23 April 2011

Technology and Underpants Gnomes

A rather funny (and not too offensive) episode of South Park involves a pack of gnomes who "collect" underpants at night.  Their motive is profit.  The problem is that there is no bridge between the two; "phase two" is missing.  I bring this up because it seemed particularly fitting of a conversation about using technology in high school classrooms.  In some (and probably in many) states, there is a legal requirement for teachers to use technology in the classroom, the assumed end being that doing so will result in better educated students.  What "phase two" is, what it consists of, no one can say for sure.  But there is it: the means and the dreamt-of end.  One thing the underpants gnomes have over administrative and state education officials is that their "phase one" (underpants) are tangible.  In many districts, it would be a stretch to say that there is enough technology (largely measured by numbers of computers) to even pretend to meet mandates.

But to be locked into that conversation - how much technology must be used - means ignoring another, more fundamental question: what purpose does a bit of technology - be it a computer, internet access, a "smart" board, etc. - serve the classroom it is in?  For instance, is it more effective for a student to read an article, a short story, or a novel on a computer screen or on low-tech paper?  I would argue that paper is far superior.  Reading from a CRT monitor is hard on the eyes, flat panels a bit less so but more expensive (unless we're building from zero).  Paper is easy on the eyes.  Paper is also portable.  Students can write on paper.  Put those two together - students can write on and take their studies with them.  That sounds like a great combination for teaching and learning.

Of course, low-tech generally means low cost, and low "wow" factor.  A video of, say, a classroom full of kids discussing a story and referencing notes taken on their own copies of the story doesn't make for a scintillating presentation if the audience has already determined that technology is "phase one" for better educated students.

Both options, paper and various technologies, are rather parts of "phase two" techniques.  They are methods of delivery, of communication, and each has advantages and drawbacks.  If the goal is to teach grade school kids fundamental math, what would be the point of mandating the use of technology?  Do mouse clicks help young students memorize their multiplication tables?  If the goal is to teach high school students geography, where might technology be of use and where might it be a hindrance?  But if the goal is to teach students to use technology - and this seems to be the only plausible educational goal of technology mandates - then technology becomes the subject, the class, the focus.  Using other classes to primarily teach technology is to substitute a goal with a means, and that is a mistake.

14 April 2011

Better Health Through Coercion

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Mark Bittman attempts to show how $1 trillion might be saved by the federal government by "preventing disease instead of treating it."  He cites alarming statistics about how many Americans have largely preventable health issues, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.  He then relates each of these to dollars spent - "more than one seventh of our GDP" - to cure them.  His point is that it would cost far less if preventative measures were pursued, like improving diet and increasing exercise at an individual level.  A valid point, indeed, especially as it appears to be a result of individual choice and improvement; the money saved is the result of changes by individuals.

However, that is not the case.  In Mr. Bittman's view, the individual is the thing to be managed, the cog to be turned by coercive forces so as to benefit the whole, and the whole will pay in the form of higher taxes so that the individual can be coerced.

The first indication that Mr. Bittman prefers, whether he recognizes it or not, coercive methods to pursue better, healthier eating occurs when he claims that money can be saved "if an alliance of insurers, government, individuals - maybe even Big Food, if it's pushed  hard enough - moves us toward better eating."  First there is the obvious reference to pushing Big Food to do what Mr. Bittman surely feels it ought to do, the connotation that any "Big" industry not only needs coercion but deserves it as well.  No, the more subtle portion of his statement is also more telling of just how far he feels the state should go toward enforcing better health habits.  Mr. Bittman wants government and other entities to "move us" to do what is deemed to be the right thing.  He does not use a more gentle term, like entice or encourage.   The use of "move" implies actions upon the individual; the individual needs to be moved.  So Mr. Bittman really means that his "alliance  of insurers, government, [and] individuals" (individuals who we may assume include folks like him) must coerce the Big Individual into doing the right thing, that is eating as the "alliance" sees fit.  No individual liberty or personal accountability to be found there.

But this coercion doesn't come on the cheap.  That, however, is not an issue when the coercive power of government is brought to bear.  Mr. Bittman quite simply states that the "investment" - forcing people to ear healthy diets - is one for which "you must spend money to make or save money.  (Yes, taxes will go up, but whose taxes?)"  When only about half of American households don't pay federal income taxes, it's an easy bet that only half of the population will pay into this "investment" in coercive behavior.  Big Food and Big Whateverelse will also get the bill.  But it's an "investment" in people's health that will save money - so what's the worry?

In order to get away from the question of actually paying for coercing individuals into taking proper care of themselves, Mr. Bittman uses a now-common false comparison which is meant to evoke both nostalgia and a sense of self-loathing.  He claims, "if we can put a man on the moon, we can create an environment in which an apple is a better and more accessible choice than a Pop-Tart."  Of course, the Apollo Project has absolutely nothing to do with proper diet and exercise, but that's of no consequence for Mr. Bittman.  What is more important for the reader is the level of stupidity he expects of you.  How does he figure that apples are rare finds in supermarkets?  Does he think that his readers, or Americans in general, do their grocery shopping primarily or exclusively at locations which cater in boxed food that is grabbed on the go, like gas stations?  What's more is that he thinks there is a need to "create an environment in which an apple is a better...choice" than a boxed, sugary pastry.  Mr. Bittman insults everyone's intelligence if he really thinks that the average human being needs to be told that an apple is a better bit of food than a frosted pastry.  Yet, he would use the coercive force of government to drive this and other healthy points home.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and Mr. Bittman has good intentions.  No decent human being would want others to suffer from diabetes or heart disease.  But where Mr. Bittman makes his downward turn is in his belief that the answer rests in government "investment" in coercing individuals to practice healthier living.

What I believe Mr. Bittman either refuses or is unable (due to his statist leaning) to recognize is that the coercive power of government has limitations - indeed, many folks may argue that it can do no social good.   The taking from some in order to "help" others who are somehow unwilling to help themselves is a path of folly.  For the vast majority of people, a decent diet and a modicum of exercise are well within their grasp.  What must not be allowed into the conversation are excuses which are groundless - No one told me that honey bun was bad for me; I live just down the street from a fast food joint and I'm "addicted" - I'm too tired / sore / fat / unmotivated to exercise.  If individuals are relieved of the responsibility for their own health - their own care and feeding - then they will have truly become children of the state.  And we will all pay the price, higher taxes being most certainly the least consequential.  For a society in which individuals who are supposed to be adults turn to the government for direction on what to eat is a society which has no soul, no will, and no hope.

02 April 2011

Ignore the Man from Florida

It is said - and I believe it is true - that I order to be offended, one has to choose to be offended.  Or, to put it another way, if a person chooses to not find offense, he doesn't.  However, some things are quite hard to ignore and exactly what those things are vary from person to person, from culture to culture.  Many Americans find it offensive when someone burns their flag  As part of that group, I understand why: the burning is a statement of contempt bordering on belligerence.  But upon further analysis, if burning a flag or any other symbol is the limit - in a practical sense - of action, then it is essentially an empty final act where the symbol becomes more important to the one destroying it than to the one intended to be offended by the action.

I write this as a backdrop for consideration of two days of what have been variously called protests and riots in Afghanistan which have left about 20 people dead and many dozens injured.  These protests, deaths (including two beheadings), and injuries are in response to a stupidly foolish man in Florida - half a world away - burning a Koran.  Never mind that this Florida man (whom I refuse to name - he deserves not recognition but rather our collective deepest apathy) and his stupid act are impotent.  Many Afghanis are offended; enough, it seems, to kill those around them and behead UN workers.

Take a step back from both the Florida man and the rioting Afghanis, and one wonders why the two pay any attention to each other.  The Florida man is either incapable or unwilling to make his mark by reading, analyzing, and arguing against the book he burned, and so the strongest statement he is able to conjure in his head is to burn it.  His act may be symbolic, but it is also empty.  The ideas and beliefs he feels he is destroying - however symbolically - are not touched.  If he were worth his salt, he would pen numerous criticisms of the book he finds so repulsive and then perhaps he might accomplish something meaningful.  But I suspect nothing will come of the Florida man other than his vacuous act.

News agencies, and people in the West by extension, will pay attention to the rioting Afghanis because people are being injured and killed.  But it seems to me that their acts are just as impotent and empty as the Florida man's.  And what's more, the Afghani's acts seem more self-destructive; one might expect most of the injuries (if not most of the deaths) have been inflicted on Afghanis by Afghanis.  And for what?

At the risk of injecting a Christian verse, "For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven."  And this would seem a season for Afghanis and all Muslims to join Americans in ignoring a stupid, impotent man from Florida.

01 April 2011

Powerful While Sleeping

I can be a stickler regarding word usage.  There are some commercials that get under my skin because they make no sense, yet one would assume someone professionally edited the language in them.  The most common abuse of language in commercials seems to be comparisons to nothing: tools that promise to accomplish something in "up to half the time;" fuels that burn "40% cleaner."  Compared to what, you ask?  Indeed.

More and more, though, I find laziness regarding language in straight news reporting (and by that, I mean to segregate news from opinion).  It's been a week since I read an astounding claim in the first sentence of a story reported in the Seattle Times.  Perhaps some who read this post might recall the controller referenced in the sentence; he had the unfortunate (and strangely fortunate - lots of big things going on in the world) fate of having fifteen minutes of news cycle spotlight on him.  According to the Seattle Times, he deserved much more.  Perhaps even a scientific study.
An air traffic control supervisor who fell asleep during a midnight shift and forced two planes to land without assistance at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport this week was suspended Thursday. 
That's one powerful air traffic controller.

This sort of laziness with language is all around us, and it's not unique to our times.  But consider how many messages we get every day and the length of those messages.  News sound bytes are perhaps five to fifteen seconds.  A really long sound byte might be just under a minute.  Posts on Twitter, called tweets, have a 140-character limit.  Text messages are generally fairly short, many times no longer than a tweet.  If I only have 140 characters (or fewer) to fully make a point, I would want to use very precise language.  It is curious, then, that as our utterances become shorter and shorter our language seems to become sloppier. 

Instead, we get all sorts of contradictions, convolutions and inaccuracies.  We get an air traffic controller capable of forcing airplanes to land while he sleeps unassisted.  Or maybe I'm just too critical.