NPF: THAT TIME THE BRITISH TRIED TO BLOW UP AN ENTIRE ISLAND

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 26th, 2016 by Ed

Perhaps it is just the American ignorance of the minutiae of European geography talking, but Germany is not a country I think of as having islands. I'm aware that it is not landlocked (The Hanseatic League, a powerful economic and political entity of associated guilds during much of the Middle Ages, was based in what is now Germany along the North Sea. It also serves as the root word of the national airline Lufthansa, literally "Air Guild," which is almost too awesome to be true. Almost.) but no islands along its coasts are large enough for a non-German and non-resident of the area to notice. "Europe" and "Islands" make one think of Greece, Sicily, the UK and Ireland, Malta…but apparently Germany does possess a handful of small islands. I know this only because in 1947, in the wake of World War II, the British tried to blow one of them up. Literally. They tried to remove an island from the map and rid themselves of surplus war ordnance in one swoop. Two birds, one stone.

The German island of Heligoland is and always has been lightly populated. Today it is home to fewer than 1500 souls – some of whom, as long as we're on a roll with tangential Fun Facts today, speak Frisian, which is obscure but notable for being more similar linguistically to English than any other tongue. During WWII the Germans used its strategic location in the North Sea and its composition of hard sedimentary rock (another oddity, as the only such island in the North Sea) to build it up as a mini-fortress. Of particular importance were hardened submarine pens. These German U-boat fortifications were and remain some of the most singularly massive concrete structures ever built and they proved all but impossible to destroy (extant French pens are now a tourist attraction, and the British developed the ludicrous Grand Slam bomb specifically to destroy them).

German soldiers on Heligoland were among the last holdouts to surrender after the war, and the submarine pens represented a part of the Nazi war machine that the Allies, Britain and its pride-filled Naval tradition in particular, wanted to see destroyed. At the same time the UK had to do something with thousands upon thousands of tons of explosives that were manufactured but went unused during the war. So they piled nearly seven thousand tons – tons! – of explosives onto, around, and under tiny Heligoland with the intention of destroying the submarine pens but with the destruction of the island considered both likely and, to the British command, acceptable. The fact that the island was laced with underground tunnels that were packed with explosives led many engineers to believe that the entire island would collapse and sink into the sea.

The resulting blast, dubbed the "British Bang", is considered by some sources the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.

Heligoland survived, although with a new geographical feature; unterland and oberland, the high and low opposite ends of the island, were joined by mittleland, the lowland blasted between in 1947. Both the population and the island itself have returned slowly over time. Today, a wealthy German developer is pursuing a plan to use landfill to replace parts of the island blown away by the Brits and to expand the island by filling in the space between Heligoland and several nearby small bits of land. What value this reclaimed land could have is not clear to me, but certainly rich developers have their reasons.

Lot of tangents here, but you know how I get when the topics are as enthralling as geography, the mid-20th Century, and blowin' shit up.

THE NEW NORMAL

Posted in Rants on May 25th, 2016 by Ed

This is the kind of data release sure to go viral and put the internet into a frenzy, so let me be the first of many to tell you that Pew has done an analysis concluding that "at home with parents" is now the most common living arrangement for 18-34 year olds. It is the plurality winner at 32.1%, edging out the long-time leader "with spouse or partner." The trend is not unique to America but is affecting Europe and the rest of the industrialized world as well.

It's hard to tell where sociopolitical attitudes begin and where one's defensiveness and projection end, but I've been involved in a lot of conversations lately with older adults observing that The Youths aren't buying homes, getting married, or pumping out grandkids like they used to (or are expected to). As a childless, single 37 year old male living alone in a rental unit, it's hard not to engage in such conversations with a broad perspective rather than just making my own excuses. The Pew report predictably – not to say unwisely – includes a discussion of the job market. Logically, young people who can't find decently paid work are likely to be living with someone who can at least partially subsidize their basic costs. This is obvious enough not to merit any in-depth discussion.

What is under-appreciated, in my view, is that the relationship between the economy and the life choices of young adults goes beyond how hard it is to find a job or what said jobs pay. Finding a job is not easy and finding one that pays well is even less so, but the real culprit behind the trend Pew highlights is the lack of stability that young adults have had beaten into them over the past three decades. Everyone is aware that lots of young adults aren't "settling down" because they can't find good jobs. I'd argue that at least as many have a good job but have no job security beyond day-to-day. We've heard all our lives how the days of spending 40 years at one company/employer are over, and that much is obvious. Despite the fact that some of us (OK, I'm 3 years over the limit but I'll lump myself in there nonetheless) are doing somewhere between "OK I guess" and "pretty well." Without anything to rely on for the future, though, who's going to take out a 30-year mortgage and have kids?

The sea change in our economy has not been one of wages and salaries (although those are stagnant since the 1970s outside of the top 1%) but of job security. We've been told that in order to compete in the Global Economy we have to work cheap and hard; to work anything less than 50 hours per week for the good of our employer is a moral failing, a shirking of economic and patriotic responsibility, yet they owe us nothing whatsoever in return. There is no trade-off in terms of stability. If they can find someone to do our jobs for less tomorrow, even halfway around the world, Third Wave capitalism demands that they fire us in the name of Efficiency and Shareholder Value. And that new reality – the knowledge that no matter how hard or well one works, the financial rug could be yanked out from under us at any minute – is one that actively discourages young adults from doing the very things (investing, saving, home-buying, and consuming) that this new economy needs us to do in order to grow. This system doesn't work unless we spend; we don't spend when we're insecure about the future; we have to be kept in fear so we're too afraid to demand better compensation and treatment; we spend less to compensate for stagnant compensation.

And that is why this whole Rube Goldberg machine of cheap credit, disposable labor, and a consumption-based American Dream is irredeemably goddamn broken.

IT QUACKS

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies, Rants on May 23rd, 2016 by Ed

So let's talk about die-hard Bernie fans, without engaging in a subjective debate about which candidate is Better or whether he "should" drop out. My answers for those two questions, on the off chance anyone wants to bias their reading of the following with it (foreshadowing!) are Sanders and after California, respectively.

The problem that has developed for the most strident Sanders enthusiasts boils down to a question that I ask a lot when people make implausible claims with extreme conviction – "Tax cuts create jobs" or "Obesity isn't unhealthy" for example: If this argument isn't bullshit, why does it have all of the characteristics of an argument that is bullshit? If this is true, why does the argument employ all of the rhetorical techniques of claims that are not true? Read enough of the post-May 1 arguments coming from the Sanders fanatics and with the exception of the proper nouns, the structure of the rhetoric is becoming indistinguishable from 9/11 Was an Inside Job arguments.

A few things in particular have become the foundations of all of the pro-Sanders / anti-Clinton rhetoric, at least the rhetoric from anti-Clinton people left of center. Republicans use entirely different "logic" to come to the same conclusions. Pay close attention to the arguments from your most fervent Bernie Friends and you will notice eerie similarities to the "Reverse Scientific Method" favored by conspiracy theorists everywhere.

1. Cherry picking – This is Conspiracy 101: Take all of the available data, pick out the parts that support your argument and throw out all the rest. Go through a list of 250 polls, choose three of them, and pretend the rest don't exist. Complain about Superdelegate counts, ignore that Sanders trails by a healthy margin in pledged delegates too.

2. Appeal to Skepticism / Authority – Alternately praise and deride Experts. One minute, academics and experts don't know what they're talking about and are by definition unreliable. The next minute tout the credentials and authoritative opinion of someone who agrees with you. Denialists love this. "Scientists are full of shit. Also, look at this paper a scientist wrote proving that CO2 emissions aren't real!"

3. Arrogance / Ad Hominem – We are the enlightened seekers of truth, you are the sheeplike masses. We have a monopoly on truth and reality.

4. Moving goalposts – One minute it's about X, the next it's about Y, the next it's really all about Z. Sanders' candidacy at this point has been given any number of purposes without much discrimination. Keeping young voters engaged, helping down-ballot, moving Hillary to the left, serving as a counterweight to Trump, he's actually winning, it's a matter of principle…there is a real grab bag of options out there. When one argument is disproven (assuming the person making the argument is interested enough in facts and evidence to concede that) another is produced quickly to take its place.

5. Sudden Expertise – Like the kid who watched some 9/11 videos on YouTube and suddenly has a Ph.D. in structural engineering, lots of people who haven't paid much attention to politics until recently are able to tell the rest of us in excruciating detail how politics and elections really work. Future events are predicted with great certainty; millions of independents will guarantee a Trump victory if Clinton wins. Sanders will defeat Trump, Clinton cannot. This group of voters will do _____. This other group of voters will do ______. Mind reading is rampant.

6. Straw Man / Impossible Standards – Here is a list of flaws about Clinton, therefore Clinton is unacceptable or cannot win. You think the nomination race is over, therefore you're a Clinton-worshiping moron. The following things about Clinton are terrible, therefore there is no difference between her and Trump. On and on it goes.

7. Rotating, contradictory arguments – We must not nominate Clinton because she will lose to Trump and that will be a disaster. Also, it doesn't matter if my refusal to vote for Clinton helps Trump win because the presidency isn't really all that important or Congress will stop Trump from doing anything nuts.

8. Sinister Forces – Like any sinking ship, the Sanders campaign is developing a rich corpus of Dolchstosslegende to explain how it was cheated. The Democratic Party certainly does exert control over the nomination process in a manner that some candidates can better exploit than others. But citing these factors makes little sense. The primary calendar was established well before Bernie Sanders decided to run, not manipulated in real time to screw him. "The media is against us" is what Republicans say when they lose. Trying to turn the recent events in Nevada – which involved four delegates and is almost entirely bullshit anyway (but Politifact is not to be trusted anymore!) – reads like a textbook chapter on how persecution complexes develop in groups.

The problem is these issues aren't isolated to The Rabble in internet comment sections, a group not usually associated with making high quality arguments based on facts. This rhetoric is coming from high-ranking staffers and the candidate himself lately. After California's primary any scenarios in which Sanders wins the nomination will be so far out there that, were the campaign interested in my advice (note: it certainly is not) it might be more productive at this point to start thinking of ways to make a dignified exit that maintains and consolidates some of the positive accomplishments of the campaign. It seems like there is more to gain from coming out of this with one's credibility in tact than from adopting a down-in-the-bunker mentality. I used this exact same analogy with Clinton when she lost to Obama in 2008: In the short- and long-term, the guys who said "Oh well, we tried, let's go surrender to some Americans" did vastly better than the ones who fought until the Soviets were within earshot and then killed themselves.

I WANT TO GROW UP TO BE MILL GRIST

Posted in Quick Hits on May 23rd, 2016 by Ed

Charles Pierce found some interesting readings from the Koch Brothers' never-ending efforts to buy their way into education, in this case a passage on the hard realities of the Free Market aimed at high school students.

The charge that sways juries and offends public sensitivities … is that greedy corporations sacrifice human lives to increase their profits. Is this charge true? Of course it is. But this isn't a criticism of corporations; rather it is a reflection of the proper functioning of a market economy. Corporations routinely sacrifice the lives of some of their customers to increase profits, and we are all better off because they do. That's right, we are lucky to live in an economy that allows corporations to increase profits by intentionally selling products less safe than could be produced. The desirability of sacrificing lives for profits may not be as comforting as milk, cookies and a bedtime story, but it follows directly from a reality we cannot wish away.

Gotta give 'em one thing: at least they're honest.

Also, as any educator can tell you, today's K-12 students aren't getting enough pro-capitalism propaganda in their lives. Something must be done about it, and fast.

NPF: BLINDED

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 19th, 2016 by Ed

Ever wonder why outward visibility is so terrible in modern cars? It's not your imagination. It also is not a coincidence that features like "blind spot warning system" and "rear view backup camera" have become standard even on compact cars near the bottom of the new car price ladder. They're putting those things on everything from the Mercedes S-Class to the Kia Soul because visibility, especially behind and to the side (the classic "blind spot") is almost nonexistent in some modern vehicles.

Here's why.

Around 1990 when the SUV boom began in the U.S., auto manufacturers generally tried to economize by building big SUVs on existing platforms from cars and (pickup) trucks. In broad strokes, 1990s SUVs are some of the most unsafe vehicles you can drive today. They were almost uniformly top-heavy, poorly proportioned, and practically designed to flip and roll over during sharp handling. Something darts in front and you need to swerve to avoid it? Well your 1994 Ford Explorer is going to go full Michael Bay. Then of course there was the infamous Ford/Firestone rollover fiasco that was all over the news for the better part of three years and practically brought both companies to their knees. Firestone was making (and still makes) shitty tires that were exploding and causing Ford's tall, heavy, poorly balanced SUVs to do cartwheels. The public became sufficiently exercised for Congress to act.

In the early 2000s Congress and the NTSB mandated new measures to make vehicles either better at avoiding accidents or able to make accidents more survivable. Making cars better at avoiding accidents involves complicated and generally quite pricey technology like electronic stability control, torque distribution / all-wheel drive, and a whole lot of other electric nannies to bail out poor drivers doing dumb things like braking while cornering fast. The other option was to increase your odds of living through an accident, even a rollover. And that's much cheaper.

Your car's pillars (A, B, C, and in some vehicles like station wagons, D) have exploded since then. Some of them are so wide now that outward visibility is near zero. Why? Two reasons. One is that they are now stuffed full of airbags. The other is that they have been thickened to strengthen them so that the roof (per NTSB rules) can support the entire weight of the vehicle during a rollover. Here's the C-pillar in America's most popular family car, the Camry. Twenty years ago that would have been three or four inches wide, tops, to maximize driver visibility and exterior aesthetics. Now it has enough steel in it to support a 4000-pound load during a high speed impact.

Anyone knowledgeable about the industry over the years can confirm that the single biggest change in cars since, say, the 1960s and 1970s is weight. Cars today weigh twice as much or more as comparable vehicles did Back in the Day. The curb weight of a 1967 Ford Mustang was 2970 pounds. The curb weight of this year's model is over 3800…and the Mustang is a sports car with great pains taken to keep weight down. All that weight is about safety, period. "Classic" cars were and are death traps. If you got in an accident at highway speed you were probably dead. Today cars are full of airbags, safety cages, crush zones, reinforced everything, load-bearing A-B-C pillars – you name it. All that weight increases occupants' odds of surviving an accident.

If you happen to have a pre-2000 car as well as, say, a post-2010 car to compare it to, grab a ruler and measure the three main pillars. Or just sit inside and admire how much better your visibility is from behind the wheel of the older vehicle. Modern cars are engineering marvels for the most part, but unfortunately we are now relying on gadgets to allow us to see what's going on around us. Anyone who has survived a serious accident will no doubt argue that the tradeoff is worth it.

BREAKING POINT

Posted in Rants on May 18th, 2016 by Ed

I can't handle much cable TV news these days, and I rarely see any outside of a public setting. Walking past one of the many flat panels in the gym last evening I caught about three minutes of CNN, bringing my total number of CNN-watching minutes in 2016 to approximately five, plus or minus three.

The network was doing what it and every other network have been doing and will continue to do all year: "analyzing" the election. You know the drill. Very Serious People giving the Beltway Consensus take on why this or that happened, who said what, what it all means, and a bunch of nonsense pronouncements about non-events that will be forgotten as soon as others crop up tomorrow to replace them. The pro-Trump pundit was unknown to me, some D-list Howard Kurtz wannabe who bore an uncanny resemblance to a younger, less physically fit Paul Blart. Everyone played their parts well. He said some stuff. The CNN anchor nodded, listening intently. The other pundits waited their turn to say something insipid. The exchange got "spirited," culminating in that throbbing pulse of healthy political discourse that is Crosstalk.

It looked and felt…strained. Everything about it was familiar, both to me as the viewer and to everyone involved directly. Hell, the script hardly changes except for the candidates' names from election to election. This time, however, it really feels like someone is going to snap. One of these people will go full Howard Beale. It's only May and their professional demeanor as a group is already strained to breaking with the thought, "Are we really going to sit here and pretend that we're taking Donald Trump seriously?" That flower of suppressed rage might not bloom until later this year, but – perhaps this is only wishful thinking on my part – it seems ready to happen eventually.

We got close in 2008 when CNN's Jack Cafferty had a moment of brutal honesty about Sarah Palin while seated directly next to Wolf Blitzer, who played the Very Serious Person role to the hilt and got a withering "Don't make excuses for her" for his efforts. "I'm 65 and this is one of the most pathetic pieces of tape I have ever seen" is about as honest as you're likely to hear anyone get in mainstream TV news.

The Trump people are right about one thing: despite the media's ratings-driven infatuation with Trump, not a single news outlet including Fox News is pulling for him. Murdoch & Co. may come around in the long run, but regardless we can already see the strain this is putting on the veneer of Both Sides Do It mainstream Beltway journalism. This unspoken sense of, "Really? We have to pretend this isn't totally idiotic and insane? Are you serious, people?" is the undercurrent to the transition from primary to general election storylines. Nobody wants to say it. Maybe nobody will say it. Plenty will rush to heap insults on him after he loses. Hopefully someone has the courage to do it before that. The odds may not be great, but they're greater now than at any point in my lifetime that somebody is going to lose it on camera when the thought of furrowing their brow and pensively discussing the merits of an asshole reality TV mannequin who once wrestled Vince McMahon and has no issue positions of any kind overwhelms them. Everyone has a breaking point, even the blow-dried careerists who pass for journalists these days.

CHINESE FORK TIE

Posted in Rants on May 16th, 2016 by Ed

(Great song. Really.)

International relations is not my strongest area, but most of you know how much I love me some Cold War era history. And so it is with considerable interest that I've watched China replace the US and USSR in their former roles as patrons of the Third World during that lengthy conflict. For decades the two Cold War superpowers went around the world trying to outdo one another in generosity – primarily with massive packages of free military gear that sketchy leaders of newly independent and unstable nations saw as a means of staying in power – in return for swearing off the competing scourge of (communism/capitalism). Oh the Soviets are offering 100 MiG-17s? Those are obsolete, bro. Call Uncle Sam and he'll send over some F-4s. That's the good stuff.

China isn't providing military aid for the most part. Instead, they offer cheap loans for infrastructure projects and (foreshadowing!) the promise to get to work on them right away. China's view is and always has been, "Screw environmental impact studies. We have too many mouths to feed. You need power? Build a dam." Whereas Western investment often comes with multiple competing goals and interests ranging from social development to economic growth to political stability, China is more narrowly economically focused. If it's good for business, do it. If China's industries need lumber and copper they hand over the cash without asking the pesky questions Western nations tend to ask. China doesn't have environmental groups that matter. And African leaders have a long history of self-inflicted environmental degradation if the price is right.

Despite the Chinese economic slowdown, they announced $60 billion in new loans and investment in Africa as recently as January of this year including a single $13 billion infrastructure project in Kenya alone. This leads us to the $64,000 question: what exactly is it that China wants? The Cold War superpowers didn't lavish gifts on small countries out of the kindness of their hearts; it was quid pro quo aid. Most of the sober analysis agrees that China's motives are economic. That's never a bad guess. A more optimistic view is that Chinese firms recognize the limits of growth within their own borders and are looking elsewhere. Cynically, China sees cheap and abundant natural resources they want to extract and they see these projects as little trinkets that will curry favor with less sophisticated governments.

I'm not sure if this qualifies as a conspiracy theory, but I look at it differently. In the long term I don't think China has its eye on African resources so much as it has its eye on Africa.

For all their recent "Come to Jesus" talk about understanding the importance of sustainability and the environment, there is no nation on the planet that has trashed its own house quite like the Chinese have. Since Mao and his friends took over and put the country on an often calamitous crash course toward industrialization, China has polluted like no other nation on the planet can even hold a candle to – not even the CO2-belching US. The priorities have been feeding a billion people and becoming a modern industrial and economic colossus in record time. The environment wasn't even an afterthought. The growth of China's economy has indeed been impressive and rapid, but there have been costs. About 1/3 of all arable land in the country is heavy-metals poisoned, as is roughly 1/3 of their drinking water. They burn coal like Americans burn gasoline. Their cities are choked in air pollution that is the country's single biggest public health issue. Ever wonder why they were able to take the lead in so many manufacturing sectors, particularly electronics? It's not just cheap labor. Lots of places have cheap labor. It's the fact that in China you can pay someone almost nothing to melt down used motherboards and PC components without protective gear (Because who cares if the worker dies at 37? The government doesn't.) and then dump the results in a river. They simply don't care. Or if they do care now, they waited too long.

So we have a nation with a billion and a half people, and that number is still growing. This nation has exhausted its natural resources for the most part and done staggering damage to its ability to produce food thanks to desertification and toxic soil in industrial areas. Either the nation is going to undertake the single greatest environmental remediation and sustainability turnaround in human history or they're going to need to find someplace else for their population to spread and grow. I don't mean that China will show up, guns in hand, to annex half of Africa. But this steady stream of Chinese emigrating to Africa now is likely to continue growing. While the motivation for that movement ostensibly is economic, I can't help but think there's a strategic long-term demographic strategy at play as well.

The way America pollutes is ultimately of more consequence because our carbon emissions affect the whole planet. China, conversely, has been the primary victim of China's environmental inaction. England went through this on a smaller scale during the Industrial Revolution and Victorian Era, the point at which they had to confront as a nation the possibility that London would be uninhabitable if they didn't stop pumping coal fumes into the air and pouring industrial waste in the Thames. The British certainly looked beyond their own borders as a partial solution to their problems, and China is in the process of doing the same.

OPERANT CONDITIONING

Posted in Rants on May 15th, 2016 by Ed

Salon is running a particularly poorly thought-out piece, even by Salon standards, about the inability of college students to use the English language to express themselves in writing. I'll let the author off the hook for the stupid title ("Death to High School English") and the tagline, as an editor probably chose those. But the argument overlooks such an obvious explanation in favor of a more complicated one that it's difficult to take whoever she is seriously. When the tagline asks, "My college students don't understand commas, far less how to write an essay. Is it time to rethink how we teach?" We could do that, I guess. Or we could rethink how we grade them in high school.

There is a tendency, even among educators, when outcomes are not as they should be to assume that teachers as individuals or the educational system writ large must be to blame. In this case we're hypothetically dismantling all K-12 English education and starting over from scratch with some sort of newer, better method. What this overlooks is the reality that most students in college – the same ones the author rightly points out are terrible at writing – have no idea that they're terrible at writing. They think they are quite good at it, in fact. They do not believe this because of simple arrogance or Those Darn Millennials or any other popular explanation. They believe they are good writers because they have been getting good grades on written assignments and in English throughout their educational careers.

Grade inflation and the reasons for it are too much of a Pandora's Box to open here, but I'll argue to my grave that students are rational even if not "smart" per se. They are very good at figuring out, for example, the least possible amount of work they can do while still getting the grade outcome they want. I have nothing but respect for K-12 teachers, and they face a problem that I have the luxury of ignoring: parents. Parents, students, government regulators, administrators, and state legislators all put constant pressure on teachers (who are told they are overpaid and underworked to boot) to deliver results. Schools that serve wealthier areas have parents who flat-out demand that their child graduate with a 3.9 GPA or there will be hell to pay, while schools serving poorer areas have an incentive to inflate grades to make it look like their students, many of whom are in terrible situations outside of school, are better than they really are. The dynamics are different but the end result is the same: students reach college having received many A and B grades throughout their lives for really mediocre (or worse) work.

I worked with a guy a long time ago who was famous for giving everyone A's. He often complained to me in private how frustrating his classes were – the students didn't read, they didn't participate, they rarely bothered showing up, etc. – yet never made the connection to the fact that they all rationally decided that there is no point in trying if they're getting an A no matter what. In competitive, academically strong high schools students very quickly figure out that the grades tend to distribute in a narrow range from a high of A+ to a low of maybe C+. A and B are perfectly good grades in the minds of almost any student, so when they get to college having gotten nothing but A or B in English and composition classes for their whole lives, why would they even suspect that they might be bad at writing?

In the reality in which K-12 teachers are actually underpaid and overworked, not the opposite that is so often claimed, the only real incentive they have to offer is the grade. If a student doesn't care if he or she fails or gets a D, then the teacher cannot do much to influence that person. If, on the other hand, we create a system in which giving a student a grade lower than B creates such a headache and so much hassle for the teacher that it's easier simply to give everyone A's and B's, then the teacher's hands are equally tied. This doesn't stop at the K-12 level; I wrote just last week about the pressure to do what is easier and less of a hassle, which makes me part of the problem. Students (and parents) understand this and exploit it. Some students learn that if they complain to enough administrators – which creates a headache for the teacher even when the complaints are groundless and the administrators are supportive – they can create incentives in exactly the same way teachers do. We tell students "Do X amount of work and I'll give you a B", and in return now students tell us in so many words, "Just give me a B and I won't cause any trouble."

Again, that's only one angle on the problem of grade inflation, and it's too complex an issue to untangle in a small space. The most obvious issue with English education, though, is not necessarily one of method of instruction, material, or teacher performance. It is that we have created this system of incentives that results in the vast majority of high school students who are likely to go on to college getting high grades for work that is often deeply flawed. We can tell them "Do better!" until we're blue in the face, but if they're walking out of the class with B or A grades they have every reason to believe that whatever level of performance and effort they're at is just fine.

NPF: TRIAL AND ERROR

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 13th, 2016 by Ed

In 1909 a vacationing paleontologist named Charles Wolcott happened upon some very interesting looking plant and animal fossils in the Canadian Rockies, near the border of Alberta and British Columbia. The fossils were exciting (to a paleontologist) in that they preserved soft features extremely well, which is a rarity – usually features like bones and hard shells are distinct in a fossil but not much else. Over the next 30 years Wolcott returned often to locate, study, and categorize the species he found. Eventually he determined (correctly) that they dated from the Middle Cambrian. Thus they excited a handful of paleontologists with a niche interest in that time period, and the fossils from the site, which became known as the Burgess Shale, held the oh-so-thrilling distinction of being the oldest soft tissue fossils ever discovered.

Wolcott and his fossils remained in that strange limbo of academic fame-obscurity, his work well known to a small handful of people but otherwise wholly ignored. Then in the 1960s some enterprising graduate students re-examined the thousands and thousands of Burgess Shale fossils and found something curious. In keeping with scientific orthodoxy of his era, Wolcott had carefully, meticulously – obsessively, even – categorized every one of his finds into an existing family of plants or animals. The students noted that much of what he found was so utterly bizarre and unlike anything alive today that Wolcott had actually found a lot of species the likes of which have never been seen before or since.

What is particularly interesting, presuming one understands evolution, is how wacky some of the body plans nature "experimented" with during that era appear today. The Smithsonian keeps a nice gallery of what some of the Burgess Shale creatures looked like; suffice it to say that the whole four legs, two eyes, one mouth thing hadn't quite caught on yet. One – an arthropod called Opibinia – had five eyes on stalks and a long elephant-like trunk with a clawed mouth on the tip.

There is an active debate among people who understand such things better than I do just how unique the specimens of the Burgess Shale truly are. Some scientists believe that they are far less bizarre than some early interpretations have suggested, while others maintain that it indeed represents a snapshot of the "Cambrian explosion" which saw the phenomenally rapid expansion of forms of complex life on Earth. I think the understanding of what happened 600 million years ago will always involve a healthy amount of conjecture, but it stands to reason that any sudden proliferation of kinds of life forms would involve a great deal of trial and error. Especially at such an early stage in the evolution of life, there had to have been a lot of false starts before a general blueprint of animal life – adapted to breathing oxygen, resistant to the deleterious effects of solar radiation, and with the basic senses necessary to sustain life long enough for reproduction – was settled upon.

THE LONG RUN

Posted in Rants on May 12th, 2016 by Ed

Anyone who has taught for a living knows that you pick your battles. You can't carry on like you're prepared to die on every single hill because damn there are a lot of hills – more than you realize at first and they seem to multiply whenever you're not looking.

A few weeks ago someone posted a comment that they observed a student cheating on an exam. There's an obvious issue of integrity there, but two others that aren't so obvious. One is the monumental hassle it entails to discipline a student for academic dishonesty these days. The other is the fact, in his words, that the student was well on his/her way to failing anyway. So on the one hand, the instructor could go through a bunch of hoops to fail a student for cheating. That is the Right thing to do. On the other hand, he could save himself the hassle and let it be.

My biggest frustration – and believe me, this happens every semester, every year – is students failing to show up for exams. They forget about them, fail to set their alarms, yadda yadda. Everything about my personality and the way I see my job makes me want to give them a zero. It is the only way they will learn anything from the experience. But there are times when letting them take a make-up exam is just…the easier thing to do. The path of least resistance. I'm not happy about it, but I'm not going to lie and say it doesn't happen.

Here's what we tell ourselves when we let supposed adult students get away with behaving like children in a consequence-free environment: "This will catch up with them in the long run." In other words, a college student might be able to talk some administrator or professor into letting him make up an exam he slept through, but when in the future he sleeps through something important at work…his ass is fired. Because he learned nothing from the experience in college other than "I can get away with anything!", he'll inevitably do it again in the future. And when he does, there will be consequences. Real consequences.

Lately I've wondered, though: Are there? Or is this just a thing we tell ourselves to feel better about the fact that we have a hard time being strict? Part of me believes that someone who lacks the basic organizational and emotional skills necessary to do things like meet deadlines and complete tasks is bound to be chewed up and spit out in the working world. Part of me wonders if the people who skate by on complaining and making excuses now will continue to do it in the future. Sleeping through class is a good gateway drug to sleeping through other things. Failing to do academic work on a deadline seems like a great way to get in the habit of not making deadlines in the future. So I hope there will be consequences, but lately I'm not so sure.

We learn quickly in adolescence that life isn't fair. The rest of life exists to confirm that. If some people can slack their way through one part of life, maybe they can slack their way through others in the future. Conversely, we all live in an At-Will labor environment wherein we can find ourselves laid off or terminated even if we do our jobs really well, let alone if they fail to show up on time and do what they're paid to do. I know some people are really good at working the system, and I (and of course others) have to deal with it all the time. We hope that everyone gets what's coming to them in the long run, but I've been alive long enough to understand how rarely just desserts are served.