Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Thirty Million Words Initiative

This is interesting [if you get a chance, listen to the audio at the link]

“By the end of the age of three, children who are born into poverty will have heard 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers,” says Dr. Dana Suskind [A pediatric otolaryngologist at University of Chicago -- MP].

Dr. Dana Suskind is the director of the Thirty Million Words initiative – an education and research program out of Chicago.


The moment a baby is born their brain is already beginning to develop. That is why these early language interactions are so crucial. Scientists can actually measure the word gap or the number of words spoken at home. They use a little device called the LENA which stands for language environment analysis.

The LENA is about the size of a credit card. Babies wear it at chest level. Not only does it count or record words, it can also analyze what it records. The LENA is able to differentiate all the different kinds of sounds that are heard in a baby’s environment. One way to think of the LENA is that it’s like a language pedometer.

“So just like a regular pedometer counts the number of steps you take in a day the LENA counts the number of words a child is exposed to and how many conversations they have with their caregiver or parent,” Suskind says.

It’s not just the number of words spoken to babies but the quality of words spoken. Dr. Adriana Weisleder, a developmental psychologist who is an associate project director and co-investigator at the BELLE project says that, “in some families a lot of the speech to children is what they called business talk. The function of the speech is to get the child to do something right so they’re commands or imperatives. That happens in all families. It has to happen, right? Parents have to get their kids to do things. But when a high proportion of the speech that children hear is composed of those kinds of business talk or imperatives then that means they’re not getting a lot of the other rich talk and conversation.”

Still a device like the LENA can’t close the word gap all by itself.

“Just like a pedometer will not change the obesity and health crisis in the country, we can’t put everything on a piece of technology,” Suskind says.

One way Dr. Suskind’s Thirty Million Words initiative tries to close to gap is by actually going into homes. On top of going over the results from lena recordings – Thirty Million Words has created a curriculum for parents. It includes videos modeling ways caregivers should talk to their baby.

Families that speak more than one language at home can face a special challenge: what language should they speak to their kids in?

“It’s not just a moral and right thing, but the science is clear that parents and caregivers should be talking and interacting with their children in their native language. It does no good to be speaking in a language you don’t feel comfortable with,” Suskind says.

“Having a higher vocabulary even if it’s in Spanish still makes kids be more prepared for school.” Weisleder says.

Why is that? talking a lot to your child is about more than just teaching them words – it’s helping them understand basic concepts.

”If you know in spanish the words for horse and dog and house and barn. You know those words in spanish but you also know a lot of relationships between those things. You know that dogs and horses are animals and that a lot of dogs live in houses and horses might live in barns, lots of the different things.”

Bridging the word gap is not about getting babies ready to read Don Quixote by the age of four – it’s about setting up the building blocks so that children can be ready learn more easily once they get to school.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why a predictably breakable rope is better than an unbreakable rope

Short answer: there is no such thing as an unbreakable rope.

There's an old story about an isolated monastery located high on the side of an unclimbable cliff. The only access to the monastery was by way of a basket that was hold up the side of the cliff on a single rope. One day a pilgrim who was climbing into the basket noticed that the rope looked old and parade. He asked the monk "when do you replace the rope?"

The monk replied "when it breaks."

If we generalize a bit, this becomes a useful analogy. We have a case where there is great cost associated with avoidable failure, but where there are also nontrivial costs associated with caution.

One common but probably misguided response to the situation is to buy a better rope i.e. come up with a system that is less likely to fail. If you have a shoddy system with lots of room for cheap and easy improvement, this approach makes a great deal of sense. If, on the other hand, you have already made all of the obvious and inexpensive upgrades, it probably makes more sense from a cost benefit perspective to start focusing on the question of when you replace the rope.

You frequently see this question coming up in connection to proxy variables. Particularly in the social sciences, researchers are constantly required to substitute an easily measured variable for the actual factor of interest. If we start with a "good rope" (a well-chosen proxy) then it will, under most circumstances, correlate strongly with the thing we are actually interested in.

There are plenty of "bad ropes" out there, proxies that have only weak relationships with the variables of interest even under the best circumstances, but that is a topic for another post. The disagreement here is with the otherwise responsible statisticians who make an effort to find the best possible proxy but who then do not spend enough time thinking about what happens when the rope breaks.

A few years ago, while I was doing risk models for a large bank, I found myself caught in a heated debate. We had a very good direct measure of how close people were to maxing out their line of credit. Unfortunately, this was also an expensive variable, so it was proposed that we substitute another, less direct measure. The argument for the substitution was that there was an extremely high correlation between the two variables. The counter argument put forward by most of the more experienced statisticians was that while this was true, that correlation tended to break down in extreme cases, particularly those where a person was about to go bad on all of their debts . Since the purpose of the model was to predict when people were about to default on their loans, this was a really unfortunate time for the relationship to fall apart.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The great buried lede of the Common Core debate

Lee Fang has another solid piece of investigative journalism at the Nation. It covers a lot of important ground (I'd recommend reading it for yourself), but I did want to single out a  couple of paragraphs that hit on a previously mentioned point.
The Department of Education under Obama has seen a flow of revolving door hires from the education investment community. In May of this year, the Senate confirmed Ted Mitchell, the chief executive of the NewSchools Venture Fund, as the Under Secretary for the US Department of Education. Prior to his government position, Mitchell, a personal investor in an array of education start-ups, forged a partnership last year with the creators of Facebook app FarmVille to create new education game products. James Shelton, the Deputy Secretary, is a longtime education investor and the former co-founder of LearnNow, a charter chain that was sold to Edison Learning, a for-profit charter management company.

In an interview with EdSurge, a trade outlet, Shelton explained that the Common Core standards will allow education companies to produce products that “can scale across many markets,” overcoming the “fragmented procurement market” that has plagued investors seeking to enter the K-12 sector. Moreover, Shelton and his team manage an education innovation budget, awarding grants to charter schools and research centers to advance the next breakthrough in education technology. Increased research and development in education innovation, Shelton wrote in testimony to Congress, will spark the next “equivalent of Google or Microsoft to lead the global learning technology market.” He added, “I want it to be a US company.”
For all the controversy, there are some details on the Common Core story that we should all be able to agree on: it has been produced and implemented with remarkable speed; some of the major stakeholders (particularly teachers) feel they were left out of much of the process; the initiative has become one of the most hotly debated aspects of education reform; a great deal of money is at stake here.

Intentionally or not, the speed of the implementation greatly increases the costs. In terms of both materials and training, a more gradual phase in would save a lot of money (it would also allow for field testing and fine tuning but that's a topic for another post). We should and will have a discussion about the pedagogical issues with the Common Core (you can get a head start on the debate here and here), but when we are talking about public policy proposals, proponents always need to show that their plans are cost effective.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Marvel, Jack Kirby Heirs Settle Dispute Over Superhero Rights"

From Variety
“Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes, and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history,” the litigants announced in a joint statement on Friday.
I suspect Disney pretty much had to settle this and hopefully the Kirby heirs negotiated with this in mind. As mentioned before (Do copyright extensions drive innovation? -- Hollywood blockbuster edition), the entertainment industry's current model is based on accumulating huge content libraries then lobbying for an endless series of copyright extensions. Even with a corporate-friendly court, I can't imagine the major players would want to risk disturbing the status quo.

You can find the rest of the thread here:

Intellectual property and Marvel

An IP post for the Fourth of July

A bit more background on the Jack Kirby IP case

More on the Jack Kirby copyright case

Friday, September 26, 2014

Lots of red flags on this one

This is another one of those education stories where it's difficult to figure out what's actually going on but easy to see that the standard narrative has some pretty big plot holes.

I came across this narrative in an article by Ben Wieder that opens with the following:
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were both on hand Monday morning to crown the school districts in Gwinnett County, Georgia, and Orange County, Florida, as the first dual winners of the Broad Prize for Urban Education. They will split the $1 million prize, which comes in the form of scholarships worth up to $20,000 for graduating seniors.

The prize, described variously as the Nobel or the Oscar or the Pulitzer of the education reform movement and sponsored by billionaire Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, aims to “regain the American public’s confidence in public schools by spotlighting districts making significant gains in student achievement.” Both districts were cited for above-average academic performance for low-income and minority students relative to other districts in their states.
Lots of things here to make a fellow cautious -- impressive claims about a fuzzy target coming from a well-financed advocacy group -- and if there's a field that demands heightened caution, it's education reform. Perhaps even more than Bill Gates, Broad is the money man most associated with the Taylorist agenda in the education reform movement. Wieder does mention this concern, but he doesn't dig.
Skeptics question whether the foundation’s choice is influenced more by districts’ alignment with its policy goals than by student performance. “The Broad operation is so inherently ideological,” said Gary Orfield a professor in the graduate school of education at UCLA.

But Nancy Que, director of the prize, says a “purposeful wall” is maintained between the foundation’s “reform” agenda and the prize selection. Each year, a review board looks at academic markers for the 75 largest urban school districts, including performance on state tests, graduation rates, and participation and performance on the SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement exams to determine finalists. The winner is selected after site visits to all of the finalist districts, taking into account their leadership and governance policies.
That "purposeful wall" quote is really troubling, particularly when you follow the link Wieder provides. As best I can make the process out, while the finalists appear to be selected through fairly standard academic metrics, getting the big prize seems to depend on meeting a set of standards that very closely line up with the foundation's reform movement agenda.
A team of experienced researchers and practitioners led by RMC Research Corporation, an education consulting company, then conducts site visits to each finalist district to gather additional quantitative and qualitative data. District policies and practices affecting teaching and learning are qualitatively analyzed according to a rubric for evaluating the quality of district-wide policies and practices. The criteria are grounded in research-based school and district practices found to be effective in three key areas: teaching and learning, district leadership, and operations and support systems. 
The framework consists largely of reform dog-whistles like standards-based curriculum and rigorous evidence-based instruction (because we all know the importance of rigor). Other parts are arbitrary and raise some interesting questions.

Consider the section on Financial Resources.
INDICATOR FR-1. The district is financially sound, implements prudent financial planning processes, and displays strong fiscal accountability.
• The district is financially sound, having adequate fiscal reserves to meet current obligations and state-required minimums for reserves.
• The district budgeting process includes prudent financial planning and forecasting to anticipate fluctuations in funding sources and balance budgets without sacrificing educational quality.
• The district displays strong fiscal accountability, promoting cost effectiveness, employing effective internal controls over expenditures, and forecasting so there is little need to reconcile differences between anticipated and actual expenditures during the fiscal year.
The first obvious question, how exactly this relates to the stated goals of improving student performance and closing the achievement gap, pales next to the question of what the Broad Foundation considers "fiscal accountability." Looking at the rather short list of previous winners, a couple of familiar names pop out, names associated with spending most of us would consider extravagant and wasteful. Gwinnett County Public Schools (already an odd choice for the award given its relatively upscale demographics, particularly compared to nearby Fulton) compensates its superintendent at the rate of nearly 400K. Even worse,  Miami-Dade County Public Schools is in the midst of an ongoing scandal, as are most Florida  school districts, due to a state policy of handing large checks to any con artist with a charter school application.

This is hardly surprising. The Broad Foundation comes out of a culture that embraces both the power of privatization and the great-man theory of executive leadership. It is difficult to shock them with spending in areas they like (you can add technology to that list, John Deasy of the billion dollar iPad fiasco is another product of Broad). When the framework talks about financial soundness, the authors are more likely thinking about reductions in class sizes and pay raises for teachers who earn graduate degrees (Broad appears to be more comfortable with the idea of paying administrators for questionable degrees).

Both in what they look for and in what they overlook, it appears that the people at the Broad Foundation are using this prize to reward politicians and administrators who conform to their agenda. There is nothing wrong with this -- it is, after all, their money -- but journalists covering this story have a professional obligation to go beyond the press releases.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Checking back in on "Netflix and the big swinging check syndrome"

Whenever possible it's good to follow-up.

A few weeks ago, the news broke that:

Netflix Acquires ‘The Blacklist’ For $2 Million An Episode

Except, of course, they didn't. As I noted in a post (with a title I should be a little less proud of):

For starters, you will notice that the headline is somewhat misleading. Netflix did not "acquire" the Black List in the sense that, say ABC would have. The show will still be running on NBC next year. Nor did it acquire the rights to stream the episodes during the regular season; those will presumably stay with Hulu. What Netflix did acquire was the right to stream the previous year's episodes.
I was in the middle of a thread on how Netflix was yet another example of business journalists taking an appealing narrative -- visionary CEO using big data to transform his industry and make his company the next HBO -- and selectively ignoring the facts that contradicted it while more or less inventing others to support it.

But the "presumably stay with Hulu" part bothered me quite a bit. The point was left fairly vague in the news story I linked to and, if Netflix actually had managed to block Hulu from streaming the show, that would change the picture considerably.

So the day after the debut I checked the show's status.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Con(firmation) Artists of the New York Times

I was gathering notes for yet another post on the sad state of fact-checking at the New York Times, this time concerning Alessandra Stanley when I came across this from then executive editor Bill Keller:
Q: The NYT is taking considerable criticism for Ms. Stanley's piece, with many folks learning about the error via the Public Editor's column.

A: Just to be clear (and I'm sure you know this) we published a fulsome correction* on July 22. Many folks may have learned about this episode from Clark's column, but many (including Clark) learned about it because we published a correction, which is also appended in perpetuity to the archived article. The evidence for what I'm about to say is purely anecdotal, but I think a lot of readers check the Corrections column with the same avidity they apply to the obits. On a good day they will come across something like our March 11 correction of a 1906 article that inaccurately cited the text of an inscription inside Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch. On a REALLY good day they may come across something like this one, from October, 2000: "An article in The Times Magazine last Sunday about Ivana Trump and her spending habits misstated the number of bras she buys. It is two dozen black, two dozen beige and two dozen white, not two thousand of each."

But I digress.

While I'm telling you what you obviously already know: One thing that sets a serious newspaper apart from most other institutions in our society is that we own up to our mistakes with corrections, editor's notes and other accountability devices, including the public editor's column. We hate getting stuff wrong and we work hard to avoid mistakes. But when we make them, we try to set the record straight.

Q: Specifically, some people inside the paper believe that Alessandra has been allowed to continue as a critic, without sufficient punishment, because she is close with Jill Abramson. Your response?

A: We love a conspiracy theory, but the truth is simple: Alessandra has been allowed to continue as a critic because she is -- in my opinion, among others -- a brilliant critic.
It was an almost perfect example of why I have such problems with the New York Times, arrogant, dismissive of critics. Perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated the Keller's terrible journalistic taste and judgment. I went back and looked over the Shonda Rhimes piece again to confirm my first impression of Stanley's talents. It was, if anything, worse on second reading. It read like Stanley doing a bad job impersonating Maureen Dowd doing a bad job impersonating Pauline Kael. (I am a huge fan of Kael. However, as with Bob Dylan, there are things she can do brilliantly which you probably shouldn't try.)

I also read the Cronkite piece that prompted Keller to describe Stanley as brilliant. It too was awful, consisting almost entirely of threadbare cliches ("that his outsize tenure bracketed a bygone era when America was, if not a more confident nation, certainly a more trusting one").

Thinking about the Dowd analogy as I went through the tired and badly thought-out memes of Stanley's essays, it struck me that, like David Brooks, David Carr, and her friend Dowd, Stanley was yet another of the New York Times' con(firmation) artists.

What makes a con(firmation) artist? First and foremost, of course, is the desire to confirm the beliefs and narratives held by their colleagues. All of these journalists have poor track records when it comes to factual accuracy but they largely escape the consequences of these lapses because they are saying things that other journalist believe to be true (or perhaps more accurately want to be true).

Con(firmation) artists also rely on a veneer of "new journalism" to conceal the cracks in their work. When you read the flashy prose , the big analogies, the constant editorial sides, you can almost imagine them saying "it worked in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

There are at least two major problems with this use of new journalism. The first is that the original generation of new journalists were extraordinarily hard working and were held to demanding standards by editors like Clay Felker. The second, and more important, is the fact that the original new journalists and the con(firmation) artists had opposite objectives . The goal then was to be original and unexpected. When Tom Wolfe discussed the fashions of the radical left, he came to new and surprising conclusions. When David Brooks talks about Home Shopping Network or David Carr talks about Netflix, they get their facts wrong but they reach conclusions that agree with the conventional wisdom of their peers.

This combination of pretension and pandering has given these writers extraordinary standing in their communities. It has also allowed them to do considerable damage to their professions.

* With the caveat that Keller may not know what the word 'fulsome' means, here is the correction in all of its epic glory:
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 22, 2009
An appraisal on Saturday about Walter Cronkite’s career included a number of errors. In some copies, it misstated the date that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and referred incorrectly to Mr. Cronkite’s coverage of D-Day. Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968, not April 30. Mr. Cronkite covered the D-Day landing from a warplane; he did not storm the beaches. In addition, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, not July 26. “The CBS Evening News” overtook “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC in the ratings during the 1967-68 television season, not after Chet Huntley retired in 1970. A communications satellite used to relay correspondents’ reports from around the world was Telstar, not Telestar. Howard K. Smith was not one of the CBS correspondents Mr. Cronkite would turn to for reports from the field after he became anchor of “The CBS Evening News” in 1962; he left CBS before Mr. Cronkite was the anchor. Because of an editing error, the appraisal also misstated the name of the news agency for which Mr. Cronkite was Moscow bureau chief after World War II. At that time it was United Press, not United Press International.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 1, 2009
An appraisal on July 18 about Walter Cronkite’s career misstated the name of the ABC evening news broadcast. While the program was called “World News Tonight” when Charles Gibson became anchor in May 2006, it is now “World News With Charles Gibson,” not “World News Tonight With Charles Gibson.”
If that's not enough, Gawker and CJR have more.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What's so bad about working together?

This post by Tom Paulson is more than a year out of date but it raises some still relevant questions.
I wasn’t actually allowed behind the scenes at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent meeting in Seattle entitled “Strategic Media Partnerships.”

The Gates Foundation funds a lot of media – more than $25 million in media grants for 2012 (but still less than 1% of the budget).

I’m media but I wasn’t invited. I asked if I could come and report on it, but was told the meeting was off the record. Those attending included representatives from the New York Times, NPR, the Guardian, NBC, Seattle Times and a number of other news organizations, non-profit groups and foundations. Not all were grant recipients, or partners. Some just came to consult.


Outside of the Gates media confab last week, I talked to a number of participants – usually ‘off the record’ – to learn that it was mostly a discussion about the sorry state of the media and how to improve coverage of neglected issues that concern the philanthropy in areas like global health, foreign aid, development and education. Media folks presented case studies, ideas and mulled over measuring impact – because that’s what Bill and Melinda want, measurable impacts.


Dan Green, a highly respected journalist and now director of media partnerships for the Gates Foundation, has by all accounts built a sturdy firewall at the philanthropy between grants to news organizations and anything to do with the foundation’s advocacy projects.
Even if we're talking about something like polio where not only the objectives but the sub-objectives and the methods are relatively noncontroversial, this kind of collaborative relationship between journalists and the organizations they cover should make people uncomfortable. As admirable as these goals may be, supporting them is not the job of journalists.

The ethical problems grow by orders of magnitude when we wander into advocacy. Just to pin down our terms, advocacy (at least the kind we're concerned with here) is trying to convince governments to take certain actions. For example, rather than building a hospital, advocacy projects try to get taxpayers to build it.

By its very nature, advocacy groups try to influence journalists. That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing -- advocates can perform a vital role -- but advocates are essentially salesmen, and journalists should treat their information and proposals with the same skepticism that consumers should treat claims in TV commercials.

All this talk of firewalls sounds impressive, but it is problematic under even the best of circumstances and in certain areas is all but impossible. When it comes to education, for all intents and purposes the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is an advocacy group. The stated purpose of pretty much all of their major initiatives is to promote a collection of policy positions. They provide lobbying and massive PR funding and resources to promote the policies they support. They fund and propagate favorable research. They find and back like-minded public officials such as John Deasy. We can argue about the wisdom of those proposals, the validity of that research and the confidence of those officials, but we cannot reasonably say that this does not constitute advocacy, nor can we argue that cozy relationships between advocates and and journalists are a good thing.

Monday, September 22, 2014

More shifting alliances -- TPM edition

As mentioned before, when it came to the politics of the education reform movement, the big story four or five years ago was liberal support for what would normally be seen as conservative principles like privatization, deregulation and the need to limit the power of unions (discussed at great length here). Today, the big political story is the increasing number of prominent liberals who are breaking with the reform movement. Given that context, this exchange at Talking Points Memo takes on special significance.

For a while now, Conor P. Williams has been the de facto education guy for TPM. His schtick is to attack critics of the movement, usually by misrepresenting their positions or just make broad attacks on their character. This is often followed by an extended lament over how negative the reform debate has gotten due to all those mean people on the other side. Williams represents a sizable chunk in my to-write pile but I keep putting it off because it's just so much work correcting one of his columns.

The picture that went with Williams' essay on Common Core critics.

As far as I could tell, Williams was the voice of TPM when it came to education, which is one of the things that made this recent piece by Sabrina Joy Stevens so surprising. The tone is polite but the effect is devastating. Not only does Stevens point out the essential hypocrisy of Williams' calls for a more elevated tone, she gets at perhaps his greatest journalist offense, his habit of omitting relevant but inconvenient facts and context (for example, check out how he covers the D.C. cheating scandal when discussing the fall of Michelle Rhee).
Yet, both the more strident vitriol aimed at Brown, as well as Williams’ critique of these attacks, miss the real issues that we should discuss when considering the dangerous movement Brown leads.

As someone who has been subjected to sexist and racist attacks from “both” sides of the education debate, I agree there’s no room for oppressive behavior in this conversation — regardless of the feeble denials and/or justifications the offenders and their protectors try to offer. But it’s also important not to overlook the many substantive reasons why people object to how figures like Rhee (now Johnson) and Brown choose to participate in this debate. The ignorance that animates any sexist or racist insults directed at both women doesn’t erase the rhetorical and material harm both have caused in the course of their advocacy.

Michelle Rhee Johnson was primarily disliked because of the actual things she did — some of which were overtly and personally cruel, such as the humiliating decision to fire someone on camera. We’re talking about a person who chose to launch her media career as D.C. schools chancellor with an direct attack on teachers, posing for the cover of Time Magazine with a broom — strongly insinuating that many of her employees were not people, but trash she intended to sweep away.

Similarly, Brown began her new incarnation as an education “reformer” two years ago by launching an emotionally-charged smear campaign against organized teachers. Since kicking off her latest effort, she has reportedly bullied and undermined the ability of a grassroots parents organization to carry out an independent legal effort on behalf of their own children — allegedly interfering with their ability to retain desired counsel in order to strengthen her own position at the forefront of the legal assault on teachers’ due process rights in New York state. (It’s worth noting that these attacks constitute a very serious, material abuse of her class and racial privilege that has real consequences for its targets. That should concern Williams and others at least as much as the sexist jibes aimed at Brown on Twitter and elsewhere.)
If TPM continues running voices like Stevens, Williams' approach will no longer be viable. His is not a style that stands up well to knowledgeable dissent.

More self-defeating comment spam

I understand that a great deal of spam is generated by bots and translation software. I can even believe that for some products the bad grammar and stilted language is not that much of an impediment. There are, however, products and services where this can't be a good approach.
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Friday, September 19, 2014

Mrs. Johnson's class is doing well. Let's call that a school

If you are following the data side of the ed reform story, you really need to check out Gary Rubinstein's account of

Frayser 9GA, the miracle school of the Achievement School District

And you have a problem with Joe Camel?

Mental Floss (one of the internet's best time killers) has a very cool article called 10 Lifehacks from 100 Years Ago.

In the late 1880s, cigarette manufacturers began inserting stiffening cards into their paper packs of cigarettes to strengthen the containers. It wasn't long before they got the idea to put artwork, trivia, famous people, and pretty girls onto those cards, grouped into collectible series. The cards, which continued into the 1940s, are highly valuable now, with the most expensive (bearing the face of stringent anti-smoking baseball player Honus Wagner) selling for $2.8 million in 2007.

In the 1910s, Gallaher Ltd of Belfast & London and Ogden's Branch of the Imperial Tobacco Co printed "How-To" series, with clever hints for both everyday and emergency situations. From steaming out a splinter to stopping a mad dog, these cigarette cards told you the smart way to handle many of life's problems.
It's a fun list but I noticed something strange. Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but the target audience for many of these cards seems to have been boy scouts. Even in 1910, that had to be a bit odd.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Artificial intelligence, natural stupidity

This started out as one of my standard ddulite rants, another round of complaints about how the press goes all gee-whiz over high tech and stops thinking critically, but I think this might be something more basic, something where the editors were being less ddulites and more dullards.

I was checking out the news stories on Yahoo when I came across this ominous headline linking to a Business Insider story:

By 2045 'The Top Species Will No Longer Be Humans,' And That Could Be A Problem

I say 'ominous' not because I was worried about the future of humanity but because I was steeling myself for some bad journalism. I was not, however, prepared for this:
"It won't be the 'Terminator' scenario, not a war," said [Louis] Del Monte. "In the early part of the post-singularity world, one scenario is that the machines will seek to turn humans into cyborgs. This is nearly happening now, replacing faulty limbs with artificial parts. We'll see the machines as a useful tool. Productivity in business based on automation will be increased dramatically in various countries. In China it doubled, just based on GDP per employee due to use of machines."

"By the end of this century," he continued, "most of the human race will have become cyborgs [part human, part tech or machine]. The allure will be immortality. Machines will make breakthroughs in medical technology, most of the human race will have more leisure time, and we'll think we've never had it better. The concern I'm raising is that the machines will view us as an unpredictable and dangerous species."

Del Monte believes machines will become self-conscious and have the capabilities to protect themselves. They "might view us the same way we view harmful insects." Humans are a species that "is unstable, creates wars, has weapons to wipe out the world twice over, and makes computer viruses." Hardly an appealing roommate.
If a stranger started saying this sort of thing to you on the street, you would probably start backing away while avoiding eye contact, but it's not like Business Insider and Yahoo Finance would put their names behind some flake. This guy (described in the article as  'physicist, entrepreneur, and author of "The Artificial Intelligence Revolution."') obviously had something in his resume that merited a little extra indulgence when his theories got a little out there.

Well, maybe not. As far as I can tell, Del Monte never worked as a physicist, at least not the theoretical kind. He has a master's in physics from Fordham and he appears to have had a very successful run as an engineer (particularly for Honeywell). Some time after that he started self-publishing general interest science books and making some fairly bold claims about new theories.

I don't want to dismiss someone for a lack of qualifications (Martin Gardner had a bachelor's in philosophy) or for self-publishing (I'm a blogger for crying out loud), but credentials do imply a certain level of vetting, which means that if someone uncredentialed is about to be published by a major media brand, the editors need to do their own vetting, perhaps by Googling that someone and checking out reactions to previous work. For example, the people at Business Insider might have taken a look at this review of an earlier Del Monte book.
“Unraveling the Universe’s Mysteries” is Louis A. Del Monte’s contribution to the world of science writing. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t be surprised. He’s not a prolific author or researcher, but worked in the development of microelectronics for the US companies IBM and Honeywell before forming a high-tech e-marketing agency.

The book lives up to its title and long subtitle: “Explore sciences’ most baffling mysteries, including the Big Bang’s origin, time travel, dark energy, humankind’s fate, and more.” It covers string theory, the Big Bang, dark matter, dark energy, time travel, the existence of God, and other mysterious aspects of our Universe. Del Monte also discusses artificial intelligence, the end of the Universe, and the mysterious nature of light. These subjects have all been covered in great detail by other authors in other books. How does Del Monte’s treatment of these subjects stand up in comparison?

Not great, in my opinion. The writing is somehow uninviting. The book reads more like a textbook or a lecture than it does a science book for an interested audience. It’s somewhat dry, and the writing is kind of heavy. After looking into Del Monte’s background, it becomes clear why. He’s an engineer, and his background is in writing technical papers.

This book is a bit of a puzzle, as is the author himself. I’ve mentioned the problems with the writing, but there are other issues. In one instance Del Monte references a study from the Journal of Cosmology. If you haven’t heard of that journal, it’s come under heavy criticism for its peer-review process, and isn’t highly regarded in science circles. The Journal of Cosmology seems to be a journal for people with an axe to grind around certain issues more than a healthy part of the science journal community. To be quoting studies from it is a bit of a black mark, in my opinion.

In another instance, he opens the chapter on Advanced Aliens with a quote from “Chariot of the Gods”, that old book/documentary from the 1970’s that just won’t seem to die, no matter how discredited it is. The main thrust of “Chariot of the Gods” is that human civilisation got a technological boost from visitations by advanced aliens. Readers can judge for themselves the wisdom of quoting “Chariot of the Gods” in a science book.
If anything, the reviewer goes a bit easy on the Journal of Cosmology -- Wikipedia has a very good rundown -- but it's the Chariot quote that really pushes things over the top.  This is the sort of information that a reader might have found useful when evaluating the threat of machines seeking to turn humans into cyborgs.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

At least we can all agree that ad hominem and overly general attacks are bad

I keep meaning to write something substantial about Conor P. Williams who is, among other things, the voice of Talking Points Memo in the field of education. Williams is a particularly good source of material for the emerging thread about the way the reform movement has recently started dealing with the emergence of prominent critics.

Here's a brief but representative example.
I’m far from convinced by everything that gets done today in the name of education reform. But [Michelle] Rhee’s and [Campbell] Brown’s examples are indicative of a troubling pattern for reform opponents: anti-reformers are prone to shooting any reform messenger. Anti-reform has an ad hominem problem. In part this is because the anti-reform crowd is obsessed with who has standing to participate in education debates. Non-teachers don't count (unless they're Diane Ravitch). Parents’ voices are only permitted so long as they avoid direct challenges to failing schools.
Williams doesn't address the exceptions to those awfully sweeping statements. Instead he follows with this:
I write about American education for a living, so I get a front row seat on this. Sometimes I write things like “Some charter schools, under some circumstances, are performing especially well.” When I write these sorts of things, my inbox, my Twitter mentions, and (occasionally) my phone spontaneously, simultaneously ignite. I get accused of hating teachers, teachers unions, and (a few times) white people. I get told that I’m a secret agent for Pearson, Bill Gates, the United Nations, and sometimes even the Muslim Brotherhood (really. No—REALLY). This isn’t occasional. It happens every time I write anything vaguely favorable about reform efforts, even when it’s mixed with criticism.
Just to sum things up, Williams complains that critics of the reform movement have "an ad hominem problem." He then goes on to describe their criticisms in terms of racism, paranoia and religious bigotry.

Further comment would be superfluous.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Yes, it's bear-in-the-pool hot

Recently, the hottest times of the year in LA are spring and fall.

The September Southern California heat wave has sent at least one bear into a backyard swimming pool. Sunday afternoon, some Sierra Madre homeowners spied a sizable black bear lounging on the steps of their in-ground pool. The bear swam and rested for about 15 minutes before leaving like an unwanted party guest. It's hard to blame the wildlife. Temperatures in Sierra Madre hit 103 on Sunday and 100 on Monday, according to AccuWeather.

Southern Californians are accustomed to bears in pools and hot tubs. (This reporter once watched a bobcat visit her pool.)

The state's black bear population has been on the rise in the last 25 years and is now at about 30,000.