A new paradigm in learning?

A $1 million bet on students without teachers
http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/27/opinion/ted-prize-students-teach-themselves/index.html?hpt=hp_t3

I have a very strong objection to increasing the power of the “educational industrial complex“. I also have a strong objection to the current US paradigm of deliberately destroying our students desire to learn to love to learn (I am hard pressed to think of a less friendly way to turn students into life-long learners; perhaps beat them whenever they have a novel idea?). All the examples I have seen (with the possible exception of home schooling, but that is so dependent on the parents) that claim to remedy the problems with our education system all cost lots more money (which harken back to my complaint in the educational industrial complex above). The idea in this article, though, is amazing to me. While it is said that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, perhaps if the horse is thirsty and allowed to seek water itself it will always manage to do so. Using that analogy, we have a world of thirsty children with no water accessible to them without going through gatekeepers (teachers) that, intentionally or otherwise, frustrate many of the children in their thirst to the point the children give up the desire to drink.

Anyway, the idea that kids only need access to knowledge to soak it up is one I have feel strongly about for a long time (I learned to love learning _in spite of_ my educational experience). With the growing ubiquity of the WWW (presuming governments don’t start to shut it down) children can now explore topics as they please to the depth that they please practically for free. Despite that, the cost of education here in the US continues to grow faster than inflation (I believe growing even faster than our health care costs!). It is hard for me not to believe in an oligarchical conspiracy to strip mine education tax dollars, but perhaps it isn’t an _organized_ conspiracy and just the coincidental collision of a bunch of inherited rich people doing what they are trained to do.

Anyway, to try to get back to the point of the article, I think the actual experiments that this guy is running are showing clearly that our current paradigm is a useless waste of money that has the opposite of its intended function (exactly like our health care system, see here for just one example). Too bad these experiments can only be carried out in third-world countries. The rest of the world is too ‘enlightened’ to consider doing so.

What is the point?

Space-mad businessman announces manned trip to Mars
http://www.tgdaily.com/space-brief/69814-space-mad-businessman-announces-manned-trip-to-mars

I complain about what I feel are idiotic efforts to do space exploration (for example) because I feel it does a gross disservice to those who are seriously interested. When people announce such things they get lots of free press, yes, but that press causes a lot of people to firm up opinions. Any rational person (yes, I know that those people are in short supply) would immediately ask what value spending all that money just to get a flyby. Irrational people might get all excited about the prospects and develop unrealistic ideas about the cost and value of human space travel, or conversely, sour on the whole idea because of the fantastic risk and miniscule reward.

I agree that a permanent manned (or womanned) colony on the moon or mars is a valuable learning step that will likely have dramatic scientific impacts (much like the lunar landings) because humans can quickly create/modify tools to do things that would likely take yet another probe to find out, all potentially in as little as minutes. Such a colony would have to have way more than a couple of people to be viable (dozens, likely, possibly even hundreds, not to mention completely self sufficient) and would represent a huge investment that would likely not be paid back for decades, likely longer. Naturally such a long-term investment is out of the question when it comes to the US govt, it can’t even agree on something that is critical to our economy and just days away. Other governments (China leaps to mind) might see the long-term value and cover the expense. However, I am not a fan of governments paying for such things. I have talked a bit about private funding and would love to see that gain some momentum, but I fear that a few individuals with an agenda will pollute such an effort. I think that there is a huge untapped set of resources available to whoever is smart enough to use it, I just don’t feel I have the charisma to do so myself or I might pursue it (I am also a control freak so am not sure I could manage it for the greatest good).

Unmail

Startup finds niche in digitizing physical mail
http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/26/tech/innovation/outbox-mail-service/index.html?hpt=hp_bn5

An interesting idea, I can see some real value for it, particularly if you are highly mobile and don’t want your mail to get lost trying to keep up with you. It was interesting how much the article talked about the woes of the US Post Office, I cover some of that here. I particularly liked their (future) method of advertising; if I got extremely targeted ads I probably would take the time to look at them. I have trained myself to ignore most ads as the vast majority of the time they are totally irrelevant to anything I am interested in.

While this idea makes me a bit wistful in regards to thinking about it from an entrepreneurship standpoint, I don’t really feel jealous so much. No doubt competition will spring up if this proves successful and that will drive the margins down to the bone. I prefer to work in spaces where there are significant barriers to entry and thus higher margins. Just the sort of guy I am, I guess, though as yet I have nothing to show for it.

Just the right amount of competition

Can Tough Competition Hinder Academic Performance?
http://ideas.time.com/2013/02/22/can-tough-competition-hinder-academic-performance/?hpt=hp_bn18

This is a really interesting idea to me. I have noted myself that the company you keep has a huge influence on the path you take (from as simple as which line you are standing in to check out, what cars surround you at a stoplight or going down the highway to who your relatives and friends are) and I have noted many times in the past that certain intellectual exercises become easier when hanging out with a group of people that regularly engage in those sorts of efforts. I hadn’t, though, given thought to the other side of the coin, that the crowd you spend time with might negatively impact your abilities (other than ‘keeping you down’ because they are so low to begin with; this article speaks to the opposite: brainy people driving down their peers instead of incentivising them). Thinking back to my experiences I never felt like throwing in the towel when surrounded by a group of people that had some sort of edge on me (well, not intellectually; regarding sports I have never had any inclination to excel, except possibly for ice hockey), rather the opposite. The idea that people can play below their game because they are intimidated isn’t new either, in sports (hence ‘game’) you see that all the time, where a team that is out classed just can’t seem to get together. However, to me, the idea that people also play below their game in the intellectual arena is new. I have read anecdotal comments about certain groups (most often blacks in the US and the lower casts in India) doing much better on test scores when tested with their peers vs when tested with a wider population, but this is the first article I have read that mentions controlled experiments. The comment about the academy is also interesting. Perhaps it is also related to why some reports of same-sex education result in better scores among the ladies when other reports find mixed-sex education results in the best scores: it boils down to the socioeconomic environment and isn’t independently related to sex at all. If the ‘underprivileged’ (through socioeconomic status, educational background or ‘native’ ability) feel that they have no chance of winning they create a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts by giving up. However, if given a more appropriate level of challenge, they might actually supersede the brainiacs in the long run, just taking longer to do so (and possibly even not longer: less linear, more curved). This reminds me of a good friend from years back (Doug Cloud) who suggested that people with certain behavioral ‘ticks’ who are outcasts in our current society might have just ideal survival characteristic in other societies. He felt that a lot of people considered misfits in our current society might actually just need a mild bit of environment change to wind up being superior. Sadly, most of those people are treated poorly from a very young age and develop behaviors and habits that are objectively bad in any situation. Too bad in our current society there are no resources to even investigate these sorts of ideas. Who knows how many Einsteins are being forced to live on the streets because they don’t fit our image of a contributing member of society?

Retweet…

Airfares Down 50 Percent Since 1978, Study Shows
http://www.askthepilot.com/cheaper-and-safer/

I choked a bit when I first read the title, but gave it a chance (I am a regular reader of the irregular (as I am becoming) Ask The Pilot) and was quite surprised. The graph (below, via a link) clearly shows the rather dramatic decrease in ticket prices over the years. While there has been a recent uptick, as can be seen there have been occasional upticks in the past that evened out and then later fell again, so there is a good chance we are still not at the bottom of real ticket prices…

Graph of lowering prices

For me airline travel was never that glamorous, it was just a more efficient way to get from hither to yon. I did enjoy (for the most part) the physical act of flying (I enjoy turbulence, though didn’t do so well on a puddle-jumping prop-job; however it did reek of engine exhaust inside). Even before 9/11 the rest of the airport experience wasn’t that great, the prices are high, the security stupid (orders of magnitude worse now, of course) and the sitting around boring as hell. However, back then, it wasn’t deemed necessary to get to the airport two or more hours early, so the sitting around bit was much shorter. After 9/11, of course, things have really gone in the toilet, experience wise, though thinking carefully about it, for the most part it is the _airport_ experience I dislike so much, not as much the _airplane_. I do feel that the seats are closer than they used to be, but I remember having to sit sideways pre 9/11 several times as well. The security experience and the consequential need to get to the airport so early is, I think, the real crux of my dislike, though the actual flight experience itself has steadily degraded (the airlines wanted to take away all the drinks, but the FAA required them to offer water to anyone who asks for free; keep that in mind if you want to save a buck).

Anyway, I figured I would ‘re tweet’ the blog post as I thought my reader(s) might find the article interesting, if counter intuitive.

Flu vaccine = total waste of time, money and resources

Does the Vaccine Matter?
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/11/does-the-vaccine-matter/307723/

Personally I never felt the flu vaccine was worth a damn because every time I got one I felt like total crap for several days and didn’t see how there was any sort of payoff from getting it. Since it is well known that the Great Guessers In The Sky (i.e., the CDC) often get the strain totally wrong and even when they get it right, the strain has mutated enough that the vaccine provides little relief, so why not just take my chances.

This article (yes, it is long) is quite interesting in that it picks apart whether the vaccine does a damn thing at all. I have long known that doctors, as a species, were far from scientists, but it seems even medical researchers are not scientists either as a very well done study showing that the impacts of the flu vaccine was near zero couldn’t get accepted and reviewers provided such compelling arguments against publication thus:

“To accept these results would be to say that the earth is flat!”

This even before factoring in the impact of the fact that flu vaccines is a several hundred million dollar a year business (heck, it might be several billion by the time all impacts are made, such as Wally World offering ‘free’ immunizations).

To me this is also quite telling:

The history of flu vaccination suggests other reasons to doubt claims that it dramatically reduces mortality [i.e., claims it reduces mortality from all causes by 50%]. In 2004, for example, vaccine production fell behind, causing a 40 percent drop in immunization rates. Yet mortality did not rise. In addition, vaccine “mismatches” occurred in 1968 and 1997: in both years, the vaccine that had been produced in the summer protected against one set of viruses, but come winter, a different set was circulating. In effect, nobody was vaccinated. Yet death rates from all causes, including flu and the various illnesses it can exacerbate, did not budge. Sumit Majumdar, a physician and researcher at the University of Alberta, in Canada, offers another historical observation: rising rates of vaccination of the elderly over the past two decades have not coincided with a lower overall mortality rate. In 1989, only 15 percent of people over age 65 in the U.S. and Canada were vaccinated against flu. Today, more than 65 percent are immunized. Yet death rates among the elderly during flu season have increased rather than decreased.

The article also talks about Tamiflu antiviral drug, but there is a separate article just on Tamiflu, you can read it here:

Tamiflu: Myth and Misconception
http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/02/tamiflu-myth-and-misconception/273167/

According to the article (I have read similar information elsewhere, so trust the article), antivirals are of only middlin efficacy and their liberal usage has already produced resistance in the virus’ it usage is targeting. So, pretty much our only tool against a viral infection is going to be totally useless once a real pandemic strikes. Isn’t it great to be an American?

As I mentioned about medical people not being scientists…

The CDC’s Nancy Cox [the director of the influenza division, regarding the govt backing of Tamiflu] also acknowledges that the science is not as sound as she might like, but the government still recommends their use. And as with vaccines, she considers additional randomized placebo-controlled trials of the antiviral drugs to be “unethical” and thus out of the question.

So, instead of actually doing the experiments to find out if the use of the vaccine or drug actually do more good than harm, our government’s top medical response agency would rather use voodoo and hope for the best!

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

When the best approach to a pandemic might be self-isolation and (really!) extra attention to hygiene, instead…

In the U.S., by contrast, our reliance on vaccination may have the opposite effect: breeding feelings of invulnerability, and leading some people to ignore simple measures like better-than-normal hygiene, staying away from those who are sick, and staying home when they feel ill. Likewise, our encouragement of early treatment with antiviral drugs will likely lead many people to show up at the hospital at first sniffle. “There’s no worse place to go than the hospital during flu season,” says Majumdar. Those who don’t have the flu are more likely to catch it there, and those who do will spread it around, he says. “But we don’t tell people this.”

Our for-profit health care system not only costs more, it causes _worse_ health outcomes: more people die and it costs more to kill them!

Rubberized dandelions

Dandelion tires? It’s not a Beatles lyric, it’s biotech
http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/14/tech/dandelion-tires-latex-biotech/index.html?hpt=hp_c3

This is another one of those ideas that I wish I had thought of, though realistically, I have too ideas I am already thinking about to add any more. Rubber tree plantations (really! they still use natural rubber!) take quite a while to establish themselves and harvesting is highly labor intensive. To have something that can grown and be mechanically harvested in a single year would be a huge breakthrough, I am quite sure. Plus the little devils grow just about everywhere!

More on the importance of the microbiome

Connection between dirty diapers, childhood health
http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/14/health/time-bacteria-children/index.html?hpt=hp_bn13

I wrote earlier about the potentially huge issues regarding the microbiome, this article shows its importance starts at the very earliest days. Normal birth (i.e., vaginal) gives a ‘gift’ of a bacterial culture inoculation from mom (thanks mom!) that might be pivotal to life long health. Being born via Cesarean sections (C-section) deprives the newborn with this rather discusting inoculation, but I bet in a decade or so children born via C-section will get a mouthful of ‘inoculum’ (sounds sanitary that way, eh?) to give them their best start in life. It wouldn’t surprise me if they looked at how mom was born (and potentially her mom before that, C-sections have been around for a good long while) there might be some even more interesting correlations. Once a person has a certain microbiome it can be very challenging to alter it, even for short periods of time. Maybe if mom was born via C-section then even her kids born vaginally might not get the protection they need.

Diet soda just as deadly as the real thing

Study: Diet Soda Increases the Risk of Diabetes. Why Do We Still Drink This Stuff?
http://shine.yahoo.com/healthy-living/study-diet-soda-increases-risk-diabetes-why-still-192600358.html

Earlier I mentioned some science that shows that diet sodas make you drunker than regular soda, this time it is research that indicates that diet sodas don’t provide any protection from diabetes. I got a holt of the primary literature (see here if you want to try to access it) and read through it. The numbers are interesting, but since it is self-reported there are all sorts of possible confounding issues to keep the conclusion from being so clear cut as the popular press likes to make it. However, when compared to 100% fruit juice as a control measure, there was a substantial correlation that showed use of diet sodas contributed to diabetes. The article mentioned that some experiments have been done that show Aspartame flavored drinks actually triggered the same physiological effects as sugar did with regard to insulin. Since most diet drinks use Aspartame that could explain why there is this correlation.

So all you diet soda fiends might want to reconsider your motivation for drinking them.

Our ‘great’ healthcare system

Prices For Hip Replacement In US Vary Hugely
http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/256222.php

Which is worse? That the estimated cost (surely underestimated!) varied by over an order of magnitude or that half couldn’t even provide an estimate? If this weren’t such a tragic commentary on our POS healthcare system it would be amusing a hell. Other than government contracting, where else can you enter into an agreement to spent a lot of money and have not one single clue on how much money you are going to spend until after you are obligated to spend it? At least when a car dealer jacks up the price at the last minute you can still walk away, but in health care, you have already spent the money before you know the price!

Of course, all this is hidden from the average Joe. For the poor people, they aren’t paying anyway so couldn’t care less. For most of the rest, the health insurance company pays, so what do the patients care? It sort of reminds me of the farcical paperwork purporting to estimate the charges when closing on a mortgage, but at least there we are talking about a small fraction of the overall price, not an order of magnitude variation in price!

And people continue to insist that we have the best healthcare system in the world! I guess sheeple will repeat whatever they hear…