Monday, August 01, 2011

This and That

Some well-written and interesting paragraphs that I came across recently.
  • Steve Mirsky in Scientific American reports this amusing anecdote:

    I was reminded of preposterously precocious utterances by tiny tykes during a brief talk that string theorist Brian Greene gave at the opening of the 2011 World Science Festival in New York City on June 1. Greene said he sometimes wondered about how much information small children pick up from standard dinner-table conversation in a given home. He revealed that he got some data to mull over when he hugged his three-year-old daughter and told her he loved her more than anything in the universe, to which she replied, “The universe or the multiverse?”

  • Mark Slouka's article Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school leads a fundamentally flawed argument (which I might make content of a longer post), but is one of the most beautifully written texts I've come across lately. I particularly liked this part:
    Consider the ritual of addressing our periodic “crises in education.” Typically, the call to arms comes from the business community. We’re losing our competitive edge, sounds the cry. Singapore is pulling ahead. The president swings into action. He orders up a blue-chip commission of high-ranking business executives (the 2006 Commission on the Future of Higher Education, led by business executive Charles Miller, for example) to study the problem and come up with “real world” solutions.

    Thus empowered, the commission crunches the numbers, notes the depths to which we’ve sunk, and emerges into the light to underscore the need for more accountability. To whom? Well, to business, naturally. To whom else would you account? And that’s it, more or less. Cue the curtain.

  • And David Eagleman's article The Brain on Trial that argues for "a scientific approach to sentencing" gives the reader a lot to think about.
    Who you even have the possibility to be starts at conception. If you think genes don’t affect how people behave, consider this fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You’re three times as likely to commit robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder, and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death-row inmates do. These statistics alone indicate that we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors.

    And this feeds into a larger lesson of biology: we are not the ones steering the boat of our behavior, at least not nearly as much as we believe. Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access, and the details reach back in time to before our birth, when the meeting of a sperm and an egg granted us certain attributes and not others. Who we can be starts with our molecular blueprints—a series of alien codes written in invisibly small strings of acids—well before we have anything to do with it. Each of us is, in part, a product of our inaccessible, microscopic history. By the way, as regards that dangerous set of genes, you’ve probably heard of them. They are summarized as the Y chromosome. If you’re a carrier, we call you a male.


  1. 1836 to mid-1960s, the US educated ghastly immigrants' ESL children into utility. Then, sputnik. Oratory bypassed von Braun’s boys saving democracy. 02 September 1958, the National Defense Education Act created the Gifted. Discrimination! 11 April 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act replaced quality with 45 years of social advocacy.

    1969 New York decanted average 110 IQs absent psycho-pharma and grief counseling. The 2008 Los Angeles Unified School District had 694,288 students with average 83 IQ (California Academic Performance Index). The Department of Education kills inspiration and curiosity, tediously numbs minds, connects nothing to anything, and is swiftly forgotten. US education is a eunuch in a brothel.

    67 million lessons delivered through July 2011. A kid logs in, watches a subject video narrated by Salman Khan, and does exercises. A year of that raises a kid's competence three grade levels. Rug rats are doing calculus. What is a 90 IQ MS/Ed diversity teacher to do? Never say you Khan!

    As for pestilent Y-chromosome menaces to society... US social equity drugs and excludes patriarchal historic White European oppressors of Peoples of Colour, wymyn, and the diversely deserving,
    God save us from the congenitally inconsequential.

  2. The excerpt of Mark Slauka scores 0.52 on the BlaBlaMeter (Something's fishy. Obviously you want to sell something, or you're trying to impress somebody. Are you sure that you have a real message, and if so: who would understand it?)

  3. Hi Arun,

    Ha, funny. I found he writes really well. Best,


  4. Yeah, i also found Slouka's article not very convincing at best. His reasoning is sloppy and imprecise.

    To link the teaching of science to "repressive regimes" is just cheap
    and i think stems from his ignorance in the hard sciences department.

    Nevertheless, i'm quite interested in what you might have to say about the article Bee.

  5. ""preposterously precocious utterances""
    this reminds a lot of Nero Wolfe :=)

    With respect to "Brain on Trial", what might have been the percentage of those genes in general population thousands of Years ago, when aggresiveness was more or less welcomed, at least not prohibited by communities as long it was directed outside?

  6. Hi Bee,

    I don’t think this concern about the state of education will matter much until greater attention is paid to the nature of the product as opposed to the process. That is despite having been afforded what I consider a fairly balanced education, my peers don’t appear to me to be any more or less enlightened than the current generation or the previous one for that matter. Now this is not to insist that education can’t have things to be somewhat better or worse and yet I have a suspicion that basically how one thinks has this to having the least effect; that is other than fundamental considerations in regards to access.

    To view this from a business perspective would be to look to the bottom line, which for me relates more to the nature of the substance rather than method through which its quality comes to be recognized. So when it comes to wondering if education can curdle the cream or have it rise to the top, although I would agree it can perhaps to some extent, yet none of this deals with the quantity of cream as it relates to the quantity of whey as to being invariant.

    “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”
    -Albert Einstein

    “Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned. ”
    -Mark Twain



  7. Thanks for pointing out the 'brain on trial'-article, that was a very enjoyable and interesting read. However, I wish he hadn't used the example of some certain 'set of genes', which turn out to be (spoiler warning) the Y-chromosome -- there's quite some behaviour modifying forces acting on that set of genes (or their expression) apart from simple genetics.

    Males are treated differently from females, and that behavioural differences result isn't really all that surprising, so there's no good indication that these differences should be reducible to those 40-odd genes.

    Otherwise, though, really a great article.

  8. According to hearsay, XYY males are more aggressive and often locked up for violent crimes. Wikipedia states that this hearsay is false (, but does state that XYY is connected with enhanced testeron levels. FWIW.

  9. Thank you Uncle Al. Your elegant writing has struck a powerful chord in my heart.

    I think Khan's academy and it's successors will revolutionize education for the world.

    Online education will one of humanity's major achievements, a shining start birthed from the chaos of the net.

    If khan's academy can teach calculus to 5th graders, it will soon be teaching Analysis, Group Theory, Gauge Theory, Homotopy, Category theory, and more to the rest of us.

    I'm so glad to Khan get a mention in this blog, because I just signed up and want to see how I can expand the academy.

    All the code is available in a source repository hosted in kiln(from the team that brings developers stack overflow).

    It should be easy for skilled coders who know the math to begin creating practice exercises for our highest levels of math.

    There are some bright possibilities emerging, I'm optimistic :D

  10. Al, I've been reading about the Kahn Academy and have been impressed. It is the first time I've heard about it. I had thought before that I wish YouTube video tutoring was available in my youth because of the ability to pause and rewind - much better than the in room classroom lecture. Now he has hyperlinked that with questions and answers and structured advancement at the Childs natural pace. Great!

    The question that it keeps bringing back me back to is it really IQ that determines so much of ones experience in education? It seems to me that one could equally say that the quality of ones education determines ones IQ, not wholly, but to a large extent.

    I went through a public school system in which there was a large Hispanic population. Just like Kahn explains about his system if you have a gap in your knowledge, even a small gap, you won't understand what comes next. I was always in the accelerated classes from about third grade on. But it always seems in retrospect that I was expected to do well because I was white and my father was a physician - small town you know.

    What I'm getting at is that I think I could ask a question and get an attentive response from the teachers, whereas another child from a farm worker family could have asked the same question and he wouldn't have gotten that response. Instead he/she would have been shunted aside by the tyranny of low expectations. Don't you think you are being a tad racist about white European males being congenitally smarter than the rest? Especially if Kahn's system takes off and is distributed equally among all the races I think you might end up having to eat your words (or opinions) about race, gender, and IQ. We'll see.

  11. Hi Jochen,

    Yeah, it's not the best example, but it makes his point well, though he's quoting correlations rather than causations. In any case, while some of it is socialization I guess some of it is indeed genetic & tied to impulse control, aggression, etc. I don't know how convincingly one can make that case (yet). Best,


  12. Ignorance is educable, stupidity is forever. On-line access has infinite patience and zero recipient bias. If you are stupid in Khan Academy subjects, invest yourself where you are able. If you are universally stupid...

    A large dinner party of interesting people suddenly births complete silence. Two Russian émigrés say, "a policeman has just been born."

    Math is good stuff, Dow-Jones close versus price of gold. The DJ peaked on 14 January 2000, 11,723/$283.90 = 41.29 troy oz of gold. 04 August 2011, 11,382.92/$1649.10 = 6.90. When comes the time to replace defective social solutions with valid engineering solutions?

  13. IQ vs. ability: There are savants and idiot-savants. Everybody else does it the hard way. The first place to look for copper is in copper ore. Tearing out cable is counterproductive (and no Ag, Au, Se, Te byproducts).

    To lose a prodigy for lacking application in which it is prodigious is tragic. To lose a large fraction of prodigies to diversity is stupid and self-sustaining. Diversity is admission by disqualification.

  14. Eric:

    Seasonal variations in IQ:

    "Shafir and Mullainathan gave batteries of tests to Indian sugar farmers. After they sell their harvest, they live in relative prosperity. During this season, the farmers do well on the I.Q. and other tests. But before the harvest, they live amid scarcity and have to think hard about a thousand daily decisions. During these seasons, these same farmers do much worse on the tests. They appear to have lower I.Q.’s. They have more trouble controlling their attention. They are more shortsighted. Scarcity creates its own psychology. "

    Quoted from David Brooks in the NY Times.

    My free advice to any and all is to utterly not worry about IQ. Just focus on what you want to achieve and what you have achieved.

  15. Arun,

    This sounds reasonable to me, as any farmer having produced a bounty to harvest will be seen as someone outstanding in his field :-)

    “The time to relax is when you don't have time for it.”

    -Sydney J. Harris




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