Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Cost of Inequality: Davis 2019

This is a great video of some excellent speakers to listen to while you make dinner or, maybe, do your taxes. In a nutshell, governments need to stop taking out social programs since they cost so little of the GDP anyway, and they need to make sure the wealthy pay their taxes in full or maybe even raise their taxes, and we all need to get everyone involved to create a more loving and just world.

Rutger Bregman references William James's essay, "The Moral Equivalence of War" in a slightly different context from James in that Bregman thinks we need a war, for our survival, against climate change.

James establishes that wars continue as a necessary means to bring forth valour. But, he clarified, "War is not the only stimulus known for awakening the higher ranges of men's spiritual energy." He proposes that the youth of the day (back in 1906) be trained to be strong and vital by being sent, not to wars, but to build infrastructure and factories, to fight a war against Nature itself. His essay doesn't hold up today in the specific way he hopes to establish peace worldwide, but the idea behind it is still viable. One flaw, even at the time, is that if we train the youth in compulsory hard work, they're missing the potential benefit war brings to a few of the youth: coming back home a hero.

So, instead of proposing a war against Nature, I propose something along the lines of what Bregman is getting at, but a little more concrete: a war against tragedies. Train them in the work of enriching lives and saving people from disease and suffering by clearing areas destroyed by hurricanes and floods, by rebuilding homes and schools in safer areas complete with solar panels and rain collection systems, and by helping people transport their lives as necessary. Instead of a war against nature, it can be a war against soil erosion, deforestation, and plastic bits everywhere. Now we need to fight in defense of nature.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Kids These Days!

Here's Greta Thunberg, 16, at Davos 2019, the World Economic Forum:

At places like Davos, people like to tell success stories. But their financial success has come with an unthinkable price tag. And on climate change, we have to acknowledge we have failed. All political movements in their present form have done so, and the media has failed to create broad public awareness. But Homo sapiens have not yet failed. Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this. We still have everything in our own hands. But unless we recognise the overall failures of our current systems, we most probably don’t stand a chance. . . . Solving the climate crisis is the greatest and most complex challenge that Homo sapiens have ever faced. The main solution, however, is so simple that even a small child can understand it. We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gases. Either we do that or we don’t. . . . 
Some say we should not engage in activism. Instead we should leave everything to our politicians and just vote for a change instead. But what do we do when there is no political will? What do we do when the politics needed are nowhere in sight? Here in Davos – just like everywhere else – everyone is talking about money. It seems money and growth are our only main concerns. . . . We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility. Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

Here's the whole thing:

Sunday, January 20, 2019

On the Covington Catholic School Incident

The best part of this issue, if there can be a good part, where a bunch of high school boys surrounded Nathan Phillips to get a little kick from exercising their power over another human being, is that they're being skewered on social media. Their action has precedence. It's easy to do. It's a power grab that's free to take by even the youngest set of privileged douchebags. But this time others didn't join in, and some of the people associated with them are actually embarrassed. Where once most people would be silent in the face of open racism, at the very least people are not afraid to speak up and denounce this behaviour. Everywhere. Small comfort, I know. We suck.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

10 Year Challenge

I posted this challenge on social media recently. This is what we do to be sociable: play online games and forward memes. Discussing the world and screaming into the void to try to shift this tragic path is such a loser thing to do. It's a balance to stay just this side of the line where we might be heard just a little.

Wired's Kate O'Neill guessed that, like all those social media games, this one is about data mining, specifically,
"I knew the facial recognition scenario was broadly plausible and indicative of a trend that people should be aware of. . . . Imagine that you wanted to train a facial recognition algorithm on age-related characteristics and, more specifically, on age progression (e.g., how people are likely to look as they get older). Ideally, you'd want a broad and rigorous dataset with lots of people's pictures. It would help if you knew they were taken a fixed number of years apart—say, 10 years. Sure, you could mine Facebook for profile pictures and look at posting dates or EXIF data. But that whole set of profile pictures could end up generating a lot of useless noise. People don’t reliably upload pictures in chronological order . . . it would help if you had a clean, simple, helpfully labeled set of then-and-now photos. . . . As with hashtags that go viral, you can generally place more trust in the validity of data earlier on in the trend or campaign—before people begin to participate ironically or attempt to hijack the hashtag for irrelevant purposes. . . . Is it bad that someone could use your Facebook photos to train a facial recognition algorithm? Not necessarily; in a way, it’s inevitable. . . . [It] could help with finding missing kids . . . [but] could someday factor into insurance assessment and health care."
But that's not even the thing I'm interested in. That all goes without saying now. I'm interested in how people hijacked the trend (see this too):

Polar ice formation - from Nasa

We Still Have Agency Around Climate Change

There's one seed left.

The Agenda talked with Michael Mann and a few others in the field about "Burnout and Despair: Studying the Climate"

Mann focused on the many ways we can reduce our carbon footprint, and said,
"Every bit of fossil fuels that we don't burn . . makes the future better. It's not a cliff we fall off of, it's a minefield we're walking through. . . . Any amount we can stop will help."
When asked if it's better to discuss the issue with brutal honesty or restrained and inauthentic optimism Mann said the issue is "not binary, not a matter of f'd or not f'd. It's a matter of how f'd. . . . The more carbon we burn, the worse it gets. We can become active participants in this."

And then they all laughed about how horrible it is to have an environmentalist at a dinner party, but some fear of the path we're on is necessary to motivate action. And then imagining what it could all look like if we get on board today can be empowering.

Also, check out Vice. There's one brief scene with focus group results affecting the Republican decision to change from calling it global warming, which is scary, to climate change, which doesn't bother people nearly as much! And here I thought it was because it's more accurate!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Why Protest?

This will be the shortest post ever! Here's my argument delineated in premises and a conclusion (P=premise, SC=sub-conclusion, C=conclusion):

P1. Human beings are wired for immediate, or short-term, survival, not long term survival. (Or, as Plato said, we are weak at the skill of measurement.) That's why we do many stupid (aka short-sighted) things.
P2 (SC1) - So, we need restrictions on our behaviour if we hope to survive (e.g. DUI laws. There's an unstated premise here that the government has the power to restrict our behaviour).
P3. The government is made up of people who are also human, so they are also wired only for immediate survival.
P4 (SC2) - So, they also need to be forced to behave in ways that work better longterm.
P5. Part of surviving in government, short term, is being re-elected by the people.
P6 (SC3) - So, politicians can be influenced by their perception of what the people want. (little side argument: They're also affected by cash-rich lobbyists, but they don't get any of that lobby money if they don't have a seat in office. They only have a seat if they follow the will of the people.)
P7. Non-violent protests with enough people affect the politicians in a real democratic country ('enough' being the tipping point that suggests to politicians that the tides have changed and they have to alter their message if they hope to be re-elected).
P8. (SC4) - So, if enough people protest against climate change, politicians will alter legislation to restrict our actions, to affect corporate practices, and to alter the governmental direction of spending in favour of longer-term survival.
P9. Boots-on-the-ground protesting is more effective than clicktivism as it adds the dimension of clarifying to politicians that the protesters are politically engaged and willing to act, thus more likely to vote. (And rallies have worked in the past.)
P10. When protesting doesn't have an effect, it's because it wasn't sustained and determined enough. (Okay, this one is circular, and there are places where protesters were ignored for years, like the protests against Coke drying up aquifers in India, so this also rides on the unstated premise that, in Canada, democracy works).
P11 Doing something in the face of our grim reality feels better and helps us cope in the face of trauma more than doing nothing.

C. We have to rally outside the offices of parliament if we have any hope of turning this corner!

Am I wrong? If so, which premise is in question? If not, then join the fight! This is our last chance. Thinking that we have until 2030 to change things allows for a bit more denial that slows us down from changing things NOW. Every day counts in those mere 4,000 days until we run out of options. (Yes, 2030 is just a little over 4,000 sleeps!)

Saturday, January 12, 2019

On Continuums: ASD, OCD, ADHD, Alzheimers, and Allergies

Since the Aspergers designation was excluded from the DSM V, many people were, and are, outraged that all cases fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) instead of the separate categories of Autism and Aspergers. There is a world of difference between someone who has some mild problems understanding social cues and a strong interest in birding but is highly functioning, and someone who is unable to use spoken language and exhibits almost continuous self-stimulating behaviours.

Then there was a storm of controversy over Stephen Fry's comments about having "OCD eyes" that found it uncomfortable to have a anything appear out of order. For some people, having OCD means feeling discomfort when things are out of place and having an unstoppable need to put them right before the anxiety around it becomes too painful to ignore. In an article in the Guardian, David Adam suggests that OCD is far worse than a dislike of things out of order, as if people who have a mild case don't really have it at all. It's definitely the case that some people have horrid obsessions that affect their ability to function in the world. But it's also true that people can have intrusive thoughts that provoke repetitive actions in a way that don't noticeably affect their function. They're not desires they have, but random thoughts that people can't prevent coming to them. I understand not wanting to abuse the term until it's meaningless, like having an occasional day of high energy isn't the same as having ADHD, but there is no cut and dry line. It's very difficult to determine to what extent thoughts and routines have to disrupt a life in order for it to be considered a true case of OCD.

On Evaluating Teachers and Edu-Speak

I just went through the final teacher evaluation of my career, since we are evaluated every five years, and I don't expect to do this for more than another four. I hope I pass!!

I've said before that the process has room for improvement. I think teachers within the department or a similar department should be in each other's classrooms from time to time, unannounced, and then offer online, anonymous comments, positives and negatives, on teaching techniques that the teacher receives all mixed together at the end of each semester. We could learn a lot about teaching from seeing each other teach, and we'll likely up our game if we know colleagues might be wandering in. The way I see it, we've been evaluated already, when we got our B.Ed. and then passed the interview process. (That B.Ed. education also has much to be desired, and it could be so much more rigorous as a master's degree.) But teachers do need to be kept on our toes with some type of review process, and we absolutely need a means to flag teachers that might be struggling, at which point the department head can get involved in the process. Admin should be a last resort.

On Fridays for Future

I went to the first #fridaysforfuture protest in our area with my youngest, yesterday, outside my MP's office. The idea is the brainchild of Greta Thunberg who wants all students to strike every Friday until the political system focuses on slowing down climate change so we can avoid hitting that dreaded 1.5 degree ceiling. We've already zipped passed the 350 ppm ceiling with nary an outcry (at about 410 ppm now). We only have 11 more years, until 2030, to act before we won't be able to have any significant effect. She says, "What is the point of learning facts when the most important facts given by our finest scientists are ignored by politicians?". Before I left work, I talked to a few colleagues, discussing the ethics of a teacher taking a half day "family care" day to go to a protest, and everyone I spoke with was supportive of the idea. What's a family care day for if not to fight to sustain the planet for our families! And I decided, even if it's seen as wrong, it's worth the potential consequences. It was a well-run event with about 40 people there on a bitterly cold day (the paper said 30, but I counted at least 40); unfortunately, I think a good 60 or 70% of the crowd were long past their school days.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Energy Conservation in the Home: I'll Show You Mine...

I know this is just one tiny piece of the puzzle, but there IS an effective way to get people to reduce their energy usage in their homes: publicize how much their neighbours use. A recent study found that if people think they're neighbours care about the environment, and if they're shown how much energy their neighbours use relative to their own use, then people will use less energy in a race to be the least wasteful.
"The US firm Opower sends over 60 million households around the world energy bills that show their own energy consumption in relation to how much energy their neighbours consume. Providing this information has led to customers decreasing their energy consumption -- to date, this intervention has saved more than $2 billion USD in energy usage."

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Gertz's Nihilism and Technology

I really love this book. First of all, the chapter headings and sub-headings are all clever little in jokes, like "Beyond Google and Evil," that make anyone with a cursory knowledge of Nietzsche feel like part of the gang. But it's not just looking at tech through the lens of Nietzsche in a cut-and-paste way. This is an analysis of our relationship with technology that, while immersed in Nietzsche, and will allow a novice to solidify their understanding of some major works, is really an analysis of human nature that would benefit the a-philosophical as well. This is a brief summary as a memory aid for myself, but the book deserves a close read in full.

He uses Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals to explain how technology is used "to soothe rather than cure" our nihilistic attitudes by applying five tactics the ascetic priest uses "to make nihilism palatable" (21): self-hypnosis, mechanical activity, petty pleasures, herd instinct, and orgies of feeling.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

On Taxing the Rich

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshest Democrat to hit the White House, is making headlines for mimicking the dance sequence from The Breakfast Club back in college, and wanting to raise marginal tax rates to 70%. Unfortunately people care a bit too much about her dance moves, and headlines are missing the word "marginal" in tax discussions. People reading about a tax increase to 70% are going to flip out, justifiably. But raising the marginal tax rate is a well-grounded idea.

Paul Krugman explained in today's New York Times:
The controversy of the moment involves AOC’s advocacy of a tax rate of 70-80 percent on very high incomes, which is obviously crazy, right? I mean, who thinks that makes sense? Only ignorant people like … um, Peter Diamond, Nobel laureate in economics and arguably the world’s leading expert on public finance (although Republicans blocked him from an appointment to the Federal Reserve Board with claims that he was unqualified. Really.) And it’s a policy nobody has every implemented, aside from … the United States, for 35 years after World War II — including the most successful period of economic growth in our history. To be more specific, Diamond, in work with Emmanuel Saez — one of our leading experts on inequality — estimated the optimal top tax rate to be 73 percent. Some put it higher: Christina Romer, top macroeconomist and former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, estimates it at more than 80 percent. . . . A policy that makes the rich a bit poorer will affect only a handful of people, and will barely affect their life satisfaction, since they will still be able to buy whatever they want.
In 1953 in the US, the marginal tax rate was 92% on income over $400,000 (it was 84% in Canada), but $400,000 would be about $3.5 million in today’s money. So, if we want our economy to be very strong, anything people made over a few million dollars, should go almost entirely to the government. That would lower the incentive to make huge amounts of money, and CEOs might pay their employees more rather than take such high paycheques. When the highest tax bracket is raised, then the government has more money for education, health care, infrastructure, job creation, and climate change mitigation.

It's possible that a few billionaires will leave, but not enough to stop the benefits to society. Consider it's not just CEOs who make over $3.5 million in a year, but many people in film production and some top athletes. They're not all going to pull a Gérald Depardieu.

Friday, January 4, 2019

On Coddling Our Kids

The Agenda has a video with Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist. I watched it with my kids, and we had a good discussion about it. Haidt published a book, The Coddling of the American Mind, with Greg Lukianoff, CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a few months ago to very mixed reviews. He has a few interesting ideas, but many are rehashed or questionable.

His concern with the iGen or the Gen Z group, anyone born after 1995, is that they grew up with social media, which has messed them up. It's mainly the same story we've already heard about cell phones and helicopter parents. But then he said that boys aren't doing so badly since they mainly play video games and bully physically, but girls are really affected by calls for perfection and psychological bullying that happens more online. My kids jumped on this claim with their own stories, but I cautioned that they just had anecdotal evidence from their own lives, and this guy likely did more thorough research. While it's good to consider how much an idea 'rings true,' we need to evaluate the research. I didn't read the book, but one of the citations is Pinker, which makes me a little bit dubious. Then he said the suicide rate for teen girls has gone up by 70%, but not for boys. One article says the CDC says the rate increased 70% for white youth and 77% for black. The CDC site has this graph, which clarifies how much higher the rate for males is to begin with:

Thursday, January 3, 2019

On Capitalism's Limitations

Every year, when we get to the part of my philosophy course where we read some Marx & Engels, and I ask for criticisms of the reading, like I do with every other political philosopher we read, instead of thinking and devising astute observations, there's always a few who are adamant: "Communism is fine in theory but doesn't work in real life." This is a truism chanted without much thought needed to repeat it. But then I ask, "Can't the same be said for capitalism?" And, "What do you mean by work? What does it look like when a political theory works?"

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

On Arguing Facts

It never ceases to amaze me how often I'll be writing or thinking about something, and then the perfect articles drop in my lap. It might help that I've been scrolling through social media endlessly on my days off!

In my prior post, I discussed the need for teachers to step up and actively dismantle arguments based on a mistaken premise or altogether unfounded assumption rather than heed concerns about the self-esteem of our charges or other potential ramification born by speaking our mind, and then I hit this Aeon article from October.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Place of Teachers in this Mess

Once, about twenty years ago, when I was talking about teaching both sides of the climate change debate in the classroom, a colleague told me, "There's just one side; the right side." I admired her chutzpa, but I silently disagreed. We have to raise both sides and scrutinize them both if we want to adequately address the issue. More recently, a student told me that he had been very alt-right until a supply teacher took him aside and explained to him the errors of his ways. That discussion left me remorseful for the number of times a student said something leaning that way, and I pussy-footed around the issue, trying to subtly sway their view, and typically failing. If a neo-Nazi happened to be in my class, I'd likely call his ideas interesting and question some premises, but never outright condemn them. That might harm their self-esteem!