Archive for December, 2010

Climate Change Education?

Posted December 22, 2010 By Steve

“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” — Mark Twain


a factory

When it comes to climate change, I have to admit that I don’t really know what’s going on. I know that both sides are cocksure and have incentive to promote their positions, meaning that neither should be trusted out of hand. It seems that more experts believe that the climate is changing than not, but that’s only so helpful to me, as I’ve worked with university faculty, and have seen firsthand how impressed with their own infallibility they can be, and how rarely they change their mind once it’s made up. There’s good reason for the saying that science advances one funeral at a time.

The way I see it, the climate change issue is really a series of three questions, all of which must be answered affirmatively for dramatic action to be warranted:

  1. Is the climate really changing?
  2. If so, are we causing it?
  3. If we are, is it worse for us than de-industrialization would be?

While I’m no climatologist and don’t claim to know for sure, I expect the answer to the first one is probably yes. I realize there are some issues with the data that are used to support this theory, but given that the climate has always been dynamic, it’s not so difficult to believe that the average global temperature is on an upswing.

I can also believe that the second one is at least partially yes. The long list of species that we’ve hunted to extinction show that humans can affect the environment to its detriment. If there are enough of us, we don’t even need advanced technology to do it — ask a woolly mammoth.

I think the third one is a lot more iffy, though. Many of the apocalyptic predictions are based on worst case scenarios, and computer models rather than direct observation. I work with computers, and one thing I know is that the problem with them is that they always do exactly what you tell them. Unless the model is strikingly accurate, there’s always that cause for uncertainty. Moreover, whatever negative consequences there may be should be weighed against the benefits that have come from industrialization, like average lifespans that are decades longer now than they were when we first started burning coal. I’m fine with moving to an economy that uses less carbon, but in the meantime do we really want to do without modern technology? If we tried, how many people would die earlier than they would otherwise?

I’m thinking about all this today because of a piece I read in The Hill saying that Todd Stern, the top climate negotiator for the U.S., is calling on scientists and policymakers to orchestrate an educational effort to change the public’s perception about climate change. Regardless of what the answers to those three questions are likely to be, is it really the government’s place to tell people what to think? Clearly not. But even if it is, would it do any good? Natural selection has been taught in American schools for a century, yet a recent Gallup poll shows that four in ten Americans believe that Creationism is literally true, and that only one in six Americans believe that humans evolved without divine intervention. With ignorance like that, what chance is there to educate the American people on a scientific topic that’s so complex there is still reasonable uncertainty about important details?

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Hunting For Scholarships

Posted December 19, 2010 By Steve

“Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” — Woody Allen

money, gold coins, and a stock chart
Unless you’re in one of the vanishing set of countries where they’re publicly provided, one of the biggest problems with getting a degree is paying for it. My doctorate will be no exception. The University of Memphis is a state university, and like most state universities it has different tuition rates depending on whether one is from that state or not. I’m definitely not, in fact despite the fact that it borders my home state of Virginia, the only time I think I’ve ever been in Tennessee was about a dozen years ago when I drove from Northern Virginia to Phoenix, Arizona.

While rates for those out of state are very high, fortunately the University of Memphis is also part of the trend among public institutions to offer in state rates (or something close) to those who are only taking online courses. In fact, because of this, my experience with them is likely to be less expensive than it would have been to attend a local university.

Of course, that’s a long way from it being free. Distance learning graduate students don’t have the same assistantship opportunities that those attending full time on campus do, which means my primary avenue to fund my continuing education is to take out student loans. While that will certainly cover everything, I’m well aware that a loan is something that must eventually be repaid with interest, so I’ve also been on the lookout for scholarships. It seems there really aren’t that many out there for part time adult learners. Most of what I’ve found on various scholarship search sites are lottery-style “scholarships” that are from companies that seem primarily interested in developing a list of prospective students that they can repackage and sell to for-profit and other marketing-driven schools.

But I’ve entered those lotteries anyway — why not? And I’m staying on the lookout for scholarships for which I may be qualified. I’ve seen that there are a number out there for those in the dissertation phase of their programs, and I’ll be sure to go after those once I get to that point. But in the meantime, well, suggestions are definitely welcome!

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It’s Official: I’m Going With Memphis

Posted December 18, 2010 By Steve

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” — Henry David Thoreau


sign saying Memphis

So I knew I was close to a decision on what to do for doctoral study (the third go around, that is), and after thinking carefully about whether I should wait a whole extra term just to hear back from Northeastern I’ve decided it’s not necessary. It’s official: I’m feeling really comfortable with the University of Memphis, and I’m enrolling in their Doctor of Education program in Higher Education.

It’s funny, because I was still telling myself that I was still mulling it over, yet already doing things like signing up for my memphis.edu email address, filling out a FAFSA and having the results sent only to Memphis, and even doing the financial aid entry counseling and master promissory note and everything. I came to realize that while I was a little nervous to admit it to myself, the decision had already been made.

I know I’ve already written at length about the reasons I was considering each course of action, so I won’t belabor them again. I just wanted to publicly mark it as a decision that’s completely made. So… go Tigers!

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Taxes And Generosity

Posted December 17, 2010 By Steve

“Entitlement is the antithesis of gratitude.” — Donald A. Palmer



When I’m on the exercise bike at the gym, I have three options. I can watch ESPN, in which I have no interest. I can watch the local ABC affiliate, in which I usually have no interest. Or I can watch CNN. I’m not really interested in that either, but it’s the least dull of the three, and it’s better to watch that than to think constantly about how hard I’m cycling.

One of the problems I have with CNN is that it reminds me how far journalistic standards have fallen. When a channel has “news” as its middle name, it ought to be in the business of news, not entertainment. I realize this is a quaint notion nowadays, but if it makes me a dinosaur to think that newscasters shouldn’t make exaggerated facial expressions to tell me what their opinion of an already slanted news story is, then I guess I’m a velociraptor. (Yes, Brooke Baldwin, I’m talking to you.)

Anyway, one of the things I’ve noticed about not just CNN but the rest of the meanstream media is the rhetoric they’re using when it comes to the deal on tax rates that Obama has made with Congressional Republicans. A few points:

  • What we’re talking about here is not a tax cut. I realize that because of the machinations of legislation that this is a continuation of a supposedly temporary tax cut from the early part of the Bush administration. But seriously, when tax rates have been the same for eight years now, then if they do go up, whether from legislative action or inaction, then that’s a tax increase, pure and simple.
  • Not raising personal income tax on those who make more than a quarter of a million dollars per year is not a “giveaway”, and it’s not “generous”. It’s taxpayers, not the state, who are giving something away; it’s taxpayers who are “generous” here. Anyone using this sort of rhetoric is demonstrating not only that they feel entitled to the wealth of others, but that those others should feel grateful for whatever they’re allowed to keep. Now, if you think that the wealthy, the middle class, or the poor should fork over a significant chunk of their earnings to the state for some sort of purpose, then it’s not like you don’t have a lot of company, but at least be intellectually honest about what you’re saying.
  • It seems that a common objection to this failure to raise taxes on the wealthy is that when they keep most of their money they don’t spend it all to boost the economy. I’ve heard repeatedly that tax cuts for middle income and poor people are better because those people will spend it all. Just because someone is well off doesn’t mean their bank account or paycheck should be thought of as a tool for monetary policy. It’s their money, not the state’s.
  • All this tax talk has focused solely on the personal income tax. Those who want to raise taxes on the wealthy say that supply side economists are wrong, because the rate at the highest bracket for personal income tax doesn’t really have very much impact on creating jobs and so forth. And that’s probably true. But the corporate income tax rate has enormous impact on that, and so far no one’s talking about that, even though Japan’s recent corporate income tax cut leaves the U.S. with the highest corporate income tax in the developed world. That’s especially stupid in that it would likely be revenue neutral to eliminate it completely, since the revenue would likely be made up by increased collection of personal income tax from those who would be able to get jobs as a result.

So if you happen to drop by my gym and see me frowning on the exercise bike, don’t worry, it’s not that I hate working out. It’s just continued dismay at how far those who treasure freedom have to go in this particular war of ideas.

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Memphis Beckons?

Posted December 15, 2010 By Steve

“All our final decisions are made in a state of mind that is not going to last.” — Marcel Proust


A tiger's face

Right now I have a decision to make, and I have very little time left to make it. I’ve applied to three schools: Liberty University, the University of Memphis, and Northeastern University. I’ve heard back positively from Liberty University and the University of Memphis, but not at all from Northeastern. The first decision was pretty easy, in that I know I would greatly prefer to attend the University of Memphis than Liberty University. But Memphis expects me to start this coming term, which is less than a month from now, and I have yet to hear back from Northeastern, and may not until the coming term at Memphis has already started.

So at this point I must do one of two things. I can either (1) start at Memphis this coming term, which would essentially mean I’ve made the decision permanently, since I’m not going to switch after that, or (2) I can try to defer Memphis for a term, see what Northeastern has to say, then decide between them.

The underlying question is whether I prefer one of these schools to the other. If I prefer Memphis, or I have no preference, I should start now with them. Only if I prefer Northeastern should I wait to see whether they accept me to start in July. The thing is, when I started out with all of these applications a few months ago, I thought I would prefer Northeastern to Memphis. But Memphis has really grown on me, for a few reasons. Their program is through an actual school of education, with a ranking and everything. (It’s a middle tier ranking, sure, but still a serviceable one.) They accepted only about half a dozen students into this program this term, which means it’s not a factory cranking out doctoral students as I fear Northeastern may be (or at least becoming). Memphis’s school of education comes recommended by my friend Tony PiƱa, and his opinion carries a lot of weight with me.

Interestingly, Liberty University keeps sending me email offering me inducements to enroll, like having some fees waived or a fleece jacket or a chance to win an iPad. They’re essentially saying in booming infomercial voice: “Act now and we’ll make the first payment for you!” Memphis, meanwhile, has been acting like no confirmation on my part is required. For example, they sent me information on how to get into my account in their online system, including my memphis.edu email address. And the department said they’re holding my place in the two courses for Spring term and asked me to let them know as soon as I get my student number so I can be properly registered for them. It’s almost like they’re saying, “Well shoot, of course you’re comin’ here!”

And by Christmas, I’ll have to decide whether they’re right. I hadn’t expected I wouldn’t wait to hear from Northeastern, but at this point, with how I feel, I think that may be exactly what happens.

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Cloudy With A Chance Of Laptop

Posted December 10, 2010 By Steve

“The first 90% of a project takes 90% of the time, the last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.” — Tom Cargill

I never win anything, but for some reason when it’s free to do so I always enter contests anyway. So when I found out recently that Google plans to give away tens of thousands of laptops, I signed up. There’s a big catch, though. The point of the giveaway isn’t that they’ve realized they have more cash than the Vatican and are trying to come up with fun ways to get rid of it. The point is that they want to find people who are willing to beta test Chrome OS, their weird new web browser-only operating system:


The deal is that the winners agree to use this laptop as their primary computer for a while, so that Google can get feedback on Chrome OS before it gets installed on laptops for which people have to pay actual money. Now, I’ve been on Linux for a few years and I’m perfectly happy with it. And not everything I do is “on the cloud” (a silly way of saying that everything is stored on the Internet rather than on one’s own computer. But I’m interested to see how well Chrome OS handles people like me, who do mostly everything online, but not quite everything. For example:

  • I use OpenOffice.org for word processing and spreadsheets. I’m familiar with Google Docs and have used them in certain circumstances, but how would it be to use web apps exclusively for this sort of thing? And how well would Chrome OS handle moving documents onto and off of the cloud? Sometimes I just want to move a document onto a portable drive and hand it to someone else — what happens then?
  • How does it handle periods of inevitable disconnection from the Internet? I have Verizon DSL, which means things stop working from time to time. And when I’m, say, traveling on an airplane there’s no connectivity. Does a computer with Chrome OS become a useless brick at that point, or does it have some capacity to let people be productive under those circumstance?
  • Earlier today I cropped an image file and uploaded it to my web server. (Okay, it’s my friend Randall’s server, but you get the point.) I didn’t do that through a web interface, I did it through the file manager on my computer, which has built in FTP capability. Would that be possible to do with Chrome OS? If so, would it be as easy?
  • App stores seem to be all the rage these days. Apple has one for its iDevices, there’s one for Android, and sure enough there’s one now for Chrome. But will there be free apps, or is that just another way to get me to pay for things that are free on Linux? When Adella needed a song on mp3, I was able to find and download free apps that let me download a video from YouTube, and then convert the audio portion of that file and convert it to mp3. Any chance Chrome OS will support that sort of thing?

So I’m willing to give Chrome OS a try to learn more about it, and I’m even willing to use it as my primary computer for a while to do that. But while I’m pretty sure that doing things through a web browser would be fine for 90% of what I do, the question is whether the things it can’t handle feel more like ten percent, or like the other 90%. Here’s hoping that Google gives me the chance to find out!

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