The NRA’s Response To Newtown Misses The Mark

Posted December 21, 2012 By Steve

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” — Benjamin Franklin

Police at riot
I have to admit to being disappointed. After Newtown, when those who run the NRA had no public statement, I was unsure of the reason. Was it that they believed that it would be politically disadvantageous for them to say anything for a while? Did they believe that it would be in their interest to wait to get a better sense of any change in public opinion in the wake of the massacre? Did they (unlike gun control advocates) actually have sufficient decorum to wait until after all of the funerals to politicize the tragedy?

But now we’ve learned that the real reason was none of these things. Instead, their response was delayed so long because, apparently, they have been working around the clock to come up with the most stupid and short-sighted possible response to the shootings. Put simply, for them to suggest that it’s actually necessary or wise to have an armed policeman in every school in America is so ridiculous if I hadn’t read it on their own web site I wouldn’t have believed they could say something that obtuse.

Now I understand the basic idea behind their proposal, that places where good guys don’t have guns, only bad guys will have them. And with that much I can agree. But as I see it, there are three really glaring flaws in any plan to station armed police in every public school in America.

First, it accepts at face value the hysterical notion that children are in unreasonable danger when they go to school. Events like Newtown and Columbine are horrific, but they’re also incredibly rare. I have four kids in public schools in the U.S., and I am no more concerned that they’ll be killed at school than I am if they go to the mall, or a museum, or any other public place. I realize that there is always a chance that something terrible could happen, and I don’t mean to minimize the sorrow of parents who have lost children to violence. But there is no way to keep kids completely safe, and there comes a point when one has already taken all reasonable precautions.

Second, this is the sort of proposal that addresses the symptom of the disease rather than the root cause. By the time someone gets to the point where they’re shooting innocent kids in a school, to blame the gun is like blaming a pencil because the one holding it never learned how to spell properly. American culture doesn’t take mental illness seriously enough, in particular when it focuses on liberally dispensing psychotropic drugs that destabilize people as often as help them. Americans’ lazy relationship with news media isn’t helpful either, because the sort of attention these incidents get serves only to glorify those who commit these atrocities.

Finally, the NRA’s plan shows that their leaders may care about private gun ownership, but have no concern for what it will take to slow the continuing decline of American freedom. The key to having kids grow up thinking of themselves as the heirs to a free society is not to have them spend the majority of their waking hours in the company of armed police. The history of liberty’s decline is the history of the use of crises as an excuse to increase government control over people’s lives, so the suggestion that we acclimate future generations to the constant presence of armed government officials is one that might be better expected from an organization that promotes tyranny than liberty.

It’s important to remember that no matter what its detractors say, the NRA doesn’t speak for all gun owners nor for those like me who don’t own a gun but believe the government has no legitimate role to play in an individual’s right to choose whether or not to do so. With this poorly considered proposal, that’s certainly the case. There’s no way to ensure perfect safety for kids, and armed cops in schools is no exception. But even on an individual basis we can renew our commitment to valuing life, accentuate positivity in ourselves, and promote an environment of concern for one another. Passing on those sorts of cultural changes on to future generations, not gun control or armed cops in schools, is the best way to respond to this tragedy.

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On Being Anti-Science

Posted November 2, 2012 By Steve

“A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it. What has never been gone into impartially has never been properly gone into. Hence skepticism is the first step toward truth. It must be applied generally, because it is the touchstone.” — Denis Diderot

McMaster Institute: 3 out of 3 Scientists Agree - Using Three Fingers Improves Your Life_0267
Recently in an email conversation among about a dozen ideologically diverse people, I made a throwaway comment that in some ways, many of those researching climate change actually strike me as anti-science. I got called on it by one of the participants, a scientist himself, and in response I wrote the following.

I should clarify what I mean about why those who talk about climate change are anti-science, since that’s a strong word. It’s not because I think they’re necessarily wrong — it’s not difficult to wrap one’s brain around the idea that human activity can affect the environment; it clearly can.

Science is a process through which we learn about the world about us by impartial research and a fearless willingness to follow data wherever it leads. But my observation, admittedly as a layman, is that most of those involved in climate change are completely disinclined to hear from naysayers. The worst example of this is how naysayers are habitually shouted down as being “denialists”, a word specifically designed to equate them with Holocaust deniers. Even if the naysayers are wrong and are utter fools, this cynical approach to skeptics is completely anti-scientific, a black mark on the respectability of anyone who considers himself a scientist.

This ties in with what I think may be the greatest requirement for true science, that it calls for humble skepticism — what Diderot rightfully referred to as the the first step toward truth. The history of scientific progress is a history of different theories leaping ahead and falling back, with progress being the overall result, yes, but not without many mistakes being made in the process. We are blind men in a maze, and while the scientific method gives us a powerful tool to feel our way toward the exit, it doesn’t guarantee we won’t go down wrong paths in the process.

While I’m not a scientist by training, I’ve spent ten years working for various universities, and from this have developed a a healthy disregard for experts’ self-evaluations of their own intellectual indispensability. For example, many climatologists seem breathlessly eager to make sweeping public policy suggestions, as though they had complete understanding not only of climate issues but also such issues as public health, economic development, demography, and political philosophy. They do not, and by pushing political agendas they earn a critical eye toward the actual climatological research that is supposed to be why we should respect them in the first place.

Obviously, this last criticism also applies to most of those who are skeptical that climate change is occurring. My point here is not to defend them, for as I said I find it plausible that climate change is a real phenomenon. But the way that mainstream climatologists have supported their consensus being politicized makes that harder for laymen like me to accept, not easier.

Note: I’m actually pretty interested in responses from people, especially well reasoned disagreements. Since this is an issue that pushes a lot of people’s buttons, though, I should add that welcomeness doesn’t extend to responses from anyone who is simply angey that I’m toeing one line or the other.

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Steve’s Pressure Cooked Vegan Stew

Posted September 16, 2012 By Steve

My friend Randall and I eat this whenever he comes over, and finally he asked me how to make it. Since I was typing out the recipe, I thought I’d post it here.

  • 1 package of Tofurky Italian Sausage
  • 2 Russet potatoes
  • 4 large carrots
  • 1 16 oz. bag of dry pearl onions (or frozen, if necessary)
  • 1 16 oz. bag of green split peas
  • 1 32 oz. box of vegetable stock1
  • 1 tablespoon of curry powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon of cayenne pepper

1Preferably Medford Farms brand, because every other brand has outrageous sodium, even the ones mislabeled “low sodium”.

In large pressure cooker, add pearl onions, split peas, stock, and the same amount of water as there is stock. Stir, let sit for a while so that onions warn up a little and peas start to soften slightly so they don’t stick together.

Chop up carrots, potatoes, and sausage, and drop them in. Add curry powder and cayenne pepper and stir.

Close pressure cooker, place on medium-high heat. Allow pressure to reach level one, then cook at that level for exactly thirteen minutes.

Depressurize, stir (peas should turn to mush but not have burned on the bottom), let sit for twenty minutes, stir again.

Makes about six bowls of stew.

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Relax, Redux

Posted September 9, 2012 By Steve


University World News liked my post about MOOCs, which was nice of them since I criticized their previous writer so much. They wanted me to expand on a few things for their commentary section. We went through a few iterations, and the resulting op-ed is an almost entirely different piece, found on their site.

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“My argument is that to the extent that a MOOC focuses on content, like a traditional course, it begins to fail. A MOOC should focus on the connections, not the content.” — Stephen Downes

MOOC!
I read University World News frequently, and find it a great place to keep abreast of what’s happening in higher education in other countries, especially in the low and middle income countries covered by their Africa edition. But that doesn’t mean everything they print is necessarily entirely on point, and a recent case in point is their commentary Yes, MOOC is the global higher education game changer, by Simon Marginson from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne.

Given Prof. Marginson’s impressive resume, I was surprised that this piece had factual inaccuracies, even from the very first sentence. Firstly, “MOOC” doesn’t stand for “Free Massive Open Online Courseware”, it stands for “Massive Open Online Course”. Courseware is something a bit different, and while MOOCs might make use of open courseware, and while the same institution might offer both (most famously MIT), they’re not the same thing.

Secondly, the MOOC offered by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig late last year was a great success which rightfully got a lot of attention, but it wasn’t the first MOOC. It’s tough to draw a bright line here, but the real first one was probably one offered in 2008 by George Siemens and Stephen Downes through Athabasca University.

Thirdly — and I’ll admit that this point is more in the realm of opinion and prediction — the idea that MOOCs will spell the death of higher education as we know it may be exciting to say, but there are some fundamental barriers involved that will be pretty challenging to overcome. As someone who’s worked in online education for a long time, I can assure you that not everyone wants to learn online, even if from a well-regarded school. Another is that MOOCs from prestigious universities do not lead to academic credit, and this is an important drawback to them that their cheerleaders need to consider a little more closely. Moreover, if I may be allowed a prediction, they never will lead to credit, especially from top universities. Education is not a university’s true product, prestigious credentials are. When employers start accepting MOOC certificates of completion as the equivalent to a university degree, then one will be able to consider them a substitute. Until then, one simply cannot.

Don’t get me wrong, MOOCs are a great new tool in the toolbox of adult education. I’m glad schools are offering them, in fact I’m doing one myself later this year. But as exciting as they are, they cannot be all things to all people, and local universities are in no danger whatsoever of being supplanted by them any time soon.

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Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Posted May 15, 2012 By Steve

“I read the newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction.” — Aneurin Bevan

Lies
I admit it: I’m a news junkie. Every day I catch up on what’s happening around the world and in the field of eLearning thanks to various news outlets that scour the globe to find out the latest goings on. Sure, sometimes the mainstream media doesn’t cover something important, and independent media have to pick up the slack, but that’s just how it is. No industry is perfect, after all, and for the most part the news media does a lot more good than harm.

Right, for the most part. But these are tough times for news media. The Internet has not been kind to newspapers in particular, or even television news. At the same time, it’s not like Internet-only news sources tend to have a large number of actual journalists writing stories. As a result, many news outlets have cut back on their reporting staff levels, filling pages with stories that were obtained as cheaply as possible from third parties rather than going out to find out firsthand what’s really happening.

Unfortunately, this can be dangerous. Recently I saw a supposed news story on Yahoo! News that is so irresponsible that it makes me pretty angry. It’s a press release from a notorious diploma mill called MUST University that has scammed many people. No journalist sat down and wrote this article, or even checked it out before it went up on Yahoo! News. It was simply written by the scammers themselves, submitted to a company that they paid to promote it as a real press release, and then picked up and published online without any review for accuracy.

When you’re a prospective student looking for the right school through which you can earn a degree by eLearning, it’s hard enough even choosing a college or university from all the real choices out there. But when this sort of deliberate misinformation is added into the mix, things are downright dangerous! But there are a few things one can do to minimize the risk of being taken in by this sort of scam. First, remember that just because it looks like news doesn’t mean you can trust it. Second, if a school wants you to make a one time payment in exchange for a degree, with nothing more required, that’s not a “life experience degree”, that’s just a fake.

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Shall We Play A Game?

Posted May 10, 2012 By Steve

“Last night I stayed up late playing poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died.” — Steven Wright

Poker
One of the problems with usually being busy is that it means that I don’t have enough time for games. At various times in my life I’ve been more interested in games than others. For example, I’ve had friends who were into games of chance. I joined two friends for a night at a casino once, and while my luck wasn’t very good it was worth it as the price of admission into a different world. Nowadays that sort of thing is all over the Internet too, of course. The U.S. government and its various state subsidiaries would rather Americans didn’t gamble online, but of course millions do anyway. Fortunately there are are great sites for online gaming in Europe and other places that are willing to offer people the fun that they actually want.

I really liked stand up video games when I was a kid, way back when not only were there still arcades, but all the games inside were playable for a quarter. I didn’t really get into video gaming at home, I liked some of those games, especially the Civilization series, and a few others like it. In fact Civilization is one of the few things I sort of miss having been on Linux for so long. There are people who get the Windows versions of the game running just fine on Linux using WINE, and I’ve thought about it, but not only would it take a while to get all of that configured, once I’d succeeded I know myself well enough to realize I’d spend way too many hours getting all my roads converted to railroads, or trying to take key cities from the evil Babylonians next door. Better to avoid temptation!

When I was a kid, and intermittently ever since, I’ve found the time for role playing games. I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons ever since its first edition, and as an old hand at it I come down firmly in favor of Pathfinder as opposed to Hasbro’s disastrous fourth edition. My friends at the time and I played a number of lesser known ones as well, Paranoia, Shadowrun, and my all time favorite, Space: 1889, which offered a Victorian science fiction setting where the invention of ether flyers allowed the British Empire and its rivals to vie for influence throughout the swamps of Venus and beside the canals of Mars.

Getting back to playing cards, this one is actually pretty special to me, because the boys and I literally have our own game. Called BattleCards, it’s sort of like those collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh in terms of strategy and game mechanics, but it uses a normal deck of cards instead of custom cards that you have to keep buying and buying and buying to remain a competitive player. I more or less designed it over a long period of time, and the boys have helped me playtest it. Anyone who like those sorts of games really ought to check it out.

Also in the low tech area are board games, and the two that see the most action in my house are Risk and its grown up alternative, Axis & Allies. After all, if you’re going to play a board game, the fate of the world may as well be at stake! And then there’s Scrabble, which Adella got me into long ago, and while it may not seem to offer similar stakes to global domination, it’s still taken very seriously in my house. After all, if you’re playing me at Scrabble, it’s your word against mine, and really, what could be more intriguing?

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Another Insult From Verizon

Posted April 5, 2012 By Steve

SOLD: Western Electric antique wallmount telephone
I almost deleted the email as probable spam, but then I actually read it:

Thank you for being a loyal Verizon customer. At Verizon, we are committed to bring you the best suite of products and the most current capabilities, while providing the value and quality of service that you expect. From time to time, we must make changes to our product offering to meet these goals. Beginning May 6, 2012, we will no longer offer High Speed Internet without local voice service on the same account.

Let me get this straight — to reward my loyalty, and as part of their commitment to bringing me the value I expect, Verizon has decided that if I ever move and want to retain their DSL service I must also pay them every month for a landline phone that I don’t want and can’t use? I think “ridiculous” is among the nicer words I can use to describe that scenario. And even if I had enough use for a land line to get one, it surely wouldn’t be their outrageously overpriced service, it would be something like magicJack Plus which offers effectively the same thing for a tiny fraction of the price.

I guess I’m not the only one who refuses to overpay for a land line, and I suspect the problem here is that Verizon executives have clumsily responded to minimal demand for this overpriced service by holding the services people actually do want hostage. I don’t think that will work, and it surely won’t work on me. I’m grandfathered in, apparently, and hopefully that means as long as I stay at this address. But in a few years we’ll move, and if this policy is still in play at that time, that will be the last straw that finally pushes us to a different Internet service provider.

I wish all these telecommunications companies and other media companies would get it that people want a single telecommunications connection that’s reliable and fairly priced, and they want to use that single pipe as the conduit for all the other applications, whether voice, TV, or other, that they can then get from a competitive marketplace. Perhaps it’s because the few large companies in the telecommuncations space are a cartel supported by municipal guarantees of monopoly that they’re so slow to adapt to what their customers actually want, or perhaps they realize in an efficient system, they can’t compete, but whatever the reason, the end of companies like Verizon thinking that customers can be coerced like this is long overdue.

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My Son The Ringleader

Posted March 19, 2012 By Steve

“Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.” — V, in V for Vendetta

Guy Fawkes Mask
I have four kids, Duncan is 15, Fiona is 12½, Graham is 11, and Noah is 7. While they’re close knit, they’re all very different from one another, and some of them are better at attracting attention than others. In fact, usually, Duncan, Fiona, and Noah get the most attention, usually through error, and poor Graham, who even gets called “the good one” from time to time, often hears from us the least. In fact, sometimes he’s so well behaved that I wonder whether he takes after me in temperament at all, or whether he really just takes after his mild-mannered mom.

It seems however, that there’s an anti-authoritarian streak in him after all. As a fifth grader, he’s in the uppermost class at his elementary school, which means this is his sixth and final year there. Recently the school changed their procedure for where kids sit during lunch, making it more restrictive and having them all sit in a row rather than where they can face one another and socialize while eating. It was an unpopular change among students, and Graham took it upon himself to resist it.

His first step was to draft a petition calling on school administrators to return to the previous lunch seating arrangement, getting many of his fellow students to sign it, and even getting the signature of one of the teachers. On delivering this petition to administrators, he discovered what most activists soon discover — when the will of the people can be easily ignore by authority figures, the smart money bets that the people will be disregarded by those in authority.

Undaunted, he organized his friends to take chalk with them to recess, and write what he described as “V for Vendetta” symbols on the blacktop as a continuing protest. The only response was that they were told not to use the school’s chalk for such a purpose. Still undaunted, he then got his friends to bring chalk from home so they could continue to express their opinion without being accused of misusing school resources.

It was at this point that he was sent to the principal’s office, because he was identified as a “ringleader” of what was happening. He wasn’t suspended or expelled or anything like that, but they did confiscate his chalk (his chalk, mind you) telling him that what he and his friends were doing was “vandalism” — even though rain would wash it away and even though strangely it wasn’t considered vandalism when other students would draw on the blacktop with chalk for reasons other than expressing their opinion about school policy, e.g., drawing squares for hopscotch and the like. In fairness, he also got an explanation for the change in lunch seating procedure, although he wasn’t particularly impressed by its reasoning.

Now, I have the feeling he’s gone as far as he wants to go with this, and that’s his call. But even though his mother was appalled, I told him that I was proud of him for not being intimidated by authority figures. In the long run, he’ll be much better off if he’s not swayed by those who want to bend him to their will, and in particular doesn’t let those who are supposed to be educating him steal his dreams.

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Busting A Move

Posted March 18, 2012 By Steve

“I replaced the headlights in my car with strobe lights, so it looks like I’m the only one moving.” — Steven Wright

U-Haul
Over on the resume page I’ve updated my address, and I suppose that calls for a bit of explanation!

One of the most fun things in life is to move from one house to another. Well, okay, it’s not really all that much fun. But it is a pretty big experience, at least. I say this because this past weekend my family and I moved houses. Even since my oldest son came to live with me it had seemed like there was just one room too few to meet everyone’s needs. In particular, I’d really noticed the lack of a space of my own, however small, that no one else ever touched. It didn’t help that we’d been there for five years — which means little things just accumulated over time until the house felt like it was bursting at the seams.

We only moved two blocks, and from one townhouse to another, so there are a number of comparisons to be made. It’s unquestionably a good move, but as with most things in life, there are tradeoffs. The old house had less space, but it was closer to the trail along Holmes Run that is a great place for walking. The parking lot for the old house was never full, but at the new house parking is pretty limited for visitors. The old house was part of a large complex consisting entirely of townhouses where a lot of us shared a fairly large courtyard. The new house is right on the street, although it has a back yard that’s fenced off and consists almost entirely of a huge deck under a large holly tree, which is very pleasant.

But most importantly, the new place is much larger. In particular it has a basement, the new lair of my teenager, although part of the deal for him to get that kind of space was that when his siblings are around that’s the place that will be their containment area. The living room on the main floor is large enough that it would serve well for entertaining, although the parking situation will mitigate that. But most importantly, to me, there are enough rooms that one of them is my office, where I can leave things knowing no one will move them, and where I can concentrate without hearing what’s going on elsewhere in the house. Similarly, Adella likes the kitchen so much she’s taking the breakfast nook over as her own workspace.

So there we are. We actually took the opportunity to get rid of a lot of extra stuff while we were packing, and I think we’ll manage to divest ourselves of a bit more during what is turning out to be a fairly lengthy unpacking process. And if we can figure out where people would park we do hope to have a housewarming party in the near future — although in the interest of not ending up in the same boat it will definitely be a gift-free one!

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