Thursday, May 31, 2012

how bad is it?

the new inquiry | Pretty bad. Here is a sample of factlets from surveys and studies conducted in the past twenty years. Seventy percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels. Fifty percent believe that the earth has been visited by UFOs; in another poll, 70 percent believed that the U.S. government is covering up the presence of space aliens on earth. Forty percent did not know whom the U.S. fought in World War II. Forty percent could not locate Japan on a world map. Fifteen percent could not locate the United States on a world map. Sixty percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school. Only 6 percent now read even one book a year. According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.

Among high-school seniors surveyed in the late 1990s, 50 percent had not heard of the Cold War. Sixty percent could not say how the United States came into existence. Fifty percent did not know in which century the Civil War occurred. Sixty percent could name each of the Three Stooges but not the three branches of the U.S. government. Sixty percent could not comprehend an editorial in a national or local newspaper.

Intellectual distinction isn’t everything, it’s true. But things are amiss in other areas as well: sociability and trust, for example. “During the last third of the twentieth century,” according to Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, “all forms of social capital fell off precipitously.” Tens of thousands of community groups – church social and charitable groups, union halls, civic clubs, bridge clubs, and yes, bowling leagues — disappeared; by Putnam’s estimate, one-third of our social infrastructure vanished in these years. Frequency of having friends to dinner dropped by 45 percent; card parties declined 50 percent; Americans’ declared readiness to make new friends declined by 30 percent. Belief that most other people could be trusted dropped from 77 percent to 37 percent. Over a five-year period in the 1990s, reported incidents of aggressive driving rose by 50 percent — admittedly an odd, but probably not an insignificant, indicator of declining social capital.

Still, even if American education is spotty and the social fabric is fraying, the fact that the U.S. is the world’s richest nation must surely make a great difference to our quality of life? Alas, no. As every literate person knows, economic inequality in the United States is off the charts – at third-world levels. The results were recently summarized by James Speth in Orion magazine. Of the 20 advanced democracies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. has the highest poverty rate, for both adults and children; the lowest rate of social mobility; the lowest score on UN indexes of child welfare and gender inequality; the highest ratio of health care expenditure to GDP, combined with the lowest life expectancy and the highest rates of infant mortality, mental illness, obesity, inability to afford health care, and personal bankruptcy resulting from medical expenses; the highest homicide rate; and the highest incarceration rate. Nor are the baneful effects of America’s social and economic order confined within our borders; among OECD nations the U.S. also has the highest carbon dioxide emissions, the highest per capita water consumption, the next-to-largest ecological footprint, the next-to-lowest score on the Yale Environmental Performance Index, the highest (by a colossal margin) per capita rate of military spending and arms sales, and the next-to-lowest rate of per capita spending on international development and humanitarian assistance.

SoCiaL MeDiA CoNFiDeNTiaL...

lagarde to greeks: it's payback time!

Guardian | The International Monetary Fund has ratcheted up the pressure on crisis-hit Greece after its managing director, Christine Lagarde, said she has more sympathy for children deprived of decent schooling in sub-Saharan Africa than for many of those facing poverty in Athens.

In an uncompromising interview with the Guardian, Lagarde insists it is payback time for Greece and makes it clear that the IMF has no intention of softening the terms of the country's austerity package.

Using some of the bluntest language of the two-and-a-half-year debt crisis, she says Greek parents have to take responsibility if their children are being affected by spending cuts. "Parents have to pay their tax," she says.

Greece, which has seen its economy shrink by a fifth since the recession began, has been told to cut wages, pensions and public spending in return for financial help from the IMF, the European Union and the European Central Bank.

Asked whether she is able to block out of her mind the mothers unable to get access to midwives or patients unable to obtain life-saving drugs, Lagarde replies: "I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time. Because I think they need even more help than the people in Athens."

Lagarde, predicting that the debt crisis has yet to run its course, adds: "Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax." She says she thinks "equally" about Greeks deprived of public services and Greek citizens not paying their tax.

"I think they should also help themselves collectively." Asked how, she replies: "By all paying their tax."

Asked if she is essentially saying to the Greeks and others in Europe that they have had a nice time and it is now payback time, she responds: "That's right."

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

how much does washington spend on "defense"?

tomdispatch | As the country’s big wars on the Eurasian continent wind down, American war-making and war preparations fly ever more regularly under the radar. There has, for instance, been much discussion about the Obama administration’s policy “pivot” to Asia -- the only warlike act in the region so far has, however, been a little noted drone strike in the Philippines. At the same time, remarkably little attention has been paid to a massive build-up of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, and -- though both seem to be underway (and connected) -- who talks about the “pivot” to the Western Indian Ocean or the “pivot” to Africa?

For those keeping a careful eye out, U.S. drone (and air) bases in the region have been proliferating -- in the Seychelles Islands, in Ethiopia, and at an unidentified site on the Arabian peninsula, among other places. Recently, however, Wired’s Danger Room website reported that an Italian blogger had put the pieces together and offered impressive evidence of a larger war-making effort in the region, involving not only drones but F-15E fighter jets, possibly being used to bomb Yemen. Meanwhile, there are U.S. drone strikes in Yemen almost daily and at least 20 special forces operatives are reportedly now on the ground there, helping direct some of the fighting and even taking casualties.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), set up in 2007, has been gaining clout. In 2011, 100 special operations troops, mainly Green Berets, were moved into Central Africa, officially to aid in the hunting down of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Recently, it was reported that a brigade of regular U.S. combat troops will soon be assigned to the command and given training duties throughout the region. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been organizing a proxy war, supported by drone attacks, against al-Shabab rebels in Somalia, using Ugandan, Kenyan, and other African troops as those proxies. And more’s afoot. It’s just that, if you weren’t an obsessive news watcher, you would have next to no way of knowing that any of this was taking place.

War American-style, already long detached from the lives of most Americans, is growing more so: ever more secret, presidential, and beyond the control of, or accountability to, citizens or Congress. In only one way is this not true: we taxpayers still fork over the massive sums that make our perpetual state of war and war state possible. As Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer of the invaluable National Priorities Project report, the expense of all this is blowing a hole in your wallet and our treasury. To offer but one small example, if someday soon the Pakistani/Afghan border is reopened to U.S. war supplies, you will be paying the Pakistanis $1,500-$1,800 for every truck that crosses it, at an estimated cost of at least $1 million a day (with other "fees" likely). And yet, it’s remarkable how little Americans know about what’s coming out of their pockets when the subject is “national security,” or where exactly it’s all going. Which is why we need Hellman and Kramer (and their new book, A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget) to keep us in the loop. Tom

global scarcity: scramble for dwindling natural resources

yale | National security expert Michael Klare believes the struggle for the world’s resources will be one of the defining political and environmental realities of the 21st century. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he discusses the threat this scramble poses to the natural world and what can be done to sustainably meet the resource challenge.

Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, devotes much of his time these days to thinking about the intensifying competition for increasingly scarce natural resources. His most recent book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, describes how the world economy has entered a period of what he calls “tough” extraction for energy, minerals, and other commodities, meaning that the easy-to-get resources have been exploited and a rapidly growing population is now turning to resources in the planet’s most remote regions — the Arctic, the deep ocean, and war zones like Afghanistan. The exploitation of “tough” resources, such as “fracking” for natural gas in underground shale formations, carries with it far greater environmental risk, Klare says.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Diane Toomey, Klare discussed China’s surging appetite for resources, the growing potential for political and military conflict as commodities become more scarce, and the disturbing trend of the planet’s agricultural land being bought by companies and governments seeking to ensure that their people will have enough food in the future. The way to reduce resource conflicts, says Klare, is to find substitute materials and to significantly boost efficiency in a host of realms, most notably energy. Hope for the future, he says, lies with innovative entrepreneurs and, especially, the young. “They all want to be involved in developing solutions,” said Klare, “and they have a lot of optimism and enthusiasm for this.”

Yale Environment 360: You make the point that when it comes to the age-old competition for raw materials, we’re in an unprecedented age. How so?

Michael Klare: I do believe that’s the case. Humans have been struggling to gain control of vital resources since the beginning of time, but I think we’re in a new era because we’re running out of places to go. Humans have constantly moved to new areas, to new continents, when they’ve run out of things in their home territory. But there aren’t any more new continents to go to. We’re going now to the last places left on earth that haven’t been exploited: the Arctic, the deep oceans, the inner jungles in Africa, Afghanistan. There are very few places left that haven’t been fully tapped, so this is humanity’s last chance to exploit the earth, and after this there’s nowhere else to go.

e360: Natural resource extraction has never been a pretty business when it comes to the environment, but you write that now that the era of easy oil, easy gas, easy minerals and other resources is basically over, and what’s left is in deep water, remote or inhospitable climates, or in geological formations that require extraordinary means to get at. So paint me a picture of what extracting these tough resources looks like.

Klare: We’re really going to be using very aggressive means of extraction, so the environmental consequences are going to be proportionally greater. For example, to get oil and natural gas out of shale rock, you can’t just drill
Oil companies want to turn this country back to what it was before environmentalism became an issue.”
and expect it to come out. It doesn’t work that way. You have to smash the rock, you have to produce fractures in the rock, and we use a very aggressive technology to do that — hydraulic fracturing — and the water is brought under tremendous pressure and it’s laced with toxic chemicals, and when the water is extracted from these wells it can’t be put back into the environment without risk of poisoning water supplies. So there’s a tremendous problem of storage, of toxic water supplies, and we really haven’t solved that problem.

earnest callenbach: last words to an america in decline

tomdispatch | Thirty-five years later, it was still on my bookshelf in a little section on utopias (as well it should have been, being a modern classic). A friend had written his name inside the cover and even dated it: August 1976, the month I returned to New York City from years of R&R on the West Coast. Whether I borrowed it and never returned it or he gave it to me neither of us now remembers, but Ecotopia, the visionary novel 25 publishers rejected before Ernest Callenbach published it himself in 1975, was still there ready to be read again a lifetime later.

Callenbach once called that book “my bet with the future,” and in publishing terms it would prove a pure winner. To date it has sold nearly a million copies and been translated into many languages. On second look, it proved to be a book not only ahead of its time but (sadly) of ours as well. For me, it was a unique rereading experience, in part because every page of that original edition came off in my hands as I turned it. How appropriate to finish Ecotopia with a loose-leaf pile of paper in a New York City where paper can now be recycled and so returned to the elements.

Callenbach would have appreciated that. After all, his novel, about how Washington, Oregon, and Northern California seceded from the union in 1979 in the midst of a terrible economic crisis, creating an environmentally sound, stable-state, eco-sustainable country, hasn’t stumbled at all. It’s we who have stumbled. His vision of a land that banned the internal combustion engine and the car culture that went with it, turned in oil for solar power (and other inventive forms of alternative energy), recycled everything, grew its food locally and cleanly, and in the process created clean skies, rivers, and forests (as well as a host of new relationships, political, social, and sexual) remains amazingly lively, and somehow almost imaginable -- an approximation, that is, of the country we don’t have but should or even could have.

Callenbach’s imagination was prodigious. Back in 1975, he conjured up something like C-SPAN and something like the cell phone, among many ingenious inventions on the page. Ecotopia remains a thoroughly winning book and a remarkable feat of the imagination, even if, in the present American context, the author also dreamed of certain things that do now seem painfully utopian, like a society with relative income equality.

“Chick” -- as he was known, thanks, it turns out, to the chickens his father raised in Appalachian central Pennsylvania in his childhood -- was, like me, an editor all his life. He founded the prestigious magazine Film Quarterly in 1958. In the late 1970s, I worked with him and his wife, Christine Leefeldt, on a book of theirs, The Art of Friendship. He also wrote a successor volume to Ecotopia (even if billed as a prequel), Ecotopia Emerging. And as he points out in his last piece, today’s TomDispatch post, he, too, has now been recycled. He died of cancer on April 16th at the age of 83.

Just days later, his long-time literary agent Richard Kahlenberg wrote me that Chick had left a final document on his computer, something he had been preparing in the months before he knew he would die, and asked if TomDispatch would run it. Indeed, we would. It’s not often that you hear words almost literally from beyond the grave -- and eloquent ones at that, calling on all Ecotopians, converted or prospective, to consider the dark times ahead. Losing Chick’s voice and his presence is saddening. His words remain, however, as do his books, as does the possibility of some version of the better world he once imagined for us all. Tom

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

video games and porn...,

CNN | Is the overuse of video games and pervasiveness of online porn causing the demise of guys?

Increasingly, researchers say yes, as young men become hooked on arousal, sacrificing their schoolwork and relationships in the pursuit of getting a tech-based buzz.

Every compulsive gambler, alcoholic or drug addict will tell you that they want increasingly more of a game or drink or drug in order to get the same quality of buzz.

Video game and porn addictions are different. They are "arousal addictions," where the attraction is in the novelty, the variety or the surprise factor of the content. Sameness is soon habituated; newness heightens excitement. In traditional drug arousal, conversely, addicts want more of the same cocaine or heroin or favorite food.

The consequences could be dramatic: The excessive use of video games and online porn in pursuit of the next thing is creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment.

Stories about this degeneration are rampant: In 2005, Seungseob Lee, a South Korean man, went into cardiac arrest after playing "StarCraft" for nearly 50 continuous hours. In 2009, MTV's "True Life" highlighted the story of a man named Adam whose wife kicked him out of their home -- they have four kids together -- because he couldn't stop watching porn.

Norwegian mass murder suspect Anders Behring Breivik reported during his trial that he prepared his mind and body for his marksman-focused shooting of 77 people by playing "World of Warcraft" for a year and then "Call of Duty" for 16 hours a day.

Research into this area goes back a half-century.

In 1954, researchers Peter Milner and James Olds discovered the pleasure center of the brain. In their experiments, an electrical current was sent to the limbic system of a rat's brain whenever it moved to a certain area of its cage. The limbic sytem is a portion of the brain that controls things like emotion, behavior and memory. The researchers hypothesized that if the stimulation to the limbic system were unpleasant, the rats would stay away from that part of the cage.

Surprisingly, the rats returned to that portion of the cage again and again, despite the sensation.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

why TED is a massive money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism...,

TED 2012 More Slides Final1

alternet | There was a bit of a scandal last week when it was reported that a TED Talk on income equality had been censored. That turned out to be not quite the entire story. Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist with a book out on income inequality, was invited to speak at a TED function. He spoke for a few minutes, making the argument that rich people like himself are not in fact job creators and that they should be taxed at a higher rate.

The talk seemed reasonably well-received by the audience, but TED “curator” Chris Anderson told Hanauer that it would not be featured on TED’s site, in part because the audience response was mixed but also because it was too political and this was an “election year.”

Hanauer had his PR people go to the press immediately and accused TED of censorship, which is obnoxious — TED didn’t have to host his talk, obviously, and his talk was not hugely revelatory for anyone familiar with recent writings on income inequity from a variety of experts — but Anderson’s responses were still a good distillation of TED’s ideology.

In case you’re unfamiliar with TED, it is a series of short lectures on a variety of subjects that stream on the Internet, for free. That’s it, really, or at least that is all that TED is to most of the people who have even heard of it. For an elite few, though, TED is something more: a lifestyle, an ethos, a bunch of overpriced networking events featuring live entertainment from smart and occasionally famous people.

Before streaming video, TED was a conference — it is not named for a person, but stands for “technology, entertainment and design” — organized by celebrated “information architect” (fancy graphic designer) Richard Saul Wurman. Wurman sold the conference, in 2002, to a nonprofit foundation started and run by former publisher and longtime do-gooder Chris Anderson (not the Chris Anderson of Wired). Anderson grew TED from a woolly conference for rich Silicon Valley millionaire nerds to a giant global brand. It has since become a much more exclusive, expensive elite networking experience with a much more prominent public face — the little streaming videos of lectures.

It’s even franchising — “TEDx” events are licensed third-party TED-style conferences largely unaffiliated with TED proper — and while TED is run by a nonprofit, it brings in a tremendous amount of money from its members and corporate sponsorships. At this point TED is a massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism, with multiple events worldwide, awards and grants to TED-certified high achievers, and a list of speakers that would cost a fortune if they didn’t agree to do it for free out of public-spiritedness.

According to a 2010 piece in Fast Company, the trade journal of the breathless bullshit industry, the people behind TED are “creating a new Harvard — the first new top-prestige education brand in more than 100 years.” Well! That’s certainly saying… something. (What it’s mostly saying is “This is a Fast Company story about some overhyped Internet thing.”)

To even attend a TED conference requires not just a donation of between $7,500 and $125,000, but also a complicated admissions process in which the TED people determine whether you’re TED material; so, as Maura Johnston says, maybe it’s got more in common with Harvard than is initially apparent.

Strip away the hype and you’re left with a reasonably good video podcast with delusions of grandeur. For most of the millions of people who watch TED videos at the office, it’s a middlebrow diversion and a source of factoids to use on your friends. Except TED thinks it’s changing the world, like if “This American Life” suddenly mistook itself for Doctors Without Borders.

The model for your standard TED talk is a late-period Malcolm Gladwell book chapter. Common tropes include:

  • Drastically oversimplified explanations of complex problems.
  • Technologically utopian solutions to said complex problems.
  • Unconventional (and unconvincing) explanations of the origins of said complex problems.
  • Staggeringly obvious observations presented as mind-blowing new insights.

What’s most important is a sort of genial feel-good sense that everything will be OK, thanks in large part to the brilliance and beneficence of TED conference attendees. (Well, that and a bit of Vegas magician-with-PowerPoint stagecraft.)

don't mention income inequality at TED

NationalJournal | If you’re plugged into the Internet, chances are you’ve seen a TED talk – the wonky, provocative web videos that have become a sort of nerd franchise. is where you go to find Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explaining why the world has too few female leaders, or Twitter cofounder Evan Williams sharing the secret power of listening to users to drive company improvement. The slogan of the nonprofit group behind the site is “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

There’s one idea, though, that TED’s organizers recently decided was too controversial to spread: the notion that widening income inequality is a bad thing for America, and that as a result, the rich should pay more in taxes.

(RELATED: The Speech That's Too Hot for TED)

TED organizers invited a multimillionaire Seattle venture capitalist named Nick Hanauer – the first nonfamily investor in – to give a speech on March 1 at their TED University conference. Inequality was the topic – specifically, Hanauer’s contention that the middle class, and not wealthy innovators like himself, are America’s true “job creators.”

“We’ve had it backward for the last 30 years,” he said. “Rich businesspeople like me don’t create jobs. Rather they are a consequence of an ecosystemic feedback loop animated by middle-class consumers, and when they thrive, businesses grow and hire, and owners profit. That’s why taxing the rich to pay for investments that benefit all is a great deal for both the middle class and the rich.”

You can’t find that speech online. TED officials told Hanauer initially they were eager to distribute it. “I want to put this talk out into the world!” one of them wrote him in an e-mail in late April. But early this month they changed course, telling Hanauer that his remarks were too “political” and too controversial for posting.

Other TED talks posted online veer sharply into controversial and political territory, including NASA scientist James Hansen comparing climate change to an asteroid barreling toward Earth, and philanthropist Melinda Gates pushing for more access to contraception in the developing world.

TED curator Chris Anderson referenced the Gates talk in an e-mail to colleagues in early April, which was also sent to Hanauer, suggesting that he didn't want to release Hanauer’s talk at the same time as the one on contraception.

Hanauer’s talk “probably ranks as one of the most politically controversial talks we've ever run, and we need to be really careful when” to post it, Anderson wrote on April 6. “Next week ain't right. Confidentially, we already have Melinda Gates on contraception going out. Sorry for the mixed messages on this.”

In early May Anderson followed up with Hanauer to inform him he’d decided not to post his talk.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

TED-Ed's customized learning web initiative

Wired | It’s been a long time since anyone’s done anything truly revolutionary when it comes to online video, but leave it to the folks at TED to buck that trend, and to revolutionize online learning while they’re at it. The TED-Ed website, which launched yesterday, offers terrific educational video content in many different fields from many talented educators. But it’s the technology they’ve created that attaches to the videos that is really innovative.

From the official press release:

Each video featured on the site is mapped, via tagging, to traditional subjects taught in schools and comes accompanied with supplementary materials that aid a teacher or student in using or understanding the video lesson. Supplementary materials include multiple-choice questions, open-answer questions, and links to more information on the topic.

But the most innovative feature of the site is that educators can customize these elements using a new functionality called “flipping.” When a video is flipped, the supplementary materials can be edited and the resulting lesson is rendered on a new and private web page. The creator of the lesson can then distribute it and track an individual student’s progress as they complete the assignment.

Yes, that means that anyone can create a lesson around a video, and then track that lesson for their students and/or publish the lesson so others could benefit from it. And — here’s the big kicker — you can create a lesson around any video on YouTube. TED-Ed could easily have locked you into their site’s content, but they’ve chosen instead to open their tools up to the whole wide world of YouTube videos.

The implications of this for online education are amazing: Any of the countless videos on YouTube right now could be made into a lesson, and of course you could upload a video of your own for the purpose as well. And it’s all completely free! How much easier has TED-Ed just made the lives of parents who homeschool?

This is all available right now, so check out the video above and then dive right in on the TED-Ed website! Fist tap Dale.

disruptive innovation in education?

MIT | It’s midnight, and Anant Agarwal is still at his computer.

He’s not, however, tying up administrative loose ends before stepping down as director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Neither is he exchanging ideas with his collaborators on the major microchip-design project he’s leading, nor debating strategy with any of the other board members at Tilera, the chip company he founded in 2004.

Instead, he’s in an online discussion forum, talking about basic circuit design with students around the world — a group that includes high schoolers, undergraduates, mid-career professionals and at least one octogenarian retiree.

A decade ago, MIT broke ground with its OpenCourseWare initiative, which made MIT course materials, such as syllabi and lecture notes, publicly accessible. But over the last five years, MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif has led an effort to move the complete MIT classroom experience online, with video lectures, homework assignments, lab work — and a grade at the end.

That project, called MITx, launched late last year. On March 16, Reif announced that Agarwal would step down as CSAIL director in order to lead MIT’s Open Learning Enterprise, which will oversee MITx’s development.

MITx is born

“I’ve done a few startups, and even as a professor, you want to eat your own dog food,” Agarwal says. Hence his late-evening sessions on the bulletin board for MITx’s prototype course, “Circuits and Electronics.”

Co-taught by Agarwal, Panasonic Professor of Electrical Engineering Gerald Sussman, CSAIL co-director and Senior Lecturer Christopher Terman and CSAIL research scientist Piotr Mitros, the course — 6.002 in MIT’s course-numbering system, 6.002x in its MITx iteration — has more than 120,000 enrollees. Logged into the discussion forum as “aa,” Agarwal tests the MITx interface, gauges students’ reaction to online tools and sometimes answers their questions. Fist tap Dale.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

there are no sith lords?

Progstone | Some thoughts on the evidence recently posted that appalling conspiracies are currently in play, including powerful circumstantial evidence that (elements of) the current US administration at least colluded in the 9/11 atrocity, and are currently planning Mad Max megadeath horror.

I don't deny that these things are happening. They've always been happening. Thomas Jefferson said, "When men of the same profession gather together, they do so to conspire against the general public." After all, we have the open statement from before the 2000 election by the so-called American Century group of which Dubya & Co are members, that a "major incident" would be very beneficial for their agenda. What I do argue is that these things do not require us to suppose that persons of special knowledge or abilities are involved. It's just what normal sub-human consciousness does, given the opportunity. That's frightening enough on it's own (Gurdjieff wrote of "The Terror of the Situation") - but it's a monster we have already met. The goings on in any firm or local council writ large. There are no worse monsters. I've certainly seen nothing in the behaviour of Dubya, Blair, etc. indicating that any more than normal scheming, reality denying self-aggrandizers are involved, or that their objectives are any more than power crazed, personal material enrichment for their cronies, or the willingness to kill vast numbers in the pursuit of wasting even more resources for a brief while longer. I'm even willing to acknowledge that Dubya is a screwed up mapper (a macker). After all, he is an alcoholic. So despite his manifest cowardice ("I do not have anthrax. I do not have anthrax. I do not have anthrax."), low thinking centre intelligence and ignorance, he might be a quite inventive little toad, and hence all the more dangerous. I've never suggested that an active inductive mind *automatically* ensures goodness or wisdom if the person is emotionally damaged, as often occurs in current social conditions.

Instead I'd like to look at two other situations which at first look like sith might be involved, and demonstrate that we do not need to assume the existence of sith. The first situation has more than one thread to it, so please bear with me. I shall not pretend objectivity, since the whole business still annoys me.

In the late 1970s an artist called John Berger became concerned with what he saw as a growing retreat into delusional meeting room reality, and a consequent loss of all values. He believed that a return to basic physical reality was needed to reacquire our grounding. He moved to a village in rural France, and set forth his views in a novel called "Pig Earth". Berger is an able artist. First a photographer, his TV series "Ways of Seeing" was a landmark in making the arts accessible to a wider audience, and 30 years on his book which accompanied the series is still in print. On page one of the novel he wanted to engage the reader's attention before presenting his thesis, and did this by presenting a graphical visual image of a pair of elderly peasants making a complete mess of attempting to slaughter a cow. Berger can produce a strong visual image even when his medium is prose, and his description of the layers of bone, muscle and blood vessels revealed in the cow's shoulder as the peasants attempt to kill it is certainly strong. But it's just an attention getter. The point - which is all about the base reality revealed in the first page - comes in the rest of the book. "Pig Earth" was first published in New York in 1980, but didn't do well. It was republished in London in 1984 and did much better because it was marketed very aggressively by a close friend, which is why I know all the details of this aspect of the tale. My friend made sure "Pig Earth" was in some chains and every independent and arts bookshop in the land.

At the same time a Turkish embezzler called Asil Nadir was exploiting the growing retreat into self-delusion, enriching himself with a junk bond scam called Polly Peck. Nadir currently resides in the largely unrecognised state of Turkish Cyprus, where he is free from extradition and arrest. As an embezzler, Nadir would benefit from a more relaxed financial regulatory environment, and culturally impoverishing the population, since both would make them easier to swindle. Accordingly, he supplied a great deal of money to the then opposition Conservative
Party (elected to power in 1979), via it's bagman Jeffrey Archer, later Lord Archer, who later went to prison for perjury. The Conservatives received so much money from Nadir that their finances have never recovered from it's loss, after it was revealed that they were
bankrolled by a foriegn criminal. Much of the money then went to the advertising firm of Saatchi and Saatchi, which ran their propaganda campaign. One Charles Saatchi , now Lord Saatchi, who has never been to prison, is the candidate for a neuroarchaic sith lord in this story.

Now in every land, in every era, there is always found hanging around real artists a group of elderly degenerates who call themselves "the art world". Although they are utterly talentless, they find they can conceal their natures more easily in the vicinity of people who behave in more varied ways than is usual in society. Colleges of art therefore end up serving two functions. Talented students attend to learn the technical skills they need to express their inspirations, talentless students attend because they wish to meet the "art world". They are the sort of people who are willing to do absolutely anything, for small material rewards, so long as it does not take effort on their part. As these students age, they turn into the next generation of elderly degenerates, and so the cycle of corruption continues. To maintain the fiction that they are artists, each of them must as Gurdjieff put it, "manifest themselves absurdly" at least once. One of the least talented - but loudly self-advertising - students at the Royal College of Art in 1985 was one Damien Hirst. When it was time for him to manifest himself absurdly, he was completely stuck for ideas. Fortunately, there were plenty of copies of "Pig Earth" around, and he set out to re-create Berger's page one prose image, without the content of the book, in a literal, physical fashion. At least he had the grace to change the animal. The result was a shark, cut in half with a chainsaw and pickled. (When Marcel Duchamps did this kind of thing it was novel and challenging. Now it is purely formulaic.) Needless to say, this blatant act of empty plagerism caused considerable mirth amongst everyone who was even slightly aware of real contemporary arts at the time.

And there it would have ended, were it not for Saatchi, who very publicly handed Hirst a huge amount of Nadir's dirty money, and loudly announced, "He is a genius!" Of course, the ignorant, the gullible, the greedy and the easily led became hypnotised by the sight of the money, wished to follow fashion, and repeated the cry, "He is a genius!" In this way the talentless er... friend... of the "art world" Damien Hirst became the centrepiece of a group of similar creatures, entirely created by Saatchi, called BritArt. It was an evil scheme. A subtle tactic which removed all the value of real arts by replacing it with rubbish, and so impoverishing the population - although to be fair, the British working class never fell for it. Just the people with more money than sense, whom Saatchi wished to impoverish on behalf of his master, Nadir. Indeed, it was sufficiently subtle that people who didn't appreciate the importance of the cultural context doubted that Saatchi had done anything malign at all when it was pointed out to them. It is this that makes Saatchi a candidate for the honourific "Darth".

Except he is not so entitled! He's even less original than Hirst, and no special knowledge was required. The entire strategy, and the thinking behind it, was laid out in detail by Ayn Rand, in the 1943 novel, "The Fountainhead", which loudly proclaims on the cover of the 1983 printing I have before me, that 5,000,000 copies have been sold. I quote:

"Kill man's sense of values. Kill his capacity to recognize greatness or to achieve it. Great men can't be ruled. We don't want any great men. Don't deny the conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of
achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept - and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection. Laugh at Roark and hold Peter Keating as a great architect. You've destroyed architecture. Build up Lois Cook and you've destroyed literature. Hail Ike and you've destroyed the theatre. Glorify Lancelot Clokey and you've destroyed the press. Don't set out to raze all shrines - you'll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity - and the shrines are razed. Then there's another way. Kill by laughter. Laughter is an instrument of human joy. Learn to use it as a weapon of destruction. Turn it into a sneer. It's simple. Tell them to laugh at everything. Tell them that a sense of humour is an unlimited virtue. Don't let anything remain sacred in a man's soul - and his soul won't be sacred to him. Kill reverence and you've killed the hero in man. One doesn't reverence with a giggle. He'll obey and he'll set no limits to his obedience - anything goes - nothing is too serious.... Nature allows no vacuum. Empty man's soul and the space is yours to fill."

BritArt is to the Council of American Artists in Rand's novel, as Hirst's pickled animal parts are to the cow in Berger's novel. And in case there's any doubt, the final artistic wonder in Hirst's repititions of his plagerism, each heralded as a greater work of genius than the last, was indeed a cow cut in half. Here's Rand's 1943 description of Saatchi's wretched, sneering, 1980s assembly:

"The Council of American Artists had as chairman a cadaverous youth who painted what he saw in his nightly dreams. There was a boy who used no canvas, but did something with bird-cages and metronomes, and another who discovered a new technique of painting: he blackened a sheet of paper and then painted with a rubber eraser. There was a stout middle-aged lady who drew sub-consciously, claiming that she never looked at her hand and had no idea of what the hand was doing; her hand, she said, was guided by the spirit of the departed lover whom she had never met on earth. Here they did not talk so much about the proletariat, but merely rebelled against the tyranny of reality and of the objective."

So while Charles Saatchi did something malevolent and destructive, we might almost say clever, a Sith Lord he is not. He simply implemented an exploit documented in Rand's 1943 advisory. The only thing that was not in Rand's book was the smell. Rand never mentioned personal hygene problems amongst the members of the Council of American Artists. Thus was Berger's artistic cry for values stolen and perverted by Saatchi into destruction of values. Afterword: Nadir himself had part of his ill-gotten gains squirreled away in a huge collection of exquisite watercolours. I know this because the curator he engaged was an artist and restorer of considerable talent and technical ability. He was fascinated by the concept of computer networking, and filled his house with CP/M machines connected by twisted pairs. As a young hacker I helped set up some of his curious network.

The second situation I'd like to mention, corny though it may be, is that of Adolf Hitler. There's no doubt he was a macker, and a master manipulator of a group of humans close to a marching point. Few today appreciate the significance of his funny little mustache, for example. What's interesting about him is the rallies. He stands there, making his curious, foppish little hand gestures, and shrieking things like, "You must give in to the compulsion to obey!" Now every generation thinks itself so much more worldly that it's predecessors, but if that we're true, we'd all be very wise now - and we're not. So why didn't the grandparents of today's Germans burst out laughing? I think we may be looking at an example of the use of microsynch, the study and perfomance of body language regimented by mass boredom addiction. The effect which (in reverse) can make people like bank clerks go mad wirth demented rage if an immune so much as walks up to them. The effect demonstrated by Gurdjieff, documented by Ouspensky and quoted in V2.0 chapter 2. I have twice heard a person describe another as "godlike". One was a minor civil servant who had reported to me that another civil servant had once more buggered up the paperwork, and prevented us receiving the supplies we needed. "Christ!", I exclaimed. "Who does that guy think he's working
for? Slobodan?" The reporter's response was extraordinary. His demented rant of defence of his imcompetent and feckless colleauge included the word "godlike". Both, as I would currently express it, were very boredom addicted, with the screecher less boredom addicted because of his occasional contact with teams I was keeping productive. The other case was an eldery man (a doctor, not a rabid fascist, not a member of the SS, just a regular German who after WWII moved to the UK), who described meeting Hitler. Over 40 years later his knuckles were white as he grasped the arms of his chair, and he used the same word, "godlike". Something very odd was going on here. Also add the determination to wipe out all members of groups who I conjecture have an unusually large minority immune to boredom addiction.

The thing about Hitler, if he did learn this stuff from members of an authentic school, is that he only got *partial* truths. Not all immunes are Jews and Poles, and not all Jews and Poles are natural immunes. Exterminating all Jews and Poles does not leave a population entirely
vulnerable to mass hypnotism in this way. Indeed, the only effect of his evil work in these terms, was to *enrich* the proportion of immunes in those populations. According to all understanding of military history, what happened in Israel in 1973, where Moshe Dyan had to completely reconstruct his entire national defence plan with the enemy in country and moving fast, and all his armour gone, simply can't happen. The mostly mapper Linux community could do it though, with the power of distributed, creative problem solving loosely structured by the overall guidance of one person. If someone told me that Hitler was wound up and set on his way by an authentic school, for the purpose of accellerating change (which he certainly did), then I would have no trouble believing it. But his effectiveness was constrained by partial truths. I find the idea uncomfortable that authentic schools would be willing to resort to such methods, but an implication of V2.0 chapter 6 is that people with advanced consciousness *are* willing to break eggs to make omlettes. A 2000+ year strategy to break boredom addiction, with little things like the Spanish Inquisition along the way.

But Hitler would not count as a sith, just a wind-up toy. Neither would the informants who limited his effectiveness so that he achieved the reverse of what he wanted. If the informants are serving a long term self-org objective of bringing the local planetary mind to awareness,
then their objectives, however dubious their methods might seem to us, would be good. They are not nihilists.

And this brings me to my final point. There's really only one thing going on - the reconstruction of the universe and growth of consciousness. I suppose a person might attend an authentic school, such as the Sarmoung described by Gurdjieff or the mysterious teachers of
Steiner, which we have intimations of existing, and somehow fail in their development. Then we might have a person with an exterior perspective, who could see M0 for what it was, and manipulate it. He or she might have astonishing powers of precognition, the ability to
translocate, and the ability to "kill a yak by the power of thought at a distance of several miles" (Gurdjieff). Yet for all this, the person of distorted development might be interested in serving only their own material greed, like a crack SAS soldier equipped with night vision
goggles, flashbangs and so on, who breaks into the nursery and steals all the toys. But why would the authentic schools, who are populated by people of full development, permit such an individual to do harm? They'd take him or her out of commission rather than let them damage the programme. Indeed, I see no evidence that any such persons are active in the world. As William of Occam said, let us not multiply hypotheses without necessity.

None of this removes the terrible danger posed by the zombie packers and screwed up mappers. It seems like a miracle will be needed to solve the problem, either in some "fail safe" predicted by the authentic schools that I believe engineered the present situation in order to take M0 out of it's stable envelope and break it, or something... else. Since my integrated deductive and inductive mind is convinced of the self-org imperative of our making it, with our deductive mind culture intact including the Internet, I am therefore anticipating a miracle.

Film at 11... :-)


hidden epidemic: tapeworms in the brain

Discover | Theodore Nash sees only a few dozen patients a year in his clinic at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. That’s pretty small as medical practices go, but what his patients lack in number they make up for in the intensity of their symptoms. Some fall into comas. Some are paralyzed down one side of their body. Others can’t walk a straight line. Still others come to Nash partially blind, or with so much fluid in their brain that they need shunts implanted to relieve the pressure. Some lose the ability to speak; many fall into violent seizures.

Underneath this panoply of symptoms is the same cause, captured in the MRI scans that Nash takes of his patients’ brains. Each brain contains one or more whitish blobs. You might guess that these are tumors. But Nash knows the blobs are not made of the patient’s own cells. They are tapeworms. Aliens.

A blob in the brain is not the image most people have when someone mentions tapeworms. These parasitic worms are best known in their adult stage, when they live in people’s intestines and their ribbon-shaped bodies can grow as long as 21 feet. But that’s just one stage in the animal’s life cycle. Before they become adults, tapeworms spend time as larvae in large cysts. And those cysts can end up in people’s brains, causing a disease known as neurocysticercosis.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

economists: what (or who) are they good for?

zerohedge |"Economists today primarily serve the needs of powerful interests at the expense of society in general" is how Robert Johnson - the frighteningly honest Executive Director of INET - describes the self-indoctrinating field of study that remains in such seemingly high regard in the nation. In an excellent and forthright brief interview with Stifterverband, Johnson notes that "Economists are very much accused of 'only seeing the economy through the eyes of the model' as opposed to seeing the economy and building a model as a map of what reality is." And while "when the people become anxious they want the expert to tell them what's going to happen. And they feel good when their anxiety is relieved because they think they understand the future. But if the expert instead of telling the truth is selling snake oil - a false story - when that is unmasked the expert becomes the scapegoat." Overall he believes 'economists' did a great disservice to mankind and suggests a number of approaches to "cleaning up after that". Sadly, he opines, "At the core, economics is about politics and about power, and the question for the economists is whose power are you going to serve as an expert."

obama's drug war "economist" lies, lies, and lies some more...,

reason | What’s the quickest way for the Obama administration to convince progressives that the war on drugs is over, even though it’s not?

Step 1: Say that the drug war is over.

Step 2: Convince the largest and most powerful progressive think tank in America to agree with you, invite you to their headquarters, praise you for having “transformed” drug policy in the United States, and pitch you softball questions.

Step 3: Repeat step 1.

This is how you placate liberal hearts and minds after three years of broken drug war promises, and it’s exactly what Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske and the Center for American Progress did this morning.

The spin started the moment CAP President Neera Tanden opened her mouth to introduce Kerlikowske.

“For decades, the United States treated drug abuse as a moral failure and fought it with arrests and incarceration,” Tanden said. “Instead of building treatment centers, we built jails. As a result, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, at a dear cost to federal and state budgets at a time when those budgets are very constrained. The human costs are more tragic still, to the families and communities who have not got the support they need to overcome substance abuse.”

Note that Tanden spoke in the past tense, as if the United States were no longer fighting the drug war with arrests and incarceration. Note that she assessed untreated addiction to be the most notable “human cost” of the drug war, as opposed to unjust incarceration, broken families, lost job opportunities, seized assets, and/or death. Note that these were simply the opening remarks of an hour-long event.

But Tanden didn’t just reframe the debate in order to avoid discussing the Obama administration’s commitment to prohibition. She also told a few whoppers, such as this one: “We welcome the...shifts in funding that have seen more money spent in the last three years on drug education and treatment than on law enforcement.”

Obama’s budget proposal for 2013 allocates almost 60 percent of the drug control budget to enforcement. Previous budgets have allocated even more. Tanden may be misinformed, bad at math, a liar, or all of the above. Regardless, she is wrong.

Upon taking the podium, Kerlikowske matched Tanden in intellectual dishonesty, and then raised her one. Full video viewable at C-SPAN.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

colleges imperiled by the student debt crisis...,

BusinessInsider | Very few topics have received as much attention here at Sense on Cents as the student loan/debt bubble.

In my opinion, the size, scope, and impact of this problem is an enormous anchor weighing down our next generation and our nation’s economy.

Make no mistake, this anchor is not only impacting thousands of students and families but is also having an equally burdensome impact on colleges and universities nationwide.

I choose my words carefully here. The other day I entitled my commentary, Student Debt Bubble: Impending Doom for Colleges.

Doom is a strong word. Why did I choose it? Let’s navigate.

Embedded within a very recently released Bloomberg commentary is a study by Richard Kneedler, President Emeritus of Franklin & Marshall College. In light of the economic crisis that hit our shores and continues to envelop our nation, in early 2009 Kneedler released a very granular review of the economic condition of close to 700 private colleges and universities. For anybody with even a passing interest in this issue, Kneedler’s work, is a MUST read. What do we learn?

1. Using this post-crash model (and may it not be “mid-crash”), 207 colleges and universities—31 percent of the 678 institutions in the database—have, under at least some circumstances, more debts than cash and marketable investments. I designate them “at risk.” In the model these 207 inadequate-capital institutions have projected net financial asset balances ranging from a negative few hundred thousand dollars to nearly a negative $400,000,000. More than half of the 205 had negative projections from ($10,000,000) to ($100,000,000).

2. This means that the inadequate-capital institutions (which might include a third or more of NAICU members) are exposed to severe disruption from negative factors such as declines in cash and investments, escalation of interest payments on variable-rate debt, and required accelerated repayment of principle, particularly if several negative factors were to coincide.

In those circumstances, any of the inadequate-capital institutions and perhaps some of the marginally positive schools might find themselves unable either to meet their increased payment obligations or to repay their debts. The institution could then be effectively insolvent, even if its operations were otherwise healthy. While the institution might not be bankrupt, creditors could demand control of major operating decisions. This is, essentially, what has been happening to sectors of the business community, such as home builders, retailers, and newspapers, that have lost credibility with banks. That has apparently not happened to independent Higher Education, but the warnings from S&P and Moody’s about our sector’s prospects are ominous and could foreshadow a shift by rating agencies based on enrollment or other data.

Bingo. With student debt burdens soaring ever higher. Demand for many of these at risk institutions will inevitably decline. Subsequently, these schools will get squeezed and be forced to close their doors. Fist tap Dale.

as student debt rises, colleges confront costs

NYTimes | In a wood-paneled office lined with books, sports memorabilia and framed posters (including John Belushi in “Animal House”), E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State University, keeps a framed quotation that reads, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

Mr. Gee, who is often identified with a big salary and spendthrift ways, says he has taken the quotation to heart, and he is now trying to persuade Ohio State’s vast bureaucracy, and the broader world of academia, to do the same.

At a time of diminished state funding for higher education and uncertain federal dollars, Mr. Gee says that public colleges and universities need to devise a new business model to pay for the costs of education, beyond sticking students with higher tuition and greater debt.

“The notion that universities can do business the very same way has to stop,” said Mr. Gee, who is also the chairman of a commission studying college attainment, including the impact of student debt.

College presidents across the country are confronting the same realization, trying to manage their institutions with fewer state dollars without sacrificing quality or all-important academic rankings. Tuition increases had been a relatively easy fix but now — with the balance of student debt topping $1 trillion and an increasing number of borrowers struggling to pay — some administrators acknowledge that they cannot keep putting the financial onus on students and their families.

Increasingly, they are looking for other ways to pay for education, stepping up private fund-raising, privatizing services, cutting staff, eliminating departments — even saving millions of dollars by standardizing things like expense forms.

And Wall Street is watching.

Moody’s Investors Service, in a report earlier this year, said it had a favorable outlook for the nation’s most elite private colleges and large state institutions, those with the “strongest market positions” that had multiple ways to generate revenue. Ohio State, for instance, received a stable outlook from Moody’s last fall, though the report cautioned about the school’s debt and reliance on its medical center for revenue.

But Moody’s issued a negative outlook for a majority of colleges and universities heavily dependent on tuition and state revenue.

“Tuition levels are at a tipping point,” Moody’s wrote, adding later, “We anticipate an ongoing bifurcation of student demand favoring the highest quality and most affordable higher education options.”

Colleges can be top-heavy with administrators and woefully inefficient, some critics say, and some have only recently taken a harder look at ways to streamline their operations.

“Schools are very good at adding new things, new programs,” said Sherideen S. Stoll, vice president for finance and administration at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “We are not so good at looking at things we have been doing for 20 or 30 years and saying, ‘Should we be offering those academic programs?’ ”

useful, reliable, and non-obvious predictions from the social science of physics education research...,

aera-l | Rick Froman of the TIPS discussion list has pointed to a New York Times Opinion Piece "How Reliable Are the Social Sciences?" by Gary Gutting at <>. Gutting wrote that Obama, in his State of the Union address <> cited "The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood" (Chetty et al., 2011 at <>) to support his emphasis on evaluating teachers by their students' test scores. That study purportedly shows that students with teachers who raise their standardized test scores are "more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, live in better neighborhoods, and save more for retirement."

After comparing the reliability of social-science research unfavorably with that of physical-science research, Getting wrote [my CAPS): "IS THERE ANY WORK ON THE EFFECTIVENESS OF TEACHING THAT IS SOLIDLY ENOUGH ESTABLISHED TO SUPPORT MAJOR POLICY DECISIONS?" THE CASE FOR A NEGATIVE ANSWER lies in the [superior] predictive power of the core natural sciences compared with even the most highly developed social sciences."

Most education experts would probably agree with Getting's negative answer. Even economist Eric Hanushek, as reported by Lowery <>, states: "Very few people suggest that you should use value-added scores alone to make personnel decisions."

But then Getting goes on to write (slightly edited): "While the physical sciences produce many detailed and precise predictions, the social sciences do not. The reason is that such predictions almost always require randomized controlled trials (RCT's) which are seldom possible when people are involved. . . . . . Jim Manzi. . . .[[according to Wikipedia <>, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute <>]]. . . . in his recent book "Uncontrolled" <> offers a careful and informed survey of the problems of research in the social sciences and concludes that non-RCT social science is not capable of making useful, reliable, and nonobvious predictions for the effects of most proposed policy interventions." BUT:

(1) Randomized controlled trails may be the "gold standard" for medical research, but they are not such for the social science of educational research - see e.g., "Seventeen Statements by Gold-Standard Skeptics #2" (Hake, 2010) at <>.

(2) Unknown to most of academia, and probably to Getting and Manzi, ever since the pioneering work of Halloun & Hestenes (1985a) at <>, physicists have been engaged in the social science of Physics Education Research that IS "capable of making useful, reliable, and nonobvious predictions," e.g., that "interactive engagement" courses can achieve average normalized pre-to-posttest gains which are about two-standard deviations above *comparison* courses subjected to "traditional" passive-student lecture courses. This work employs pre/post testing with Concept Inventories <> - see e.g., (a) "The Impact of Concept Inventories on Physics Education and It's Relevance For Engineering Education" (Hake, 2011) at <>, and (b) "Why Not Try a Scientific Approach to Science Education?" (Wieman, 2007) at <>.

Monday, May 21, 2012

consequences when "career success" trumps constituent services...,

theholecard | The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that authorities are considering using the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to prosecute teachers and administrators implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools test cheating scandal. Conviction under RICO carries penalties of up to twenty years in prison. This is absurd and an outrage and should be opposed by all fair minded people. According to published accounts, 178 educators including 38 principals have been accused of altering student scores on tests mandated by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policies. Superintendent Erroll Davis has announced his intention to fire all of the accused and placed them on administrative leave with pay while perfunctory due process procedures ran their course. However, the cost of keeping the accused teachers and administrators on the payroll while they await their pre-firing administrative hearings is said to be in excess of a million dollars monthly. Using RICO would allow authorities to expedite the trial and firing processes.

This is an outrage. Indeed the whole inquisition is an outrage. The Atlanta Public School (APS) system is only one of scores in Georgia and hundreds of systems across the country suspected of doctoring student test scores. In 2009, for example, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement reported that answer sheets from 10 percent of classrooms state-wide showed erasures that justified moderate to severe concern. And the problem is not limited to Georgia. Questionable test scores in states as disparate as Ohio, California, Texas, and New York have been reported. Even schools that have been lauded with high commendations in the Race to the Top sweepstakes have come under suspicion. Clearly Atlanta is not an aberration. The problem is nation-wide. But as far as I have been able to ascertain, Atlanta is the only jurisdiction committed to firing all of those implicated and conducting public hearings to humiliate the accused. As Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant of Education under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton has said about the cheating scandals, “All of this was to be expected”.

Why would she say that? And why have the other jurisdictions refrained from having show trials of those implicated. Ravitch argues, and I concur, that the best predictor of academic achievement is poverty, and I would add poverty compounded by institutional racism. Taking these two critical factors into account, we know beforehand which are likely to be the high and low achieving schools. The tests only confirm what was already widely known or at least widely believed. Nevertheless the tests could be a useful diagnostic tool if they are used to render greater specificity in identifying problematic areas. However under the evolving NCLB regime, the test results have became more than diagnostic tools. They have become punitive yardsticks to rank teachers and schools, and as a result, determine the career fortunes of school personnel.

For school personnel, especially mid to senior level employees, this means that the rules regarding career advancement and indeed job retention have been changed in mid-stream. Student test scores above all else are critical factors in determining career advancement. Obviously this puts school personnel in what they quite rationally believe to be a no-win situation. Given their experiences, they have no reason to assume that student test scores would show significant improvement in such a short period of time. And apparently, the rest of the attentive public shared their misgivings because no one expected the low achieving schools to show dramatic improvement. Indeed, the whole test-cheating scandal evolved because informed observers found the reported improved test scores to be incredible.

Manipulating student test scores is inexcusable, but it is also understandable. The teachers were asked to collect and report data which would undermine any chance they have of career success—despite all their hard work. It’s no wonder that many of them gave in to temptation to submit doctored reports and answer sheets when they felt that there was neither time nor resources to improve student performance in a legitimate way. Fist tap Bro. Makheru.

racketeering expert aiding atlanta public schools investigation

ajc | The state's leading expert in racketeering prosecutions has been hired by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard to assist in the ongoing investigation into test cheating at Atlanta Public Schools, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

Atlanta lawyer John Floyd, who has served as a special prosecutor in a number of high-profile cases, is working with the District Attorney's Office as a grand jury investigates the scandal, lawyers familiar with the probe said. The attorneys requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the grand jury proceedings.

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- or RICO -- is often used by district attorneys to try to prove that a legal business was being used for illegal means. It allows prosecutors to sweep numerous defendants accused of committing various crimes into the same indictment and to allege they were all part of an ongoing enterprise. Racketeering convictions carry stiff punishment of up to 20 years in prison, much longer than what school officials might face under other possible charges.

Both Howard and Floyd declined to comment.

It is unclear how close Howard is to deciding whether to ask the grand jury to hand up indictments in the APS case. It also remains to be seen whether racketeering charges will be sought and, if so, who would be the possible targets. But bringing Floyd into the case shows the charges must be under consideration.

RICO was first enacted to fight corruption and organized crime, but Georgia's law, passed in 1980, has allowed state prosecutors to seek it in cases involving gang leaders, former Cobb EMC chief Dwight Brown, the assisted-suicide group the Final Exit Network and, just recently, former DeKalb schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis.

The Fulton grand jury began investigating the cheating scandal after a scathing report was released in July, concluding a lengthy state investigation into the APS cheating scandal. The report described an enterprise where unethical -- and potentially illegal -- behavior infiltrated every level of the bureaucracy and that "thousands of school children were harmed by widespread cheating."

Three special investigators found cheating on standardized tests occurred at 44 Atlanta schools and involved 178 educators, including 38 principals. The probe was launched after multiple articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raised questions about the validity of APS test score improvements.

"A culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected this school system, and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct," the investigators' report said. "From the onset of this investigation, we were confronted by a pattern of interference by top APS leadership in our attempt to gather evidence."

When asked to comment on Floyd's involvement in the case, Mike Bowers, one of the three APS special investigators, said, "I am encouraged that Mr. Howard is getting someone of Mr. Floyd's ability and insight to look at this."

turrible and typical..., REDUX (originally posted 7/9/11)

AJC | Across Atlanta Public Schools, staff worked feverishly in secret to transform testing failures into successes.

Teachers and principals erased and corrected mistakes on students’ answer sheets.

Area superintendents silenced whistle-blowers and rewarded subordinates who met academic goals by any means possible.

Superintendent Beverly Hall and her top aides ignored, buried, destroyed or altered complaints about misconduct, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and accused naysayers of failing to believe in poor children’s ability to learn.

For years — as long as a decade — this was how the Atlanta school district produced gains on state curriculum tests. The scores soared so dramatically they brought national acclaim to Hall and the district, according to an investigative report released Tuesday by Gov. Nathan Deal.

In the report, the governor’s special investigators describe an enterprise where unethical — and potentially illegal — behavior pierced every level of the bureaucracy, allowing district staff to reap praise and sometimes bonuses by misleading the children, parents and community they served.

The report accuses top district officials of wrongdoing that could lead to criminal charges in some cases.

The decision whether to prosecute lies with three district attorneys — in Fulton, DeKalb and Douglas counties — who will consider potential offenses in their jurisdictions.

For teachers, a culture of fear ensured the deception would continue.

“APS is run like the mob,” one teacher told investigators, saying she cheated because she feared retaliation if she didn’t.

The voluminous report names 178 educators, including 38 principals, as participants in cheating. More than 80 confessed. The investigators said they confirmed cheating in 44 of 56 schools they examined.

The investigators conducted more than 2,100 interviews and examined more than 800,000 documents in what is likely the most wide-ranging investigation into test-cheating in a public school district ever conducted in United States history.

The findings fly in the face of years of denials from Atlanta administrators. The investigators re-examined the state’s erasure analysis — which they said proved to be valid and reliable — and sought to lay to rest district leaders’ numerous excuses for the suspicious scores.

Deal warned Tuesday “there will be consequences” for educators who cheated. “The report’s findings are troubling,” he said, “but I am encouraged this investigation will bring closure to problems that existed.”

Interim Atlanta Superintendent Erroll Davis promised that the educators found to have cheated “are not going to be put in front of children again.”

Through her lawyer, Hall issued a statement denying that she, her staff or the “vast majority” of Atlanta educators knew or should have known of “allegedly widespread” cheating. “She further denies any other allegations of knowing and deliberate wrongdoing on her part or on the part of her senior staff,” the statement said, “whether during the course of the investigation or before.” Fist tap Big Don.

typical 2nd/3rd line inheritor antics garner racketeering charges...,

ajcblog | A DeKalb grand jury just indicted former Superintendent Crawford Lewis over irregularities in the state’s third-largest school system’s massive construction program. Indictments were also handed down on Pat Reid, who oversaw construction for the county until she fell from grace from alleged conflicts of interest and sweetheart deals to companies with which her then-husband had ties.

While Lewis did not have a strong vision for DeKalb’s changing school landscape, I did not expect a six-count indictment. A 33-year veteran of the DeKalb district, Lewis has yet to have his day in court, but I am stunned to see him indicted for racketeering (RICO) charges, theft by a government employee and bribery.

After reading the indictments, it seems to me that Lewis is alleged to have risked his career and his reputation for fairly modest gains, including Masters tickets and free hotel rooms.

According to the breaking news story now in the AJC:

Lewis was indicted on racketeering and other charges, school board Chairman Tom Bowen told the AJC. Former schools chief operating officer Patricia Reid, also known as Pat Pope, was also indicted, along with Reid’s secretary and Reid’s former husband Tony Pope, Bowen said.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

how reliable are the social sciences?

NYTimes | Public policy debates often involve appeals to results of work in social sciences like economics and sociology. For example, in his State of the Union address this year, President Obama cited a recent high-profile study to support his emphasis on evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores. The study purportedly shows that students with teachers who raise their standardized test scores are “more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, live in better neighborhoods and save more for retirement.”

How much authority should we give to such work in our policy decisions? The question is important because media reports often seem to assume that any result presented as “scientific” has a claim to our serious attention. But this is hardly a reasonable view. There is considerable distance between, say, the confidence we should place in astronomers’ calculations of eclipses and a small marketing study suggesting that consumers prefer laundry soap in blue boxes.

A rational assessment of a scientific result must first take account of the broader context of the particular science involved. Where does the result lie on the continuum from preliminary studies, designed to suggest further directions of research, to maximally supported conclusions of the science? In physics, for example, there is the difference between early calculations positing the Higgs boson and what we hope will soon be the final experimental proof that it actually exists. Scientists working in a discipline generally have a good sense of where a given piece of works stands in their discipline. But often, as I have pointed out for the case of biomedical research, popular reports often do not make clear the limited value of a journalistically exciting result. Good headlines can make for bad reporting.

Second, and even more important, there is our overall assessment of work in a given science in comparison with other sciences. The core natural sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology) are so well established that we readily accept their best-supported conclusions as definitive. (No one, for example, was concerned about the validity of the fundamental physics on which our space program was based.) Even the best-developed social sciences like economics have nothing like this status.

Consider, for example, the report President Obama referred to. By all accounts it is a significant contribution to its field. As reported in The Times, the study, by two economists from Harvard and one from Columbia, “examined a larger number of students over a longer period of time with more in-depth data than many earlier studies, allowing for a deeper look at how much the quality of individual teachers matters over the long term.” As such, “It is likely to influence the roiling national debates about the importance of quality teachers and how best to measure that quality.”

But how reliable is even the best work on the effects of teaching? How, for example, does it compare with the best work by biochemists on the effects of light on plant growth? Since humans are much more complex than plants and biochemists have far more refined techniques for studying plants, we may well expect the biochemical work to be far more reliable. For making informed decisions about public policy, though, we need to have a more precise sense of how large the difference in reliability is. Is there any work on the effectiveness of teaching that is solidly enough established to support major policy decisions?

The case for a negative answer lies in the predictive power of the core natural sciences compared with even the most highly developed social sciences. Social sciences may be surrounded by the “paraphernalia” of the natural sciences, such as technical terminology, mathematical equations, empirical data and even carefully designed experiments. But when it comes to generating reliable scientific knowledge, there is nothing more important than frequent and detailed predictions of future events. We may have a theory that explains all the known data, but that may be just the result of our having fitted the theory to that data. The strongest support for a theory comes from its ability to correctly predict data that it was not designed to explain.

While the physical sciences produce many detailed and precise predictions, the social sciences do not. The reason is that such predictions almost always require randomized controlled experiments, which are seldom possible when people are involved. For one thing, we are too complex: our behavior depends on an enormous number of tightly interconnected variables that are extraordinarily difficult to distinguish and study separately. Also, moral considerations forbid manipulating humans the way we do inanimate objects. As a result, most social science research falls far short of the natural sciences’ standard of controlled experiments.