13 minutes to save the internet

This has been viral for a bit, but I finally got around to watching the John Oliver segment on Net Neutrality.  It is, indeed, pretty awesome.  You should probably watch it.

Photo of the day

A cool gallery of best Iphone photos of the year.  This was in 3rd place, but easily the winner in my book:


Photographer Jill Misner. More at IPP Awards.


Read a few interesting takes so far, best, I think, is Ezra’s.  A couple points I really liked:

“Republicans” are not the same as “Republican primary voters.” In 2012, Eric Cantor won the general election with more than 220,000 votes. Tonight, Brat beat him with about 36,000 votes. It’s possible and even likely that the vast majority of Republicans in Virginia’s 7th District liked Cantor just fine. But primaries only count the people who come out to vote…

The power of the Tea Party has never been the number of Republicans it defeated in primaries. The overwhelming majority of Republican incumbents running for reelection win their primaries without trouble. Rather, it’s been the prominence of the Republicans the Tea Party defeated that give the movement its sway. Dick Lugar, Mike Castle, and Bob Bennett. They were institutions. And Eric Cantor’s loss is a nearly anunprecedented event in American politics. These losses mean no Republican is safe. And that means that as rare as successful Tea Party challenges are, every elected Republicans needs to guard against them.

And when every Republican politician has to guard against them, the end-result is that, policy-wise, the Republican Party looks pretty much like the Tea party wants it to.

The dangers of owning a gun

Loved this column in the Guardian:

Academics such as John Lott and Gary Kleck have long claimed that more firearms reduce crime. But is this really the case? Stripped of machismo bluster, this is at heart a testable claim that merely requires sturdy epidemiological analysis. And this was precisely what Prof Charles Branas and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania examined in their 2009 paper investigating the link between gun possession and gun assault. They compared 677 cases in which people were injured in a shooting incident with 684 people living in the same area that had not suffered a gun injury. The researchers matched these “controls” for age, race and gender. They found that those with firearms were about 4.5 times more likely to be shot than those who did not carry, utterly belying this oft repeated mantra.  [emphasis mine]

The reasons for this, the authors suggest, are manifold. “A gun may falsely empower its possessor to overreact, instigating and losing otherwise tractable conflicts with similarly armed persons. Along the same lines, individuals who are in possession of a gun may increase their risk of gun assault by entering dangerous environments that they would have normally avoided. Alternatively, an individual may bring a gun to an otherwise gun-free conflict only to have that gun wrested away and turned on them.” …

The problem goes deeper than this, however. There’s good evidence that the very act of being in possession of a weapon has an unfortunate effect of making us suspect others have one too. This was shown in a 2012 paper by psychologists Prof Jessica Witt and Dr James Brockmole, where subjects were given either a replica gun or a neutral object and asked to identify the objects other people were holding.

Subjects in possession of a replica firearm were much more likely to identify a neutral object as a firearm. The erroneous assumption that someone else is armed can and does often end in tragedy.

Indeed, the evidence suggests the very act of being armed changes one’s perception of others to a decidedly more paranoid one. Other studies have shown an element of racial priming too, where a black subject is more likely to be assumed to be carrying a weapon…

LaPierre’s proclamation bears the hallmarks of a litany of misconceptions. Gun aficionados often frame the debate in terms of protection, but it is vital to realise that the vast majority of rape and murder victims are not harmed by nefarious strangers, but by people they know, and often love – friends, family members, lovers. Far from protecting people and keeping families safe, the sad truth is that firearms are often used in episodes of domestic violence.

Do guns sometimes prevent innocent people from harm?  Absolutely.  Is that benefit grossly outweighed by the harm that comes from easy and widespread gun ownership?  Beyond a reasonable doubt.

We’ve had a rash of shootings lately and I truly fear it is somewhat viral right now.  Every violent whacko wants to be the next violent whacko on the news.  And here in America we make it just crazy easy for violent whackos to get guns.  I’ll take a knife rampage anyday.  I’d like to think this litany of gun violence lately would make a difference, but in a country that seems willing to sacrifice school children with nary a policy change resulting, I’m not exactly getting my hopes up.

Photo of the day

From a Big Picture “daily life” compilation for May:

Amelia Johnson of Bremerton, plays fetch with her dog Boobah at sunset the Tracyton boat ramp in Bremerton, Wash., on May 11. (Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun via Associated Press)

Private prisons and incentives

I covered prison policy in class this week, so very timely to have this NYT article on the abominable conditions in private prisons in Mississippi:

JACKSON, Miss. — Open fires sometimes burn unheeded in the solitary-confinement units of the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a privately run state prison in Meridian, 90 miles east of here.

Inmates spend months in near-total darkness. Illnesses go untreated. Dirt, feces and, occasionally, blood are caked on the walls of cells.

For years, the prison, the state’s primary facility for inmates with mental illnesses, has been plagued by problems. When a previous private operator, the GEO Group, left in 2012 after complaints to the state about squalor and lack of medical treatment, hopes rose that conditions would improve. But two years later, advocates for inmates assert that little has changed under the current operator, Management and Training Corporation, a Utah-based company.

Civil rights lawyers and medical and mental health experts who toured the facility recently painted a picture of an institution where violence is frequent, medical treatment substandard or absent, and corruption common among corrections officers, who receive low wages and minimal training.

This really is not all the complicated.  First, obviously, the state social/political culture of Mississippi is such that if there’s any place that is just not going to care enough about how prisoners are treated and spending the money to treat them humanely, MS would surely be near the top of the list.  Second, the point I want to make is that you are inevitably asking for situations like this with private prisons.  There are certainly some cases where it makes sense for private corporations to run/manage things for a state (concessions at parks, janitorial services, etc., come to mind), but running a prison is clearly not one of them.

A state’s primary goals in incarceration should be to protect the public and to provide a humane, well-functioning prison for the inmates and the correctional officers.  A private company’s main goal is simply going to be to maximize profit.  Whereas consumers provide a check on the behavior of many private companies, the “consumers’ of prison services (as well as their families) don’t really get a lot of say in things.  And the people of Mississippi are the ultimate consumers and should care about having inhumane prisons, but they don’t.  Therefore, the private prison company basically has every incentive to cut costs– correctional officer salary, training, safety, etc., as well as cutting costs on the prisoners– health care, the physical plant, etc.  Not exactly a recipe for a humane, well-functioning prison.  Now, clearly, this is a bad case and not all private prisons are this bad, but regardless, you are setting up a system of incentives where the less humane the conditions the more profit for the company.  There’s just no way that’s a good thing.

Laptops in the classroom

Like most professors I know, I’ve been frustrated by laptops in the classroom for quite a while.  As somebody who hates to write by hand, I appreciate the fact that many students strongly prefer to type.  But it is quite obvious that they are a huge distraction, even for good students that use them– and certainly for any student near a classmate using a laptop for FB, etc.  My current policy has been to require laptop users to sit in the first two rows.  Why?  In my experience you are much less likely to ignore me and be wrapped up in your computer screen if there is close physical proximity.  Seems to work reasonably well, from what I can tell.

That said, the latest research has me strongly considering banning them entirely.  Some pretty solid research suggests that– hate it or not– you just learn better writing by hand than typing into a computer.  Basically, you have to process the material more in your brain.  Here’s Vox:

It’s not just because internet-connected laptops are sodistracting. It’s because even if students aren’t distracted, the act of taking notes on a computer actually seems to interfere with their ability to remember information.

Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, the psychologists who conducted the new research, believe it’s because students on laptops usually just mindlesslytype everything a professor says. Those taking notes by hand, though, have to actively listen and decide what’s important — because they generally can’t write fast enough to get everything down — which ultimately helps them learn…

When done with pen and paper, that act involves active listening, trying to figure out what information is most important, and putting it down. When done on a laptop, it generally involves robotically taking in spoken words and converting them into typed text…

This new research suggests that even when students aren’t doing anything else, taking notes on a laptop hinders their ability to learn. This is something of a surprise.

What isn’t a surprise, though, is that real-life students that use laptops seldom focus on the lecture.

You probably know this if you’ve looked across a lecture hall recently. But in case you want confirmation from professionals, research on both undergrads andlaw students has shown that those who use laptops have something unrelated to class up on their screens around 40 percent of the time. Ultimately, theyperform more poorly in classes and rate themselves as less satisfied with their college educations.

And I also read this take from a Computer Science professor in the New Yorker:

I banned laptops in the classroom after it became common practice to carry them to school. When I created my “electronic etiquette policy” (as I call it in my syllabus), I was acting on a gut feeling based on personal experience. I’d always figured that, for the kinds of computer-science and math classes that I generally teach, which can have a significant theoretical component, any advantage that might be gained by having a machine at the ready, or available for the primary goal of taking notes, was negligible at best. We still haven’t made it easy to type notation-laden sentences, so the potential benefits were low. Meanwhile, the temptation for distraction was high. I know that I have a hard time staying on task when the option to check out at any momentary lull is available; I assumed that this must be true for my students, as well.

Over time, a wealth of studies on students’ use of computers in the classroom has accumulated to support this intuition.

I’m not 100% made up on this, but strongly leaning towards moving this way in the Fall.  My current summer class has only 8 students, but none of them uses a laptop, and I must say, I really like it.

Alas, on the downside, without laptops, my students’ handwriting will probably be more difficult for them than ever.

Climate change in one comic strip

Wow– this XKCD makes a compelling point:

4.5 Degrees

Sadly, this post needs to be filed under not just science, but politics.

The militarization of the police

Interesting Times article on the increasing policy of sending military equipment to police forces:

The 9-foot-tall armored truck was intended for an overseas battlefield. But as President Obama ushers in the end of what he called America’s “long season of war,” the former tools of combat — M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, silencers and more — are ending up in local police departments, often with little public notice.

During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.

The equipment has been added to the armories of police departments that already look and act like military units. Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs.Masked, heavily armed police officers in Louisiana raided a nightclub in 2006 as part of a liquor inspection. In Florida in 2010, officers in SWAT gear and with guns drawn carried out raids on barbershops that mostly led only to charges of “barbering without a license.”

Absurd, yes, but what’s even more absurd is to hear a local police chief justify it thusly:

Neenah’s police chief, Kevin E. Wilkinson, said he understood the concern. At first, he thought the anti-mine truck was too big. But the department’s old armored car could not withstand high-powered gunfire, he said.

“I don’t like it. I wish it were the way it was when I was a kid,” he said. But he said the possibility of violence, however remote, required taking precautions. [emphasis mine]

Seriously?!  “However remote.”  Why, hello Dick Cheney.  We don’t make policy based on try to address everything with a non-zero probability.  That’s insanity.  Now, maybe there are good reasons for all this (I’m dubious), but the idea that “however remote” i.e., any chance whatsoever, is a reason to adopt a policy is just ludicrous.

Photo of the day

From the Telegraph Animal photos of the week:

An egret preens itself as it stands on a branch along the River Brahmaputra in Gauhati, India

An egret preens itself as it stands on a branch along the River Brahmaputra in Gauhati, IndiaPicture: Anupam Nath/AP

Education as a means to a political end

Sadly, I truly don’t believe NC Republican legislators have much interest in actually providing quality public education to NC children.  They do, however, know that voters expect them to care about this.  I think Thomas Mills gets it just right:

When the GOP enacted the voucher system, they were playing mainly to their religious base that wants the public to subsidize their fundamentalist private schools so we can raise a generation of children who believe dinosaurs lived with humans. Their move last week to endCommon Core was less about implementing any reliable standards than it was about holding on to the Greg Brannon wing of the party that thinks Common Core is a plot by Obama to indoctrinate our kids. And Phil Berger’s argument that eliminating teacher assistants is backed up by research is just cherry-picking data to justify a bad bill instead of letting research drive public policy. 

It’s clear that the GOP has no comprehensive education policy. Instead, they’ve passed a mishmash of legislation designed to appeal to their base and spend as little as possible. Their priorities are clear: 1) fund tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations; 2) mollify their right wing base; 3) keep the general public off their backs by appearing to give a damn about public schools by offering teachers raises while slashing resources in the classroom. 

All of their goals are politically motivated, not policy driven. The losers here are our kids.

Ugh.  And, yes, this especially bothers me because those “our kids” are literally my kids.  Of course, my kids with their genes and their stable home that prioritizes education, will be just fine in the end, but damn it, all NC kids deserve more than this legislature is interested in them getting.

Chart of the day

Wonder why higher education costs have been going up so much.  It’s not increased spending on tenure-track faculty, that’s for sure.  It’s adminstrators (and dare I say administrative bloat).  In fact, just the other day a colleague of mine was looking at our college budget and remarking upon how the only unit to see a substantial increase in budget size was the Dean’s office.  Clearly, we’re not alone.  Check this out:

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