We Can Simplify Our Student Grading System

In the works, I have two different questions for you:

  1. ‘Do Medium-sized Egos Really Exist?’, and
  2. ‘Should Law Enforcement Officers Be Allowed To Use The “I was afraid for my life” Defense?’

Both of these require some preparation/research, but I hope to have them ready before too long.  For now, I’ve chosen a lighter topic about a scheme that, because it’s not being implemented as designed, could well be simplified.

Some Background

When I started school, we got one grade, from A to F (I never learned why E was left out), to represent our mastery of the subject.  Then, at some point, they introduced a separate grade for effort (from 1 to 3) and another for conduct (also A through F without the E); these were promoted as independent variables that could give more insight into the performance of one’s child.  I soon had reason to question the independence of these variables.

What’s The Best Grade You Can Get

Conventional wisdom tells us that the highest grade one can get would now be an A1A.  I’m not here to discuss the merits of bad behavior, so we will focus only on the first two symbols.  To me, it was obvious that an A3 would be more desirable.  Here’s why –

Suppose it’s a leap year and you are betting on track events at the Summer Olympics.  In the first heat, the first place runner comes in with a time of, say, 4:00.00, and at the end is visibly spent (lying on the ground, breathing heavily, and sweating profusely).  Her grade would clearly be an A1.  In the final heat, the winner has the exact same time but isn’t even breathing hard.  I would give her an A3 (keep in mind that it is not uncommon for runners at big events to pace themselves – save some effort if they can afford to, for later heats).  Of course, both runners advance to the finals.  Again, conventional wisdom gives the higher grade to the first runner but tell the truth – which one are you betting your hard-earned money on in the finals?

So you can see what grade I was trying for.  But the truth is teachers don’t give A3 grades, even if you never turn in your homework.  This isn’t a case of political correctness (whereby we fashion our remarks based on the possible objections of imaginary people with hyper thin skins or real fools priding themselves on how easily offended they can be), but another common problem in the political arena whereby people refuse to let facts get in the way of their idea of the way things should work in their perfect (but grossly oversimplified) world.  In their view, the very fact that you got an A proves that you were trying really hard because hard honest work is what made America great.  The problem is once you make that link between those previously independent variables (effort and results), then you are really only working in a one-dimensional world and don’t need two grades to adequately describe it.

Looking From The Other Side

But you may be saying to yourself “Silent, you are the anomaly!  Only the very rare person who can find a task at which they can succeed without unbelievable effort would have the luxury of taking your position on this topic”.  If you really think failure is the norm, then answer this.  Do you really think someone who, for whatever reason, didn’t meet the minimum requirements for success in this class, would prefer an F1 over an F3?  From what I’ve observed, the opposite has usually been the case.  If you give him an F1 you are saying “bless his little heart, he gave it his best shot but is just too stupid to make the grade”.  Giving him an F3 gives him an alibi (or more accurately, reinforces the excuses he’s been giving even without your blessing) that he’s really very, very intelligent, but just didn’t put forth the effort.

There are two ways to cure this problem: we could start treating effort and results as the independent variable they are (which is probably too agonizing a task for most teachers) or just stop giving the effort grade.  I propose the latter.  What do you think?

Not Quite Clear On The Concept – Part 1

Earlier this month, the Catholic archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, decreed that after four years of Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball together, the St. John’s 5th grade team (nine boys and two girls) would not be allowed to play the last two games of the season with girls on the teamA.

First, A Little Math

The maximum of any subset cannot be greater than the set maximum.  This means that if the largest member of your weight-watching group is, say 400 pounds, then as people leave the group, that maximum will not get instantaneously larger; it could remain 400 pounds for a while, but will probably eventually get smaller.

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The average group weight, on the other hand, could go up or down depending on how people are selected for removal from the group, but averages aren’t generally used to measure greatness.

Similarly, in sports you cannot raise the level of competition by restricting participation, meaning that you can’t say your team is the best in the universe if any member of the universe was barred from competing.  Consequently, the only logical reason for restricting membership would be to protect those members from unfair competition, meaning a team would only ban girls if they thought their boys weren’t ready for real competition. As we all know, a group’s stated reasons for an action may differ from their real reasons.

I suspect the archdiocese’s advertised reason for the decree is to protect girls from competition they can no longer handle.  But for that argument to have any credibility at all, at least two new conditions would have to be in effect:

  1. There would actually have to be a girl’s team if you want anybody to believe that their interests are really your first priority.
  2. You would protect a “weaker” group by banning the unfair competition from that group, not banning the allegedly weaker competition from the “stronger” or open group. The later option will rightly cause others to question your motives. “Who are you really protecting?”

The required game forfeitures would be further evidence of their true motive. A team is required to forfeit a game only if they won using an unfair advantage. You would not make a boxer forfeit all the matches he won with one hand tied behind his back. Obviously, the other boy’s teams not only considered the girls a threat, but most likely the sole reason for the team’s success.

A Happy Ending

On hearing the decree, the St. John’s 5th grade team immediately and unanimously decided to stick with their teammates and forfeit the season.

The girls, understandably, felt bad and offered to sacrifice themselvesA.  St. John’s athletic director honorably rejected that offer (although in the body of that article, it suggests that the league director had already cancelled St. John’s season, making the athletic director’s gesture moot.)

A new Cardinal reversed the ban and allows St. John’s to playA.

A Not-So-Happy Ending: Politics Trumps Logic

I just read about a different, but logically related case in TexasA, where a girl was taking testosterone to become a boy and wanted to compete with boys, but was required to compete as a girl and won their state wrestling championship. I’ll leave the application of principle and subsequent comments to the reader.

Simple English: The Problem With The “If” Statement

You are probably very proud of your grasp of English (unless you live in South Florida, in which case you may not give a damn).  And yet I have seen plenty of people whose lack of understanding about basic structures like the “If” statement

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The next article in this series will discuss how misunderstandings about the conjunction “or” have caused so much trouble.
cause them to make terrible assumptions.

An Example

Suppose a young child is misbehaving to the point that the care-giving parent decrees “If you don’t knock that off, I’m going to paddle you” (This is an old example; I’m sure nobody would ever actually do that today 😉 ). As young children have been known to do, for whatever reason, the child continues with its behavior. The parent repeats the statement, with added emphasis. Nothing changes. The parent soon throws their hands up and says “wait until (your other parent) gets home”.

The parent’s first decree, like all “if” statements, had two parts; a condition and a consequence (joined by the conjunction “if”), with the understanding that if the condition is true, then the consequence will occur. It’s simple enough that even a young child can understand it. If the condition is met and the consequence is not accomplished, then the statement would be considered false. In short, the child knew that the parent was lying.

Now suppose the non-care-giving parent comes home, sees the objectionable behavior, makes a similar decree, and then the first parent points out that they had already made that decree to no avail. The child, for whatever reason, stops the objectionable behavior. To everybody’s surprise, the second parent paddles the child. Although the child and many of you listeners may think bad thoughts about this parent, one thing you can’t call him/her is a liar.

The Problem

As you can see here, the problem with the “if” statement is that is incomplete in the sense that it only addresses what happens when the condition is true, remaining completely silent to the possibility that the condition could be false.  This allows most people to make the assumption that if the condition is false, the opposite of the consequence must occur.  As the young child in our example learned, that assumption would be a mistake.

The Solution

Don’t make stupid assumptions.  As your lawyer would tell you, get it in writing.  In the above example, since the second parent didn’t make any promises about what would happen if the behavior did stop, s/he can’t be accused of lying.  If this example bothers you, I’m sure the second parent told the child afterward that the paddling was for not obeying the first parent, in which case we would be unable to judge the truthfulness of their claim until after the right set of conditions are met following some later episode of misbehavior (guesstimating any change in likelihood of that future misbehavior based on recent events  will be left as an exercise for the reader).  To lawyers, mathematicians, and the like, the parent’s explanation doesn’t matter to this case and is unnecessary.

The Blue-spotted Monks Revisited

If you are not aware of the Blue-spotted Monk problem, or haven’t seen my previous post (in which I made an error in logic), please visit The Problem Of Blue-spotted Monks.

Did you ever wonder what would happen if, as a cruel joke, it had been reported to the monks that one of them had the dreaded blue spot disease when in fact nobody was afflicted? (Am I really the only one here with a slight sinister streak?) Since none of the monks saw a spot elsewhere, they would each assume it was them that was infected and the very first day all the monks would have started to gather at the exit station. One of them, as he approached, would notice that none of the others had a blue dot and would start to chuckle to himself, thinking “these clowns can’t even count”. The others, hearing him laugh, would look around for the first time (until then they were so sure of their logical talents that they hadn’t even bothered to check), and by the time he stopped laughing the rest would have disappeared into the forest. Then it would occur to him that maybe he didn’t have a spot either. When word got back to the Guru, the laugher would be expelled for violating the “no communication” rule, but it wouldn’t affect the solution because the other monks only counted the peers that had spots on their forehead and he was never missed.

Plan B (I named this scheme in honor of B, who first put things in perspective for me. If this plan turns out to be flawed, like the last, I take full responsibility.)

When answering nature’s call in the middle of the night a few days after accepting B’s explanation about why the monks had to start at zero, it struck me that since a monk was really only concerned with three possibilities in the number of blue spots anybody has seen, modulo arithmetic might give a way to synchronize everybody’s universe or get everybody on the same page, so to speak. Plan B calls for everyone to start counting not at zero, but at the last multiple of six. For example, the person who saw ten blue dots knows that there are either:

  1. ten afflicted, not including himself, which means there are ten people who see only nine spots.  Everybody else sees ten.
  2. On the other hand, if he is blue-spotted, there are ten others like him who see ten spots and everyone else sees eleven.

Those who see nine spots know that those who see eleven don’t really exist, and those that see eleven know that the nine-seeers don’t exist. The monk that sees ten must consider each of the other two cases, but not both at once.

Under Plan B he would start counting at six, as would the possible people who saw nine, and those potential people who saw eleven. If everyone knew to start at six, the nonexistent people who saw only six spots would be gone before the second day (we’ll discuss them again shortly), and since that won’t happen, the nonexistent people seeing seven spots will leave on Day 2, etc. Our guy knows he can sleep in until Day 4, when the really possible nine-spot sighters would be scheduled to leave. If he saw spots on Day 5, he would turn himself in and everybody else would live happily ever after.

Starting the inductive thinking process, the first six possibilities start counting at zero, just like the old days. We’ll call that their landmark. As the logic countdown continues past the next landmark (which would be six in this scheme), the hard thing for me was knowing who would start using it first, or even if it was possible to make the switch if that person needed to wait for the person ahead of him (who is still using the old landmark) to make his move. I had the hardest time reconciling the notion that you needed to wait for the people ahead of you with the notion that those people don’t exist.  It turns out the solution was easier than I imagined.

In Plan B, if the number of spots you see happens to be six (or any exact multiple thereof), your dilemma is that the possible person who sees five spots started counting at zero, and won’t budge until Day 6. The guy who sees seven spots will start counting at six, and is depending on you to leave now (Day 1) or else he’s lost. Go to the exit point on Day 1. If you are not infected, there will be a very large crowd heading for the exit with no spots on their head while six people with a spot sit comfortably at home. When you spot your peers, you will avoid the crowd and head home knowing that those six afflicted people will all leave on Day 6 as scheduled, and all is right with the world. If you do have the spot, there will be six others with spots heading out that day with you while everyone else waits patiently at home. When those who originally saw seven spots wake the next morning, you will be gone and the problem will be solved.

What Next?

Lately this problem has turned into an on-again-off-again obsession for me. I first saw a different version of the problem when I was much, much younger; I didn’t figure it out for myself but the answer made perfect sense. Just a few weeks ago, I ran across the spotted monk version I discussed in my last post and again, when reading the answer, I was completely satisfied (although I felt for the commenters who couldn’t accept that it would take 100 days for 100 blue-spotted monks to turn themselves in). Days later, while on a walk contemplating even more difficult (but unrelated) relationship issues, an answer just came to me out of the blue, which is the answer I last posted. It was flawed, and when B. gave his “parallel universe” explanation for why we needed to start at zero, I thought it made even more sense than the conventional answer did, and I was again happy.  Several days after that, the modular arithmetic idea just came to me (as discussed). Then it was only my day job and other commitments that slowed me from working toward this solution. But we are not actually finished yet.

Calling All Logicians

All I’ve done so far (if I got it right this time) is to show that starting at zero is not strictly necessary.  Plan B is not the only possible plan, however.  In fact, I doubt it is the best or fastest plan (I suspect that using a smaller modulus might be helpful).  For the monks to abandon zero as their global landmark there would have to be an understanding that there was a single, logically optimal plan to replace it.  Based on my difficulties wrapping my mind around the issues so far, I don’t feel I qualify for the “perfect logicians” requirementA of this monastery.  It’s just as well; as an aging curmudgeon, that vow of silence probably wouldn’t have worked for me for very much longer anyway.  I’m hoping that the real experts will take it from here and God will finally allow me to let go of this problem.  If you do see a flaw in this scheme (a check of the references will show it would not be my first mistake on this problem), let me know. I may not be able to fix it, but in keeping with journalistic standards, I am willing to admit and advertise the error. Thank you.

Flawed Logic: The Problem Of Blue-spotted Monks

I recently ran across the Problem of the Blue-spotted Monks again at https://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/2011/04/04/answer-to-the-friday-puzzle-98/.  Actually, this is a slight variation of the well-known Blue-Eyed Monk problem that can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_knowledge_%28logic%29, among other places. One site even called this problem “The Hardest Logic Puzzle in the World”A, but that was probably just a case of self-promotion. For today’s discussion, I chose the first version of the problem because it is simpler (we don’t have to worry about the case in which one person has red eyes). If you haven’t done so, go ahead and read the problem. We will discuss the solution in the next section.

Start With Induction

The classic answer uses mathematical inductionD to first consider the (trivial) case in which only one monk has the disease. Then they move on to the case of two monks. Their error begins in the case of three infected monks, assuming that the monks were required to start back at one in making their individual analysis.  That is wrong; in the comments section of some of the references, several people take issue with this assumption.  I believe this to be a misapplication of the induction process.  The monks have only to consider two possibilities; either they are infected or they are not. For the sake of argument, let’s say there are ten infected monks. Most of the monks will see ten fellow monks with blue spots. Ten of the monks will see nine monks with blue spots. None of the monks will see only one monk with blue spots, or just two monks with blue spots, etcetera. Those monks seeing ten spotted monks have only two possibilities – either there are ten infected monks or there are eleven. Those monks seeing nine spots need only consider the possibility that there are either nine or ten monks infected. Most of the monks, in considering their first possibility (that there are only ten infections) realize that those ten, in considering the possibility that there are only nine infections, must allow for the possibility that there are nine monks who see only eight infected monks. With the information available, nobody sees any reason to consider any other lesser possibility. Just like in the conventional solution, each monk, having two possibilities, must allow the lesser possibility (which means they are not infected) to resolve itself first before concluding that they are infected and turn themselves in. All of the monks know that the least number of infections that any of them must consider is eight, not one. The first day nothing would happen. The second day, the monks that saw only nine other spotted monks will conclude that the possibility of anyone sighting eight spotted monks was groundless, so they will all turn themselves in. The third day, those who saw ten spotted monks will all breathe a sigh of relief.

Considering The Second Possibility

Now we need to look at the big picture.  This isn’t rocket science.  Why hasn’t anybody seen the error in conventional wisdom before today?  I, like the monks, must consider the possibility that I am the one infected.  If nobody else comes forward with a confirmation of the correct answer soon, I guess I’ll be forced to turn myself in.  Please hurry.

How America’s Cup Committee Stole Victory From Kiwis

The America’s Cup, a yacht race between a single defender and a single challenger and first run in 1851 by the Royal Yacht Squadron in England for a race around the Isle of Wight, is known as the oldest international sporting trophyA. The referenced Wikipedia article provides an excellent history of the contest, and notes that the Americans held the cup continuously from the first race until 1983, the longest winning streak in the history of sport. The cup was last contested in San Francisco in 2013, but this wasn’t your father’s America’s Cup. The vessels were now 72-foot catamarans (boats with two hulls) costing well over ten million dollars each with rigid “sails” and foils (short underwater wings) that lifted the entire hull out of the water. Their top speed was over 50 miles an hour, or about twice the wind speed. The whole race was held within sight of spectators ashore and instead of taking all day, as was customary, was required to be finished in less than forty minutes to fit snugly between commercials in a one-hour television format. The series also turned out to have one of the greatest comebacks in sports. Stu Woo of the Wall Street journal did an outstanding job of explaining that competitionA. Stu failed to mention a minor change in the rules that bought the American team just enough time to complete the changes necessary to turn things around.

The 2013 America’s Cup was originally billed as a best-of-seventeen seriesA. A Best-of-T series (where T represents the total number of games to be played and is always an odd number) is widely used in sports championships, although before September 2013 I had never heard of T being larger than seven. In English (for those of you who are not sports fans) it means that the two teams will compete exactly T times (for which we will use seventeen in the rest of our examples) and then count up the points to see who won. One team can declare themselves the winner and send everybody home early if they can accumulate more of a lead than the other team can overcome in the remainder of the seventeen games. In a simple world, meaning a world without ties (in those sports that allow them) or penalty points, that would be nine wins in a best-of-seventeen series (round up(17 ÷ 2)).  Yacht racing, as the references in the first paragraph suggested, is not a simple world.  Before the series started the American team was penalized two points for cheating in an earlier round of competition, meaning that their first two wins wouldn’t really count (except to keep points away from their competitor). And although the calendar continued to list seventeen races (with the caveat “if needed” as appropriate) well into the competitionD, all of the experts were still saying that it would take nine wins for the Kiwis to take home the trophy.  The truth is that after the seventeenth race had been sailed, if New Zealand had only eight wins, then the Americans would have won nine races (17 – 8 = 9), but would only have had seven points (9 – 2 = 7), meaning that New Zealand would have still taken home the trophy.  That is what a best-of-seventeen series really means. And, as you can see near the bottom of the Final Scorecard at the end of Stu Woo’s Wall Street Journal article, that is exactly what happened.  But just before New Zealand earned their eighth victory in Race 11, the race committee declared that because the American team’s penalty shouldn’t affect New Zealand, they would still need nine wins to take home the trophy.  Shortly thereafter Races 18 & 19 were added to the schedule. As we now know, thanks to a brilliant turn-around by the American sailors, New Zealand never got that ninth win; the American’s got that point in the nineteenth and final race. Competition doesn’t get any better than that. Had the Kiwis been able to count up to seventeen or had their English been good enough to understand the meaning of “best of seventeen races”, the ending of this story may have been completely different.

The Art Of Communication

I like the definition of communication given by www.businessdictionary.com that talks about a process of reaching mutual understanding, where participants not only exchange information but also create and share meaning. This is a process that obviously takes more than one person. That point was apparently lost on me as a child.  At that time, there were quite a few of my fellow (North) Americans that spoke Spanish in Southern California, and yet when it came time to choose a language to study in school, as required, and having a choice of Spanish, French, German, and possibly Italian and Japanese, I picked German because I wanted to be different.  I studied the language for six years and like to think I was decent at it, but then again, there were no Germans (to speak of) around to contradict me.  Many years have gone by and I can still count past twelve, but some might argue that I didn’t get the most bang for my educational buck.  Now I am surrounded by people in Southern Florida, some who have been visiting for over fifty years, who still have trouble with English and don’t understand why everybody here doesn’t just speak Spanish.  But I am not the only one who has struggled with the concept.

Several weeks ago I saw a gentleman walking down the street wearing a T-shirt with the following sign: i 8 Sum Pi

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To translate, the first symbol is the square root of negative one, which technically doesn’t exist, but is more commonly represented by the small letter “i” as the basis for all imaginary numbers.  The second expression, two to the third power (2x2x2), reduces to eight.  The third, the capital Greek letter Sigma, is seldom seen alone because it represents the sum of the sequence that follows.  The last symbol is the small Greek letter Pi, which has come to be known as the most famous irrational (meaning it never ends and never repeats) constant – representing, among other things, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.
The common name of each of these symbols resembles an unrelated English word, so the expression can be pronounced “I ate some pie”.   But what was the wearer really trying to say?  Mathematically, the expression is meaningless, so its sole purpose seems to be to announce to a select audience what was on his lunch menu.  Maybe the fewer the people who knew that he went off of his diet, the better, so this may be an attempt at a confession without guilt.  While that seemed harmless enough, it reminded me of another obscure message I had seen before.

While driving down the road ages ago, a Jeep passed me that had the following array of small international maritime signal flags displayed on its back window:International maritime signal flags Each of these flags, which are used by navies and merchant marines around the world, has a name taken from the phonetic alphabet.  Along the top row is Foxtrot, Uniform, Charlie, and Kilo.  On the second row sits Yankee, Oscar, and Uniform again.  Individually, each flag has a meaning (for example, Oscar means someone has fallen overboard), or in small groups they could represent short code words.  Sometimes they just represent the letter at the beginning of their name.

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If you want to try to impress your friends at parties, I just found out the term for that (the naming of letters in an alphabet so that the name begins with that letter) is called acrophonyD.
Although I thought the Jeep owner’s words were clear enough, I wasn’t quite sure about his/her message.  Was this message for general audiences, in which case the owner is an ineffective coward, but was probably getting a chuckle imagining himself (or herself) smarter than every other person on the road and able to insult them with impunity. Or did s/he have some problem specifically with sailors? Maybe that’s what s/he wanted to be when they grew up, but either got seasick too easily or didn’t work well with others in confined spaces, and so was taking their frustrations at his/her own inadequacies out on the very group they wanted to be part of.  Who knows?  I followed the car into a parking lot and after s/he went inside I carved the phrase “Roger, out!”D into their back tire, which went flat when I applied the punctuation.

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Although based on a true story, the ending of the last paragraph was changed to better illustrate the range of possible consequences one should expect for one’s actions.  The truth is that when s/he turned into the parking lot, I just kept driving.  I decided they couldn’t possibly have been talking to me.  (Luke 23:34D comes to mind.)

In radio communications, “Roger” simply means the message was received and understoodD. It does not mean agreement. “Out”, as I’ve mentioned beforeA, means “and this conversation is finished.”.

The Real Reason Teachers Are So Important

When it comes to making mistakes, there are a lot of occupations that envy doctors.  Although the quote by architect Frank Lloyd Wright may well be the most famous,

“The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.”

it wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last.

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Professions Wishing They Could Bury Their Mistakes

The oldest comparison I found was from farmers

“The farmer cannot bury his mistakes out of sight like the doctor; they remain above ground where they are seen and known by all men.”

but then there were journalists (who also envy lawyers)

“Doctors bury their mistakes. Lawyers jail theirs. But journalists publish theirs for all the world to see.”

and engineers

“Doctors bury their mistakes, but mistakes bury an engineer”

– June 1, 2009, Ferd Leimkuhler. An Enduring Quest: The Story of Purdue Industrial Engineers

and even preachers?

“Doctors can bury their mistakes. Lawyers’ mistakes get shut up in prison—literally. Dentists’ mistakes are pulled. Plumbers’ mistakes are stopped. Carpenters turn theirs into sawdust.”

– October 11, 1998, Charles R. Swindoll. The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart

Not surprisingly, I found nobody who envied teachers. Somebody (perhaps a teacher, but more likely a disgruntled voter) quipped

“doctors can bury their mistakes. Lawyers can imprison theirs. Architects plant ivy around theirs. Teachers send theirs into politics.”

– October, 2009, Dristarg

I want to explain why that may not be so funny.

Falling Into A Negative Spiral

During my first stint as a teacher in the 1980s, I developed a few theories, one of which was the possible consequences of an inadequate educational system.  It seemed to me at the time that if we failed to teach important problem solving and critical thinking skills, the student would still go on to graduate, find a job, maybe even get married and have kids, all the while having no appreciation for the skills s/he missed, and therefore unable to pass that appreciation on to their heirs.  Equally important, these voters would inevitably make bad choices on election day which, as their numbers continued to grow, would eventually result in the election of a political candidate completely unfit for their position.

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Maybe someday we will discuss what one should be looking for when choosing a politician.
Should these politicians ever reach critical massD, they could then pass laws or make other decisions (like funding) adversely affecting the educational system.  This would complete what engineers call a feedback loop, where the outcome of a process affects the input, in this case accelerating the negative changes.

“The Proof Is In The Pudding”?

Who would have thought I was such a prophet?  I recently stumbled upon an article about “The 10 Dumbest States in America”.

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but if you Google “smartest states” you will see a number of similar articles based on different criteria. Although the results will change slightly, the trends will remain about the same.
Being naturally curious, I compared this list to a list of red and blue states I found on Wikipedia. As you can see below, the results speak for themselves.
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Or do they? On page 35 of the latest Republican platform under “Attaining Academic Excellence for All” it states

“Republican Governors have led the effort to reform our country’s underperforming education system”.

Based on the map, I would have to disagree.

Smartest & Dumbest States - Which Are Red, Which Are Blue?
The top ten and the bottom ten on a list of smartest states on a map of red states and blue states.

To be fair, one comparison of lists of states does not prove anything. There is more than one way to define “smart”, but I think all the conventional definitions will give similar results. Even in defining “Red States…”, Wikipedia had three different maps, but although the second one gave a better indication of the degree of redness, unless you are planning to study this in much greater detail I’m not sure that really matters. I made this map for illustration purposes only.

But Do We Have ‘Cause & Effect’?

One very important question about my theory (like any other theory) would be that of cause and effect.  When talking about downward spirals, the related question of “which came first” is no longer meaningful.  But to have a feedback loop, the cause and effect issue must work both ways.

Do Republicans Hurt Education?

First, would education suffer in a Republican-controlled state?  Their stated goals of a much smaller government, their rejection of science, and even a blatant disregard of factsA suggest so.  The above map suggests so.  If you have any evidence to the contrary, now would be a good time to present it.

Do The Uneducated Vote Republican?

Second, does stupidity lead one to vote Republican?  If true, it would give the Republicans sinister ulterior motives for their cost cutting policies in the departments of education.  It also gives them a huge conflict of interest.

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Unfortunately, unlike judges, politicians don’t have to recuse themselves in those instances.
 And since the rich are predominantly RepublicanA, it could also help explain their interest in school vouchers and such (if they were deliberately underfunding education in an effort to dumb down America and maintain control, they would want an escape hatch for their own kids and they would have the chutzpah to expect the government to reimburse them for it).

This question is, nonetheless, a hard one.  Even rocket scientists prefer simple solutions.

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The principle, now known as “Occam’s razor” after William of Ockham, a fourteenth century English Franciscan friar and philosopher, actually goes back before the Greek philosopher and teacher, Aristotle, who said “The more limited, if adequate, is always preferable”. Although that suffers in translation, it means that if there are two or more solutions to the same problem, choose the simplest.
 When faced with a tough question like “Which candidate would do a better job of finding real solutions to important problems and working to get those solutions implemented”, someone without the necessary critical thinking skills may not be able to resist an appealingly simple,  but flawed solution.  Conversely, the same person might reject a more complicated solution s/he doesn’t understand, even if the conditions warrant such complexity.  You could say I’m just guessing, however, since I have no studies supporting this notion.   Any evidence either for or against this theory would be appreciated.   At the very least, it seems likely to me that a poor education would make identifying the correct candidate more difficult, making the decision more random, which would increase the chances of an error, but could benefit either party.  It could foreseeably cut the margin of victory of what should be a clear winner (in those cases where such a thing exists) to the point where other nefarious forces could use financial influence to carry the day in situations that would ordinarily be cost prohibitive.

I should point out that even if stupidity does lead one to vote Republican, that doesn’t mean the converse of that statement, that all Republican voters are stupid, is also true.  If you are a “smart” Republican you already knew that, but are probably relying on the gullible to advance your agenda (an agenda for which they receive no benefit).

So Now What?

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to get us out of an educational death spiral. Even worse than alcohol’s ability to impair one’s judgement to the extent that one is more and more unlikely to know when it is time to quit, an uneducated person begins life already impaired; it is the “village”‘sA responsibility to lead (or drag) each of us toward competence (sort of like the first time you pushed your son or daughter’s bicycle until they had enough velocity to maintain balance (and maybe the second time, and the third…).  Obviously, we are not doing our job. Maybe it is a motivation issue.  Are the thrills and advantages of being able to handle life’s problems not clear enough?

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As a teacher, I’ve actually had some cases of the parents not wanting to make an investment in the future of one of their heirs with real potential.  One of these parents was an itinerant farm worker.  Their “reasoning” was (and I’m paraphrasing here) that if ignorance was good enough for the parents, it should be good enough for their kids.
Do we need to hire a slick ad agency to convince everybody that life would not seem so hopeless (and we wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on conspiracy theories) if we actually had the ability to get out of harm’s way? One might argue that coddling our children by downplaying their inadequacies and downplaying the advantages of competence so as not to hurt their feelings, socially promoting them to the next level regardless of effort, etc, may have the serious unintended consequence of reducing their motivation. While I’m inclined to let experts debate these issues, I am convinced that as you shrink one’s universe by throwing out more and more of the inconvenient truths, and as one’s grip on reality becomes less and less firm as a result of that policy, the consequences ultimately become more and more dire.  Maybe you need to grow up so that your kids can grow up.  And then insist that your community invests more heavily in education (and by “education”, we need the broadest, not the narrowest definition).  I’m reminded about that old bumper sticker that said “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”; I don’t have such a bumper sticker because too many people are already eagerly accepting that offer.  Education, however, is not an investment opportunity that we can afford to miss.

If you know the solution to this problem, let me know. Or better yet, send me a copy of the correspondence to your congressperson explaining the path we need to take.  And thank you for listening.

To Protect And To Serve – You Can Be Too Smart To Be A Cop, And It’s Beginning To Show

Although this case occurred around the turn of the millennium, I just found out about the Appeals Court in New York who upheld a lower court’s decision that barring intelligent people from the police force is perfectly acceptable.  According to the courts, “the city did not discriminate against Robert Jordan because the same standards were applied to everyone who took the testA1.”  The judge may have thought to himself “Hey, I’ve been functioning as an effective judge in New York for many years and nobody has ever noticed that I’m as dumb as snot.  If I can do it, any police officer can do it.”  I would have thought his decision in this case would in itself have proven him wrong.  Following his logic, it would also be perfectly reasonable to exclude blacks or women from the force as long as you checked the racial and/or sexual identity of every applicant (apparently, it’s only if you forget to ask that you can get in trouble here).  Contrary to what the judge seems to believe, the definition of discriminationD says

. . . making a distinction . . . against . . . a person . . . based on the group . . . to which that person . . . belongs rather than on individual merit.

In this case the group would be “intelligent people”. It stands to reason that to effectively discriminate, one has to be able to tell whether the applicant belongs to said group, which implies that all applicants would be measured by some uniform standard. Not only IS this discrimination, but it’s a very bad idea. Two recent news items should make this clear.

Police Officers Should Be Smarter Than Criminals

The first article is about a prison debate team defeating an elite team from HarvardA.  

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“But what does an article about the Harvard debate team have to say about the intelligence of the police force?”  Well, in the first article referenced above (A1), it said that the average police test score was around 21, which is barely above average intelligence.  I’m guessing that the student body of most colleges would score higher than that, even at Harvard (although based on the last article, I can see why you might want to question that assumption).  The transitive property in mathematics says that if the inmates are smarter than Harvard students and if the students are much smarter than average, then they are smarter than most police, and the inmates must be smarter than the police.  Don’t fret!  If this math word problem was too tough for you, you might still find success in the New London, Connecticut police department.
Even though I spoiled the ending of the inmate debate story for you the article is worth reading, with some interesting statistics about the relationship between education and recidivismD (repeated or habitual relapse).  At first I found that part of the article encouraging, but in light of this discussion one has to wonder “Does an education make a person less likely to (re)turn to a life of crime or, now being smarter than the police, are these people just less likely to be caught again.”  There are a number of articles like the one from NBC NewsA that say fewer and fewer cases are getting solved.

Police Should Be Smart Enough To Know Who Is The Bad Guy

Another concern is the behavior of the police, themselves.  This court decision would seem to explain a lot of police behavior in the last few years.  I’ve been scratching my head ever since the Trayvon Martin case was decided in Florida (OK, so that was only a police wannabee), but have been unable to comment on every ridiculous case that has made the news of late.  I will take a little time to address the most recent case to come to my attention – that of the teenage WHITE boy who was killed by a police officer for flashing his high-beam headlights at him one nightA.  This whole incident was a simple misunderstanding that any police officer with half of a brain would have resolved peacefully. The boy’s high crime against the state was in believing that the police held themselves to a higher standard than your everyday thug.  He couldn’t imagine that a genuine police officer would take offense to a simple act of courtesy. That was a fatal mistake.  At time 1:03 on the tape, he questions if this is a real police officer. This is not a trivial concern. Go ahead and Google something about being stopped by fake police; there are lots of horror stories and several articles explaining what to do should that happen to you. This officer should know about these rules and be aware of the driver’s concerns, yet he did nothing during the entire encounter to distinguish himself from a fake cop or a common criminal. He is clearly not here to listen and work with his constituents – it seems that he is only on the force to get his thrills by bending everybody he meets to his own will and to feed his bloated ego. That’s how it looks to me. If you are stopped by a possibly fake cop, WikiHowA (and others) say to ask for identification. See how well that went at time 1:26. At any point in the video you could ask yourself “What would a fake cop do right now” and compare that to the actions of this police officer. At the same time, point to any action made by the boy in the first five and a half minutes that suggests he was a danger to anyone. By the time he was tased, he had good reason to fear for his life. And even in those last ten seconds of desperation and utter terror, for the officer to think that the unarmed kid on the way home from church had transformed into a genuine killer, or for the prosecutor to say that the officer had no choice but to murder this boy is outrageous.  The kid didn’t suddenly turn into a homicidal maniac.  He thought he was doomed and was just trying to do whatever it took to stop the torture and get away to live another day.  This officer wasn’t about to let that happen.  I could argue that the boy’s actions in the end were entirely predictable.  If so, and if the officer were taking deliberate action to promote the inevitable as it appears in the tape, then it would be entirely reasonable to charge that officer with first degree murder.  If the prosecutor cannot think of at least a dozen more reasonable ways that the officer could have handled this situation, he should be fired. By closing his eyes to justice he is part of the problem, not the solution because by so doing he is destroying his and the department’s credibility and the people’s trust in the whole establishment. They are not protecting and they are not serving. Neither one of them deserves to be paid with your hard-earned tax dollars.

This is just one example of what could and will happen when the intelligence of your police force is not a priority, and when discrimination (of any kind) is allowed to occur.  But if I were actually smart, and if I thought I could make a real contribution to society by following a career in law enforcement, I would not let the decision of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in this case dissuade me from that goal.  I like to believe that the only reason this decision hasn’t been overturned is because the original plaintiff lost hope in the system and moved on.  Even after the Hobby Lobby decisionC, I retained enough faith to believe that “common sense” would eventually prevail – certainly by the time this case got to the Supreme Court.

How Long Have I Been A Skeptic?

I have no idea when all of this started, but this may shed some light on the issue.  It is the earliest memory I have of me questioning conventional wisdom.

The Story Of The North Wind And The Sun

I was in elementary school in southern California – I don’t remember what grade – when we had an assignment to read this short story.  It’s one of Aesop’s Fables.  If you missed it, or can’t remember that far back either, you can find it at www.storyarts.org, among other places.  As the story was explained to me, it was supposed to illustrate the superiority of persuasion over force or, at the very least, that the sun is stronger than the wind.  However, that’s not the way I saw it then.  And now that I’ve had years to develop my experience and wisdom, that’s not how I see it today.  Even back then it  was clear to me that both the sun and  the wind had their individual strengths and weaknesses.  The north wind, although not feared in the same way as his cousins, the tornado or the hurricane (a.k.a. cyclone, a.k.a. typhoon), is no slouch and has sunk ships, caused massive amounts of damage ashore, and taken lives.  The sun may seem benign, even benevolent to those living north of the 40th parallel, but large swaths of land have suffered due to his excesses, and in fact he can only be tolerated at distances greater than around ninety-three million (93,000,000) miles.  At the time I read this story, I was not aware of all of these statistics or the full power of either of the contestants, but even then “I wasn’t born yesterday”.  We didn’t get snow in southern California, but it can get windy enough to appreciate the north wind’s power.  And then there was that story about the three little pigsA, which showed the destructive force of wind (caused in this case by a lone wolf).  On the other hand, in the summer the sun was so strong that people used to say they could fry an egg on the sidewalk.  By the way, nobody in southern California ever claimed to be using the power of persuasion when they are trying to fry eggs.

It was clear to me back then that the sun was obviously smarter than the north wind, and designed the rules of this friendly little contest to take best advantage of his own talents.  The goal was to get the man to take off his coat.  Had the contest been to get the man to put ON his coat, most of us can see that the sun wouldn’t have had a chance.  The first lesson for the north wind might be to be wary of letting your opponent make the rules.

Secondly, it is crucial to be aware of your own limitations.  For the north wind to think that a strong, cold breeze could force somebody to part with their coat is delusional.  One can never improve if they don’t even know where they are deficient.  And even if it is not possible to correct a particular flaw, as long as you are aware of it, there may be a way to compensate.  Odysseus was an excellent example of this in his dealing with the sirens (scroll down to the eleventh section of “The legendary story of Odysseus”).  By taking the advice of a women (Circe) and making allowances for his weaknesses, Odysseus was the first person to listen to the Siren’s great song and live to tell about it.

The final lesson to be learned from this story was that a good public relations team is worth its weight in gold. The way they put that spin on the sun’s use of force was masterful. Unfortunately, this is a lesson I’ve had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around, to my own peril. Even today I don’t put enough effort into public relations, continuing to hold on to the naive belief that if you work hard, your efforts will automatically be noticed and you will be rewarded – even though experience has disproved this theory time and time again.  Seemingly, some people never learn. Being able to learn from your own mistakes is crucial.  If you could learn from the mistakes of others, you would be well ahead in the game.