Monday, October 31, 2005

I'm not making this up—Part III

I don’t care if it will save your life, this is sex we’re talking about —Some 10,000 women get cervical cancer every year and although the introduction of the Pap Smear test has greatly increased the survivability of the disease, cervical cancer still kills almost 4,000 of them. So if someone produced a vaccine that could be injected in every girl just before puberty that would absolutely prevent her from ever coming down with this cancer, that would be a good thing, yes? We could almost eradicate cervical cancer entirely. Wonderful, right?

Such a vaccine apparently now exists. It has shown in tests to be virtually 100% effective in blocking the human papilloma virus (HPV), the leading cause of cervical cancer in the U.S. Merck & Co., one of two firms that developed the vaccine, will ask the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the end of the year to sell the shots.

Now you are not going to believe this, but the reactionary right wing of American society, opposes making the vaccine mandatory because they fear it would send subtle messages to girls that sex was okay. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, you see, and if you give a girl a shot to prevent the virus from infecting her you would be subtly telling her it’s okay to get laid in a drunken stupor by Bubba on a couch after a football game or a binge drnking party or in his F-150 or something. You see the logic. They don’t oppose the vaccine itself, just not for their daughters. They are afraid it would sabotage their abstinence message, which, of course is a demonstrable failure.

How the vaccine will be used, is up to the FDA. Some want the vaccine mandatory—get a shot or not be allowed into high school. (By the way, boys who get the shots are less likely to pass on the virus). Others think parents should have the choice. If I want my daughter to be vulnerable to cervical cancer, you can’t make me immunize her.

In order to forestall the rucus, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, which produces another vaccine, are meeting with advocacy groups to try and calm things down. I think that is probably a good idea although my response would be less polite.

In a good piece by Rob Stein in the Washington Post, Alan M. Kaye, executive director of the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, likened the vaccine to wearing a seat belt. "Just because you wear a seat belt doesn't mean you're seeking out an accident," Kaye said. Mr. Kaye is a card. He thinks logic will work here.

Which leads to my final question: Why does anyone actually pay any attention to these people.?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Give five minutes to Hitler, five to the Jews

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'--One of the more infuriating laws of modern American journalism is that there are always two sides to every story, that both sides deserve equal treatment in the story, and that we leave it up to the readers to sort it all out. It’s called "balance." The headline to this story is a joke often told in television news rooms by reporters who are forced into this kind of "balance" by timid or politically correct editors. It’s called the "Hitler rule." Whole newspapers (hello Minneapolis) have had their reputations destroyed following this maxim. It happens in science writing all the time, and usually it is the science writer whose stories are victimized by it. It happened to me occasionally, and one of the foremost proponents of this rule was John Carroll, the former and widely lamented editor of the Los Angeles Times, who left the paper when he could no longer stand the business plan of the Tribune Company. (And bravo to him). He is a great editor, but he had this one problem.

The fact is that there are not always two sides to every story and both sides should not be given equal weight if you are going to report the story accurately.

Don’t believe me? Try coverage of evolution and the fight over "intelligent design." Coverage of the case of Kitmiller v. Dover Area School District, now on-going in backwater Pennsylvania, is a great example.

Let’s say it up front. Biologic evolution is to biology as gravity is to physics. A whole sciences is based on it. It seems to be the word “theory” that causes a problem. To laymen, especially those with intellectual challenges, “theory” means something we think is right but we aren’t quite sure of yet. We’re working on it. To a scientist, "theory" is an explanation subject to proof. It is, according to the dictionary: “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena; theories can incorporate facts and laws and tested hypotheses; true in fact and theory.” It is not something we are working on; it is something we are trying to illuminate and explain. Big difference.

So when journalists are writing about the evolution wars, they need to understand that there are not two sides to the story. That usually works out well when science writers are doing the writing because we know this, but in recent years, the dispute, which has vast political ramifications, is increasingly being turned over to generalists or political writers, who don’t know better. (One editor at my old newspaper once told me that any good reporter could cover any story equally. That’s demonstrable nonsense, demonstrable by taking, say, your education writer and turning her loose covering the NFL. If she is not a knowledgeable fan, you get what you deserve.)

For a good discussion of this, I recommend the Columbia Journalism Review’s Daily on-line site, edited by one of my former editors, Steve Lovelady (who did not have the above problem). The piece by Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet, shows how even great newspapers like The Washington Post, can screw this up. (Science writers love to tell the story of the time the Post, deciding that its renowned medical specialists were too "close" to the subject to write about the War on Cancer accurately, turned the assignment over to some of its general assignment and political reporters and who blew it so badly the paper had to turn an entire letters-to-the-editor pages over to outraged experts who picked through steaming piles of mistakes.) It points out one story in March in which Peter Slevin of the Post followed the Hitler rule, giving "intelligent design" the same gravitas as evolution. He is hardly alone.
As evolution, driven by such events, shifts out of scientific realms and into political and legal ones, it ceases to be covered by context-oriented science reporters and is instead bounced to political pages, opinion pages, and television news. And all these venues, in their various ways, tend to deemphasize the strong scientific case in favor of evolution and instead lend credence to the notion that a growing “controversy” exists over evolutionary science. This notion may be politically convenient, but it is false.
What they say! There is no controversy in science about evolution any more than there is a controversy over global warming. To imply to readers otherwise is a disservice and terrible journalism. There simply are not two sides to this story.
We reached our conclusions about press coverage after systematically reading through seventeen months of evolution stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post; daily papers in the local areas embroiled in the evolution debate (including both papers covering Dover, Pennsylvania, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Topeka, Kansas, Capital-Journal); and relevant broadcast and cable television news transcripts. Across this coverage, a clear pattern emerges when evolution is an issue: from reporting on newly discovered fossil records of feathered dinosaurs and three-foot humanoids to the latest ideas of theorists such as Richard Dawkins, science writers generally characterize evolution in terms that accurately reflect its firm acceptance in the scientific community. Political reporters, generalists, and TV news reporters and anchors, however, rarely provide their audiences with any real context about basic evolutionary science. Worse, they often provide a springboard for anti-evolutionist criticism of that science, allotting ample quotes and sound bites to Darwin’s critics in a quest to achieve "balance." The science is only further distorted on the opinion pages of local newspapers.
Want to know why we are the only civilized place on the planet that is still discussing this issue? Want to know the origin of the Kansas jokes? Journalism and its false balance is part of the reason.

Good on CJR Daily.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Podcasts, bloggers and science writers

The National Association of Science Writers session on podcasts, bloggers and science writers is itself a podcast and if you click on the headline, you'll get there, thanks to Amy Gahran. I am the guy mumbling and talking too quickly. You will, however, learn a lot from the others in the group, Amy, Carl Zimmer and Merry Bruns, all of whom know more about this than I. Amy's site is You can click here.

That was the American Century, this is something else--UPDATED

Come quickly Mr. Gibbon, I fear another empire is declining
—Some time in the last decade something remarkable happened that has not been discussed widely: the United States may have lost its lead in science and scientific research. Depending on the study, it either happened in 1996 or 1998. You can’t blame the Bush Administration; this goes all the way through Clinton, but at one point, the lead in the percentage of scientific publications attributable to one region passed from North America (the U.S., and Canada) to the European Union.

In many ways, it is part of a demoralization of science in the U.S. Scientists find themselves debating evolution, which makes as much sense to scientists as debating gravity, and were ignored when they tried to introduce science into the Terri Schiavo case. A good Reuters piece today describers this unease.

Measuring scientific productivity is tricky business and admittedly imperfect. Several scales have been developed, mostly measuring the number of publications in scientific journals and the number of times a paper has been cited. The field is called bibliometrics. The best-known scale is the Science Citation Index (SCI). Mainly, it is a database that monitors the journals with the highest impact (most frequently cited) covering most of mainstream science and throws in patents granted. The flaws are clear: the journals are mostly in English and ignore national journals written in other languages, but since English has become the lingua franca of science, that is not necessarily a major problem. The journals also exclude social sciences, but social sciences do not ordinarily have an economic impact on a country.

The best study may be from UNESCO out of Montreal.
North America lost the lead it had in 1996, and in 2000 produced 36.8% of the world’s total [of published scientific papers], a decrease from 41.4% in 1981. The opposite trend can be found in the European Union, which in 2000 published 40.2% of the world total, up from 32.8% in 1981. Japan went up from 6.9% to 10.7% in 2000. Those three areas accounted for 81% of all the scientific publications in 2000, up from 72% in 1981.
North America also showed a decline in expenditures in R&D which might have something to do with it. Europe increased its share of publications but it also showed a decline in spending, but that might have been because of a shift in priorities, UNESCO surmised. Asia showed a huge increase in both expenditures and productivity in the same decade. Asia leads in the physical sciences while clinical and biomedical research take up a larger proportion of spending in the other developed countries.

Collaborations murk up the data a bit, but most collaborations are between scientists in the developed world (74%).

In 2000, the last year figures are available, North America produced 214,973 papers, the European Union (EU-25, or the 15 original EU members plus the 10 who joined in 2004) published 234,991. Throw in the former Soviet republics of Europe and central Eastern Europe and the figure grows to 264,829.

In a 2000 article in American Scientist, Antonio Galvez et al used different figures and came to the same conclusion but put the transfer two years later.
Most of the western European countries experienced steady publication growth during this period, largely as a result of scientific programs under the auspices of the European Union. In terms of percentage growth, both Latin America (10.42%) and the Middle East (8.28%) exceeded western Europe (6.3%), but its large facilities allowed western Europe to top the world for total production.
[To be continued, and with thanks to Rosalind Reid of American Scientist, who told me about this at the NASW meeting and provided most of the research. It’s nice to have bright friends.]

Monday, October 24, 2005

The decline of Western Civilization, U.S. Division

My kid is more ignorant than your kid
. Let's make a bumper sticker--One of the joys of the weekend meeting of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) was getting to meet readers of this here blog and say hello and thank them for being readers of this here blog. One reader in particular fascinated me, a woman, an American, who writes science out of Switzerland. She told me the fun she has trying to explain to Europeans the furor over evolution and “intelligent design” in this country. The answer is, she pointed out, that you cannot. It doesn’t register. There is no equivalent relationship between a loud, minority religious group and public policy or education in Europe, and as we pointed out below, the U.S. has more religiosity than any other country. You can’t explain why citizens of the most powerful country in the world are having to go to court to keep the known-nothings from destroying their children’s education.

More than 60% of Americans reject Darwin's evolution. According to a CBS poll (here), more than 50% believe humans were created by God just as we are (God forbid!) and another 10% accept the evolutionary process but believe God had a hand in it. You would be hard-put to find any other country in the developed (or undeveloped world for that matter) where faith trumps reason so perfectly.

One of the strengths of American education used to be local control, the fact that local citizens could have considerable influence on what was taught in the schools. That has now become one of the systems’ great threats. It apparently is not enough to be ignorant; it apparently is not enough to inflict your ignorance on your children. Now it is a matter of inflicting your ignorance on other peoples’ children. And we put up with it.

When Darwin published the “Origin of Species” in 1859, fundamentalist elements in the Christian Church attacked it and attacked him using exactly the same language the fundamentalist extremists use now. The only difference is that the English got it out of their system 150 years ago. We haven’t.

Earlier, in what turned out to be one of the most read postings on this blog, I quoted from H.L. Mencken, who covered the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925. Often forgotten is the fact John T. Scopes was convicted. Here is Mencken’s story on the last day of the trial as published in the Baltimore Evening Sun.

All that remains of the great cause of the State of Tennessee against the infidel Scopes is the formal business of bumping off the defendant. There may be some legal jousting on Monday and some gaudy oratory on Tuesday, but the main battle is over, with Genesis completely triumphant. Judge Raulston finished the benign business yesterday morning by leaping with soft judicial hosannas into the arms of the prosecution. The sole commentary of the sardonic Darrow consisted of bringing down a metaphorical custard pie upon the occiput of the learned jurist.

"I hope," said the latter nervously, "that counsel intends no reflection upon this court."

Darrow hunched his shoulders and looked out of the window dreamily.

"Your honor," he said, "is, of course, entitled to hope."...

The Scopes trial, from the start, has been carried on in a manner exactly fitted to the anti- evolution law and the simian imbecility under it. There hasn't been the slightest pretense to decorum. The rustic judge, a candidate for re-election, has postured the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent side show, and almost every word he has uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions. The chief prosecuting attorney, beginning like a competent lawyer and a man of self-respect, ended like a convert at a Billy Sunday revival. It fell to him, finally, to make a clear and astounding statement of theory of justice prevailing under fundamentalism. What he said, in brief, was that a man accused of infidelity had no rights whatever under Tennessee law...

Darrow has lost this case. It was lost long before he came to Dayton. But it seems to me that he has nevertheless performed a great public service by fighting it to a finish and in a perfectly serious way. Let no one mistake it for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience. Tennessee, challenging him too timorously and too late, now sees its courts converted into camp meetings and its Bill of Rights made a mock of by its sworn officers of the law. There are other States that had better look to their arsenals before the Hun is at their gates.
By the way, Mencken had his own version of intelligent design in the universe.
It is impossible to imagine the universe run by a wise, just and omnipotent God, but it is quite easy to imagine it run by a board of gods. If such a board actually exists it operates precisely like the board of a corporation that is losing money.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Religion is the opiate of the sociology class

If this country turned itself to God the whole damn place would burn down—America is a God-fearing country, probably the most religious developed country in the world, and the more religious we get the safer, healthier we all will be, we are told. You may well have heard that in a political speech or two, or from one of those screamers on Fox or the sanctimonious ranting of a preacher or two. Is it true? Is religion associated with lower rates of “lethal violence, suicide, non-monogomous sexual activity and abortion?” Will be we a better country if we get even more religious?

Enter an independent scientist named Gregory S. Paul here in Baltimore, who has actually done a study of this notion and published it in the recent issue of the Journal of Religion and Society. Paul points out that until the 20th century, most western nations were fairly religious, some more than others, but as the century progressed, most of those countries became secularized—with the exception of the U.S. While church attendance in France, Britain, Italy and most of the European countries shrank in the 20th century, the U.S. became far more church-going. Whereas in Britain, until Tony Blair, any prime minister referencing his or her religious belief quickly apologized for the gaffe, we have a president who ran on his evangelical beliefs and even, apparently, nominates Supreme Court judges on that basis. The Elmer Gantry set—has taken a prominent place in political discourse. Are we better off? Paul says no.

In the U.S., many of the religious right attack evolution because if evolution is true, they maintain, there is no need for a Creator, and without a Creator we will sink into anarchy and chaos. Evolution is, they assert, a leading contributor to social dysfunction because it is amoral.

OK, but the least religious developed country in the world is Japan, the country where evolution is least controversial is Japan, and guess which country has among the lowest crime rates and most stable societies in the world? The country with the lowest level of acceptance? Do I have to say? Evolution is not an issue in Europe either, and their societies are far safer and more stable than ours.

The homicide rates in Christian Europe and the Americas were once astronomical. While it has decreased dramatically all over, guess which country has by far the highest. It’s true of most major crimes as well.

How about sex? (How about sex?). The U.S. has a sexually transmitted disease rate six times higher than the secular developed, pro-evolution countries, Paul writes. In the totally secular Scandinavian countries, it has been virtually eradicated.

The rate in the U.S., of youth suicide and juvenile mortality is far higher. “Life spans tend to decrease as rates of religiosity rise, especially as a function of absolute belief,” he adds, with Denmark being the only exception. There are fewer abortions in the secular countries, as well as fewer teenaged pregnancies. The age when kids first get laid is the same all over, religious or otherwise. It's too early everywhere.

Paul is not alone. A recent U.S. Census Bureau report showed that teenage pregnancies in the more religious red states are twice what they are in the blue states where manners of morality are closer to European standards than say those of Dallas. According to FBI statistics, the more religious red states have higher murder rates than the blue states (one reason most states without the death penalty are not in the South). The divorce rate is 50% higher there as well. And would you believe that those states that most talk about self-reliance and cut-backs in social programs get far more money from Washington then they send there, in other words, living off the dole.

As far as hypocrisy goes, we are unmatched.

Paul admits his study has weaknesses, mostly in working poverty into the equations. But we are the richest country in the world, so why do we have that poverty in the first place. Oh, never mind.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Did Bilbo Baggins serve ristaffel?

Gosh, Mr. Frodo, the anthropologists are coming—Scientists working in Indonesia have found a jaw bone of a small human-like creature, about the size of a hobbit, in a cave in the island of Flores. The finding, reported in Nature, is the ninth individual belonging to a group that may have lived as recently as 12,000 years ago, roaming the world at the same time os we modern humans and dubbed Homo floresiensis. Last year they found the remains of a female, part of a delicate skull and assorted bones, who lived about 18,000 years ago, triggering considerable furor in the anthropology world. Other fragments range from 12,000 to 95,000 years old. The creatures were about three feet tall and had the brain capacity of a chimpanzee. There is no evidence of hairy feet. Or rings. It is worth noting that not everyone is convinced. As John Nobel Wilford points out in the New York Times, there is a loud minority who think the Astralian and Indonesian researchers have simply uncovered the remains of dwarfs or deformed modern humans. In a commentary in Nature, Daniel Lieberman of Harvard said the authors of the paper now are no longer sure of the lineage of the little creatures, but Peter Brown, one of the Australians at the University of New England said they were too. Other critics wonder if it really is a new species. Others call it a possible example of island dwarfing, the tendency for organisms who live in isolation to shrink in size and evolve smaller bodies, their growth restrained by limited resources. Or maybe it's a groupw suffering from genetic microcephaly, small heads and brains. Or, they have indeed discovered Middle Earth and the Bagginses, and the hell with all you smart-assedPh.D.s. A lovely thought.

Note to glorious readers:
The management will be off atoning for his sins Wednesday night and Thursday, the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. Fear not. I have led a blameless, sin-free life (which turns out to be pretty boring, if you ask me), so it will be an easy fast. I trust that is true for the rest of you sinners as well. For the rest of you, back at you Friday, and thanks for all the fish.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Chesley Bonestell—forget the terrestrial scenery, ignore the Italian virgins

The kid has an artist as a hero? What the hell kind of kid is that? —
Never heard of Chesley Bonestell? Too bad. When I was a kid (we’re talking Eisenhower administration here), he was my hero. He was an artist. He was the best damned artist I ever saw. Forget all those French types and their scenery, and the Italians and their virgins. Chesley Bonestell painted space. Mostly it was real, scientifically accurate, or at least as accurate as you could get in those days. Two of his best paintings are posted here so you can see what I mean. He is credited with being one of the four men who drove America to the moon. He can be credited with making me a science writer, perhaps his least accomplishment.

In 1949, science writer Willy Ley produced a book called The Conquest of Space, illustrated by Bonestell (pronounced bah-nes-tel), who used a technique I would call space realism. We hadn’t been in space but Bonestell painted like he was there. The book was stunning. I wish I had kept my copy. More books followed by Ley, by Fred Whipple and by Wernher von Braun, all illustrated by Bonestell, all gorgeous. It culminated in 1952 with an article in Colliers, then a major popular magazine, and again Bonestell contributed the illustrations. Many believe that the American space program began with these publications. Certainly they did in the public mind.

Bonestell was a native of San Francisco and was trained as an architect, helping to build the Golden Gate Bridge and the Chrysler building. When the Depression hit, he decided the only way he was going to make a living was as a special effects artist. He became the premier matte painter in Hollywood. Mattes are paintings that are put in front of the camera that simulate background. They are still used today. He worked on several classic sci-fi films, including George Pal’s War of the Worlds (which beats the hell out of Spielberg’s version) and Destination Moon. Bonestell’s mattes are the reason the films are so beautiful. In the meantime, he was hired by various magazine publishers, including The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, where he did the covers and where I found him. I was astounded. I was hooked. I’m still reading that stuff 60 years later and Bonestell is one of the reasons why.

In 1968, when I was a national correspondent for Reuters in New York, the reporter who had been covering the space program announced that he found it boring and it required too much travel so the news agency asked for volunteers. With dignity and restraint I am proud of to this day, I climbed up on a desk, jumped up and down, waved my hands madly and screamed “Me! Take Me! Oh, God, Me!” They did. I covered the moon landing and the rest of the space program for Reuters and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Bonestell’s paintings were never out of my mind as I wrote about space and I think some of those stories are so good in part for that reason.

He was watching too.
When Armstrong put his foot on the moon, I broke down
and cried...wept...tears poured down. It was the realization of
something I had been hoping for, for a large part of my life.
Me too, pal.

Bonestell’s work became less popular as the space program became mundane and lost its bearings and popularity. He died at the age of 98 in Carmel in 1986.

Most of Bonestell’s paintings are in private hands (I wish to hell mine were one of them) although there is a gallery you can reach here. EBay had only one for sale but it wasn’t one of his space paintings. According to his estate, Paul Allen now owns the Ordway collection, a good deal of which is on display at the Science Fiction Experience museum in Seattle. The Adler Planetarium has a large collection as does the National Air & Space Museum. A private collector in Chicago owns about 80.

If you were wondering what to get me for my birthday.…

We can dream. He did.

Art copyright (c) Bonestell Space Art, used with permission

Friday, October 07, 2005

Computers, education and the Waldorfian down the street

I love you dearly but if you get rid of the DSL line I’m taking my toothbrush and going away— When computers first hit tabletop size, science and technology writers like myself wrote often and glowingly how these machines would transform education. (I’m also the guy who wrote that computers would reduce the amount of paper in our lives, so don’t listen to a word I say.) Software companies selling educational programs proliferated with increasingly clever products designed to teach all sorts of skills and impart all kinds of knowledge.

Twenty years later, some people aren’t sure.

In an interesting, somewhat radical magazine called Orion, Lowell Monke, who teaches education at Wittenberg University in Ohio, has written in a piece called Charlotte’s Webpage, charging that the advent of computers in the classroom is a disaster. For reasons I’ll get to later, I don’t agree, but his points are worth considering.

Monke points out research, much of it done by Larry Cuban at Stanford, shows there is no evidence that the use of computers has made any advances in education. “The link between test-score improvements and computer availability and use is even more contested,” Cuban wrote. Moreover, says Monke, research on 174,000 students in 31 countries by the University of Munich indicates that students who use computers often perform worse academically than those who use them rarely, if at all.

Once it was clear that the devices were not going to be the salvation of education, supporters (like me) began to describe them as just another tool. How good they were depended on how you used them. Monke goes after that argument in an interesting way. He says, okay, it’s a tool. But now think of all the things students are not doing when they are at the computer. Think of all the things schools have to sacrifice to build good computer labs. Think of how it change the learning process, not to mention what it does for pedagogy.

Among the things students in computer labs aren’t doing is going on recess, he says. Recess has been dropped or curtailed in 40 percent of elementary and middle schools, according to the government. Virtual flowers may teach the mechanics of how flowers turn energy into blossoms but you have to touch a flower to see how fragile it is. Computers may be able to teach some aspects of socialization, he writes, but nothing replaces actual socialization—kids playing or even fighting with kids. Perhaps worse, kids have become what he calls Big Event Junkies. Just sitting in a class, listening to a teacher—even a really good one—can’t hold a candle to a well-designed, exciting game-like program. The kids can’t tear themselves away from the screens. They demand instant gratification.

“Children are typically disappointed when they first approach a pond or a stream: the fish aren’t jumping, the frogs aren’t croaking, the deer aren’t drinking, the otters aren’t plying and the raccoons (not to mention the bears) aren’t fishing. Their electronic experiences have led them to expect to see these things happening—all at once and with no effort on their parts,” he writes.

They can virtually climb Everest or scour the bottom of the sea but that is not the same thing as actually climbing Everest or scouring the bottom of the sea, he writes.

You got the point. There are some flaws in all of that. For instance, if schools are cutting recess it is less because of computers than it is because of test requirements. It is the government-mandated tests that drive schools now. And it still is how you use computers that matters. If teachers can’t figure out ways of incorporating the computers into how they teach better than they often do now, don’t blame the computers. Since kids can’t really go mountain climbing or SCUBA to depths, why not take them on virtual trips?

Which brings us to the Waldorfian down the street. Monke, if he doesn’t know it already, might be very happy at a Waldorf School. Waldorf schools are based on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian theosophist.
Waldorf schools reflect Steiner's education theories, which hold that children advance through three stages....during the first stage, birth to age 7, the spirit inhabiting the body of the child is still adjusting to its surroundings, hence lower grades in Waldorf school offer minimal academic content. Reading is not introduced until second or third grade. During the second stage, ages seven to 14, children are said to be driven primarily by imagination and fantasy, so students are introduced to mythology. After age 14, the third stage, an astral body is believed to be drawn into the physical body, creating the onset of puberty.
According to Steiner, people existed on Earth since the creation of the planet. Humans, he taught, began as spirit forms and progressed through various stages to reach today's form. Humanity, Steiner said, is currently living in the Post-Atlantis Period, which began with the gradual sinking of Atlantis in 7227 BC ... The Post-Atlantis Period is divided into seven epochs, the current one being the European-American Epoch, which will last until the year 3573. After that, humans will regain the clairvoyant powers they allegedly possessed prior to the time of the ancient Greeks (Boston).


The schools follow many of his philosophies. They don’t teach reading until the child has lost much of his baby teeth (don’t ask) and instead of teaching science, they teach Eurythmy, a dance and motion exercise. They reject other Steiner positions. He was a nasty anti-Semite but the schools most certainly do not foster anti-Semitism. They are accused of fostering paganism instead.

What is pertinent to this discussion, is that the schools reject television and computers. In the local Waldorf school in Baltimore, the only computer in the building is the one the secretary uses. Parents are urged to run their homes likewise. So, Waldorf kids are supposed to watch less television and spend less time in front of a computer screen. In some homes, that probably even happens.

But then the real world sets in. Kids leaving Waldorf schools for even Baltimore public schools, have to go to summer school to get some of what they missed while they were doing motion exercises. A guidance counsellor at a Massachusetts community college near one Waldorf school, described the kids as “wonderful kids, lacking in some basic skills.“ Indeed. When Waldorf kids graduate from the 8th grade and go to other schools for high school, if they have obeyed the rules, they are mostly clueless about how to use a computer, how to research projects, how to find things on the web. If they picked some of these skills outside of school, they still are thrown in with classmates who have been banging away at these machines since the pre-school. My daughter, 12, who goes to a private school with multiple computer labs (brand-new networked Dells), is at least as good researching on the web as I am and is bilingual (Mac and Windows) to boot. Who has the advantage in education?

Forget educational software. The World Wide Web is the single greatest achievement in human thought and practice since the invention of the printing press. Waldorf kids, or kids from schools who take Monke too seriously, will be seriously challenged to catch up, and catch up they must if they want to get into good colleges. You see, these machines may not be the salvation of education, but they are remarkable devices that open the world to children in ways unimaginable 20 years ago.

Which brings us to the kid up the street. She is a sweet child, in the 6th grade at a Waldorf School. She reads voraciously now, as if to make up for the years they wouldn't teach her reading. She is my daughter’s closest friend and spends so much time in our house I may demand the federal tax rebate. We love her dearly. She loves us back dearly.

But would she love us just as dearly if we didn’t have satellite television and four Macs hooked to a DSL line by Airport base stations? Or a friend who can cruise the web like a pro and is quite happy to take her on her excursions?

The issue is not whether the devices have improved education. The issue is, if they have not, how to make them do so.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The decline of Western Civilization slowed-slightly—UPDATED

We all agree. One of the worst inventions of the modern world is the phone tree, the computerized system in which you have to keep pushing buttons in response to instructions when you are calling a company. It probably epitomizes the decline in service in this country. Instead of getting a human being, you get a computer. And then there is the time you call and go through 7 or 8 menus only to get a busy signal, meaning you have to do it all over again. Or it hangs up on you. And what if the menu selection doesn't actually respond to your situation? I hate it. Everyone hates it. Why we put up with it, I don't know. I once changed an insurance company because of their phone tree—I got mad as hell and wouldn't take it anymore.

Well, as you may known, many of these systems have an escape. You can often press 0 and get sent to an actual human being. In many cases, this doesn't work. So, some absolutely splendid people went off and did some research, and the result is a listing of how you can bypass the system for many companies. My thanks to David Pogue and his New York Times blog for this. If you'd like to find out how to talk to a real person and not some damn machine, click here. Of course, once the companies find out about this, they'll change the system. [By the way, the company that manufactures most of these systems swears they all leave the factory set to default to a human if you press 0, but many companies change it.] Pogue, by the way, calls it "phone mail," as do most people. It isn't "phone mail," it's technically known as interactive voice response or IVR. One of my peerless readers pointed out to me that even the people who manufacture IVR hate them and often leave a secret trap door in the programming so that when they call the companies that buy their product, they can go instantly to a human, bypassing the system. And, he says, if you get a busy signal or the machine hangs up on you, it may be a deliberate act to get rid of you. If a human did that you'd be pissed; if a machine does it, it's just a machine.

My son, incidentally, insists that in at least one system where you use voice commands instead of pushing buttons, if you shout "mother fucker" loudly enough, you will get switched to an operator. Try that yourself.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Goodbye and thanks for the Bach

Any playing of rap music will be considered a violation of the Federal Mammal Protection Act--When my wife was working on her dissertation in marine biology, she had two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins as experiment subjects (sonar echolocation) in a large tank at the Long Marine Lab at UC Santa Cruz. They were lovely animals and I suggested an experiment since we had the animals around anyway and they get bored easily. We would put underwater speakers in the tank, play music and see what happened. Would they like the symmetry of Mozart? How about the fugues of Bach? Perhaps a bit of Little Richard or even Phillip Glass? Elvis, of course. I was curious to see if they heard music as music—rhythms and melody—or just noise, and if they did, what did they like?

It turns out that experiment is not so weird. According to the results of two experiments about to be presented at a meeting of the Accoustical Society of America in Minneapolis in two weeks, dolphins do hear and understand music, and can even play some on a computer. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the experiment involved the theme song from the television show “Batman.” They didn’t even try the John Williams theme from the movie. Well, the experiments were done at Disney's Epcot, which may account for the peculiar taste.

The experiments mean that humans are not the only species that can process music. Dolphins can too. Heidi Harley (is that a great name or what?) of the New College of Florida took a male bottlenose put it in front of a hydrophone and played six different 14 kilohertz, 4 second rhythms. She then rewarded the dolphin every time it matched a certain behavior to a certain rhythm—wave a fin, toss a ball, whatever. Another male was trained to produce similar rhythms using a special pneumatic device connected to a computer that played sounds. Particular sounds were reinforced with objects, in this case, a Batman doll when the dolphin played one short and one long sound, as in BAT-MANNNNNNN! Not exactly the “Ode to Joy,” but it’s a start.

Harley doesn’t think the dolphins understand music, just variations in rhythms, and that still leaves my experiment unfulfilled. If you play “Johnnny-Be-Good” and the largetto from Mahler’s Fifth, would they prefer one to another. If you played rap music or hip-hop, would they kill somebody? I need funding.

[Thank you Carol]

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Flu, cancer and Microsoft—the plagues of civilization

We always knew it was the little bastards’ fault—If you want to know how flu epidemics spread go visit you nearest pre-school or kindergarten. At many homes, the little tykes are simply known as the “vectors” because they are the ones who walk the viruses into the house. Now, it turns out, they are crucial to the spread of influenza. The finding could mean a change in who gets flu vaccine first. Researchers in Boston—Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital—found that flu epidemics begin with kids aged 3 to 4, sometimes as early as in late September. Like now. It then spreads a week later to the little darlings aged 0-2, and then the older kids. Adults get the spread only in November. Not only that, you can measure just how lethal the flu is going to be (pneumonia and flu deaths) in the general population by measuring the incidents in the under-5 age group. “The data suggests that when kids are sneezing, The elderly begin to die," one researcher said. Isn't that cute? That means, of course, that by watching 3 to 4-year-olds, you can see just how bad things are going to be. The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology and vastly under-reported in the media (that’s why you come here, isn’t it?), points out that the present policy is to immunize the youngest kids first. Maybe a better idea is to hit the pre-schools.

When the canary in the mine starts coughing fast—The use of PSA (prostate specific antigen) testing to detect prostate cancer is controversial, which is surprising. It has its flaws, both false positives (which could make a guy get a biopsy which, I'm told, is no fun at all) and false negatives (it fails to detect a percentage of prostate cancer), but it does tell us something useful, and while the data still is unsettled, it has to have saved lives. In recent years, the raw numbers have been subject to considerable skepticism and most attention has been placed on the movement of those numbers from a baseline. In other words, it matters less what the count is than how fast the count got there. A relatively rapid rise in number can be more important than what the number is. New research out of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston suggests that you can tell just how much shit you in after radiation and hormone therapy by how fast the PSA level rises after treatment. A rapid rise—how fast it doubles—could be a good predictor of what they euphemistically described as “clinical failure,” or more specifically, the cancer will return or spread. Patients whose PSA level doubled within eight months after treatment failure were more likely to have clinical outcomes that are unhappy. It’s published in a journal with a terribly long name but you can get it here.

And while we’re discussing cancer we might as well bring up Microsoft—Microsoft is not having a good time. Oh, they are still shovelling in profits in obscene amounts, but one gathers they are not having fun. They certainly can see some clouds out there. For one thing, the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has pulled Microsoft Office off its PCs and replaced it with open, non-proprietary software, like software made by Sun, one of Microsoft's former arch-enemies (former because they beat them to death). The state released a final version of its Enterprise Technical Reference Model on its website, announcing it will support the newly ratified Open Document Format for Office Applications, or OpenDocuments. That means, no Word—or WordPerfect for that matter. Instead, state agencies will use OpenOffice, StarOffice and IBM Workplace. Massachusetts is not the first to dump proprietary software (read Office) and the company is running around putting out similar fires all over the world. Additionally, there is growing evidence that the company’s Achille's heel is showing. The web, the technology that Microsoft at first ignored and then pulled out the artillery to dominate, is looming as its next challenge. You see, the web is capable of becoming a full-fledged platform that could eventually challenge Windows. The threat is no secret to Microsoft; one of its engineers wrote a memo five years ago warning it could happen and there are signs it is. Worse, the enemy is probably Google and even Microsoft now takes Google seriously. They ain't Netscape. And finally, no company in the world likes to dominate its environment as much as Microsoft does so imagine how pissed Bill Gates must be to: a) notice that Apple dominates 80% of the downloadable music market; b) to admit that it’s newest version of Windows (named Vista) won’t be ready for another year and even then will probably contain an awful lot of features that look an awful lot like the Mac operating system (0S-X-Tiger) I've been using for almost a year and will even look like it, and c) when Steve Jobs announces a new innovation the press goes wild, and when Microsoft does—well, Microsoft doesn’t. It reminds me of the old joke: how many French generals does it take to defend Paris? Wouldn't know. It's never happened.

L’Shana Tova—This site will be down Tuesday and Wednesday for the Jewish holidays. For those of you who are members of the tribe, may you have a sweet and healthy new year, and for those of you who aren’t, well, you go and have one too.