Tag Archives: education

January 2018 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Larry Summers says we have a better than even chance of recession in the next three years. Sounds bad, but I wonder what that stat would look like for any randomly chosen three year period in modern history.
  • The United States is involved in at least seven wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan. Nuclear deterrence may not actually the work.
  • Cape Town, South Africa is in imminent danger of running out of water. Longer term, there are serious concerns about snowpack-dependent water supplies serving large urban populations in Asia and western North America.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

reading and the brain

There is a fair amount of evidence that reading is good for the brain. One of the reasons is that reading narratives and having to get into the characters’ heads helps to build empathy in real life.

Improved theory of mind comes primarily from reading narratives, research suggests. One meta-analysis published by Raymond A. Mar of Toronto’s York University reviews many of the studies demonstrating the effect of story comprehension on theory of mind, and concludes that the better we understand the events in a narrative, the better we are able to understand the actions and intentions of those around us. The kinds of narratives we read, moreover, might also make a difference. One study, conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School for Social Research, tested the effect of differences in writing quality on empathy responses, randomly assigning 1,000 participants excerpts from both popular bestsellers and literary fiction.

The type of writing appears to matter, with more literary fiction helping more than best-sellers or non-fiction. A piece of good news is that audiobooks seem to be fine. The article doesn’t get into electronic vs. paper forms of reading, or reading vs. television or video games. It does quote one neuroscientist who questions whether reading is really special compared to other forms of experience.

One hypothesis I have, based on my own experience with people who can’t read in two different corners of the world, is that reading could change the nature of a person’s verbal skills, and not necessarily for the better. People who can’t read sometimes have the “gift of gab”, are good storytellers, and are good at teaching children to speak their native language. And similar to teaching small children, they can be incredibly patient with illiterate foreigners like myself, where an educated person would not have the patience, or somehow, maybe not have the empathy, to do that. So while I think reading and writing and certainly very important to our species, they also may have changed us along the way.

2017 in Review

Most frightening stories of 2017:

  • January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
  • MarchLa Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
  • May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
  • JuneThe Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
  • August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
  • September: During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
  • October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
  • November: I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.

Most hopeful stories of 2017:

Most interesting stories that weren’t particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
  • February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
  • May: The sex robots are here.
  • June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • September: I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • November: It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
  • DecemberMicrosoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.

I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:

Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.

Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.

Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.

Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.

Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.

Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.

But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!

men and automation-driven job loss

This Wired article, despite its offensive title (MEN WILL LOSE THE MOST JOBS TO ROBOTS, AND THAT’S OK), makes some interesting points that the kinds of jobs being automated today might disproportionately affect men.

Robots are coming for our jobs—but not all of our jobs. They’re coming, in ever increasing numbers, for a certain kind of work. For farm and factory labor. For construction. For haulage. In other words, blue-collar jobs traditionally done by men…

Some political rhetoric blames outsourcing and immigration for the decline in “men’s work,” but automation is a greater threat to these kinds of jobs—and technological progress cannot be stopped at any border. A recent Oxford study predicted that 70 percent of US construction jobs will disappear in the coming decades; 97 percent of those jobs are held by men, and so are 95 percent of the 3.5 million transport and trucking jobs that robots are presently eyeing. That’s scary, and it’s one reason so many men are expressing their anger and anxiety at home, in the streets, and at the polls.

While all of this is going on, though, there’s a counter­phenomenon playing out. As society panics about bricklaying worker droids and self-driving 18-wheelers, jobs traditionally performed by women—in the so-called pink-collar industries, as well as unpaid labor—are still relatively safe, and some are even on the rise. These include childcare. And service. And nursing, which the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will need a million­-plus more workers in the next decade.

Because when I walk by Bubba the construction worker with his cat calling and cigar smoking I think, that’s the guy I want to leave alone in my home with my children. Of course, that’s as stereotype, but I pass a few Bubbas on the way to my job every day, where I pound on a keyboard alongside men and women. I’m willing to buy the idea that manly jobs are filled mostly by men, but I’m not willing to buy the idea that most men work at manly jobs. I don’t have the stats, but I willing to speculate there are a lot of us men pounding on keyboards for every manly lumberjack and cowboy out there. I wouldn’t discourage my son from considering a career in nursing or elementary school teaching, if that interests him, but more likely I will gently steer both my son and daughter toward technical fields like computer science, genetics, or engineering where they can be the ones designing and directing the technologies that is changing all our lives. I would like them to have a solid foundation of a well-rounded education in language, history, and ethics, which everyone needs, and then some solid skills with real economic value to top that off.

data-ink ratio

Here’s a wiki post about Edward Tufte’s data-ink ratio:

Tufte refers to data-ink as the non-erasable ink used for the presentation of data. If data-ink would be removed from the image, the graphic would lose the content. Non-Data-Ink is accordingly the ink that does not transport the information but it is used for scales, labels and edges. The data-ink ratio is the proportion of Ink that is used to present actual data compared to the total amount of ink (or pixels) used in the entire display. (Ratio of Data-Ink to non-Data-Ink).

Good graphics should include only data-Ink. Non-Data-Ink is to be deleted everywhere where possible. The reason for this is to avoid drawing the attention of viewers of the data presentation to irrelevant elements.

The goal is to design a display with the highest possible data-ink ratio (that is, as close to the total of 1.0), without eliminating something that is necessary for effective communication.

Before I offer an opinion,  I should state the disclaimer that you should definitely listen to Edward Tufte, not me! So here’s my opinion: this idea is clearly absurd when taken to extremes because it would just mean a bunch of dots on a page that you have no way of interpreting. I can’t think of a way of making graphs without axes, scales, and a legend. Labels, arrows, and text boxes are an alternative which I find myself using often when giving projected slide presentations in fairly large rooms.

A reasonable interpretation of Tufte, I think, is to ask yourself whether each new thing you are adding to a graph provides useful information to the reader/viewer, increases the chances that the reader/viewer will draw the right conclusions, and makes the reader/viewer’s job easier or harder. The holy grail is to help your audience imbibe the point of the graph with very little effort. Unnecessary 3D effects and clip art aren’t going to do that. A splash of color and some nice big labels that middle aged people can read from the back of the room just might help.

June 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • Water-related hazards including flood, drought, and disease have significant effects on economic growth.
  • There were 910 deaths from drug overdose in Philadelphia last year. Interestingly, I started writing a post thinking I might compare that to car accidents, and ended up concluding that the lack of a functioning health care system might be our #1 problem in the U.S.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Tile is a sort of wireless keychain that can help you find your keys, wallet, and those other pesky things you are always misplacing (or your significant other is moving, but won’t admit it).
  • Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • Traditional car companies are actually leading the pack in self-driving car development, by some measures.

free philosophy courses

That’s right, this is a list of free online (or podcast) philosophy courses. I think if more people studied ethics and morality throughout their lives, and really challenged themselves to struggle with it (them?) on a regular basis, the world would be a better place. And no, I am not talking about just business and professional ethics, but personal ethics or morality, whichever you prefer to call it.

music and the brain

Evidence continues to mount that musical training is good for the brain:

According to a new Canadian study led by the Rotman Research Institute (RRI) at Baycrest Health Sciences, older adults who had musical training in their youth were 20% faster in identifying speech sounds than their non-musician peers on speech identification tests, a benefit that has already been observed in young people with musical training…

Among the different cognitive functions that can diminish with age is the ability to comprehend speech. Interestingly, this difficulty can persist in the absence of any measurable hearing loss. Previous research has confirmed that the brain’s central auditory system which supports the ability to parse, sequence and identify acoustic features of speech – weakens in later years.

Starting formal lessons on a musical instrument prior to age 14 and continuing intense training for up to a decade appears to enhance key areas in the brain that support speech recognition. The Rotman study found “robust” evidence that this brain benefit is maintained even in the older population.

Finnish-ing school

Certain countries just lend themselves to English puns. Hungary? Try some Turkey Chile fried in Greece. The Finnish must get particularly tired of this sort of thing. But luckily they can be smug in the knowledge that their schools are good.

Finland’s historic achievements in delivering educational excellence and equity to its children are the result of a national love of childhood, a profound respect for teachers as trusted professionals, and a deep understanding of how children learn best…

Children at this and other Finnish public schools are given not only basic subject instruction in math, language and science, but learning-through-play-based preschools and kindergartens, training in second languages, arts, crafts, music, physical education, ethics, and, amazingly, as many as four outdoor free-play breaks per day, each lasting 15 minutes between classes, no matter how cold or wet the weather is. Educators and parents here believe that these breaks are a powerful engine of learning that improves almost all the “metrics” that matter most for children in school – executive function, concentration and cognitive focus, behavior, well-being, attendance, physical health, and yes, test scores, too.

The homework load for children in Finland varies by teacher, but is lighter overall than most other developed countries. This insight is supported by research, which has found little academic benefit in childhood for any more than brief sessions of homework until around high school.