It’s Open Season on Humans in Florida

I admit it:  I am personally disgusted with George Zimmerman.  I am even more disgusted with the State of Florida for not convicting him of a crime.  Like most Americans, I will always maintain that he committed a crime.

However, this post isn’t about the fact that George Zimmerman profiled Trayvon Martin based on the color of his skin and his physical appearance, clothing, and location.  This post isn’t about the fact that there are 911 recordings of George Zimmerman referring to the other people he profiled and called police about (regularly) as “these fucking punks” and saying “these assholes, they always get away.”  This post isn’t about the fact that Zimmerman broke a cardinal rule of Neighborhood Watch programs by following Trayvon Martin around, armed, vice simply observing and reporting his activities (a fact not in dispute by anyone).  This post isn’t about the fact that Zimmerman continued to follow Trayvon Martin after the 911 dispatcher told him not to do so (a fact that he does not contest).   This post isn’t about the fact that Zimmerman’s account of how he grabbed his gun from his holster at his waist as Martin straddled him is physically impossible.  And, this post isn’t about the fact that Zimmerman ultimately killed an unarmed teenager, who was walking back to his father’s home after buying a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea at the local convenience store.

No.  This post is about the fact that Zimmerman got away with it.

Let’s be clear about one thing.  The purpose of a neighborhood watch is this:

Neighborhood watch (sign)

“We immediately REPORT all suspicious activities to our POLICE DEPARTMENT”

Not this:

Not the neighborhood watch (image credit: TacticalFanBoy.com)

‘these fucking punks’, ‘these assholes, they always get away’… NOT THIS TIME

The really disturbing thing in this case isn’t George Zimmerman’s misplaced vigilantism.  It’s the fact that George Zimmerman did not go away for a long time to a Florida prison for his misplaced vigilantism.

Now, here’s the part you might see as weird:  I completely agree with laws that afford a broad right of self defense.  In particular, I agree that people have a fundamental right to defend themselves from attack whenever and wherever they reasonably believe that their lives are in danger.  I think that Florida law is correct in this specific regard.  I further agree that a fundamental right of self defense extends to your immediate family and others in your physical presence, even if they are complete strangers.  It doesn’t particularly matter if a burglar threatens your life in your own home, or a stranger goes on a shooting rampage at the local mall.  In cases where innocent people’s lives are threatened in your immediate proximity, and you have the means and capability to respond with deadly force, I think you should be able to do so without fear of prosecution for defending yourself.

In Florida’s judgment, that’s what Zimmerman did.  He defended himself.

In reality, that’s not at all what he did, and we all know it.  Martin defended himself.

The question, then, is this:  How do we bridge that gap?  How do we craft laws that allow and afford a broad right to self defense (as broad as Florida law now affords, arguably) but does not allow this scenario:

  • Hunter follows human prey around in search of justice, revenge, whatever
  • Human prey tells hunter to stop following him around
  • Hunter keeps gun in holster and tries to provoke a confrontation
  • Physical violence ensues (it does not matter how)
  • Hunter kills innocent prey because “he was defending himself”

In other words:  How do we stop another George Zimmerman from literally hunting down and killing another Trayvon Martin?

Because that’s what he did…  And we must not allow that to happen under the law.

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Five Ideas for Education Reform

The topic of education reform seems to be highly politicized.

I know what you’re thinking:  If you’re a Republican, you’re probably screaming about vouchers and standardized testing in your head, right now.  If you’re a Democrat, you’re probably screaming about, well, vouchers and standardized testing in your head, right now…  And regardless of political stripe, you’re probably either a) screaming about No Child Left Behind or b) wishing you had some kind of informed opinion on No Child Left Behind (but pretending that you do have an informed opinion on No Child Left Behindright now.

Rather than take a political position — which seems, frankly, like a worthless exercise — I thought I’d put out the five best ideas I have come across, concerning how we might change our educational system, and see what people think.  Up front:  I am not an expert in this field.  I’m just a guy who went to public school and put three kids through public schools.  Also, these ideas are focused on public education and on the United States.

As an additional disclaimer, these are not my original ideas.  I first heard most of these ideas here (and thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can, too!).  The rest of this is what I’ve supplemented or modified slightly in my own consideration of other people’s brilliant suggestions.

1. No more cohorts (established groups of students based mostly on age)
In our current education system, cohorts (groups of students) are fixed.  They vary based on the age of the student.  At five years’ old, you enter Kindergarten; at six, you enter First Grade, and so on through 12th grade (all of primary and secondary education).  You finish secondary education at the same time as everyone else — or, with any significant variation (more than a year), often not at all.  You are supposed to progress from one grade to the next in the same order, in the same time frame, as everyone else in your age group.  To go faster or slower than other people your own age is an exception.  Everyone studies the same things, with few variations (some advanced classes and some remedial classes exist, but broadly, everyone takes the same classes).

Instead, what if what was fixed was mastery of subjects, and a core group of basic subjects, and what was variable was how long it takes to learn and demonstrate mastery of those subjects, and which other subjects each student studies at any given time?  What if there was no “cohort” — no group — just people studying different topics?  Primary and secondary education would begin to resemble a community college, where widely different people might be studying the same topic at the same time, and where people have different focuses of study, and focus on them for different amounts of time.  Divergences would become more wide as students progressed through the education system (early-on, most students would study the same basic topics; later, students would vary widely in which topics they study and how much time is spent studying each topic, and what degree of mastery is sought beyond a basic level in each core subject).

The way it works now:  Students study the same things at the same ages, for the same amounts of time, in the same ways.  Minimal variation occurs among students of the same age group.  You are finished studying a subject when everyone else in your cohort is finished studying the subject.  You move to the next grade level when everyone else in your cohort moves to the next grade level.

The way this might work:  Students study the same core topics to a basic level of mastery.  Students then a) further study these basic topics to a higher level of mastery, and b) study other topics, according to their own preferences and natural inclinations.  More variation occurs as the student population gets older.  You are finished studying a subject when you can demonstrate mastery of that subject.  There are no grade levels, but you need a certain number of credits overall, with certain minimum credits in basic topics, in order to graduate from secondary (high) school.

My wife brought up (and she’s right — as usual — damnit) that there would be both natural competitiveness among students, and a natural stigma as older students spent more time on subjects that younger students had already mastered.  True.  However, there is simply no good time to stop doing something that doesn’t make sense.  In my mind, grouping students by age alone is arbitrary, and teaching every student in the same way and for the same amount of time as every other student is also wrong.  I think the stigma associated, for example, with older students dwelling on topics that take longer for some people to master (say, Trigonometry) would be countered by two factors over time — first, the more students study topics longer, the less stigma is associated with that, and second, in a system like this, there would naturally be very little homogeneity among  a student population as it gets older (further mitigating any stigma associated with older students studying the same subjects as younger students).

2. Student-driven and market-driven focus areas in secondary education
The American education system was set up during the 1800s for the express purpose of preparing children for a college or university education.  Students in America, and I would imagine elsewhere, are under pressure to keep their grades up, to take the right classes, to participate in certain kinds of extracurricular activities, to do well on standardized tests, and so on, because the primary and secondary education experience is essentially one long dress rehearsal for college.  Guidance counselors try to prepare every student to go to college.  Kids are encouraged to pick out a major and pick out the schools where they want to go even before they enter high school.  Kids stress over all of this, even if they profess not to do so, because the expectation placed on them is that they will go to college, and on to a profession requiring that college education.  We are teaching our kids that this is the only way to succeed, even as the costs of a college education spiral out of control.

At the same time, there is a significant imbalance in the job market in the United States.  At the same time we’re producing a record number of college graduates who can’t find work, we lack people who are qualified to work in all sorts of skilled trades and technical fields.  Everyone wants their kid to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or an engineer, but many kids simply aren’t suited to work in these professions.  There are a lot of kids in the world who toil away preparing for a profession to which they are entirely unsuited; at the same time, the job that truly does interest them, and the job that they would do best, is a job that sits vacant because there aren’t enough people who can do that job.

There’s no good reason why we can’t teach kids a wide variety of subjects while also preparing them to enter a skilled trade.  Take a look at this article from Forbes, which outlines the shortage and where it exists.  The same article focuses on the fact that people who can work in skilled trades are aging and are not being replaced.  It is not an accident that the middle class shrinks, as we prepare a large number of children to do a shrinking number of white-collar jobs, as a shrinking number of children prepare to work in skilled trade, blue-collar professions.

The answer would seem to be to a) identify which skilled trades are in short supply by location, and b) give students in secondary education an option to pursue advanced training to enter a skilled trade during high school.  Demand for skilled trade workers should drive the opportunities available to secondary students.  Most importantly, we need to change our own thinking — it is not only acceptable, but preferable, that not everyone should go to college and earn a Bachelor’s degree and work in an office or a cubicle.  Many kids would be both much happier, and much wealthier, working on cars, building office complexes, and installing or fixing electrical systems.  At the same time, these trades teach students practical skills and academic subjects.  [Editor’s note:  I learned a surprising amount of math while studying electronics.]

There are steps beyond education reform that are needed to fix this problem.  For example, there is not a healthy guild or trade craft system in the United States.  Without some kind of real apprenticeship system (where people can progress in skilled trades from apprentice, to journeyman, to master), the critical aspect of on-the-job and continuous learning is still a giant gap.

3. Classroom-flipping
The traditional approach to learning anything in before you get to college is similar to the traditional approach to learning anything in a college or university setting (again, because our education system seems to have been built to prepare students for that experience).  Generally, you read part of a book; you sit down in class; you receive a lecture (perhaps with some discussion); you get homework; you go home; you do the homework at home; your homework is handed in and graded; and, the process repeats.

The process itself isn’t bad.  Introduce student to topic.  Become familiar with topic.  Try to practically apply that topic.  See how well you applied that topic.  Move on to the next topic.  The thing that could stand improvement is where and how each step is accomplished.  Traditionally — lectures and discussion are live, instructor-led, and happen at school.  Homework is done on one’s own time and in one’s own home.  Classroom flipping is about turning that around.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology (see what I did there?), the lecture, and even some of the back-and-forth that might occur during a classroom lecture, can happen when the student is not with the teacher.  The lecture portion might be as simple as a recorded video on YouTube, or as complex as a computer-based training simulation module.  In a flipped classroom, the student does this part on his or her own.  The “homework” is to accomplish the portion of learning that would have traditionally come from the lecture.  The next day, in class, with the instructor, the student tries to apply what he or she learned through some practical exercise.  That exercise is completed with one-on-one instructor support. as much as possible.  If something wasn’t clear in the recorded lecture or computer-based lesson, the live session affords the opportunity to clear that up.  If the student needs help, the instructor is right there.  Feedback is immediate or nearly-immediate.  Exercises can be done as a group or individually.  Students help and support other students and this reinforces their own knowledge of the topic.  And then, the students move on to the next topic.

This is a model that requires student participation.  But then — so is the traditional model of instruction.  So is anything.

The disadvantage, or difficulty, comes in the fact that not all students have access to the same technology as other students.  This model doesn’t work unless all students can access and use the “flipped” material from home (or at least not during class time).  So, just like #2, this model would necessitate changes outside of the education system (strictly speaking) in order to work effectively.  With that said, the inherent cost of the required technology, as compared to the inherent cost of a more traditional textbook approach, is not all that dissimilar — and some would say, is actually much cheaper.

4. Physical education
When I was a kid, recess was something that happened every day, multiple times per day.  We were expected to get up, go outside, and play.  We did this in the morning, during lunch, and in the afternoon.  We were often tired when we came back into class from lunch or recess.  We played kickball.  We played dodgeball.  We played four-square.  We raced from one arbitrary object to another arbitrary object just to see who would get to the second arbitrary object the fastest.  And we also had PE.  By “also” I mean “in addition to” — as in, everything I just described happened as a natural consequence of providing children with time during morning and afternoon recess and during lunch to play.  We also had PE, where we climbed ropes, and wrestled, and played baseball, and learned the basic rules and mechanics of any major sport or physical activity in which we might participate.

Kids today look at a rope that’s six feet long, with three knots tied in it, and get tired.

Even though I went to public school, I am aware that correlation does not imply causation.  Even so, I feel compelled to point out two other trend lines in terms of where they stood when I was kid, and where they stand now.

a) Childhood obesity.  In 1980, childhood obesity stood at about 7%.  In 2010, childhood obesity stood at just under 18%.   In thirty years, childhood obesity rates doubled in children, and tripled in adolescents.

b) Type 2 diabetes in children.  Type 2 diabetes, or adult onset diabetes, is a chronic disease associated with obesity affecting the pancreas, kidneys, liver, peripheral nervous system, eyesight, and peripheral blood flow.  Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas summarily fails due to a defect (typically, the defect causes this failure during childhood).  Type 2 diabetes is associated with obesity, and occurs when the pancreas fails due to prolonged overwork (it gets worn out).  Essentially, diabetes is the lack of insulin, a critical hormone produced by the pancreas, necessary to break down the sugar in the food that we eat, so that it can be used by the body.  Diabetes has no cure, and diabetes kills, quickly or slowly (left untreated, quickly).   Prior to 1980, Type 2 diabetes accounted for less than 2% of all new pediatric diabetes cases.  By 2000, it accounted for between 8% and 45% of all new pediatric diabetes  cases.  In 2007, it was projected that by 2015, type 2 diabetes (when the pancreas fails due to overwork) will be more prevalent than type 1 diabetes among children.

Not for nothing:  There is decent evidence that shows grades improve when children partake in vigorous exercise regularly throughout the school day (this study is often cited).  But, that is not the best reason why we might want to get our children up and moving.  The best reason is probably that our education system exists to prepare our children for success in life, and that life is a critical component of success in life.

Editor’s note:  It may seem weird that keeping our children from eating themselves to death only made number four on this list of five important ideas.  That’s a function of the fact that the first three were really good ideas that had directly to do with building a really good educational system, and this fourth idea is more like: “Oh, by the way, our children have to still be alive in order to actually benefit from a really good educational system.”

5. Arts education
I can actually hear the groans coming through the Internet, right now.  Hear me out.

I didn’t just go to a public high school.  I went to the public school you’re thinking of right now, when I say “public school.”  I went to the public school with the security guards and the guns and the knives and the gang-bangers.  I went to the public school where I was part of a white minority.  I went to the public school that always had pages in the back of the yearbook for the kids who were senselessly killed throughout the year.  I went to the public school where you didn’t make eye contact unless you were ready to throw down, and you probably weren’t ready to throw down.

When I arrived at that high school, I was probably the shyest, most reserved kid who had ever walked into that school.  The first half of my Freshman year was pretty rough.  During the second semester, I had to pick a new elective, and I chose Drama I (though I honestly couldn’t tell you why — I just did).  I had to go and get permission from the teacher to join the class halfway through the year.  Some nameless automaton in the front office sent me to a back corner of the school to get a form signed.  When I arrived, I waited around for several minutes for the teacher to show up.  A few kids were there, but I was told it was between instruction periods and I didn’t see the teacher anywhere.

I figured the teacher would be back soon, so I just stood there and tried not to look like a lamp post on the deck of an aircraft carrier.  Eventually, someone noticed the lanky, skinny, out-of-place kid, sticking straight up out of the floor, shifting his feet and shrugging his shoulders and avoiding eye contact.  She asked me what I was doing there.  So I said to this random girl, who was kind of pretty, clearly older than me, and for some reason, sitting behind the desk, that I was waiting for the teacher to get back.

And that is how I met Resha Gentry-Ballance, my drama teacher and speech coach for the next four years.  She taught me anything and everything that I know of any value at all about public speaking and communication.  She taught me to think on my feet.  She taught me to be comfortable with my height and confident in my voice.  She taught me not to be afraid when I didn’t know what to say.  She taught me how to interact with other human beings, for the first time, in a way that was not entirely awkward.  And, she is probably the single best reason why I actually graduated from Maryvale High School.

Lots of kids didn’t graduate from Maryvale High School.  I was almost one of those kids.

What’s the value of an arts education?  Much like #4 — not just for me, but for many kids who I knew then (and still know today) — the value of an arts education is that it results in an education.  It’s kind of hard to design a really good public education system that doesn’t include a reason for kids to use a really good public education system.  For many students, there is exactly one reason why they go to school, and everything else happens along the way.  For some kids, that’s a sport (say, football or wrestling).  For some kids, that’s dance, or choir, or the band.  For me — it was drama.

Not for nothing:  Just like #4, there’s also good evidence that an arts education has direct or peripheral positive benefits on academic performance.  I leave it to others to make that argument.

The only meaningful argument, for me and for more of my friends than I could name, is that the principal benefit of an arts education is an education.

[Thanks, Resha!]

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At the Intersection of Gay Rights Boulevard and Religious Freedom Way

In the wake of this week’s landmark decisions by the Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and invalidating legal challenges to uphold California’s Proposition 8, the LGBT community is celebrating loudly and proudly.  The cause of marriage equality has taken a giant step forward.  However, I think we have to be careful so that the cause of religious freedom does not take a giant step backward in the process.  There are people whose fundamental rights are threatened by this week’s decisions in the Supreme Court.

Military Chaplains

Military Chaplains

As a political moderate, I have found myself, as usual, without a proper ideological home.  My liberal friends are ecstatic, and I understand why.  In their view, the barbarians have been defeated at the gates, and reason has won the day.  The liberal point of view is not without merit; for the record, I think that it’s very likely that most, if not all, LGBT people do not choose to be sexually different than the norm, that their behavior is not especially harmful or otherwise wrong, and that they are also people who have, and should have, all of the same rights and freedoms as any other person.  LGBT people should not be afraid to be who they are, and the law should protect them just as much as it protects any other citizen (not more, not less, but equally).  As such, yes, this week’s decision by the Supreme Court is a victory for human rights.

However, our Constitution (specifically the First Amendment) also protects religious freedom.  While we often think of Christianity in the context of the United States, it’s worth noting that practically all of the world’s religions — and certainly those prevalent in the military — regard homosexuality as sin.  Religious people often take “face shots” over this; it’s regarded as backward thinking by many people who are not religious.  So, in thinking about writing this article, I looked around to find the most fair and reasonable view that religion has to offer, with regard to homosexual behavior.  I think an article by J. Lee Grady on the closing of Exodus International offers the proper view from inside Christianity, and is a fair representation of Christian thinking with regard to homosexuality.  These quotes are from that article; I would encourage anyone to read it in its full context:

It makes absolutely no sense to tell a person who wants freedom from homosexuality that prayer can’t help them. What about the person who struggles with drug addiction? Do we just give them syringes? What about a woman who is having sex with five men? Do we tell her God made her this way and that she should just keep a big supply of condoms and live with her fornication problem?

I know many Christian men and women who struggle with various levels of homosexual temptation. Some are in happy heterosexual marriages and have found the grace to resist sinful urges. Others lived in gay relationships until they repented and broke free—and now they are celibate. Their goal is not so much to be “cured” of their feelings or to be transformed overnight into heterosexuals. Their desire is to honor God by abstaining from sexual sin.

So, in the Christian view, a natural desire for homosexual behavior is the same as natural desires for other forms of sinful behavior that people should avoid.  Taking drugs results in a high.  Your body is designed to “like” that, and crave it.  This does not mean that taking drugs is an okay thing to do; clearly, it is a behavior to be avoided.  Many observant Christians struggle not with drug addiction or a gambling problem, but with homosexual tendencies which they also see as sinful.  Controlling those tendencies is the same, for them, as controlling other tendencies toward sinful behavior that are parts of human nature.  No one chooses to have a natural compulsion toward gambling, or drinking, or drug abuse — or homosexuality — but many people do have that natural compulsion, and should avoid those behaviors.  Christians don’t hate people for their natural compulsions, to include people who have a natural compulsion toward homosexuality.  But Christians also teach and believe that homosexuality is sinful behavior to be avoided and controlled.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for the orthodox view of homosexuality as sin, within Christianity.  Rather, I am arguing that this view is maligned; that, understood in context, Christianity’s view of homosexuality is not hateful, but loving and compassionate.  While it is up to each person to decide what he or she believes, if people are going to criticize Christianity for its views of homosexuality, then those views should be fairly and fully understood.  Too often I see people dismissing Christians as hateful, backward thinkers.  Whether or not you choose to agree with the broad Christian point of view on homosexuality (recognizing that variations exist within Christianity), it is still wrong to cast all Christians in the same net as a hateful, backward-thinking lot of zealots.  To do so is just as closed-minded and judgmental as many non-religious people believe Christians to be.

So…  Why is it important to realize that Christians might have a reasonable view of homosexuality (whether you agree with it or not) that happens not to embrace homosexuality?  Who cares, right?  People can go to church, or not.  People can choose to believe whatever faith suits them, and practice that faith under the protection of the First Amendment.  Right?

Yes — right.  All people, that is, except for military Chaplains.

The Chaplaincy serves the religious and spiritual needs of US military members worldwide — in garrison, or deployed anywhere, including and especially in harm’s way.  Chaplains are military officers whose job it is to minister to other military members.  Chaplains serve everyone in uniform, regardless of faith, as best they possibly can.  Regardless of what faith you might happen to choose — including none at all — Chaplains deserve your respect and admiration.

They are religious leaders.  But first, they are military officers.  Which means, they follow orders.

The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2011 allowed gay and lesbian service members to serve openly in the US military for first time ever.  Some predicted the apocalypse; however, it turns out, not much changed, and the predictions of doom and gloom were universally overblown.  However, one thing did become quite a bit more uncomfortable — particularly, that military chaplains weren’t exactly free to preach their religious beliefs, which were no longer fully in accord with military policy and the law.  Chaplains were assured in 2011, and again in 2012, that they would not have to perform gay marriages, but in May of 2012, when President Obama stated openly that he believed in marriage equality, Chaplains saw a further erosion in the ground upon which they stood.  The House Armed Services Committee (just a few days later) put forward a bill that protected Chaplains’ rights to preach their faiths and to carry out religious practices in accordance with their faith, even if it conflicted with military policy.  In an interview with NPR at the time, retired Army Chaplain Douglas E. Lee expressed the concerns behind the bill.  That bill did become law as Section 533 of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which reads:

No member of the Armed Forces may — require a chaplain to perform any rite, ritual, or ceremony that is contrary to the conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the chaplain; or discriminate or take any adverse personnel action against a chaplain.

At the time the President signed this into law, he called this language “unnecessary and ill-advised” — in part, because DOMA was still the law of the land.

A few days ago — the Supreme Court invalidated DOMA.

If gay service members can serve openly (since 2011), and if the Federal government must recognize gay marriages in states where they are legal (as of this week), then, are Chaplains, as military officers, required to tow this ideological line?  Will Chaplains be required to perform gay marriages?  Will Chaplains be required not to preach their religions fully?

It seems to me that no lines have yet been crossed — but, I see a day coming when Chaplains will be put in an impossible position.  They may very well be asked to set aside their own Constitutional rights, so as to avoid violating the rights of others under the law.

The simple answer to this complex problem is to reaffirm the separation of Church and State established under the Constitution in the same amendment.  Americans must be free to practice their religions without the interference of the state in religious matters.  This means, clearly, that Chaplains cannot be compelled to preach anything other than that which their faith would dictate, and that Chaplains cannot be compelled to perform any service that would fundamentally violate the provisions of their religious beliefs.  It may be necessary for the military to increase the Chaplaincy to ensure that the religious needs of LGBT service members are adequately met.  However, most Chaplains now serving would see it as an affront to their beliefs if they were ordered to minister to LGBT people in a way contrary to their faith.

As military officers, they would also be obliged to salute smartly, and carry out that order.

And, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 — including Section 533, which protects Chaplains’ rights — expires in three months.

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Critical Thinking, Defined

I had a long — very, very long — talk with my brother recently.  It all started when my brother took issue with something that a public official said.  There was just one problem:  The public official in question hadn’t actually said anything like what my brother believed he had said.  So, I pointed this out, simply and briefly, in a couple of sentences.  And that led to several days of argument.

Two other problems drove the argument:

  1. The public official in question was President Obama.  Had it been anyone else, and were my brother not a banner-bearing member of the Tea Party, I’m sure that conversation would have ended much more easily than it did.
  2. Every time my brother admits to being wrong about something, he also removes a finger.  [Editor’s note: So far as I know, he’s still got all of his fingers.]

Toward the end of that discussion, it was clear we were at an impasse.  He wasn’t going to admit he was wrong, but we was clearly wrong.  He was reading the same words I was reading, and assigning them totally different meaning based solely on his own bias, based mostly on who said those words.  Recognizing my own bias could be affecting my reading, I proposed a technique for removing bias: Let a disinterested third party, who is an authority (say, an English teacher, or a professional writer) restate those words to expose their meaning.  

My brother’s reaction to this idea was, at best, dismissive.  At worst, he was violently offended.  He definitely seemed offended that I would question his mastery of the English language, which, of course, he’s used all of his life.  He also characterized relying on a disinterested third-party authority this way: “Do not listen to your own councils… ignore your own common sense and understanding…”

I was floored — absolutely floored.  How could an intelligent human being not recognize the need to eliminate his own bias when it so clearly dictates his thinking?  How could he not recognize that it was his bias I was questioning, not his mastery of his native language)?  How did he not understand these concepts?

At that point, I completely abandoned this discussion, and exhorted my brother to learn something, anything, about critical thinking.  

I went looking for a reasonable summary of Critical Thinking.  It’s a topic that is much talked about in business, taught in every technical and management discipline these days, and highly valued by employers.  One would think that the Internet would be a wellspring of valuable information on Critical Thinking.

I was fairly shocked to find that, no, the Internet has surprisingly little information on Critical Thinking that isn’t badly polluted or overblown.  The Wikipedia article on Critical Thinking is all over the place.  I read it — and having read it, I am now dumber for it.  I also went to CriticalThinking.net and read their definition.  It’s a bit thin, but not bad.  Certainly not something that I could send to my brother, or anyone for that matter, and expect that they could come away with anything other than a surface idea of the broad concepts of critical thinking.  I also went to a Web site, CriticalThinking.org, and read their definition.  It’s a set of overlapping definitions (which is perhaps necessary), and it’s a bit much to take on.  Most of the other references of the first couple of pages of Google results are people trying to sell you something (to be fair, so are two of these, but at least they present some useful information).

This, I found highly frustrating.  In the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter that my brother will go on believing that he was right; but it does matter that he’ll never have any idea why it would have been a good idea to remove his own bias (and mine as well) from the conversation entirely.  That part disturbed me.  

Why did it disturb me?  Because, a critical thinker:

  1. Recognizes the value of imposing intellectual standards on his own thinking.
    In this example, recognizing that bias exists and clouds judgment is easy — anyone can do that.  Recognizing your own bias in your own thinking is much harder.  Not just anyone can do that.  But if you wouldn’t accept a biased judgment from someone else, and the reason you wouldn’t accept that judgment is because it is biased, then it stands to reason that you also should not accept a biased judgment from yourself.  By extension, then, everything we would value in a judgment or a thought coming from someone else, is something that we should also value in our own reasoning.
  2. Develops knowledge of the methods of logical reasoning and inquiry.
    So, what do we value?  Lots of stuff.  The list is long.  Thinking is inherently chaotic, and over the past several thousand years, people have come up with lots of different tools to make thinking of a higher quality possible.  The foundations of logic are found in philosophy and the history of rhetoric, and the same terms that were developed by philosophers in the ancient world still dominate the study of logic and reasoning.  So, there are two parts here:  Understanding those foundations (being able to define what a syllogism is, what makes an argument valid or invalid, and what modes of argument exist) is the first part.  The second part is building on those foundations to include knowledge of specific techniques and tools to address problems that arise in thinking about anything.  In this particular case, the problem that arose was one of bias (I would contend, my brother’s — but also, possibly, my own).  There’s a whole slew of biases that affect thinking.  If I was right, this one was called confirmation bias — which is actively seeking information that confirms a prejudice and actively disputing information that does not confirm a preconceived notion.

  3. Practices these methods in daily life.
    Our minds are like our muscles.  They atrophy when they’re not used.  Any study of critical thinking results in action within one’s own life.  Otherwise — the lessons are never learned.  You are actually not a critical thinker if you do not practice critical thinking.  In this case, the way to practice critical thinking would be to take some action to remove or counter the bias once its existence was recognized.  The method I proposed was, admittedly, flawed (It would have subjected the question to the same biases, just the bias of the third party — it’s hard to find anyone without strong feelings about certain political figures and certain questions).  However, it was better than simply continuing to argue.

I thought about what to do here.  I could have pointed my brother at the few half-decent references I found online, which were not books one had to purchase, and hoped for the best.  But, I have an interest in this topic, and I barely read them.  How could I expect that my brother, because I asked him to, would read them?  How could I expect him to get anything out of it, if he did?  Plan A was certainly flawed.  It would never hold my brother’s interest, long enough to get him to read anything, and he wouldn’t learn anything from it even if he did.

So, I went to plan B.

How did you like it?

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Whistleblower, My Ass

Do you think Edward Snowden is some kind of hero?  Do you think Private Bradley Manning is a martyr to some cause?  Do you think them brave for standing up to the government?  Think again.  These kids don’t deserve your respect, your admiration, or even your ambivalence.  They deserve your ire.

Edward Snowden, Self-Aggrandizing Douchebag

Edward Snowden, Self-Aggrandizing Douchebag

Let’s start with Snowden.  What’s being widely reported is that he is a contractor, and was (by now, I’m sure) an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton.  He was an IT guy at NSA.  What’s not being so widely reported is that he worked there only three months; before that, he was a security guard, before that, he was in the military, and before that, he was a high-school dropout, who also dropped out of college.  He actually had no appreciable resume in IT and limited experience in intelligence.  This is his resume at age 29.  And, at the wise-old age of 29, he apparently came to work one day and decided that the government had too much power.  

Even so, as a former military member (however briefly), and as a defense contractor with a security clearance (however briefly), he was entrusted by the government with classified information, and taught what to do if he ever observed official misconduct or was ever given an unlawful order.  For those who have no been so trained — his options were plentiful.  

I want you to click this link and follow it:  http://www.osc.gov.  Go ahead.  Look at the Web page that comes up, for no more than 60 seconds.  Follow links from that page if you want.  Go ahead, please.  I’ll wait.

[humming Jeopardy theme]

… Okay, you’re back, right?  Good.  Now — what is the job of the Office of Special Counsel?

That’s right.  Unless you are a potato with highly-advanced reading skills, you now know, sixty seconds after you started looking, that the mission of the Office of Special Counsel, is…

The Office of Special Counsel

Overview of The US Office of Special Counsel in 60 Seconds or Less

… to protect whistleblowers.  In fact, that’s their main job.  They exist almost entirely to protect people who see official wrongdoing and want to safely report it, without fear of reprisal.  They actually prosecute the people who conduct reprisal.  That’s what they do.

Could aforementioned ass-hat have gone to the OSC?  Sure, he could have.  Or, he could have gone to the agency Inspector General (IG) at NSA.  Or, he could have contacted the Government Accountability Office, or requested a Congressional Inquiry, or done many other things without violating the law and without revealing classified information.  But he voiced one or two concerns, was told to shut up (per his account), and then handed off a bunch of classified information to the Washington Post and The Guardian and that’s what he did, because he was so brave and so principled.  Rather than coming forward legally, safely, without endangering American interests, and under the full protection of the law, he chose to reveal classified information to the press.  And then he announced his name.  And then (or okay, at the same time) he ran off to Hong Kong, because he said it was some sort of haven of free speech and political discourse (which, of course, it isn’t).

Why is classified information classified?  Well, I would tell you, but that’s classified.  In principle, classified information is classified because failure to control access to that information would cause harm to American interests.  The amount of harm dictates the level of classification.  

  • Damage = Confidential.  
  • Grave Damage = Secret.  
  • Exceptionally Grave Damage = Top Secret.

Damage, let us remember, very well could equal lives lost.  In the case of Private Manning, the other complete moron some people see as a hero, the information he blabbed for no fathomable reason could well have led to the breakdown of diplomatic relations with allies, and they were allies who were supporting us in an unpopular war, and it directly or indirectly put the lives of the people engaged in that war overseas, already in harm’s way, at greater risk.  He screwed his buddies in uniform for no particular reason.

THANKS!  
YAY, FREEDOM!!!  
What an act of Moral Courage!  
[insert other sarcastic remarks as you see fit…

Classified information is classified information for a reason.  The reasons for classifying anything translate directly or indirectly into American lives.  And it’s not classified by Private Bradley Manning, or Mr. Edward Snowden, but by an original classifying authority: Someone who has a lot of weight on his or her collar or whose name is formally preceded by The Honorable ….

The plans for the invasion of Normandy were surely classified.  The people who knew had a need to know.  People in the media, in Hollywood, actually helped with a disinformation campaign to convince Hitler that the invasion would occur elsewhere.  Can you imagine that level of trust between the military and the media today?  Nope.  Me neither.

So, what if they had a point?  Even a broken clock is right twice a day, after all.  What if these brain-dead jackasses stumbled onto some really bad stuff, some things that should not have been happening, some real abuses of power?  What then?

Then they should have come forward.  Legally.  Under the full protection of the law.  As real, honest-to-God WHISTLEBLOWERS.  See above.

In that case, one of two things happens:

  1. They state their case.  They are right.  There is cause for concern and the right people now have the right information to take some action.
  2. They state their case.  They are wrong.  They are told to go forth and pound sand.

In the case of Snowden, the programs he leaked information about were authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, and, they were authorized by Congress, and, members of Congress were regularly briefed on these programs.  NSA did not go rogue and just decide to do whatever the Hell it wanted.  NSA instituted programs that, it should be pointed out, a majority of Americans support.  I would say, on reflection, case #2 above applies.  You’re wrong.  Pound sand.

In the final analysis, you have to ask yourself:  What is our standard for protecting classified information?  If what Snowden did was okay, if what Manning did was okay, then what’s not okay?  What is the standard by which we, as a society, can classify anything?  If the standard is that it’s okay to classify information, except if some random Private or some random contractor thinks it’s not okay — and that that’s an act of courage and we aren’t going to punish that — well then, there’s no need for classification anymore.  Nothing can be fairly classified.  Because if it’s up to every single Private and every single contractor to decide for themselves whether the classified information that they swear an oath to protect should be classified, we should just give up now.  Those oaths are worthless at that point.  We should just go ahead and give up on the whole damned concept of classified information.  And, by the way, we should stand down our military and surrender to the next random aggressor that comes along.  Because we, as a society, at that point, have decided that we are no longer willing to pay any price at all for the freedoms we enjoy.  And with that, I will never agree.  

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Myths and Facts about Government Employees

There’s been a lot of politicization of late about government employees.  It seems that all people, but particularly the right, are confused about who we are, what we do, what we get paid, how we can be disciplined, and what happens when we retire, at a minimum.  So, I’ll attempt to set the record straight here.  Note, I am an employee at  Federal agency, and a supervisor within that Agency (which I will not name here), so my comments are geared toward the Federal Civil Service and Federal employment.  Different agencies have different rules, so I’ll be as generic as possible.  Most importantly, I’m not talking about State and Local government employees — the first thing to understand, I suppose, is that not all government employees work for the same government and we’re not all the same.

  1. MYTH:  All Government employees are members of a union.
    FACT:  Typically, state and local governments have employees who are unionized in specific fields — such as Police, Firefighters, and Teachers.  Other government employees, though, are typically not unionized.  In particular, no one at my Agency is a member of a union as far as I am aware.

  2. MYTH:  Government employees get extraordinarily generous benefit packages, way above what private sector employees receive.
    FACT: Most government employees get similar benefits to their private-sector counterparts. However, I would point out that while Federal employees have had health benefits through FEHB for a long time, Federal employees only recently got vision and dental benefits through FEDVIP.  That only happened within about the last decade.  Also, when I joined Civil Service I ended up paying more, and getting less, for my benefits package, and that is not an uncommon story.

  3. MYTH:  Government employees are overpaid.
    FACT:  Blue-collar Federal workers are paid more than their counterparts in private industry.  For the most part, though, white-collar workers (people with Bachelor’s degrees and above) are paid less than their counterparts in private industry.  Specifically, people who have not earned degrees are paid more than they would be for the same job in the private sector (the disparity is about 21 percent), people with Bachelor’s degrees are paid about the same, and people who have Master’s or higher professional degrees are paid about 23 percent less than their private-sector counterparts.  See http://www.cbo.gov/publication/42921.  Bottom line:  Depends who you are talking about.  If you are talking about the workers — yes, or at least maybe.  If you are talking about the leaders — definitely not.  In fact, anyone who is a leader in government does that job for reasons other than the money, because these people are and will be underpaid for the remainder of their careers.

  4. MYTH:  Government employees cannot be fired.
    FACT:  This is absolutely false.  Government employees can be fired.  They can also be disciplined, including suspension with and without pay.  There is no special procedure and there are no special requirements to fire a Federal worker above and beyond what would be required to fire anyone.  The supervisor simply has to document what happened, and make sure to apply discipline fairly and in accordance with organizational standards, which typically means progressive disciplinary actions must be taken up to the point of firing the employee (e.g., first occurrence is typically not firing except in extreme circumstances).  This is done because the point of discipline is not to take vengeance for wrongdoing, but to act in the best interest of the organization AND the employee, and correct the behavior that led to the punitive action while retaining the employee afterward, wherever possible.  This is, again, no different than in private industry.  The same standards apply within any corporation.  This is HR, universally, within the Federal workforce and outside of it.

  5. MYTH:  Government employees get extremely generous retirement benefits.
    FACT:  Go and look this up for yourself — it’s wrong.  The current retirement system is called the Federal Employees Retirement System, or FERS.  It does have a pension component, which pays an annuity of 1% (that is one percent) of your basic pay from your top three earning years, per year of Federal service.  That amount is paid out of FERS money you yourself pay in during your years of Federal service.  The other two legs of FERS are the Thrift Savings Plan (which is exactly like a 401(k) plan, except that it applies to Federal workers) and Social Security (same as anyone).  We don’t collect our salaries for life.  The annuity we receive is paid out of money that we pay in, and would not be enough to live on for anyone regardless of pay rate, since our rates of pay top out well-below where the top earning scale tops out in the private sector (see #3).  The other components, 401(k) and Social Security, are the exact same as anyone else anywhere would receive.  We have to save for our retirement, same as you or anyone.  We pay into our retirement annuity and Social Security and get money back out of that.  The only difference is the 1% per-year annuity, which is far LESS generous than a military retirement — and, even a military retirement is typically not enough to live on, so there you go.  There is no golden parachute for Federal workers.

In summary — don’t believe everything that conservative bloggers say about Federal benefits.  It’s a load of crap.  This is the truth.  Go to opm.gov and do your own research — our pay, our benefits, our retirement plan, it’s all a matter of public record.  Or, simply take my word for it…  We’re not rich, we don’t get rich, and we can be disciplined or fired, just like anyone working in any profession.

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Doctor Who on Confirmation Bias

Doctor Who on Confirmation Bias

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