Anti-Missile Fantasies

Space fascinates me. I follow what's happening there. I just saw this story in Wired's Danger Room.

There was much debate about the effectiveness of anti-missile systems, but no debate about the plausibility and significance of somebody launching an ICBM toward the USA. I had to comment:

If somebody has an operational nuke, and wants to use it, an ICBM is the dumbest way to go. An ICBM leaves a trail showing right where it came from.

Any "evil doers" will hide their nuke in a freighter and drive it up the Hudson River or into San Francisco Bay. If they really want an air burst, it's much easier to launch from 100 miles offshore than from the other side of the world.

I can’t imagine any scenario where our best efforts should be spent trying to stop a missile flying toward us. There must be hundreds of more efficient ways to make the world safer.

Sometimes I just can't help myself.


Moderates vs. Extremists

I listened to a podcast of This American Life earlier today. Act Two, Does This Suit Make Me Look Terrorist To You? of the 2009/03/13 show had one point which I thought spoke very clearly.

The world is at war right now, but it’s not a war of Christian vs. Muslim. It’s a war of moderates vs. extremists, and the two groups are battling it out in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But they’re also battling here in America.
Extremists have advantages: It's easier to explain the world in stark terms of right and wrong. Extremists can force moderates to acknowledge them through violence.

But, history is on the side of moderates. I see gradual unsteady movement toward an acknowledgment of subtly. As the world has become more complex, it has required increasingly complex thinking. The skills that are necessary to succeed in this world also enable people to see the whole world in more complexity. Hence increased moderation.


A New Idea for Education

I’ve got an idea. Not sure if it is a new one, but I came up with it while reading the introduction to Data Driven by Thomas C. Redman. The importance of businesses really knowing who their customers were on an individual basis was mentioned and I thought about how I could apply that idea. I work in the institutional research office of a community college. I have done formal teaching/training, but I have not taught semester long courses. This idea comes primarily from my personal experience in education. It is not based on any empirical research, but does relate to my understanding of some educational theory.

I know that when I teach, I became more effective over the length of the course because of what I learn about the students’ strengths and weaknesses. I believe and have confirmed anecdotally that at the end of a tutoring relationship, course, semester or year, teachers know more about their students and are more effective.

At the end of the term that knowledge is lost. There is no way for a future teacher to benefit from the information gained. The knowledge of the students’ strengths and weaknesses has not been added to or refined. The students also may not have learned more about their learning strengths and weaknesses in ways that they can apply to future education.

Instead there could be a system which could collect knowledge about the students’ learning styles and make it available to the student and future teachers. This would help the teacher better plan their educational approach and it would help the student plan their learning approach. Right now, teachers can access student present and past transcripts. This gives them a broad stoke of information about the student’s past, but more specific information may help them teach better.

Initial sources of information might include:

· Placement test results – perhaps broken down beyond a single score to show what areas of the test were successful and which were not.

· Learning style inventories.

· Student’s self report of strengths and weaknesses.

Then as education continues:

· Past teacher’s impressions and reflections on the standardized information above.

· Results of various types of assignments in past classes.

· Reports from tutors or support teachers.

· Additional standardized inventories.

I’m not sure exactly what kind of information would be useful at this point. One traditional kind of information is so-called “learning styles”; that is whether a person is better at absorbing information through auditory, visual, kinesthetic or reading channels. I’m not sure how valid learning styles are, or if they are applied properly, but it is one possible dimension of a learning profile. Other possible dimensions may answer the question, Does the student learn better:

· in a classroom or on-line?

· with a passive or an active teacher?

· under time pressure or without?

· in groups or individually?

· in large or small classes?

· It might also tell if a student best shares their knowledge (testing) by writing essays, speaking, answering open ended or multiple choice questions, under time pressure or without.

I’m sure there are many other dimensions; those are just a few to throw out.

This knowledge does not mean that all of a student’s differences must be accommodated, but it does give more information which can make teaching and learning more effective. Strengthening weaknesses may be just as important as taking advantages of strengths. Such knowledge may also help in career placement.

The information gained would be available to students and hopefully to teachers. Perhaps when a course roster is received, it would also include information about the class as a whole and/or about individual students. Training for staff would be required so they would know how to be most effective with various students. There is a privacy concern which should be addressed.

I’ll think about this some more and perhaps it might be a good enough idea to pursue. For now, it’s out here and maybe it will help someone.

An Invitation to Join the Natural System

Originally posted 2008/06/29 in my old blog

Last summer I was visiting family in West Virginia and we had been canoeing. While waiting for others to catch up, I was lying on my back watching the large birds circling in a thermal on the side of a nearby mountain. There were dozens of them about a half mile away and at various altitudes, probably 400 - 800 feet. It appeared that they never moved a feather while circling in place. Beautiful to watch, especially when tired after canoeing.

Gradually, they changed positions. It appeared that they moved out of the thermal and were having to flap their wings occasionally to maintain altitude even as they descended. I wondered if the wind had shifted or if they saw some carrion which had attracted them to the new location. It seemed they were circling almost right over me.

They got lower and lower, and these birds are big. I could see them quite clearly when they were over a half mile away, and seeing them closer now, I realized that they had wing spans of three to five feet. Still thinking about why they had changed their orbits, I realized that they were looking down at me and wondering if I were available to eat yet.

After that epiphany, I got up and walked around to show just how alive I was.

The beautiful birds returned to their thermals in the mountains and I felt the closeness we have to nature deeper in my bones than I ever had before.

Long Term Thinking

Originally posted 2008/10/01 at my old blog and before that on StumbleUpon

There was a letter to the editor in our local paper explaining why bicycles were children's toys. It explained further that growth and consumption are the only ways forward. After thinking about it for a long while, the words I wrote were a poem of sorts.

If I had only been alive one day, I would celebrate the rising sun, but I would not know that I should prepare for night.

If I only lived one year, I would gorge at the harvest, but I would not know that winter comes.

If I only knew one life, I would gain in vigor, intelligence and wisdom, but I would not know that these gifts pass.

If I only knew my own country, I would witness its greatness climb until it was alone, but I would not know that every country of the past had gone into decline.

If there were only one planet . . . would I use it until there was no more?

If I believed God loved me, would I believe that for me there could be no fall. History, Death, Winter, Nightfall.

Can we learn that there are limits?

Can we learn to live within limits?

My Original Ideas

Originally posted 2008/07/28 at my old blog.

Original ideas are rare enough. I think of myself as a creative guy and I am reasonably well educated. I’ve had two ideas in my life which while I’m sure they are not unique, I believe they were original.

1. The behavior of Human Beings is best understood by seeing the mind as a Rule Learning Device.

Noam Chomsky, before he was a political figure, was a pioneering scientist in the study of language. My memory of what I learned about him was that he posited that human beings had a Language Acquisition Device which made it possible for us to learn languages. I think that the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) is a subset of a Rule Learning Device (RLD) which makes it possible for us to learn. Like the LAD which makes it possible for us to develop languages only within a range of possibilities, our RLD makes it possible for us to learn and think in ways compatible with the device. I first came up with this idea in 1984 or 1985 when I took an introductory class in the speech therapy department at Bradley University.

There’s a start of an idea. Here’s another.

2. Activities of the human mind can be seen as internal behavior and emotions can be seen as internal consequences.

Operant conditioning, as described by Skinner is the basis of human behavior. But he was wrong to see the mind as a black box. I believe that a full theory of psychology and social psychology could flow from that idea. Internal behavior is rewarded and punished by internal emotional responses more than it is by outside forces. The fact that we can not measure these internal factors does not make them less significant than those we can measure. I first came up with this idea while at the University of Illinois in 1990 studying for my Master of Social Work. I think it might be a better theory of human understanding than any other which I know of.

Just thought I’d get these out on the web. You never know when the world may come asking for a good theory.

Thank you,

Credit Card Debit

Originally posted 2008/10/02 at my old site.

Everyone knows that the economy is having some challenges, and I've thought a lot about it and even written a bit, but I haven't had time to make what I think concise and clear. Here's one thing which I don't see being talked about, which I think will have a very major additional negative impact.

I think there will soon be a crisis in credit card debit leading to a crisis in personal bankruptcy. None of the "solutions" being approved by the US congress really solve any problems for consumers. The people who foreclosed on homes tried very hard before they gave up. They are broke. This crisis and the "solutions" are not helping any of those people. Anyone who was close to bankruptcy is now even closer. The only credit left, which anyone has access to, is on their credit card.

Levels of debit are sickeningly high. As we go into recession, people will be unable to make payments for either their credit cards or anything else they owe. Credit card companies are strongly protected by the current bankruptcy law, but when people are squeezed, they have to react somewhere. A lot of people are not going to get money they think is owed to them. A lot of people are not going to be able to buy things soon.

I predict depression.

The economy has been riding on credit for an unsustainable length of time. There is really no money in the bank and we have been shuffling money around trying to fool ourselves otherwise.