There Are Smaller Things to Fear Than Sharks

ChihuahuaAfter the two shark attacks inside of two hours on the same North Carolina beach, it’s not surprising that people get shook up. It could be that normal prey were in the area that attracted the sharks. Or it could just be a statistical fluke. Regardless, it is good that both victims were given immediate help and survived — albeit with life changing wounds. I haven’t been able to find any information on what kind of sharks they were, but one eye-witness said one of the sharks was about seven feet long. My guess would be that it was either a blacktip or bull shark. The blacktips are more common, but the bulls are more likely to attack.

Although I love and respect sharks, I really won’t go in the water. Blame it on Jaws. But I find it amazing that people actually dive with big and dangerous sharks — including great whites. But that’s their business. In general, being around sharks is a lot safer than you would think. For one thing, most sharks aren’t that aggressive. But even the supposed “man eaters” don’t really see us as prey. We are too boney. Not that this is much comfort to someone who just had her arm bitten off.

Christopher Ingraham wrote a good article following these recent shark attacks, The Animals That Are Most Likely to Kill You This Summer. He noted that people tend to dismiss concerns about shark attacks by pointing out things like heart attacks or traffic accidents. These really aren’t very helpful because the fear is not just about dying but the manner of death. Being bitten in half is not how most of us want to go — although it is probably better than getting mauled to death by a bear.

He put together an infographic that lays out our risks. It’s interesting. Looking at the United States from 2001 to 2013, we find that on average, only one person is killed per year by sharks, alligators, and bears. Venomous snakes and reptiles kill six. Spiders kill seven. And shockingly, nine people are killed by non-venomous arthropods — I assume ants. What’s up with that? Let me just say right now that I would rather be killed by a shark.

Similarly, bees and such kill almost 60 people per year. They are the biggest animal killers. But I’m more interested in the animals that we choose to be around — the ones we think of as our friends. Cows kill a lot of people — not because they are mean, but because they are big and people work with them. But dogs are responsible for 28 deaths per year. I’ve written about this, Dog Violence Is Completely Unacceptable. Too often it is one of those aggressive dogs that men with small penises refuse to castrate — usually resulting in the deaths of children and pregnant woman. Horses also kill a lot of people.

But the truth is that we shouldn’t worry about animals killing us. Mistakes made in US hospitals result in roughly 100,000 deaths each year. It’s important to keep things in perspective. Just the same, I don’t see myself making a categorical statement like, “Don’t go into the hospital!”

Taking the Personal Out of Personalized Education

Alfie KohnTocqueville’s observations about the curious version of democracy that Americans were cultivating in the 1830s have served as a touchstone for social scientists ever since. One sociologist writes about the continued relevance of what Tocqueville noticed way back then, particularly the odd fact that we cherish our commitment to individualism yet experience a “relentless pressure to conform.” Each of us can do what he likes as long as he ends up fundamentally similar to everyone else: You’re “free to expand as a standardized individual.”

A couple of decades ago, that last phrase reminded me of how our pitiful individuality was screwed to the backs of our cars in the form of customized license plates. Today it brings to mind what goes by the name “personalized learning.”

A suffix can change everything. When you attach -ality to sentiment, for example, you end up with what Wallace Stevens called a failure of feeling. When -ized is added to personal, again, the original idea has been not merely changed but corrupted — and even worse is something we might call Personalized Learning, Inc (PLI), in which companies sell us digital products to monitor students while purporting to respond to the differences among them.

Personal learning entails working with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests. It requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well.

Personalized learning entails adjusting the difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students’ test scores. It requires the purchase of software from one of those companies that can afford full-page ads in Education Week.

—Alfie Kohn
Four Reasons to Worry About “Personalized Learning”

‘Terrorism’ Signifies ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’ Nothing More

Dylann RoofThere has been much talk about Dylann Roof who apparently killed nine people at a Bible study being held at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Many on the left want to call it terrorism and think that it is a sign of hypocrisy that it isn’t. I am highly sympathetic to that complaint. But I find myself coming at it from the other side. “Terrorism” is one of those words that describes nothing. Its use only serves to separate the world into the good people (us) and the bad people (them).

In the 1980s, I remember that the US press had no problem referring to those fighting against the government in the Salvadoran Civil War as “terrorists.” Meanwhile, those fighting against the far more legitimate Sandinista government in Nicaragua were “freedom fighters.” We see the same kind of thing today with countries like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The former is an ally, so the best gloss is put on everything it does. The former is nominally an enemy, so the worst gloss is put on everything it does. This isn’t surprising coming from the US government. Why it is that our “free” press goes right along with it has always been something of a mystery to me.

Michael Zehaf-BibeauIt may be just an extension of what Alexis De Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.” We believe in the freedom to dissent — as long as no one really exercises it. I have long wondered if we don’t continue to have a nominally free press only because our press is in fact as compliant as Pravda. And that takes us back to the word “terrorism” and its magical properties.

Since I was a little kid, I’ve thought that terrorism was the use of violence to keep people in a constant state of terror and thus make them compliant to the political will of those using the terrorism. I looked up the word on Merriam-Webster, and that is more or less what it says: “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.” But this definition is extremely problematic because by it, the United States is the biggest terrorist group in the world. The people in Afghanistan who have drones constantly flying over them are indeed — and very explicitly — being terrorized.

And it isn’t just the United States. Modern warfare has changed. Look at the following table from the documentary War Made Easy.

War Civilian Casualties
World War I 10%
World War II 50%
Vietnam 70%
Iraq 90%

Civilians have always been killed in war. But now, war is not even primarily about two armies fighting against each other; it is about two countries (groups, whatever) fighting against each other. Most people just want to live their little lives, but if they live in the wrong place, war comes to them. And that is terrorism — pure and simple.

I don’t really think that Dylann Roof walking into that church and killing people is an act of terrorism — as horrific as it was. But I also don’t think that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s shooting spree in Ottawa was terrorism either. And I certainly don’t think all these FBI created “crimes” are terrorism. They all just seem to be disturbed people doing the kinds of things that disturbed people do. But that doesn’t mean that I’m complaining about calling Dylann Roof a terrorist — because he certainly qualifies better thant Zehaf-Bibeau, who no one in the mainstream media had trouble calling a terrorist.

I’d like to get rid of the word “terrorist.” All it does is clarify what side we think any criminal is on. And in the current American context, it is patently racist. If Dylann Roof were a Muslim, people would be calling his murders terrorism. Maybe in the final analysis, people would change their minds. But the calculus is clear enough: a violent Muslim is by default a terrorist, even if he is really just a confused crazy person. Labeling something “terrorism” doesn’t tell us anything about it — except that a Muslim was involved.

Economic Policy Is Based on Friendly Guesses

Carola Conces BinderCarola Conces Binder wrote a very interesting article over at her blog Quantitative Ease, Another Four Percent. The reference is to Jeb Bush’s claim that he’s gonna rev up the economy to 4% growth. He got this number from a brainstorming session at his big brother’s “institute.” Brainstorming is a nice word for it. A more accurate word would be BS session. It’s the kind of number that is pulled out of the anus of one animal or another. But why 4%? Why not 6%? Or 40%? Or a Googolplex — if we are just making it up?

Well, there is a reason for it. The economic growth rate under Obama has been 2%. So why not double it? It isn’t totally out of the question. Certainly we saw growth near that level during Clinton’s presidency. But that was largely fueled by the stock bubble. Matt Yglesias, for one, is not impressed, Jeb Bush’s 4% Growth Promise Is 104% Nonsense. He pointed out a few things. First, since 1980, the average GDP growth rate has only been 2.7%. And it has never been as high as 4% for an entire president’s term. And perhaps most disturbing for Jeb Bush is that under his brother and father, the growth rate was only a bit more than 2%.

I’m personally fed up with GDP growth as a measure worth caring about. Our economy works very well at growing. But it does a terrible job of distributing the rewards. And the power elite understand this. When John Cochrane discussed whether 4% growth was reasonable, he brought up the 11 million undocumented workers. Why? Because that would increase GDP. We aren’t talking per capita GDP here. The idea is just to get more wealth in the economy overall. The power elite know that this means they will get a cut of it. The median income can slip further and further down, but their incomes will go up and up.

Binder noted the real reason that 4% was picked, “Let’s face it, we have a thing for nice, round, kind of arbitrary numbers.” In fact, Jeb Bush himself said, “It’s a nice round number.” And this seems to be the state of economic analysis at this point. She mentioned another “nice round number” that has no basis in reality: the Federal Reserve’s 2% inflation target. This is a number that Alan Greenspan apparently just pulled out his (or some other convenient) anus. But it is now taken as though it were brought down off Mount Sinai on clay tablets. Yet in the late 1960s, we had a great economy with inflation in the 4% to 5% range. But the economy was only good for workers, so I guess it doesn’t count.

Economists have a lot of complicated and elegant theories about the way the economy works. And some of those theories have the benefit of even being correct. But when it comes to economic policies, all these theories are used for is to justify wild guesses that the power elite grab hold of. I’m sure that Jeb Bush can find an economist who will build him a model that shows that if he just cuts taxes by the right amount, we will get GDP growth of 4% per year for a decade. But it’s all just done for the personal gain of the powerful. It’s religion — faith based policy. And heretics like me who think our inflation target ought to be double what it is aren’t burned at the stake. We are just ignored. Because obviously we are wrong. All the smart and knowledgeable people know that the inflation target must be 2% — that’s what defines who is smart and knowledgeable.

So why shouldn’t Jeb Bush pull out 4% growth as what will happen if he becomes president? It’s no less grounded in reality than any of our other economic policy.

Morning Music: Jules and the Polar Bears

Got No Breading - Jules and the Polar BearsOne of my all time favorite bands is Jules and the Polar Bears. I remember when I heard their first album, Got No Breeding — it blew me away. I loved the straightforward rock music mixed with the exceptional songwriting of Jules Shear — who remains one of my favorite songwriters. They never took off because, you know, they were good.

But it was often claimed that one of the reasons that the band never “broke” was that they were not very good live — or at least that they didn’t take live performance all that seriously. Actually, they didn’t take their later studio efforts very seriously, but that’s another story. Until now, I had never had the opportunity to hear them play live. But late last year, Rock on MV put on a 35 minute set by the band. And they are great!

Check it out:

Anniversary Post: Telegraph

Samuel MorseOn this day back in 1840, Samuel Morse was given the patent for the telegraph. Yeah, yeah, yeah: very important invention. And he was an exceptional painter. But it just goes to show that being brilliant and talented doesn’t make you a good person. Samuel Morse was a total jerk — a truly vile person. Let me count the ways. First, he was radically anti-Catholic, because, you know, he was a protestant and knew the one true way. Second, he was anti-immigrant, because, you know, he was already here. Third, he was pro-slavery, because, you know, being born in Massachusetts he had no reason to be for it except that the Bible told him so. Just listen to the great man on the subject:

My creed on the subject of slavery is short. Slavery per se is not sin. It is a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom. The mere holding of slaves, therefore, is a condition having per se nothing of moral character in it, any more than the being a parent, or employer, or ruler.

That’s the problem with getting your morality from a book — especially one from thousands of years earlier that is filed with the vilest of social conventions cloaked in the idea that it was God’s will. Anyway, like most evil men, he had a long and happy life. He certainly didn’t make as much money off his patents as he could have, but he lived and died quite rich. So if you hear anyone complain that he didn’t get his due, remember: he lived like Mitt Romney but might have lived like Warren Buffett if his patents had been better controlled. Excuse me if I don’t care.

Anyway, happy anniversary for the bigot’s invention!

Text edited from . . . – – – . . . for Samuel Morse.