Obama is coming!

Obama will be speaking on campus Wednesday.  I’ve got friends in high places.  A former student actually works in the White House and thus I will be “a guest of the the White House” for the event.  Not exactly sure what that means, but I’m pretty damn excited.

Thinking smarter about terrorism

Two great pieces this weekend about how we need to think so much smarter about terrorism.  They  both largely rely on the same point: in virtually every policy realm except terrorism, we rely on cost-benefit analysis.  In our concerns about terrorism, however, it seems that we worry about stopping terrorism at any cost.  Now, of course, that’s just plain irrational.  To be a little more fair though, I’d suggest that the issue is not so much that we aren’t fully taking costs into account (though, we aren’t),  but rather that we way over-value the psychological cost of an attack.   First, John Mueller and Mark Stewart in Slate put this all into dollars and cents:

Putting this all together, we find that, in order for the $75 billion in enhanced expenditures on homeland security to be deemed cost-effective under our approach—which substantially biases the consideration toward finding them effective—they would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect each year against 1,667 otherwise successful attacks of something like the one attempted in Times Square in 2010. In other words, we’d have to foil more than four major attacks every day to justify the spending.  [emphasis mine]

We are not arguing that much of homeland security spending is wasteful because we believe there will be no more terrorist attacks. Like crime and vandalism, terrorism will always be a feature of life, and a condition of zero vulnerability is impossible to achieve. However, the frequency and severity of terrorist attacks are generally very low, which makes the benefits of enhanced counterterrorism expenditures of a trillion dollars since 9/11 challenging, to say the least, to justify by any rational and accepted standard of cost-benefit analysis.

Yowza.  That’s not very efficient (though, as noted, does not take into account the psychological benefit of attacks never happening– still, I totally agree with them).  They conclude with a great summary of the opportunity costs involved:

Those who wish to discount such arguments and projections need to demonstrate why they think terrorists will suddenly get their act together and inflict massively increased violence, visiting savage discontinuities on the historical data series.

Risk reduction measures that produce little or no net benefit to society or produce it at a very high cost cannot be justified on rational life-safety and economic grounds: They are not only irresponsible, but, essentially, immoral. When we spend resources to save lives at a high cost, we forgo the opportunity to spend those same resources on regulations and processes that can save more lives at the same cost, or even at a lower one.

Meanwhile, Spencer Ackerman makes similar points in a very compelling post at Wired:

In case you haven’t noticed, hysteria is what the terrorists want. In fact, it’s the only win a decapitated, weakened al-Qaida can get these days. The only hope that these eschatological conspiracy theorists possess for success lies in compelling the U.S. to spend its way into oblivion and pursue ill-conceived wars. That’s how Osama bin Laden transforms from a cave-dwelling psycho into a world-historical figure — not because of what he was, but because of how we reacted to him.

We can honor the 9/11 victims without being permanently haunted by them.

And that points to the only way out of a trap that’s lasted a decade. It has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with politics. The U.S. has to embrace the reality that terrorism is not anything remotely like the existential threat we make it out to be. We can honor those 2,996 without being permanently haunted by them.

My favorite part of the piece, though, is where Ackerman lays out how national security policy has, unfortunately, become a completely one-way ratchet:

Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke has an answer. “There’s going to be a terrorist strike some day,” Clarke told Frontline for its “Top Secret America” documentary this week. “And when there is, if you’ve reduced the terrorism budget, the other party, whoever the other party is at the time, is going to say that you were responsible for the terrorist strike because you cut back the budget.  And so it’s a very, very risky thing to do.”

The risk, in other words, is a political risk. The culture of fear: It’s a bipartisan race to the bottom. And it’s why the National Security State constructed by the George W. Bush administration has found a diligent steward in President Obama. Asked recently if the post-9/11 security apparatus might diminish soon now that al-Qaida looks weak, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, replied, “No.”

Alas, the political logic behind this is unassailable.  And, until that changes, its pretty much impossible for our policy makers to actually think rationally about protecting us from terrorism.  All in all, a pretty depressing state of affairs.  (Oh, and you really should definitely read the entire Ackerman piece).

Thinking Smarter about homework

Great Op-Ed in the Times yesterday about how we need to be a lot smarter about the homework we assign our kids– so far I’m not impressed with what I’ve seen from middle school.  And, of course, I’ve written before on the utter uselessness of Elementary school homework.  Anyway, the key, of course, is not quantity of homework in the later grades, but quality:

The studying that middle school and high school students do after the dismissal bell rings is either an unreasonable burden or a crucial activity that needs beefing up. Which is it? Do American students have too much homework or too little? Neither, I’d say. We ought to be asking a different question altogether. What should matter to parents and educators is this: How effectively do children’s after-school assignments advance learning?

The quantity of students’ homework is a lot less important than its quality. And evidence suggests that as of now, homework isn’t making the grade…

Fortunately, research is available to help parents, teachers and school administrators do just that. In recent years, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and educational psychologists have made a series of remarkable discoveries about how the human brain learns. They have founded a new discipline, known as Mind, Brain and Education, that is devoted to understanding and improving the ways in which children absorb, retain and apply knowledge…

I was particularly interested to read about one particularly recommended method as I realize that this much more successful practice is largely how I went about studying myself (to very good results) back in the day:

A second learning technique, known as “retrieval practice,” employs a familiar tool — the test — in a new way: not to assess what students know, but to reinforce it. We often conceive of memory as something like a storage tank and a test as a kind of dipstick that measures how much information we’ve put in there. But that’s not actually how the brain works. Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting, so that testing doesn’t just measure, it changes learning. Simply reading over material to be learned, or even taking notes and making outlines, as many homework assignments require, doesn’t have this effect.

According to one experiment, language learners who employed the retrieval practice strategy to study vocabulary words remembered 80 percent of the words they studied, while learners who used conventional study methods remembered only about a third of them.

Short version:  don’t just read stuff–  test yourself.  The remainder of the Op-Ed discusses a number of strategies along these lines that can be used to make homework much more effective.  Now we just need educators to catch on!

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