The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Holding my nose

The national war over American public education is playing out right in our backyards. A recent article in the Boston Globe reveals that the last surge of spending in what was a ridiculously expensive mayoral race here in Hub was from the AFT.

The American Federation of Teachers confirmed Friday that it was the donor behind One Boston, a mysterious political action committee that paid for a $480,000 television commercial supporting Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh during the final days of the Boston mayoral race.

The national teachers’ union exploited discrepancies in state-by-state campaign spending disclosure laws to anonymously fund nearly a half million dollars worth of advertising on behalf of Walsh.

Full disclosure: I am a member of AFT Local 66, the Boston Teachers Union. In the mayoral race, I absolutely supported Walsh over Connolly. It wasn’t so much that I liked Walsh and his policies, but that I was vehemently opposed to Connolly’s corporate-influenced agenda for education reform.

Better the “able steward of the status quo” as the Globe painted Walsh, than a pro-charter, pro-standardization, “reform” candidate like Connolly. So, in the absence of any of my preferred candidates (Arroyo, Barros, and Golar-Richie all lost in the preliminaries), I decided to hold my nose and vote for Walsh.

Part of me wonders if I actually managed to pick the lesser of two evils. I am adamantly opposed to money having an outsized influence on politics, especially national money on local politics, and especially especially money that forces a false choice between two distasteful alternatives.

No single entity — union or corporate — should be able to unilaterally influence public policy in this way, especially with such a lack of transparency.

And at least Connolly called for a moratorium on outside money (an offer that Walsh refused).  So I can’t say I approve of where my dues are going or how I am being represented (not that I really have a choice… membership is mandatory).

On the other hand, what is AFT to do? Since Citizens United, so much money is now flowing into races around the country, much of it from sources that are seeking to control public policy for private (and corporate) gain. Should the defenders of public education, flawed as they may be, simply stand by and watch as Boston becomes the next bloody front in the national reform war… like Chicago, New York, DC, and New Orleans? I reluctantly see ground for AFT to argue “how could we not”.

As a broad generalization, I think I’d rather have union (ergo middle/working class) control over policy than corporate (ergo wealthy) control over policy. But what kind of choice is that?  At the root, I think what most disgusts me is the frustration of knowing that political process, from local to federal, is no longer truly accountable to the people. Why should I have to hold my nose when voting between two ugly alternatives in the first place?

Restoring faith in government, and by extension faith in the social contract, is going to be a long road if we are to recover ourselves. I’m for making that long march, but it’s not going to be easy.

Review of “Cosmopolitics: Public Policy of Outer Space” by Paris Arnopoulos

Cosmopolitics: Public Policy of Outer SpaceCosmopolitics: Public Policy of Outer Space by Paris Arnopoulos

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A good faith stab at attempting to consolidate information on a wide-ranging and complex question. How do we set up social structures that will work for the dawn of the real space age… when space is commercial accessible and exploitable by private interests?

However, the perspective is dated and some of the underlying assumptions naive. For example, Arnopoulos assumes that wealth disparity is due purely to the random distribution of resources on the planet and who was able to apply innovation to make use of them. This perspective completely ignores the much larger role that exploitation, slavery, genocide, and predatory monetary policies have had on the distribution of wealth in all human societies to date. Economics in a free market system are not based on people cooperating in rational self-interest, but rather conscious and subconscious xenophobia and the drive to maximize in-group wealth.

These human tendencies are certainly not going to magically disappear just because we will venture out into the solar system. Consider that a private company is now resupplying the space station and has designs on Mars, another private interest is sending a manned (slingshot) mission to Mars by the end of the decade, and still another is planning to mine asteroids in roughly the same timeframe. This is real, and this is now, and not facing the very real social problems we still have on earth will hardly lead us to anywhere sustainable or equitable in space.

While I did glean some useful thinking points from many of the essays, I confess to putting it down halfway through due to its sociopolitical and economic naivete. The fact that the writing gave me the sense that I was perpetually trapped in an introduction didn’t help in keeping me awake.

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Why Should You Be Scientifically Literate?

Side Note: With all of these recent scientific discoveries and observations like the Higgs Boson particle being found, or the recent Venus transit that wont occur again until 2117, or fresh news of more evidence towards Dark Matter’s existence and its implications I thought it would be great timing to highlight the importance of science news, information, and being a part of the community as a citizen. Scientific literacy seems all the more important as our technologies become more advanced and scientists alongside their tools begin to find out new groundbreaking things. Provided below are my favorite excerpts from Robert M. Hazen’s ‘Why should you be scientifically literate?’. Give it a read, become aware of one of the duties we as citizens should have taken up long ago, becoming literate in the world of science.

Road to Discovery of Self & Reality

by Robert M. Hazen

Why should you care about being scientifically literate? It will help you

Understand issues that you come across daily in news stories and government debates

Appreciate how the natural laws of science influence your life

Gain perspective on the intellectual climate of our time

We live in an age of constant scientific discovery — a world shaped by revolutionary new technologies. Just look at your favorite newspaper. The chances are pretty good that in the next few days you’ll see a headline about global warming, cloning, fossils in meteorites, or genetically engineered food. Other stories featuring exotic materials, medical advances, DNA evidence, and new drugs all deal with issues that directly affect your life. As a consumer, as a business professional, and as a citizen, you will have to form opinions about these and other science-based issues if you are to participate fully in modern society.

More and more, scientific and technological issues dominate national discourse, from environmental debates on ozone depletion and acid rain, to economic threats from climate change and invasive species. Understanding these debates has become as basic as reading. All citizens need to be scientifically literate to:

— appreciate the world around them — make informed personal choices

It is the responsibility of scientists and educators to provide everyone with the background knowledge to help us cope with the fast-paced changes of today and tomorrow. What is scientific literacy? Why is it important? And how can we achieve scientific literacy for all citizens?

What is scientific literacy?

Scientific literacy, quite simply, is a mix of concepts, history, and philosophy that help you understand the scientific issues of our time.

— Scientific literacy is not the specialized, jargon-filled esoteric lingo of the experts. You don’t have to be able to synthesize new drugs to appreciate the importance of medical advances, nor do you need to be able to calculate the orbit of the space station to understand its role in space exploration.

— Scientific literacy is rooted in the most general scientific principles and broad knowledge of science; the scientifically literate citizen possesses facts and vocabulary sufficient to comprehend the context of the daily news.

— If you can understand scientific issues in magazines and newspapers (if you can tackle articles about genetic engineering or the ozone hole with the same ease that you would sports, politics, or the arts) then you are scientifically literate.

Admittedly, this definition of scientific literacy does not satisfy everyone. Some academics argue that science education should expose students to mathematical rigor and complex vocabulary. They want everyone to experience this taste of “real” science. But my colleagues and I feel strongly that those who insist that everyone must understand science at a deep level are confusing two important but separate aspects of scientific knowledge. As in many other endeavors, doing science is obviously distinct from using science; and scientific literacy concerns only the latter.

Surprisingly, intense study of a particular field of science does not necessarily make one scientifically literate. Indeed, I’m often amazed at the degree to which working scientists are often woefully uninformed in scientific fields outside their own field of professional expertise. I once asked a group of twenty-four Ph.D. physicists and geologists to explain the difference between DNA and RNA — perhaps the most basic idea in modern molecular biology. I found only three colleagues who could do so, and all three of those individuals did research in areas where this knowledge was useful. And I’d probably find the same sort of discouraging result if I asked biologists to explain the difference between a semiconductor and a superconductor. The education of professional scientists is often just as narrowly focused as the education of any other group of professionals, so scientists are just as likely to be ignorant of scientific matters outside their own specialty as anyone else.

Why is scientific literacy important?

Why should we care whether our citizens are scientifically literate? Why should you care about your own understanding of science? Three different arguments might convince you why it is important:

— from civics — from aesthetics — from intellectual coherence


The first argument from civics is the one I’ve used thus far. We’re all faced with public issues whose discussion requires some scientific background, and therefore we all should have some level of scientific literacy. Our democratic government, which supports science education, sponsors basic scientific research, manages natural resources, and protects the environment, can be thwarted by a scientifically illiterate citizenry. Without an informed electorate (not to mention a scientifically informed legislature) some of the most fundamental objectives of our nation may not be served.


The argument from aesthetics is less concrete, but is closely related to principles that are often made to support liberal education. According to this view, our world operates according to a few over-arching natural laws. Everything you do, everything you experience from the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment you go to bed at night, conforms to these laws of nature. Our scientific vision of the universe is exceedingly beautiful and elegant and it represents a crowning achievement of human civilization. You can share in the intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction to be gained from appreciating the unity between a boiling pot of water on a stove and the slow march of the continents, between the iridescent colors of a butterfly’s wing and the behavior of the fundamental constituents of matter. A scientifically illiterate person is effectively cut off from an immensely enriching part of life, just as surely as a person who cannot read.

Intellectual Coherence

Finally, we come to the third argument — the idea of intellectual coherence. Our society is inextricably tied to the discoveries of science — so much so that they often play a crucial role in setting the intellectual climate of an era. For example, the Copernican concept of the heliocentric universe played an important role in sweeping away the old thinking of the Middle Ages and ushering in the Age of Enlightenment. Similarly, Charles Darwin’s discovery of the mechanism of natural selection at once made understanding nature easier. And in this century the work of Freud and the development of quantum mechanics have made our natural world seem (at least superficially) less rational. In all of these cases, the general intellectual tenor of the times — what Germans call the Zeitgeist — was influenced by developments in science. How can anyone hope to appreciate the deep underlying threads of intellectual life in his or her own time without understanding the science that goes with it?

Full Article

Politicians and Data

Some thoughts on politics and data. A friend who is definitely more conservative than I am, but nevertheless among those I respect and admire most, passed on the following data from the Brookings Institute, which was apparently cited by a certain politician:

For every $1 change in average income for wage earners:

The bottom quintile (bottom 20%) of income earners experience a $0.76 delta

The next quintile (20%-40%) of income earners experience a $0.90 delta

The next quintile (40%-60%) experience <$0.70

The next quintile (60%-80%) experience <$0.70

But the higher wage earners (95%-99%) experience a $1.01 delta

And the highest wage earners (99%-100%) experience a $2.16 delta

Though the conversation leapt off from this initial point off into various related issues on which we surprisingly agreed on a lot of things, I wanted to post quickly about these numbers in particular because I think they illustrate a broader phenomenon of how numbers are used in politics.

So, just looking at that data, one might draw the conclusion that the top 1% of wage earners are disproportionately affected by changes in overall average income. This might then lead one to consider this apparent fact as reasoning toward believing that the 1% perhaps should receive a tax break of some sort to compensate for the the increased risk they assume on behalf of the economy as a whole, or perhaps that the 1% clearly share a natural, enlightened-self-interest incentive to trickle down their wealth and thereby increase their own leveraging power. A rising tide, if you will permit the analogy, symbolically lifting all metaphorical boats.

Here is the flaw: the face-value implication of presenting the data this way is that a dollar has a constant value for all people, which is false.  Though the delta shown here would indicate that the absolute dollar difference on the top 1% of earners is about 3 times that of the middle quintile, that doesn’t tell the full story. Because: the median income of the general population is $55,223, whereas the mean income of the top 1% is… $31,000,000. (quick check on Wikipedia). 

So lets take that earning sensitivity per segment (the listed <0.7/$ for the middle quintile is vague, so I’ll use 0.5/$ for conservative margin), divide each by the average income for that segment of the population, and compare the values.

Scaled as a percentage of their total income , which is what would really matter when we are talking about how these changes affect people’s lives, we see that the same $1 change in average income affects the middle quintile 143 TIMES as much as it does the top 1%. Same data… very different conclusion.

And mind you, nothing is necessarily wrong with the data, its very likely correct (e.g. I am in no way suggesting that the data as presented is false, Brookings is a highly reputable name in think tanks). The numbers are just numbers. The problem is that they can be presented in a way that I think misses what is really going on. How we look at the numbers is just as, if not more important than, what numbers we have.

Lesson? Don’t believe any data from the mouth of any politician, regardless of party. On science, on education, on their opponent’s voting history, nothing.