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... :-)

Alan

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 <http://nyti.ms/K0xVQL>. Gutting wrote that Obama, in his State of the Union address <http://wapo.st/JnuBCO> cited "The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood" (Chetty et al., 2011 at <http://bit.ly/KkanoU>) 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 <http://nyti.ms/KnRvDh>, 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 <http://bit.ly/KqMf1M>, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute <http://bit.ly/JvwKG1>]]. . . . in his recent book "Uncontrolled" <http://amzn.to/JFalMD> 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 <http://bit.ly/oRGnBp>.

(2) Unknown to most of academia, and probably to Getting and Manzi, ever since the pioneering work of Halloun & Hestenes (1985a) at <http://bit.ly/fDdJHm>, 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 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concept_inventory> - see e.g., (a) "The Impact of Concept Inventories on Physics Education and It's Relevance For Engineering Education" (Hake, 2011) at <http://bit.ly/nmPY8F>, and (b) "Why Not Try a Scientific Approach to Science Education?" (Wieman, 2007) at <http://bit.ly/anTMfF>.

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.

like man like dog...,

ScienceMag | Yawn next to your dog, and she may do the same. Though it seems simple, this contagious behavior is actually quite remarkable: Only a few animals do it, and only dogs cross the species barrier. Now a new study finds that dogs yawn even when they only hear the sound of us yawning, the strongest evidence yet that canines may be able to empathize with us.

Besides people and dogs, contagious yawning has been observed in gelada baboons, stump-tail macaques, and chimpanzees. Humans tend to yawn more with friends and acquaintances, suggesting that "catching" someone's yawn may be tied to feelings of empathy. Similarly, some studies have found that dogs tend to yawn more after watching familiar people yawning. But it is unclear whether the canine behavior is linked to empathy as it is in people. One clue might be if even the mere sound of a human yawn elicited yawning in dogs.

To that end, scientists at the University of Porto in Portugal recruited 29 dogs, all of whom had lived for at least 6 months with their owners. To reduce anxiety, the study was performed in familiar rooms in the dogs' homes and in the presence of a known person but with no visual contact with their owners.

The team, led by behavioral biologist Karine Silva, recorded yawning sounds of the dogs' owners and an unfamiliar woman as well as an artificial control sound consisting of a computer-reversed yawn. (To help induce natural yawning, volunteers listened to an audio loop of prerecorded yawns over headphones.) Each dog heard all of the sounds in two sessions, each carried out 7 days apart. During the sessions, the researchers measured the number of elicited yawns in dogs in response to sounds from known and unknown people.

As the team will report in the July issue of Animal Cognition, 12 out of 29 dogs yawned during the experiment. On average, canines yawned five times more often when they heard humans they knew yawning as opposed to control sounds. "These results suggest that dogs have the capacity to empathize with humans," says Silva.

That's not surprising, she says. People first began domesticating dogs at least 15,000 years ago, and since then we've bred them to perform increasingly complex tasks, from hunting to guiding the blind. This close relationship may have fostered cross-species empathy over the millennia.

"This study tells us something new about the mechanisms underlying contagious yawning in dogs," says Evan McLean, a Ph.D. student at Duke University's Canine Cognition Center in Durham, North Carolina, who was not part of the study. "As in humans, dogs can catch this behavior using their ears alone." Still, he notes, the experiments don't tell us much about the nature of empathy in dogs. "Do they think about our emotions and internal states the way we do as humans?"

Ádám Miklósi, an ethologist at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, agrees. "Using behaviors as indicators will only show some similarity in behavior," he says, "but it will never tell us whether canine empathy, whatever this is, matches human empathy." Previous work has shown, for example, that when dogs look guilty, they may not actually be feeling guilty. "Dogs can simulate very well different forms of social interest that could mislead people to think they are controlled by the same mental processes," says Miklósi, "but they may not always understand the complexity of human behavior."

Saturday, May 19, 2012

are people too busy and too poor to make demands?

aljazeera | The Occupy movement has been an extremely exciting development. Unprecedented, in fact. There's never been anything like it that I can think of. If the bonds and associations it has established can be sustained through a long, dark period ahead - because victory won't come quickly - it could prove a significant moment in American history.

The fact that the Occupy movement is unprecedented is quite appropriate. After all, it's an unprecedented era and has been so since the 1970s, which marked a major turning point in American history. For centuries, since the country began, it had been a developing society, and not always in very pretty ways. That's another story, but the general progress was toward wealth, industrialisation, development and hope. There was a pretty constant expectation that it was going to go on like this. That was true even in very dark times.

I'm just old enough to remember the Great Depression. After the first few years, by the mid-1930s - although the situation was objectively much harsher than it is today - nevertheless, the spirit was quite different. There was a sense that "we're gonna get out of it", even among unemployed people, including a lot of my relatives, a sense that "it will get better".

There was militant labour union organising going on, especially from the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). It was getting to the point of sit-down strikes, which are frightening to the business world - you could see it in the business press at the time - because a sit-down strike is just a step before taking over the factory and running it yourself. The idea of worker takeovers is something which is, incidentally, very much on the agenda today, and we should keep it in mind. Also New Deal legislation was beginning to come in as a result of popular pressure. Despite the hard times, there was a sense that, somehow, "we're gonna get out of it".

It's quite different now. For many people in the United States, there's a pervasive sense of hopelessness, sometimes despair. I think it's quite new in American history. And it has an objective basis. Fist tap Arnach.

we have reached peak government...,

oftwominds | As the foundations that supported an expansive centralized State crumble, the entire centralized State is revealed as unsustainable: we have reached Peak Government.


In previous entries this week, I have detailed the profound unsustainability of government pensions and entitlements such as Medicare.
These are symptoms are a larger phenomenon: Peak Government, the realization that Central States cannot sustain their current budgets or future promises.

Most informed people are familiar with the concept of Peak Oil, but fewer are aware that we’re also entering the era of Peak Government. The central misconception of Peak Oil -- that it’s not about “running out of oil,” it’s about running out of cheap, easy-to-access oil -- can also be applied to Peak Government: It’s not about government disappearing, it’s about government shrinking.

Central government -- the Central State -- has been in the expansion mode for so long that the process of contracting government is completely alien to the nation, to those who work for the State, and to those who are dependent on the State. Thus we have little recent historical experience of Peak Government and few if any conceptual guideposts to help us understand this contraction.

Peak Government is not a reflection of government services or the millions of individuals who work in government; it is a reflection of four key systemic forces that drove State expansion are now either declining or reversing.
The Four Key Drivers of State Expansion
The twin peaks of oil and government are causally linked: central government's great era of expansion has been fueled by abundant, cheap liquid fuels. As economies powered by abundant cheap energy expanded, so did tax revenues.

Demographics also aided Central States’ expansion: as the population of working-age citizens grew, so did the work force and the taxes paid by workers and enterprises.

The third support of Central State expansion was debt, and more broadly, financialization, which includes debt, leverage, and institutionalized incentives for speculation and misallocation of capital. Not only have Central States benefited from the higher tax revenues generated by speculative bubbles, they now depend on debt to finance their annual spending. In the U.S., roughly one-third of Federal expenditures are borrowed every year. In Japan -- which is further along on this timeline, relative to America -- tax revenues barely cover social security payments and interest on central government debt; all other spending is funded with borrowed money.

The fourth dynamic of Central State expansion is the State’s ontological imperative to expand. The State has only one mode of being, expansion. It has no concept of, or mechanisms for, contraction.

Friday, May 18, 2012

synthetic genetic evolution...,

TheScientist | Synthetic genetic polymers, broadly referred to as XNAs, can replicate and evolve just like their naturally occurring counterparts, DNA and RNA, according to a new study published today (April 19) in Science. The results of the research have implications not only for the fields of biotechnology and drug design, but also for research into the origins of life—on this planet and beyond.

“It’s a breakthrough,” said Gerald Joyce of The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, who was not involved in the study—“a beautiful paper in the realm of synthetic biology.”

“It shows that you don’t have to stick with the ribose and deoxyribose backbones of RNA and DNA in order to have transmittable, heritable, and evolvable information,” added Eric Kool of Stanford University, California, who also did not participate in the research.

Over the years, scientists have created a range of XNAs, in which the ribose or deoxyribose portions of RNA and DNA are replaced with alternative molecules. For example, threose is used to make TNA, and anhydrohexitol is used to make HNA. These polymers, which do not exist naturally, are generally studied with various biotechnological and therapeutic aims in mind. But some researchers, like Philipp Holliger of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, think XNAs might also provide insights into the origins of life. They might help to answer questions such as, “why is life based on DNA and RNA, and, if we ever find life beyond earth, is it likely to be based on the same molecule or could there be other possibilities?” Holliger said.

To get at some of these questions, Holliger and his colleagues had to first create enzymes that could replicate XNAs, a necessary first step to evolution. They did this both by randomly mutating and screening existing DNA polymerases for their ability to read XNA, and by an iterative process of selecting polymerase variants with capacities for XNA synthesis. In the end, they had several polymerases that could synthesize six different types of XNA.

To see whether XNAs could evolve, they generated random HNA sequences, then selected for those that could bind to two target molecules. After selection, the HNAs were amplified by the newly designed polymerases and again selected for their ability to bind the targets. Eight rounds of selection later, the HNA sequences were no longer random, as those with a particular target-binding motif became more abundant. Through selection and replication, the HNAs had evolved.

The finding in itself is not surprising, said Kool. “Chemists have been working for 20 years to find new backbones for DNA and the feeling always was that it would be interesting and quite possible that some of them might be replicated one day.” It was, nevertheless, impressive, he added. “The hard part was finding the enzymes that could do it. So the big leap ahead for this paper was finding those enzymes.”

what bugs are in your gut?

TheScientist | Humans from different cultures and geographic locations differ in the diversity of bacteria in their guts, but the metabolic functions that those microbial communities serve are similar, according to a report out in Nature today (May 9). The findings come from a large-scale sequencing project carried out on 531 samples of human excrement from Africa, South America, and the United States.

“It’s a humungous paper, with multiple key findings,” said food scientist David Mills of the University of California, Davis. “An impressive and complex piece of work,” agreed molecular biologist Jeremy Nicholson of Imperial College, London. Neither researcher participated in the study.

The scale and complexity stem from the research team’s aim of answering a multifaceted question—“What is the degree to which these microbial communities… vary within a person, as a function of postnatal development, physiological status, cultural tradition, and where a person lives,” said geneticist Jeffrey Gordon of the Washington University in St Louis, who led the study.

To this end, the researchers collected samples of feces from villagers in rural Malawi, Amerindians in Amazonian Venezuela, and metropolis-dwelling Americans. They then performed high-throughput sequencing on DNA taken from the samples to determine both the species and strains of microbes present and which microbial genes were most abundant.

The team found a common pattern for how the microbiomes of babies develop in the three countries. “It takes 6 to 9 months to get the first 6 or 700 bugs and then another couple of years to get the adult set,” explained Nicholson. “[Gordon] finds there is the same sort of developmental time span between countries,” he said, “but that the resulting microbiomes are nonetheless distinct between, let’s call it, a third-world population and a westernized population.”

One of the most striking differences was the degree of microbial diversity, with both the Amerindians and Malawians having far greater diversity than the Americans. “But, ironically, [Americans] might have more diversity in terms of the food eaten,” said Mills, which might have been expected to correlate with microbial diversity. Gordon suggested the Westerners’ lack of diversity could result from “our lifestyle, our degree of hygiene, [and] our use of antibiotics,” though further research is needed to test these possibilities.

Despite these differences between the gut microbiomes of the three cultures, there were also striking similarities, said Gordon. For example, “across all three populations, we see this age-dependent change in vitamin biosynthesis,” he said. In infants, gut bacteria tend to carry more copies of genes involved in folate biosynthesis, while the guts of older individuals harbor microbes carrying more genes for folate metabolism. Conversely, genes involved in vitamin B-12 synthesis became more prevalent in the gut microbiome with age.

“What’s really fascinating about those results,” said Mills, “is that it is reflecting what the host needs.”

academia suppresses creativity...,

TheScientist | Creativity enhances life. It enables the great thinkers, artists, and leaders of our world to continually push forward new concepts, new forms of expression and new ways to improve every facet of our existence. The creative impulse is of particular importance to scientific research. Without it, the same obstacles, ailments, and solutions would occur repeatedly because no one stepped back and reflected to gain a new perspective.

Unfortunately, in the academic world—where much of today’s scientific innovation takes place—researchers are encouraged to maintain the status quo and not “rock the boat.” This mentality is pervasive, affecting all aspects of scientific research from idea generation to funding to the training of the next generation of scientists.

Academic leadership
Many who succeed in advancing to leadership positions in academia have been cautious, making few enemies and stirring little controversy. But such a strategy fails to generate the insights that drive scientific fields of research forward. The history of science is filled with mavericks who refused to accept the prevailing theories and challenged the status quo. In the field of infectious diseases, those scientific mavericks included Louis Pasteur, whose germ theory was ridiculed; Joseph Lister, who promoted the concept of sterilization; and Ignaz Semmelweis, who determined the cause of puerperal fever and emphasized the importance of hand washing as a preventative measure. In recent years, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren challenged the dogma that peptic ulcer disease was the result of stress when they proposed and proved that this disease was actually caused primarily by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori.

In today’s environment, out-of-the-box thinking is ever more important, as change is now the rule. The internet combined with the availability of powerful personal computers and smart phones has greatly enhanced the worldwide sharing of ideas, and as a consequence, the rate of change is progressively accelerating. All institutions including our academic centers need to adapt and reevaluate policies concerning how progress and success are defined.

Effective responses to environmental challenges require adaptive leaders. These leaders can convince others to change their viewpoints, challenging prevailing scientific dogma as well as more logistical issues such as the methodologies used in the lab. This type of influence is critical to easing the sense of loss and anxiety that comes with change. Common responses to these emotions include procrastination, denial, and discontentment, which can perpetuate an environment that resists change—and progress. Ironically, the tenure system designed to allow academic professors to speak freely without risk of losing their position also allows them to resist change and discredit leaders who encourage it.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

greece is now the cutting edge of the world

crikey | “Everything’s fine out the window … oh no, look, I can see society collapsing,” said Paul, a French-Greek journalist working in Athens. Out his window is Ermou, the wide shopping street that leads down to Syntagma Square. I’d phoned him to see what was going on, and to check the “Greece in turmoil” line that has become de rigeur in the official coverage of the crisis.

Paul didn’t need much of an invitation to take the piss out of that line. What has happened in the development of the Greek-European crisis — and the inter-connected coverage of it — has been extraordinary, but also indicative of the topsy-turvy world of capitalism, finance, and its relation to everyday life. It is a lesson worth following closely, because Greece is a harbinger of what will happen not merely in Europe, but across the world over the next decade as the vast global superbubble of neoliberalism slowly deflates.

Six months ago, Greece really was starting to fray — due to the determination of the two major parties, PASOK and New Democracy, to impose the austerity measures of the EU “memorandum” no matter how stupid or self-defeating — and the deep frustration of the public at the impasse between the political system and popular feeling.

But then, after six months of “technocratic” rule (really, EU satrapy), an election was held, and lo and behold, the hold of the major parties was broken, and new forces — Syriza, a leftist outfit, and Independent Greeks, a right-wing nationalist breakaway — managed to break through, gaining about 50 and 30 seats respectively. The vote may have scattered across several parties but the result was clear — 60% of votes went to parties that rejected the terms of the memorandum. At the same time, 80% of Greeks want to stay in the euro and the EU. They reject the old parties, but they also reject the notion that the only way to square away the debt is needless pain enacted for largely ceremonial purposes.

So, in other words, the people’s desires have entirely transformed the structure of Greek politics. Or, as it might otherwise be called, democracy. For surely, if democracy means anything, it means the capacity of a vote to up-end everything. In any real democracy, the party structure should collapse and recombine every 25-30 years or so. Large parties are, after all, coalitions of temporarily united values and interests. When the circumstances change, so should they.

That is what has happened in Greece. Rather than the shell-game of finance capitalism dictating the terms, people have made a fairly clear statement of what they want — the social-political has come to the centre of society, as it should. What the morons who constitute the ranks of financial journalism call “chaos” is really the exact opposite — it is politics, people expressing their will in a non-violent form, and then trying to negotiate an arrangement between differing manifestations of ideas and interests.

Chaos, by contrast, can be seen on the screen on every finance trader across the Western world, where stocks, shares, currencies move according to no rational basis, driven by the echo chamber of rumour. The idea that the business of everyday life should be governed by these processes rather than by the rational activity of production for use, indicates the nihilism at the heart of the market, its alliance with dead matter — numbers, money, power — rather than life.

The Greeks have rebelled against this. It looks like their rebellion will continue — with the failure of the latest attempts to form a coalition government the country is going back to the polls. Syriza, the left coalition that had taken 5% of the vote in the last election, and 17% in this, is now polling in the mid-twenties.

idiocy as wmd...,

linhdinh | Borges writes, “dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy.” As a preeminent mind, Borges rightly considers the mind to be a man’s greatest asset, for without mind, a man is nothing. The more oppressive a political system, then, the greater its assault on its subjects’ minds, for it’s not enough for any dictator, king or totalitarian system to oppress and exploit, but it must, and I mean must, make its people idiotic as well. Every wrongful bullet is preceded and accompanied, then followed up by a series of idiotic lies, but we’re so used to such a moronic diet by now, our trepanned intelligentsia don’t even squirm in their tenured chairs.

Sane men and women don’t consent to kill, rob and rape, much less be killed, robbed and raped, least of all to enrich their masters, and that’s why their minds must be molested as early and as much as possible. Hence our nonstop media brainwashing us from the cradle, literally, to the grave. Fixated by flickering boxes, even infants are now mind-conditioned to become scatterbrained idiots before they stagger into kindergarten, to begin a lifelong process of becoming docile and slogan-shouting Democrats and Republicans.

Yes, savages killed, but, like apes and monkeys, our ancestors, they mostly tried to intimidate and trash talk their way out of conflicts. There wasn’t a lot of murdering after the haka, frankly. They didn’t wipe out entire cities by defecating exploding metal from the sky, nor sit in a brightly lit and spic-and-span office stroking a joy stick to ejaculate missiles half a planet away. Drone hell fire for y’all, with sides of bank-sponsored debt slavery and austerity, plus an unlimited refill of American pop bullshit. Would you like a public suicide with that? No, sir, these savages need to take webcast courses from us sophisticates when it comes to genocide, or ecocide, or any other kind of cides you can think of. When it comes to pure, unadulterated savagery, these quaint brutes ain’t got shit on us plugged-in netizens chillaxin’ in that shiny upside down condo on da capital-punishment-for the-entire-world, y’all, hill.

You’d think that a government with absolute power would not bother with expensive parades and elaborately-staged rallies in stadia, as are routine in North Korea, but such is the importance of propaganda and mind-control. America has gone way beyond Kim Jong-Un and his Nuremberg-styled pageantry, however, because the Yankee Magical Show is relentlessly pumped into our minds via television and the internet, at home, in office or even as we’re walking down the street, so that we’re always swarmed by sexy sale pitches, soft and hard porn, asinine righteousness and imbecilic trivia. All day long, we can stuff ourselves with unlimited kitsch. Today’s urgent topic, “Sylvester Stalone Spotted in 16th Century Painting.” Yesterday’s, “Tom Cruise’s Daughter Gets Inked.” Imagine a triple-amputee Iraq vet or an unemployed mother, sitting in an about to be foreclosed home with unpaid bills scattered across her kitchen table, staring at such headlines. At 48, I’m old enough to remember when it wasn’t this overwhelmingly stupid, though the dumbing down of America will only accelerate as this cornered and bankrupt country becomes ever more vicious to its citizens and foreigners alike.

Not content to kill and loot, America must do it to pulsating music; cool, orgasmic dancing; raunchy reality shows and violence-filled Hollywood blockbusters, and these are also meant for its victims, no less. In a 1997 article published by the US Army War College, Ralph Peters gushes about a “personally intrusive” and “lethal” cultural assault as a key tactic in the American quest for global supremacy. As information master, the American Empire will destroy its “information victims.” What’s more, “our victims volunteer” because they are unable to resist the seductiveness of American culture.

Defining democracy as “that deft liberal form of imperialism,” Peters reveals how the word is conceived and used these days by every American leader, whether talking about Libya, Syria, Iran or America itself. Recognizing that the lumpens of his country are also victims of empire, Peters frankly acknowledges that “laid-off blue-collar worker in America and the Taliban militiaman in Afghanistan are brothers in suffering.”

Much has been made of the internet as enabling democracy and protest, but whatever utility it may have for the disenfranchised and/or rebellious, the Web is most useful to our rulers. As Dmitry Orlov points out in a recent blog, the internet is a powerful surveillance tool for the state and, what’s more, it also keeps the masses distracted and pacified. Echoing Queen Victoria’s remark, “Give my people plenty of beer, good and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them,” Orlov observes that virtual sex thwarts rebellion. In sum, while the internet may empower some people, as in allowing John Michael Greer, Paul Craig Roberts or Orlov to publish their unflinching commentaries, the same internet also drowns them out with an unprecedented flood of drivel. Defending the empire, Ralph Peters cheerfully agrees, “The internet is to the techno-capable disaffected what the United Nations is to marginal states: it offers the illusion of empowerment and community.”

Though our only hope is to be expelled from this sick matrix, many of us will cling even more fiercely to these illusions of knowledge, love, sex and community as we blunder forward. A breathing and tactile life will become even more alien, I’m afraid. Here and there, a band of unplugged weirdos, to be hunted down and exterminated, with their demise shown on TV as warning and entertainment. Inhabiting a common waste land, we can each lounge in our private electronic ghetto. Until the juice finally runs out, that is.