Archive for March, 2012

An Education.

 

Today I’m going to talk about public education. I’ve been thinking about writing about this for a long time. I guess that’s true for a lot of my topics. It’s a bit long today, so I apologize in advance. That’s what he said.

 

I often think about problems with the world and how they might be solved. Because of my obsession with optimization / perfection, I would like to not devote my time to solving anything except for the problem which will have the maximum desired effect in proportion to the amount of work put in. If I spend my time working on a problem that is not optimal in this way, then I feel as though I’ve wasted time. Of course, I can never hope to fully optimize anything like this, but I would at least like to have a worthy goal to strive towards rather than devoting a lot of time and resources to solving a problem that is not important or that would have a very localized effect. Since the world is big and I don’t know much about problems overseas, my more realistic thoughts tend to be related to problems in America. Ironically, the fact that America is so prosperous means that problems solved here will have a more drastic effect than elsewhere, as “problems” as I define them will often refer to poor allocation of resources. Also, the high degree of individual opportunity here makes it more likely that my thoughts and actions might actually affect some sort of change.

 

When I try to think of solutions to problems, they almost always lead back to public education. If only the average man were more intelligent, more knowledgeable, more prepared, more organized, more well-equipped with critical thinking and problem solving skills, more frugal, the list goes on and on, many problems could be solved. This is because information is the most powerful human resource in the world (besides energy…). Information allows humans to better understand the way the world works, and the ability to gather and efficiently dispense and store information is responsible for any and all of mankind’s most impressive achievements, technologically or otherwise. Considering that natural resources are hardly a limiting factor for America, the logical extension is that we should be focusing our energy on gathering and sharing information. Unfortunately, our public education system lags far behind that of many other countries, and it’s reasonable to assume that the education systems of other countries are not optimized either.

 

I could elaborate on the reasons behind why I believe this all day, but here is the bottom line for me. I believe that better public education will:

– drastically reduce energy consumption

– improve overall human health and extend human life

– result in faster and better technological and scientific advancements

– reduce violence and crime

– reduce political and corporate corruption

– mitigate exponential population growth issues

– encourage environmentally sustainable practices

– improve average human happiness and well being

– result in more efficient utilization of time, energy, and resources

 

I believe all of this will come about through nothing other than children learning things that we already know to be true about the world. The best way to educate a lot of people this way is through public education. Taking these things as a premise, what can we do to improve our public education system?

 

First, it is necessary to define what makes public education “good” in order to know how to make it “better.” This is of course entirely subjective and based only upon my intuition and reasoning. I find that there are only three major requirements of a good public education system:

– teach kids how to learn (how to read /write, how to listen effectively, and how to use computers)

– teach kids how to think critically and solve problems

– have consistent standards for what qualifies as fact

There are a lot of other factors that will come into play, and of course even what I’ve said so far is a gross oversimplification of what would actually have to happen, but I think these at least are the absolute basics. They key point that I want to get across here is that teaching facts should not be a particular priority – as long as you have the ability to learn, the ability to think critically, and a source of reliable information, you can find any facts you need by yourself. The only facts that should be taught are those that are so relevant that everyone should know them, and my opinion is that most facts that are taught in public schools today are not of this nature.

 

Those things are what I would want in the ideal scenario – how our public education system is currently set up is not always like this. Here are my main criticisms of public education in America as it currently exists:

– Strong emphasis on facts instead of skills

– Little promotion of creativity or flexibility in coursework

– Uninteractive learning environments that focus on regurgitation of information

– Lack of quality teachers

– Strong bias towards American History

– Lack of focus on STEM subjects, little to no focus on the environment and sustainability, little to no focus on economics and statistics

– Low standards / focus on teaching towards the lowest denominator of students

 

Large systems are hard to change or control. It would be difficult to implement changes to our public education system – it would involve the devotion of a lot of time and resources. However, it is not a task so difficult that we can’t do it. In fact, we already devote more resources to our education system per student than many other countries – these resources are simply not intelligently allocated. Of course, we would have to devote yet more resources in order to optimize this allocation. That being said, I believe that improving public education in the ways outlined above should be America’s #1 priority. This is because it is an investment for the future – spending money on things we want in the now will just make us even more screwed later on when we realize our kids are uneducated and unskilled.

 

Brain dump on ways to improve public education:
– start when kids are very young, this is when they are the best learners

– do not underestimate kids; they will do well if you set high expectations

– improve incentives for teachers

– determine optimal teaching methods for every subject – this can probably be done empirically

– make learning fun and interactive

– make language, music, and art required subjects

– begin teaching math and science young – in fact teach everything as young as possible. The earlier kids start learning, the better.

– encourage free thinking, creativity, and collaboration with peers

– Most ideas from the Khan Academy are good – lessons should be learned outside of class, while work completed in-class

(definitely watch the Khan Academy link, it’s very cool)

 

Obviously this subject is huge, and difficult to talk about in a medium like this. I haven’t said even close to everything that I have to say on this subject, and honestly what I do have to say is not nearly as thought out as I’d like it to be. I will probably be developing these ideas more in the future, because I find them important. So important that I’m entertaining the idea of getting involved in public education reform in my future.

 

Oh, I had one last idea that I’d like to end on. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about Google, and how they seem to be taking over the internet. Although many might complain that they are gaining too much power, I, for one, welcome our new Google overlords. I would like nothing better than for the world to be taken over by engineers who are interested in the spread of knowledge. Google makes it possible for the average person to quickly and easily find almost any information that one would want to find about the world. The way that it is heading, it will also serve as a hub for information sharing and collaboration, through Gmail, Google Docs, Google+, YouTube, and numerous other resources as well. The main idea I had here was that YouTube, or some sort of extension or modification of it, could potentially either join forces with Khan Academy or compete with it. An infrastructure similar to YouTube’s would be very useful for educational purposes, as various lectures and tutorials could be standardized in terms of consistency, correctness, and teaching methodology, organized in a hierarchical structure, and shared freely with anyone who wanted to learn or any teachers who wanted to use it.

 

Think of this hypothetical model of teaching / learning. Students would be told to go home and read a chapter from a textbook and watch a corresponding video about the subject. This would engage them passively and intellectually through the reading, and audio-visually through the video. Then, they would come into class the next day, receive a brief review of the subject, and then spend the class period working on problems and answering questions in groups, with the teacher mainly acting as moderator and proctor. They could learn in a fully interactive and collaborative environment, where the faster students could help the slower students to learn the concepts. Focus would be taken away from memorization, homework grades, and busy work – the kids would come into class primed and ready to learn, and would want to work together. There is social incentive to learn and improve, which I think is very important, and studying is easy because you don’t have to go home and do homework, you just have to watch a video and read a bit. I think this model could be streamlined and become very effective. It would be less stressful for both the students and the teacher, relatively inexpensive once implemented, and could increase knowledge retention as well as overall enjoyment of the learning process by students. It is my sincere hope that a model such as this is adopted in the not-too-distant future, and if possible I would like to play a part in making that happen.

 

I’ve said enough about this for today. Hopefully you had the patience to read through it all. Here’s a completely unrelated song.

 

Daylight savings time.

Blue = uses DST, Orange = formerly used DST, Red = never used DST. The more you know.

 

I can’t believe I didn’t think to write about this yesterday. For those who weren’t paying attention at all and/or are reading this in the future and/or live in a different country, yesterday was the day that the clock sprang forward for daylight savings time. That is to say, that we lost one hour. Sad panda.

 

The criticisms of daylight savings time are numerous. Why bother with it? It’s an arbitrary change in the way we measure time – the shift literally doesn’t change anything physically, but we have to change our time keeping infrastructure to account for it. Many countries don’t deal with it at all because of this. For them the benefit of DST, which is that you get more sun after work during late spring/summer, is minimal in comparison to the cost of maintaining it every year. It also results in some annoying conversion issues when you leave the country, whether it be to a different time zone or to the same time zone (going directly south or north) to a country where DST is not observed. Others even argue that we should instead shift all clocks forward and keep them there, because many people are waking up later and staying up later, and those people want more sun-time all year round. This opinion is a bit more popular in college and probably less popular where people actually have to wake up early…

 

Despite my love for efficiency and consistency, I actually like daylight savings time. If I somehow had the power to choose, I would probably choose to get rid of it because it makes too much sense not too, but I honestly do it enjoy it. For me, the selling point is that it adds a new, interesting element to life. Kind of like adding an extra holiday. Having DST generates another two days out of the year that are remarkable for some reason. Even though jumping ahead an hour kind of sucks, it does mean that the world around you seems to change – suddenly you can watch sunset while eating dinner, for instance. And when you go back an hour, it’s like a magical extra hour gets added to your day and you can stay up late with friends waiting for it instead of sleeping or studying or doing anything else constructive with the time. It keeps you on your toes ever so slightly more than if we didn’t have it at all, and results in a more dynamic world.

 

Change can be scary. Sometimes I don’t like change. But fear brought on by the prospect of change is a subset of fear of the unknown – if something stays the same, you’re familiar with it, but if something new happens, how knows if it is going to be bad or good? By comparison, daylight savings time is like a “free” change; it is a change that adds diversity to life without having unknown and possibly disastrous consequences. I try and maximize this type of free change in my life whenever possible, and DST is just another tiny way of making it happen.  I recommend the same – it can be useful to get into a habit, but breaking habits every now and then to shake things up can make life a lot more interesting.

 

By the way, does anyone actually listen to all of the songs I post? I only post songs that I like, so naturally I would recommend them to anyone who hadn’t heard them and is looking for new music. A change in music is yet another way to make life more interesting.

 

I’ve been listening to this song a lot lately, and it has the word change in it so I figured it was appropriate enough here.

 

Medicine, military, and thermodynamics.

Boom.

 

Today’s thought process is brought to you by a history class I took last semester, entitled ‘History 138: History of Science in the U.S.’ We talked about how science has developed throughout American history, and how that has shaped our society / economy / culture etc.  As we covered the 20th century (which incidentally was an awesome century for science all around), we learned about how different large-scale systems grew and developed, using the military-industrial complex as a prime example. Near the end of the class, we specifically emphasized the Manhattan Project and the Human Genome Project.

 

This is what got me thinking. We have some sort of intuition about military science, about how it is developed earlier and faster than other types of sciences, and how it is evil because corporations and government and violence and human nature etc. We don’t have that much intuition about medical science, except that doctors make a lot of money and DNA is cool, but a little research makes it obvious that medical science is slow and expensive. Well, both military and medical research are expensive, but medical research seems to be much more time consuming for less drastic results.

 

If you look at the Manhattan Project, it’s pretty phenomenal what happens. I’m not going to go into detail, but the gist is that they had a goal to make a bomb and did it in under5 years. They got government approval, recruited scientists, built facilities, got industry support, established the theory behind the bomb, designed it, acquired necessary materials (Uranium or Plutonium, extremely difficult to acquire in sufficient quantities – this took up the majority of the work), implemented it, tested it, and deployed it in about 4 years, the entire time remaining covert. That’s fucking impressive no matter how you cut it.

 

By comparison, medical technology evolves fairly slowly. Just getting the patent for recombinant DNA technology took almost twice as long as the entire Manhattan Project. Medical technology necessarily goes through a far more bureaucratic and entrenched process than military development. The reason is obvious when you think about it. Medicine needs to be safe – it needs to be tested thoroughly to make sure that it not only is beneficial to people, but that it won’t hurt anyone, or if it will, who will it hurt and how. The effect of any medical technology needs to be precise and well controlled. Military technology is typically different – it does need to be tested, but the effectiveness is more related to destructive capability and tends to be relevant on a macroscopic rather than microscopic scale. You might imagine missiles being launched over the ocean or bullets being fired at a target, whereas on the other side you imagine a guy in a lab coat looking into a microscope and using a tiny pipette. Obviously these systems and processes are so advanced that we can’t expect to accurately simplify them in such a way, but at the very least we can assume from results that military technology is generally developed and deployed much faster by comparison.

 

Here are my big reasons for this:

1) Medical technology requires a high degree of safety, whereas a lot of military technology is used for destructive purposes.

2) Military research does not need to pass as many legal barriers.

3) Ethics are more intrinsic to the ability of medical technology to develop.

4) Medicine is often more science-oriented while military applications are often more engineering-oriented.

 

One thing is very interesting about all of these reasons, and that is that they all appear to satisfy, at least metaphorically speaking, the second law of thermodynamics. For those who are not well versed in physics, that’s the one that says entropy is a thing. It implies that disorder tends to increase over time. The canonical analogy is with a student’s bedroom – it gets messier over time, thus “increasing entropy.” Although this explanation is sort of BS because the cleanliness of a room really has nothing to do with actual entropy, the intuition of the  relationship makes sense in a lot of ways.

 

So, let’s apply this to my reasons laid out above. What does entropy have to do with safety? Safety, at its most base level, is a measure of human control of energy. The more control we have over energy, the safer it is. Scalpels and lasers and MRIs and shit = good for medicine, guns and bombs = good for military. Medicine is about the precise, controlled application of energy, whereas military is about the explosive release of energy. Of course, it needs to be “controlled” in the sense that it needs to be directed, but in general the destructive nature of weaponry relates to a different type of control than that which is observed in medicine. In this way, you can sort of intuit that higher degrees of safety require higher degrees of order in energy.

 

The level of bureaucracy that needs to be applied to medical technology is an additional layer of order that slows its progress. Military resources, on the other hand, can be allocated at high speeds and with little to no legislation required.

 

Ethically speaking, you would expect that which is more ethical to approach higher order. More rules, more organization, more predictability of outcomes, more stability. That which is unethical tends towards instability and disorganization. It is more important for medical advances to pass through ethical scrutiny. When considering destroying or disarming an enemy, effectiveness is a higher priority than ethicalness.

 

Science vs engineering – science tends towards expanding the pool of human knowledge, finding out things that we do not yet know. This requires a great deal of reorganizing of information, because we have to take information from the world and process it and record it in a meaningful way. When it comes to engineering, typically we have some amount of information that we already know and are simply finding an optimal solution to whatever problem we are considering. In general I think it’s safe to say that science results in a more powerful application of order to a disorderly system, that is to say in this case, forming useful information from the random information inherent in the universe, whereas engineering has more to do with taking given information and twisting it to be optimal for us. As medical development is often more science related and military development more engineering related, medicine again tends towards a higher state of order.

 

Everything I’m saying here is of course very generalized and oversimplified… a lot of science goes into military research, and all weaponry needs to be safe. However the intuitive power of these thoughts is pretty interesting to me. I enjoy thinking about how energy is harnessed and directed towards different goals and in different applications, and what this means about order. I like to approach higher degrees of order. The idea of it is enticing, and makes the thought of destruction, of increasing disorderliness, that much more unpleasant.

 

I think I get a strange sense of satisfaction from breaking down complicated things into their base elements and trying to figure out how it all works. I guess that’s what draws me towards engineering, and towards my objective reasoning framework. Hopefully these sort of simplifications and analogies don’t take me down a road of fallacious reasoning. In any case it’s a good mental exercise.

 

A great song courtesy of my dear sister. Sit down, close your eyes, and play this with some noise-cancelling headphones.

 

 

Optimization problem.

This was actually meant to be posted way back in December, but I never got around to it due to finals. I’m dredging it back up since I’m entrenched in midterm season and I don’t want to write a brand new post.

 

I have a problem, which is that I am absolutely terrible at optimizing my time. There are so many things that I’d like to do, but I end up doing very few of them. For everything that I might want to do, I’m constantly weighing factors like how much time they will take, how much effort I want to put into them, how much I will enjoy them at the time, what sort of long term benefit they might offer, how much they will benefit other people, and the list goes on. My main problem is focus. Or rather, lack thereof. Even if I know I want to do something, I have the motivation to do it, and I set aside time to get it done, I often can’t focus on the task and end up either taking way too long or not getting anything done at all. This is a terrible feeling and makes me very stressed, but I’m not really sure what to do about it. I’m already going through the motions, setting up schedules, check-lists, putting myself in the proper environment / mindset to do work, but in the end it’s still very difficult for me to get things done.

 

My general solution to this is to add a social motivation to whatever I do. That is to say, if there are other people relying on me to do something or working with me, then I am far more likely to be proactive in getting things done. I always try to do homework in groups, my recreational activities are group related (I don’t like to play games or otherwise have fun alone), I work out with other people or else play sports with them, I cook and eat with other people, I clean with other people, I plan things and make big decisions during meetings, and I make this blog public online so that I can focus well enough to post often. I think if I did not feel as though I was letting my readers down, I could not bring myself to write this post in the first place.

 

This requirement of a social factor makes the problem of optimization frustrating. It’s already hard enough for me to get things done when I know exactly what I want to do and how to do it, but what if there is much more uncertainty than that? What if I can’t add a social motivation to something that I want to do, or I try and it doesn’t work? How can I be sure that I will truly do what I want and get what I want out of life if I am subject to such limitations? I can barely even manage to wake up in the morning on time, so how can I expect to have a positive effect on the world? These are all questions that I’ve been struggling to answer, and hopefully this blog will help me work through these thoughts. Even just writing them out makes me feel a stronger sense of purpose, and perhaps that will make it easier to get things done. In honor of that, I’m going to list here things that I care to devote my time to. This is not so much specific tasks, but rather things that I consider meaningful in general.

 

Things I want to devote my time and attention to:

– Having fun (this is mostly a matter of perspective- I can have fun while doing anything, including homework)

– Working out / playing sports (ultimate, badminton, rock climbing)

– Eating well and inexpensively

– Building close bonds with my friends

– Meeting new people

– Being a good leader and worker for CalSol (solar car team that I’m part of)

– Finding a job so I can become more self-sufficient

– Learning as much as I can

– Helping people

– Defeating my adversaries

What a list! Right now the most relevant of these to my life would be the “learning shit” bit… unfortunately I do not feel as though I am learning very much in a couple of my classes. I wish I was taking better advantage of my education here. There have been a few classes that I have learned a lot from, but otherwise I feel like I learn just enough to get the general idea of the class and nothing more. I don’t even really care about the grades that much – I would like to get A’s, but my desire to learn is stronger than my desire to succeed. If I truly understand the material, then good grades should flow naturally from that… or at least that’s what I’d like to happen. My plan to get A’s this semester is endangered, but even more important than that, I’m not learning as much or as efficiently as I should. I need to be learning a lot every day.

 

It’s all a work in progress. I am always optimistic, even when I complain about things. I know that I have a good life now, I just want to do better. I believe I can always improve myself. Making better decisions and optimizing my life are all just a big part of that. What to do…