private study, the extracurricular reading, the bullshit sessions, the arguments, the discussions, the exposure to other people and their ideas, and the intellectual stimulus you get from having your ideas challenged is what results in a student becoming “educated.”

The current “educational reformists” are willing to settle for “schooled” students who then get plugged into “jobs.” When I was young, I was told that prime objectives of my education were to become a functioning member of a democracy and to live a good life. They didn’t mention “jobs,” not before high school (people actually went to work after high school back then, you know).

Turning our schools into the corporate minor leagues is not a good idea . . . for anyone.

December 11, 2013

Will We Ever Learn . . .

I have written before about Massive Open Online Courses having been touted as a major innovation in how we educate college students. I argued that there is a long history of such innovations and they have all failed. I argued, and continue to argue, that education is a social activity and any barrier put between the human beings involved will diminish success. I do not mean that under extraordinary circumstances, a few students can’t succeed fabulously using some form of distance learning, just that such things make the process much harder for the bulk of students.

Consider the following from today’s New York Times:
A study of a million users of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, released this month by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found that, on average, only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses.

Four percent! Wow, what a success rate! Now consider what students and other adults do with “social media.” There is frantic activity to share what the participants are doing socially. Huge amounts of time and effort are spent sharing social activities, but not face-to-face. How effective do you think those actions are in improving the social lives of the participants? Do you think those efforts are worthwhile or closer to what I call a GWOT or a Giant Waste of Time?

So, my question is, why take an intense social activity like education and insert the same barriers to success that social media do?

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