Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Support the Amash Amendment

I have just (July 23) sent the following to my Congresscritter, Sam Johnson (3-TX).
To the Honorable Sam Johnson, US Representative 3rd district, Texas. It is clear that the indiscriminate collection of American's telephone data goes well beyond the intent of Congress in sections 401 of FISA and 215 of the PATIOT ACT. But until those laws can be properly revised to prevent the kinds secret interpretations that the Administration has given to them, Congress can -- with the Amash Amendment to HR 2397 -- send a clear message to at least defund the most abusive operations (that we happen to be aware of). Congress must send a clear signal that spying on citizens who are suspected of no crime is unacceptable in a democracy. And make no mistake about it, collecting our phone records, lists of contacts, and locations is spying. Only by sending a strong signal can we ensure that we actually will have the open discussion on this matter that the President claims he welcomes. I spent some time in Communist Hungary, and so I have seen a country where secret courts made secret laws and where the government felt free to spy on its own citizens. It would by hyperbolic to claim that the US is doing the same, but in all appearances we do seem to be heading down that road. Sincerely, Jeffrey Goldberg
Plano, TX.
Here is some background on the Amash Amendment, and the White House response looks like a joke. The White House statement actually says,
This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process
The various secret interpretations of FISA and the PATRIOT ACT by both the Obama and Bush Administrations checked only by secret courts that have never rejected an administration claim have become the law of the land through a process that is anything but open and deliberative.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Game theory and "Stand Your Ground"

When it's best to attack first

During the Cold War, before the day of the ABM treaty, the situation between the United States and the Soviet Union was extremely dangerous, as each country was coming close to acquiring what was called "First strike capability". If you had first strike capability it meant that you could launch a surprise "first strike" on the enemy which would be so devastating that they could do little harm to you in retaliating. If the your enemy had first strike capability, that would mean that they could launch a surprise attack against you that would be so devastating that you could not effectively retaliate.

So let's consider Sam and Joe. They don't get along. And there is no sheriff in town. There is no outside force to keep the peace between them. Joe thinks that Sam is developing first strike capability. That is, Joe thinks that Sam is powerful enough to ambush and kill Joe without Sam having to suffer much. Meanwhile, Sam is thinking the same thing about Joe. Sam is worried that Joe could kill Sam without having to face any serious consequences. Sam is afraid that Joe might attack first.

Joe is a pretty scary guy. So Sam has to wonder whether it would be better for him, Sam, to attack Joe before Joe attacks Sam. Now Joe isn't stupid. He realizes that Sam might be thinking along those lines. So even if Joe wasn't initially planning to attack first; he, Joe, now has real reason to worry that Sam will attack first. Now that Joe has some real reason to suspect that Sam might attack first, Joe now has a real reason to attack first. After all, if Sam might attack first, then they only way for Joe to stay safe is for Joe to attack Sam first.

Sam isn't stupid either. Sam realizes that the situation gives Joe some real reasons to attack first. So Sam gets even more jumpy. This goes round and round so even a small conflict leads to a situation where the safest thing for both Sam and Joe is to try to attack the other first. This is extremely dangerous. It is unstable because what might start out as an irrational fear of the other spirals into perfectly rational fear that the other will attack first, for which the only defense is to launch the first, devastating strike.

This dynamic should also be familiar to anyone who's watched the Treasure of the Sierra Madres.

Bring in the sheriff

Now let's put a sheriff in town. If Joe goes out and kills Sam, Joe will be severely punished. If Sam goes out and kills Joe, Sam will be severely punished. Furthermore both Sam and Joe know this. Because Sam knows that Joe will be severely punished for killing Sam, Sam doesn't have to worry so much about what Joe might do. Joe knows that Sam doesn't have to worry so much, so Joe doesn't have to worry so much about Sam launching a pre-emptive attack.

Stand Your Ground

Now let's take a different story. Sam and Joe live in a state with a "Stand Your Ground" law. They both know the law. Sam looks like a scary dude to Joe, and Joe starts following Sam to see what Sam might be up to. Maybe Joe wants to catch Sam in the act of something. Maybe Sam really is a scary dude.

Sam notices that Joe is following him. Sam is worried. He doesn't know what Joe is up to. Maybe Sam notices that Joe has a gun. So Sam figures that Joe, with a gun, is stalking him and figures that his best chance at surviving the night would be to jump Joe before Joe can shoot.

Or maybe Sam doesn't know about the gun, but has shouted, threateningly, to Joe to back off. Sam might just try to stand his ground and try to scare Joe away. Joe now has real reasons to be afraid of Sam. And of course now Sam has a real reason to be afraid of Joe. Each at this point can legitimately fear that the other will try to kill the other first. So maybe Sam now attacks Joe, hoping to kill or injure him enough before Joe can use his gun. Sam fails. Joe uses his gun. Whoever succeeds in killing or incapacitating the other will not be punished. So both Sam and Joe are fighting for their lives with no outside constraints. Someone is going to die.

Even if the law would have applied the same...

Sam dies; Joe survives. Even if we were to believe that the law would have treated Sam the same way it treated Joe had Sam been the victor, the entire dynamic of Stand Your Ground means that even a small amount of fear (merited or not) can quickly escalate into very legitimate fear in which the rational course of action for each party is to do is to try to kill the other guy before he kills you.

The only way to win is not to play

The only way out of this dynamic is to return to the law that says that you can only fight back if you have no other choice. If you fight back when you could have run away, then you will go to jail. When both Sam and Joe Stand Their Ground, someone dies.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

It's important. Parrott for SBOE District 12

It's tempting to think that votes in many parts of North Texas don't matter. The Republican candidates are bound to win locally. But I am going to argue that those in the 12th district for the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) need to take this election very seriously. Note that district boundaries have been redrawn, so you may not know which district you are in.

I particularly exhort my Republican friends to not just vote party line here.Texas State Board of Education If you are worried about the extremist influences in your party, and more importantly if you care about the kind of education we have in Texas, this is where you need to draw a line.

I do not actually know very much about Lois Parrott other than what I've been reading over the past weeks. I haven't spoken with people who have worked with her. My support for Ms Parrott is based substantially on the fact that she has stated unambiguously that she opposes the Religious Rights' attempted take-over of school textbooks and curricula in Texas.

Miller has abandoned reason and the center

I've (mildly) supported her opponent, Tincy Miller, in the past, and so I need to explain why I am now unequivocally opposing Ms Miller. Tincy Miller, as the the Republican candidate will still probably win (although the 12th district also contains substantial parts of Dallas County, so there is still a fighting chance for a Democrat). Miller's experienced, and has been reasonably professional. In her previous terms she's been an odd sort of swing vote between the radical Creationist and anti-Historical faction and the professional faction. I would have preferred someone who did more to stand up to the people who make Texas a laughing stock of around the world, but I also had a certain admiration for the non-ideological, pragmatic, "good governance" Republicans that I found when I first moved to Texas seven years ago.

But pragmatic, consensual Republicans have been getting turfed out. They either get replaced by people on the Radical Right or they move dramatically to the right themselves. Miller has done the latter. I held my nose (and my tongue) as Miller courted endorsements from the Texas Eagle Forum and other very conservative groups during her primary battle with fiercely anti-intellectual the Tea Party candidate, Gail ("Pilgrims were Commies") Spurlock. I had hoped that Miller would move back to the pragmatic center after she had the GOP nomination. This has not happened.

In a recent candidate's forum (full video hosted by the Richard League of Women Voters), Miller has stated (incorrectly) that scientists agree that Creationism and Intelligent Design should be taught along with natural selection. Miller also stated some sort of endorsement for school-led prayer. She has refused to respond to the Texas Freedom Network's questionnaire.

You don't have to be on the left to fear the right-wing take over of the SBOE

Miller is displaying her unwillingness to stand up to the faction that have tried to remove Thomas Jefferson as an enlightenment thinker from textbooks, Deleting history tfn that have wanted to teach the bizarre historical theories of the discredited David Barton, that have fought at every opportunity to undermine teaching of the most fundamental principle in the biological sciences, which has led to them refusing to rely on educational and subject matter experts. This faction has not just made the Texas a laughing stock of the nation, but also of the world. The same world in which our children will be living, working, and studying.

In the past, Miller has been erratic in standing up to that faction; but over the past four months she's been signaling that she will be joining them (possibly giving then an outright majority on the board). So while Parrott may be to the left of most of the voters in the 12th District, this isn't about left/right; it is about sanity versus the ridiculous. Miller has done everything she can to indicate that she will not challenge the ridiculous.

Your vote will matter

Now I don't know whether Miller's shift reflects her genuine convictions, fear of future primary battles from the right, or a look toward an expanded political career. Either way, she shouldn't be on the board, and if she does end up on the board she should be reminded by a strong showing for Parrott that there are voters who will not tolerate an anti-intellectual ideological and deeply embarrassing and destructive board of education.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Education wrap-up

Tomorrow, Monday, February 1, I begin my student teaching at Vines High School in Plano. In two ways this means that this will be my last blog posting on education and education policy for a while. This post will contain a list of brief topics I had wanted to get to at some point. But first an explanation of why this will be my last posting for a while.

The most important one is time. Student teaching is a more than full-time activity. I find it hard to believe that I will have time or energy for anything else. Indeed, this will be my first full-time position since 1997 when I requested to go from full-time to part-time at the Cranfield University Computer Centre. (And, unlike in Plano which has loads of centres and theatres it's not an affectation for Cranfield, in England, to have a computer centre.) I will be less active with my Facebook presence, and I will be less active here.

The second reason for cutting down in posting about education policy was that during the Plano Student Teacher orientation we were advised to not make public statements about the school district. I suspect that if I examined the legal basis for this, I would find that as someone now affiliated with PISD I would not be allowed to say anything that could be taken as a reflection of PISD policy. So I doubt that I could be forbidden from blogging if I included appropriate disclaimers. But instead of trying to cut close to what is allowed, I will steer clear of anything that might conflict with policy. Only a few of my postings have specifically addressed PISD, and in those postings I think I've been very positive about the school district. It was my first choice for student teaching and will be my first choice when I hit the job market.

Once I am fully settled into a teaching position I will explore what kind of public posting would be acceptable. As I've said before I have absolutely no desire to stir up trouble. I should also point out that by refraining from commenting on education, I am much less likely to accidentally violate any confidentiality concerns. (Not that I think I am likely to make that mistake, it may be a concern of others I work with.)

So now I'll just produce a brief list of things that I wanted to address at some point.

In praise of Arne Duncan

I really like US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. I like his commitment to finding solutions that work. From his ideas about longer school days and years to his attempts to get usable data that enables us to see what (and who) works well and what (and who) doesn't. He's not making friends with many teachers' unions, but they aren't protesting too much because he does have a lot of money to through around.

There was an interesting profile of Duncan in the New Yorker recently. I didn't feel that it was fully up to the standards I usually see in the New Yorker, but it was still a worthwhile read.

Incentives to cheat

Cheating on the high stakes tests is something that has been going on for a while and has been excellently described in the first chapter of Freakonomics. And there are more reports coming in. The set of rules in place to present cheating is enormous. Administering and document these tests has become a huge undertaking, not least of all to prevent teacher and administrator cheating.

Instead of adding more rules to deal with particular avenues of cheating, we need to correct a fundamental design flaw. The people who have the most to lose by poor test scores are exactly the people who administer these tests. The teachers and school principals have much more at stake than the actual students. In some cases their jobs are at stake. Yet these are the same people who administer the tests. No matter how much we like to think about the integrity of teachers and school administrators, this is a terrible position to put them in.

I don't know exactly how it should be done, but this kind of testing should be administered by outsiders. Maybe contract with something like ETS or other organizations whose business depends on their reputation for fair administration of tests. Maybe use teachers for a different school district. What ever we do, we should not have the people who have most at stake with these test scores administer the tests.

Statistics, Not pre-pre-Calculus

Arthur Benjamin has proposed something that in a three minute video of his TED talk changed my view about math curriculum. It is a simple point that he makes better than I could summarize.

I haven't thought through this in detail, but as I watch kids, most of whom will not go on to calculus, learn how to factor or divide polynomials, I can't help thinking that Arthur Benjamin is on to something. One problem in changing things is that most people like me (math geeks who go into teaching) like algebra and analysis more than we like statistics. Although I would enjoy learning a branch of mathematics that I have no formal training in, it would certainly involve retraining, not to mention entirely new curriculum development.

A gripe about relevance

I have been told in my teacher training that I should try to make a connection between everything I teach and the lives of my students. I've been told that students don't like or do well in math because they don't see the relevance. I feel that math is being held to a higher standard than other fields. When in English students are taught the difference between a metaphor and a simile there is no demand that it be made relevant. In history it is great to teach about the Roman Empire, but exaggerating its relevance for most students is probably seen as a sham. In so many subjects we are teaching kids how to think about the world and ideas. Yet when it comes to math, people seem to feel that we need to pretend that all of the skills are immediately relevant for their lives.

It's good to learn mathematics because by studying it makes people smarter. It is about learning how to think in a particular way. Being able to think mathematically is very useful even if the particular skills taught are not. I believe that this is also true of the study of other fields as well. Each opens up a way of thinking that will benefit students for the rest of their lives. Insisting that it is practical and constructing contrived applications only communicates that we are lying about the need to study math. We need to tell our students the truth: Learning math makes your brain work better.

And finally, my résumé.

My student teaching is the last requirement before I can receive my Texas Mathematics 8–12 Mathematics Certification. So I will be looking for a job soon. Thus, I link to my résumé (PDF).