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Ask Slashdot: Any Place For Liberal Arts Degrees In Tech?

AthanasiusKircher Re:Liberal Arts Teach Rhetoric not Critical Thinki (391 comments)

Most liberal arts courses are driven by writing essays where you defend a thesis. The actual validity of your thesis didn't matter so long as you are able to find several points to defend it.

Then you had poor teachers, unless you were taking only courses in the art of persuasive writing (or, as you call it, rhetoric). If your other professors let you get away with this, then shame on them.

As someone who has taught university courses (and who has discussed pedagogy and writing with a lot of faculty in both sciences and humanities), I do see the value in constructing a thesis with supporting evidence as a first step to writing an expository essay. But at some level you do need to question the validity of the argument and the significance of the evidence -- if your professors never required this level of rigor, they did you a disservice.

On the other hand, as someone who has read thousands of student essays over the years, let me also say that faculty are often overwhelmed with simply trying to get students to put together some semblance of a logical chain of an argument in the first place, let alone requiring the rigor you're talking about. That's not to excuse what you describe, but a significant percentage of university-level students have such poor writing skills now that they can get nowhere near the standard you suggest. And professors are often just happy to have a kid submit something that "sounds like an argument," even if it isn't fully rigorous, because it's better than much of the crap that has to be read and graded.

What I commonly saw was students starting with a conclusion and working backwards to find evidence which best fit the chosen thesis. [snip] In a science course this would be called cherry picking the data, in liberal arts, it's called another day.

Well, it's also called "confirmation bias," which is problem both in scientific experimental design and in humanities arguments. Part of the problem is that humanities issues are often not quantifiable in the same way that science ones are, and even if you try to quantify them, you end up with so many interacting variables that statistical analysis can be pretty meaningless. So, in some ways it's related to the fundamental nature of the content of the field -- which still doesn't excuse poor reasoning.

My science course work on the other hand is where critical thinking was encouraged.

Okay, let's see what that entailed....

I was taught how to write logical proofs, I was taught how to represent both everyday situations, and also computational operations in the form of atomic sentences.

That sounds like a course in "formal logic," which is often taught in philosophy departments, not science courses. And as for "represent... everyday situations," I have met many, many science undergraduates who have very little perspective on applying their methods to "real-world problems," unfortunately.

I was taught the dangers of conflating correlation with causation, I was taught the dangers of Type I and Type II errors.

This is basic statistics, which should be a required course for everyone, no matter what major. (Frankly, I think it should be required to graduate high school.)

I was taught about common logical fallacies.

This is traditionally the purview of a rhetoric course in English or the logic courses in the philosophy department, though given your background in Cognitive Systems, I assume you might learn about this in the course of various cognitive biases.

I was taught how to evaluate information critically, I was taught the importance of internal consistency, I was taught how critically examine evidence.

Now we're finally getting to "critical thinking," and this should be important in any rigorous college course, regardless of discipline.

The problem is that those last skills you mention are often much more difficult to apply to real-world scenarios than the earlier "critical thinking" skills you discuss. Formal logic, statistics, etc. are great tools, but the real world is pretty messy. I've met a lot of science majors who simply would have no idea how to approach a vague problem that couldn't be quantified or expressed symbolically -- like "humanistic" problems of ethics or abstract value, etc. Those issues come up in the real world, and the critical thinking required to deal rigorously with them is hard to pull out of raw stats or formal logic.

I'm NOT saying that humanities are the only approach, and I recognize that many humanities courses are badly taught -- resulting in ignorant humanities grads today with bad critical thinking skills. But the problem is not the disciplines themselves, but the rigor we require in those courses. It sounds like your humanities courses did not require that sort of effort, which is unfortunate... but it doesn't mean the whole set of liberal arts disciplines are fundamentally flawed.

4 days ago

Ask Slashdot: Any Place For Liberal Arts Degrees In Tech?

AthanasiusKircher Re:Ya, but... (391 comments)

If an English Lit grad has decent programming skills, I would be very confused why the person would get the degree in English Lit in the first place???

Why does anyone get an English Lit degree? (I know some other people here might ask that question seriously.) Other than those who go on to grad school and then become professors of English literature, or maybe high school teachers, why would anyone major in English Lit? (And even if you wanted to become a high school teacher, do you really need a full-blown degree in English Lit? It's not like you're going to be debating the complex structure of Joyce's Ulysses or doing a radical post-structuralist reading of the colonialist implications of Melville's obscure poetic works with your average high-school class. You're going to be teaching them to write in complete sentences and maybe reading a novel or two if you're lucky.)

So why DO people major in English Lit? Maybe because some of them still believe in the classical idea of "liberal arts" as a gateway to the "critical thinking" skills you call a "buzzword." Sorry, but "critical thinking" is NOT a buzzword if you look at older -- often more rigorous -- liberal arts curricula. Those were the kind of systems where you worked your way through the original geometric proofs of Euclid, various scientific essays up to at least the 19th century, as well as reading novels and interpreting poems. The point was that you were exposed to a LOT of different areas of thinking, and by trying to understand, confront, and analyze these disparate ideas, you'd develop "critical thinking" skills that could be broadly applied to many areas.

Until the past few decades, it was quite common for English Lit., History majors, etc. to make up a large part of the business workforce, partly because of exposure to a lot of disparate ideas in college. Now, everybody just gets generic "business degrees," and many English Lit. departments have partly transitioned into pop culture sociology departments (though certainly not all).

Or even the person can do programming, I would not want to maintain the code the person wrote because the code may not be well formed.

That's why I'd never hire somebody unless I could look at examples of what they'd actually done. A degree tells me next to nothing, by itself. But I see no inherent reason why an intelligent, motivated, and organized English Lit. major who worked as a programmer for a number of years couldn't pick up quite a bit of high-level coding skills, whereas some code monkey with a CS degree from nowhere might just be at the "top of his game" when he graduates and never go further from there.

Context is everything. People make various life choices. I see no reason to care why a person made the choice of an English Lit. degree unless that person is relatively fresh out of college. After a couple years, I care about what they've been doing lately, and how good is their work now. Have they shown significant growth and adaptability? I've also met way too many people with a degree in X who took advanced courses in X, but basically forgot everything from those courses within a few years because they never really had to use that material. Hiring them 10 years after degree expecting them to be able to do high-level work based on 10-year-old coursework is insane.

4 days ago

Ask Slashdot: Any Place For Liberal Arts Degrees In Tech?

AthanasiusKircher Re:Let's see your portfolio. (391 comments)

While I'd tend toward Computer Science (since that is what my degree is in) I'd FIRST want to see what they've done already.

Exactly. I've met plenty of people with degrees in X who have little practical experience when they're fresh out of school. They may have some sort of vague theoretical sense of the field, but even that can be very nebulous, since real understanding without doing is rather difficult.

It's not that you cannot get a programming job with a Lit degree. It is that the other candidates will probably have more DEMONSTRATED skills in the programming field.

THIS. Especially if you're more than 5 years out of school, I'd barely give a crap what your major was unless you've actually been working in that area.

That's one of a number of things I'd add to the college major:

(1) How long since degree?
(2) What experience since degree?
(3) Is degree from a known school with unusual demographics?
(4) How did student perform in degree?

For an extreme case, I'd be much more likely to hire a guy with a English Lit. degree from MIT (yes, they do have them) who had a perfect GPA and has done serious high-level work in programming since graduation, than a guy fresh out of school with a C-average in CS from Upper Bucksnort State Teachers College of Nowhere.

And, by the way, I'm NOT saying one should automatically look for MIT or Ivy League or whatever degrees over others, but those schools do have a targeted demographic for admissions that tends to consist of very talented people to begin with. If they did well there, regardless of major, it's something to perhaps pay attention to. (On the other hand, if I'm looking at someone with an A average from Duke vs. C average from an Ivy, probably go with the Duke guy.) Also, tech-heavy schools tend to have more rigorous math/science requirements for all students, so even a person with a Lit or History degree from such schools may have a stronger tech background than a tech major, say, from a much lower-ranked liberal arts school or something.

To me, a college degree is mostly a certificate saying, "I can follow instructions and am responsible enough to pass courses." Beyond that, the details matter a lot more than the major. A smart, motivated person can figure out how to do things on the job. A guy with a CS degree who barely scaped by at a crappy school may have already hit his cognitive limit and may be a terrible hire.

This is one of the reasons why applicant screening should never be based on some stupid credential that isn't equal everywhere. With experienced hires who both have real work experience but one has a degree in another field, I'm often actually more intrigued -- all other things being equal -- by the guy with the weird degree who switched into the field and was successful, because that guy has shown competence in multiple areas and adaptability. Not saying I'd hire on this basis, but if I wanted someone who could actually think and be useful in a variety of ways in a job, I might give that resume a second look.

4 days ago

Technological Solution For Texting While Driving Struggles For Traction

AthanasiusKircher Re:A solution in search of a problem... (326 comments)

Incorrect. (3) is 100% unaffected by speed, as many already know.


It is a factor of shitty drivers braking for no reason, causing motorists behind them to brake for no reason in a chain reaction. I only apply my brakes on the highway if I actually need to decelerate; 99% of the time someone in front of me is braking, I can just let off the accelerator and decelerate to their speed (because I never follow very closely)

The last clause of your sentence there is critical. Notice in my post I mentioned for the SAME TRAFFIC DENSITY. People in general follow too closely. Therefore, if they are all going at 65 mph and someone has to brake, a chain reaction will follow.

But, in the same traffic density (i.e., the same spacing of cars), the same cars driving 45 mph might have adequate time to maneuver without heavy braking.

You're correct that the problem is following distance, and if we could get everyone to maintain that, you could all drive at 90 mph. But that's simply not feasible at rush hour in many places, because too many cars keep joining the traffic, and people don't adequately expand the following distance to compensate.

So, if there's going to be a high traffic density no matter what, the only efficient way to solve the problem is to lower the average travelling speed. That's something that could at least be enforceable. Trying to enforce adequate following distance (except for really egregious behavior) would be nearly impossible.

4 days ago

Court Rules the "Google" Trademark Isn't Generic

AthanasiusKircher Re:Lucky them (156 comments)

Actually, when people say googling, they really do mean "look it up using Google." They don't mean "look it up using DuckDuckGo"

No, they mean "look it up using an internet search engine." I've seen plenty of more clueless folks who just happen to have Yahoo or Bing or whatever as their default search page that opens in their browser, and they still use the word "google," rather than a cumbersome phrase like "use an internet search engine to find..."

or "look it up using Yelp" or "look it up using" or "look it up using Wolfram Alpha."

You're right, they don't mean those things, because those are specialized search, not a generic web search, which is what "googling" means.

When Google no longer dominates generic web search (as opposed to specialized internet search like Yelp) and there are other comparable players, only then would there be a case for genericization.

There are other "comparable players," at least ones that work well enough for many people, like Bing and Yahoo. Look up the stats -- Google may have the majority of searches, but it's only something like 2/3 of general internet searches. The other 1/3 is done on other search engines.

So, 1/3 of people are somehow managing to do general internet searching without Google. And many of them still use the word "googling" rather than "perform a general internet search" for what they are doing.

4 days ago

Court: Car Dealers Can't Stop Tesla From Selling In Massachusetts

AthanasiusKircher Re:Footnote mania (155 comments)

19 footnotes for a 24 page opinion, including one so long that spills over from one page onto the next.

You obviously haven't read many legal opinions. Such footnote practice is commonplace.

Ouch! Detracts from what is otherwise a great read

Uh, you do realize that footnotes are optional to read, right? That's why they are footnotes, as opposed to part of the main body of text.

I've never understood people who complain about excessive footnotes -- either they're so ADD that they get distracted by the numbers and the text so they can't stay focused, or they're so OCD that they can't resist reading words at the bottom of the page, even if they are tangential to the argument.

Don't get me wrong: footnotes in legal arguments are often important. But they're not generally essential to the main argument. That's the point. If you just want to read the core argument, read the text, and don't read the footnotes. (If the text is not understandable without the footnotes, that's a different writing problem, which should be criticized.)

Complaining about footnotes from distracted readers who can't focus on the text is what leads to monstrosities like endnotes -- which basically makes the notes unusable. (Or even worse, the current publishing trend where endnotes don't even have numerical references on the page -- so you have to match up the endnote with some phrase of text to find out there even is supposed to be a note there.)

If you don't want to read footnotes, just don't. I certainly don't if I'm just reading the main argument. But there's often a reason why they can be helpful to SOME readers, and forcing writers to either turn them into invisible endnotes or incorporate them into the text just makes things worse.

4 days ago

MIT's Cheetah Robot Runs Untethered

AthanasiusKircher Re:Asian-only team? (90 comments)

European researchers work at MIT and nobody beats an eye,
Asian researchers work at MIT and everybody looses their mind.

Uh, who is "everybody"? Certainly not MIT itself. Stats on their international students show that about 50% of all international students and scholars come from Asia, much more than Europe.

MIT cares about "diversity" numbers, sure, but they already can claim that they are a "minority majority" campus with over 51% of undergraduates from minorities. So, they'd really have no reason to further inflate the Asian numbers... unless, well, the Asian students were actually more qualified.

Which means Asian researchers are probably working at MIT because MIT actually is looking for highly qualified people -- and thus, MIT hired/admitted them.

The only people "losing their mind" are racists, who clearly aren't "everybody." (If they were, MIT wouldn't have such high numbers of minorities in the first place.)

And why are we discussing this anyway? TFA has a photo of the lab team, which is certainly not all Asian in composition.

4 days ago

Technological Solution For Texting While Driving Struggles For Traction

AthanasiusKircher Re:A solution in search of a problem... (326 comments)

Speeding = higher risk of crash.

Meh, that propaganda has been around for awhile...

How is this modded "Informative" when this thread (GP's and GGP's posts) is about speeding in a school zone (not the Autobahn)?

The main reason for slower speeds in school zones is often to avoid pedestrian injuries and deaths -- since little kids sometimes do unexpected things and run into roads without thinking.

To an extent, speeding can perhaps make a crash worse, but that isn't really why we have speeding laws.

I think if you hit a kid going 25 mph (a typical school zone speed limit), you are already going to seriously injure and maybe kill him/her. But at least at a lower speed you might have a better chance of avoiding the kid by braking, swerving, etc. If you're going 45 mph or whatever the normal speed limit is on that road, the kid is probably dead. Sorry -- but speeding in a school zone BOTH (1) results in a higher risk of "crash" AND (2) will likely result in greater injury.

We have them to generate income for the government, specifically local and state government, to the tune of $6.2 billion last year.

Yeah, we'd never enact speeding laws to protect pedestrians in high-traffic areas, or anything silly like that!

The German Autobaun is safer per mile driven than US highways. Many reasons for it:

While you make some reasonable points, this has little to do with the present discussion of a school zone. But even outside of schools, there are all sorts of reasons for speed limits that are not politically motivated, like:

(1) Residential areas or business districts with higher pedestrian traffic

(2) General density of environment -- e.g., curves or other obstacles that decrease visibility of road ahead, how easy it is to see cars pulling out from side streets/driveways, how many random "manuevers" you're likely to see because cars need to change lanes to make turns, park, etc.

(3) Traffic flow on busy roads and congested highways: traffic has transition thresholds, sort of like laminar vs. turbulent flow in fluids. If everyone is driving at 65 mph in a highly congested area, and someone just brakes at the wrong time or cuts someone off, it can set up a traffic wave that propagates backwards and might result in stop-and-go traffic for 20 minutes. If, instead, people drive at 45 mph on average in the same traffic density, they have more time to react, and it can actually increase traffic throughput by making stop-and-go traffic less likely. That's one of the reasons many cities have introduced variable speed limits on highways that get lowered near rush hour: they're not trying to generate more revenue (usually) -- they're actually trying to help you get home faster. If you refuse to obey them and end up braking hard because of something unexpected which you would not have been a problem at a lower speed, you're likely contributing to traffic jams.

SUMMARY: Your argument is about maximum speed limits on straight highways. This thread is about the vast majority of roads which exist in less optimal conditions with less visibility, more obstacles, pedestrians, etc. In those cases, perhaps unlike the Autobahn, speed limits definitely make sense. And Germans agree, since they have speed limits under these scenarios.

And if you're that jerk you keeps weaving through traffic and passing me on the right in mornings when I'm going through school zones on a busy 4-lane road, STOP IT. You're endangering people, mainly pedestrians (one of whom I actually saw hit during my commute). THAT'S why we sometimes need speed limits.

about a week ago

Justice Sotomayor Warns Against Tech-Enabled "Orwellian" World

AthanasiusKircher Re:if only (166 comments)

But only as far as the cases that come before it, whether or not they accept them.

That's true both in the strict sense, and the broader sense. The Supreme Court can not initiate any action.

Well, as of last year, it seems it can (in a way), as long as someone involved in a lawsuit elsewhere asks nicely. The Court has now created ex nihilo a new veto power for itself. The precedent is United States v. Windsor. As Justice Scalia wrote in dissent:

The Court is eager--hungry--to tell everyone its view of the legal question at the heart of this case. Standing in the way is an obstacle, a technicality of little interest to anyone but the people of We the People, who created it as a barrier against judges' intrusion into their lives. They gave judges, in Article III, only the "judicial Power," a power to decide not abstract questions but real, concrete "Cases" and "Controversies." Yet the plaintiff and the Government agree entirely on what should happen in this lawsuit. They agree that the court below got it right; and they agreed in the court below that the court below that one got it right as well. What, then, are we doing here?


Windsor's injury was cured by the judgment in her favor. [...] What the petitioner United States asks us to do in the case before us is exactly what the respondent Windsor asks us to do: not to provide relief from the judgment below but to say that that judgment was correct. And the same was true in the Court of Appeals: Neither party sought to undo the judgment for Windsor, and so that court should have dismissed the appeal (just as we should dismiss) for lack of jurisdiction.

In other words, there was no dispute before the court to adjudicate, and thus no case (in a legal sense). Yet the Supreme Court nevertheless chose to offer its opinion on gay rights and overturn a federal law, despite a lack of any standing, any dispute, or any case.

It's probably the most important element of the Supreme Court's jurisprudence to come out of the recent gay marriage decisions -- much more critical legally than the gay rights issues themselves. The Supreme Court has basically come up with a justification to offer its opinion on a matter where no legal dispute exists. This is really unprecedented, but it's a newfound power of the Court. Look for this to pop up again in some unexpected way in coming years. Scalia called the idea "jaw-dropping," "an assertion of judicial supremacy over the people's Representatives in Congress and the Executive. It envisions a Supreme Court standing (or rather enthroned) at the apex of government, empowered to decide all constitutional questions, always and everywhere "primary" in its role." :

We have never before agreed to speak--to "say what the law is"--where there is no controversy before us. In the more than two centuries that this Court has existed as an institution, we have never suggested that we have the power to decide a question when every party agrees with both its nominal opponent and the court below on that question's answer.

So, technically someone still has to suggest the idea of an action to the Court, I suppose, but I don't know after Windsor whether we can really say that an actual "case" is required for the Supreme Court to offer an opinion and change laws.

(Note that I'm not arguing against the outcome of Windsor -- only that no parties in the lawsuit were actually arguing for the Supreme Court to take any actual normal legal remedy within its jurisdiction; the correct action would have been for Obama to appoint a third-party to defend DOMA and argue for the law, if he felt the Justice Department shouldn't do it. Without doing so, there was no legal justification for SCOTUS to take any action.)

about a week ago

Justice Sotomayor Warns Against Tech-Enabled "Orwellian" World

AthanasiusKircher Re:So did Orwell (166 comments)

Weak. You start blaming the guy currently in charge, currently causing the issues and then backtrack to "But Bush" because you are afraid of Obama supporters. Its people who fear being called names by idiots that let idiots like Obama get a free pass no matter what he does.

Another poster already defended me, but let me be very clear about why I made the second comment: some of the actual cases listed in the article I linked were actually originally brought against the Bush administration. Some of these recent rulings took years to get to the Supreme Court, and the Obama Justice Department was put in the position of defending actions that were originally brought against the Bush administration. This is a common legal situation.

My point is that some people might have viewed my first post as sound like "yeah, the Supremes hate Obama so much they overruled him unanimously 13 times," when actually it could be argued that a number of those actions were really cases which originally involved the Bush administration.

So, I added a clarification that I think BOTH of the administrations are culpable for ONGOING bad actions. I'm NOT "backtracking" or giving Obama a "free pass" AT ALL, since I absolutely think that he has continued some of the worst policies of his predecessor and in many ways has made things significantly worse.

But regardless, the point is the violation of fundamental rights -- no matter what adminstration or who is doing it.

about a week ago

The MOOC Revolution That Wasn't

AthanasiusKircher Re:Silicon Valley Rebrands Correspondence Courses (182 comments)

For the record, correspondence courses have been around since 1892.

Huh? From your own link:

The earliest distance education courses may date back to the early 18th century in Europe. One of the earliest examples was from a 1728 advertisement... [snip] The first distance education course in the modern sense was provided by Sir Isaac Pitman in the 1840s,

And schools were even offering entire degrees through distance education by the 1850s:

The University of London was the first university to offer distance learning degrees, establishing its External Programme in 1858.

I am by no means downplaying the significance of the Chicago model in the history of education. But why did you omit mention of decades and perhaps centuries of preceding distance-learning courses in your claim?

about a week ago

Justice Sotomayor Warns Against Tech-Enabled "Orwellian" World

AthanasiusKircher Re:if only (166 comments)

Do you understand how the Supreme Court works? They can only adjudicate cases brought before them.

While true in a strict sense, in a broader sense the Supreme Court has the ability to shape jurisprudence around bigger issues. Take, for example, the recent plethora of federal court rulings overturning gay marriage bans in a number of states. The Supreme Court did NOT rule on this issue directly. In fact, the majority rulings last year explicitly avoiding tackling that issue. But, as Scalia noted in dissent at the time, the type of argumentation used in the majority opinion strongly implied that no legal logic would support a gay marriage ban.

So, in the process of adjudicating a case before them, the Supreme Court laid the groundwork for other rulings that were strictly unrelated, but followed from the legal arguments employed.

In this way, Supreme Court justices can shape jurisprudence on cases far beyond their docket. If they begin to make strongly worded objections to Fourth Amendment violations and present new legal justifications for stopping those violations, chances are those sorts of legal arguments will be upheld by lower courts.

And even then, she's one vote out of nine. [snip] If you want something "done", you've got to talk to your congressbum.

True, but 1 out of 9 is somewhat better odds than 1 out 435 in terms of hoping to "get something done," particularly when a number of privacy-related cases have been coming before the Court in recent years.

about a week ago

Justice Sotomayor Warns Against Tech-Enabled "Orwellian" World

AthanasiusKircher Re:So did Orwell (166 comments)

Until a case is before her, Sotomayor can do absolutely jack shit.


Where does the notion come from, that so many people here seem to have, that a Supreme Court justice has any "direct" power to initiate some kind of policy change?

Who said anything about "initiating" anything?

I said she was one of the few who "potentially have the direct power to constrain" the government's overreach, since the other two branches have obviously gone along with various Fourth Amendment violations in recent years. Obviously, implicit in that "potentially" is that it would require a case to come before the Court. Given that numerous people have been filing court cases against the government in recent years about privacy violations, it's reasonable to say that Sotomayor WILL have a number of opportunities to try to rein in government overreach.

This is why they should never have stopped teaching civics in school.

I took Civics in school. There I learned about something called checks and balances, including the Supreme Court's ability to overrule laws and executive actions that are Constitutional violations.

Perhaps, given your overreaction to something I didn't say, the larger criticism should be about how our schools are failing at teaching reading comprehension.

about a week ago

Justice Sotomayor Warns Against Tech-Enabled "Orwellian" World

AthanasiusKircher Re:So did Orwell (166 comments)

(By the way, before anyone accuses me of bias against Obama or whatever because many of these cases involved actions taken under Bush as well -- note that my argument was about Executive power in general. Obama has generally continued Bush's abuses of that power, and this problem is not one that falls along party lines.)

about a week ago

Justice Sotomayor Warns Against Tech-Enabled "Orwellian" World

AthanasiusKircher Re:So did Orwell (166 comments)

I fail to understand why Sotomayor's opinions are news when they are not fundamentally different from high school book reports written all over the US.

Maybe because she's one of only NINE people in the United States who potentially have the direct power to constrain a surveillance state, since it's clear that our Executive and Legislative branches have "sold out" and have effectively rendered many clauses of the Fourth Amendment meaningless.

Note that the Supreme Court has UNANIMOUSLY overruled the Obama administration's stance at least 13 times in the past two years, in a number of those cases protecting privacy and related freedoms.

So, yeah, this person is one of the few who are close to our only hope in stopping the continuous march toward government surveillance, intrusions into privacy, and complete dismissal of Fourth Amendment protections.

THAT'S why her opinion is news.

about a week ago

Justice Sotomayor Warns Against Tech-Enabled "Orwellian" World

AthanasiusKircher Re:She doesn't mind the state controlling everthin (166 comments)

She's probably just fine with the *state* peeping into your (not her) business. That's the very definition of a self labeled "progressive". Guns, drones, private (no tax man involved) monetary interactions between people, healthcare, retirement, etc.

Actually, Sotomayor is a bit of an outlier on the Supreme Court and has been highlighted for laying the groundwork to reinstate stronger Fourth Amendment protections -- particularly against the government intrusions -- especially in her ruling in United States v. Jones . (For details on her privacy rulings before joining the Court, you can see EPIC's summary here.)

Note that in TFA she was warning about "Orwellian" surveillance, which specifically tends to refer to a world where the government is spying on you, not just private citizens. The quotation highlighted in TFS seems to focus on private citizen regulations, but she has also demonstrated more concern about many government invasions of privacy than most other Supreme Court members, including those who are definitely NOT ''progressives."

about a week ago

Harvard's CompSci Intro Course Boasts Record-Breaking Enrollment

AthanasiusKircher Re:Linux, cryptography, HTML and JavaScript. (143 comments)

Also, by the way, I don't think we should derive any conclusions about "hot fields" from Harvard's enrollment numbers.

Until the past couple years, one of the top two biggest courses at Harvard was "Justice," with enrollments upwards of 800 students. I don't think that was a signal that hoards of Harvard students were going to become political philosophers -- it just had a reputation for a good lecturer and satisfied the right distribution requirement.

Similarly, a few years back another course with 800+ enrollments for many years was "First Nights," a course in the Music Department that revolved around premiere performances of a few major classical works. That clearly wasn't some sort of "sign" that the next "hot field" would be studying classical music.

Harvard has a culture where courses have detailed public ratings, and "hot courses" generally happen because (1) they have a good lecturer, (2) they satisfy some university requirement that nobody wants to have to bother with otherwise, and (3) they give out a lot of A's.

I can't guarantee that all three of those things are at work here, but I bet at least two of them are. The actual field of the "hot course" is almost irrelevant.

about a week ago

Harvard's CompSci Intro Course Boasts Record-Breaking Enrollment

AthanasiusKircher Re:Linux, cryptography, HTML and JavaScript. (143 comments)

It's CS50. It's not even a 100-level classes. This is their way of saying, pay us $X for 3 course credits and see if you would even like to continue down this path.

You obviously haven't bothered to look into Harvard's course numbering system (or credit system). Like just about everything else at Harvard -- from their wacko GPA system that had 15 points (instead of the usual 4.0) until recent years to the fact that they have a "concentration" instead of a "major" -- their course numbers aren't like elsewhere.

If you want to see their CS offerings, look here.

Basically, in Harvard's numbering system (which varies a bit by department), 0-99 are often undergraduate offerings, 100-199 are courses that could be taken by both undergraduates and grads, and 200+ are graduate-only classes. (Some departments with a lot of courses change the numbering so that the undergrad/grad courses start at 1000 instead of 100, and graduate courses start at 2000.)

In many departments it's uncommon to take anything numbered 100 or above until your junior year (maybe earlier in CS, looking at their course offerings). So, saying this course is numbered 50 isn't saying much. In most departments, the generic courses for non-majors are often in the 1-10 or 1-20 range.

And as for credits -- notice the catalog lists this as a "half course," from the old system where most Harvard students would enroll in courses that would last a full year (two semesters = "full course"). Harvard doesn't charge by the credit hour like a community college or state university might. They basically have a set tuition rate per semester and you're expected to take "four half courses" per term, five if you're ambitious. (You can take more -- generally for the same tuition -- but I believe it requires special overrides.)

The title should be: 1 in 8 Harvard students hopelessly undecided about Computer Science.

I have no doubt that some students are in fact taking this class to "try out" computer stuff, but it's hard to tell what those stats mean. Also, Harvard has a "gen ed" distribution requirement, and CS50 satisfies one of those distribution requirements. So, I'd imagine the bigger draw is "learn something in computers" AND "satisfy some stupid requirement," rather than "hmm... maybe I'll try computer science..."

Anyhow, I know you (and most people here) didn't need to know that much about Harvard's wacko systems... but this post shouldn't be "+5 Informative" when it's based on wrong information.

about a week ago

CBC Warns Canadians of "US Law Enforcement Money Extortion Program"

AthanasiusKircher Re:Original article in Washington Post (462 comments)

CBC's article is just a Canadian take on things. The original article (just as scary) is here:

Well, yes. But it's hardly "original" -- this is a problem that has been profiled extensively for years, yet few people seem to realize how far it extends. A couple of times over the past year, when posters on Slashdot mentioned random forfeitures that happened to them, they were met with comments saying, "You must have done something suspicious" or "What's the rest of the story," and I tried to provide links to point out the systemic problem, but have been met with ignorance and resistance.

For a sample of past coverage, here's an extensive piece from The New Yorker a year ago, a piece from Reason in 2012, a piece from Forbes in 2011, pieces in Slate and The Economist from 2010, a detailed piece on NPR from 2008, etc., etc., etc. Here's an extensive account of problems with the system from PBS almost 15 years ago (around the time that legal reform forced money to go to local municipalities in many cases rather than the federal government). The ACLU has been fighting this for decades.

I know some people here may be well aware of this problem, and others may find this shocking and new. Regardless, it's very sad that it may take other countries' shaming us into taking action to fix an unjust assault on our citizens that has been going on for many years.

about two weeks ago

Massive Study Searching For Genes Behind Intelligence Finds Little

AthanasiusKircher Re:Great news (269 comments)

maybe some groups have a genetic limitation to the likely of above average intelligence.

There is no maybe, every study that has ever looked into this since the dawn of science has confirmed this.

Your statement may be accurate, but probably not in the way you mean. If you seriously want to look into the history of scientific views on race, you might start here.

Yes, for most of the history of science, scientists have claimed that they had "proof" of the inferior intelligence of one race or another. The funny thing is... the race that is "stupid" tends to change depending on the time period or the background of the authors, suggesting most historical methodologies were probably flawed. Unless, of course, you actually believe that the Jews and Asian people of the 19th century were actually so very stupid (as scientists of that time said), but recent IQ tests seem to put them at the top. And if you believe that all these scientific "tests" are valid across different eras (which is rather preposterous if you look at their "methodologies" for determining "superior" races), then your genetic heredity hypothesis runs into problem -- otherwise, how do you explain the giant jump in intelligence for Asians and Jews in "scientific" studies in the past couple hundred years?

It's kinda like the fact that back in the early 20th century, Jews were the stars of professional basketball, lauded for their supposed athletic prowess, their craftiness and stealthiness ("scheming minds"), and their shortness, which was supposed to give them an advantage on the basketball court by allowing faster maneuvering closer to the ground. Of course that sounds like nonsense today when basketball is dominated with large, tall African-American players, but we still seem to want to find some sort of genetic explanation for the "natural athletic ability" of certain races.

Hell you don't even have to ask science, every average Joe on the street knows this already from life experience.

I know average Joe. He often harbors some racist views, either overt or latent.

But just in case you're young and everything you've ever read has been sanitized by the Academic Department of Purethought: the highest average IQ of any human race/group belongs to Ashkenazi Jews.

The problem is that you have to accept that (1) IQ tests actually are a reasonable measure of the only type of "general intelligence" that counts, (2) that IQ can't be influenced significantly by experience or life conditions, and (3) that there are no other confounding variables that could make comparisons between vastly different groups problematic.

I don't accept any of these. First, IQ tests measure something but many scientists have severely criticized them as the only possible measure of "general intelligence." And second, there are many, many known confounding factors, including environmental factors and life experience, that make comparisons difficult between races.

I'm NOT saying that no racial differences exist. I'm saying that (1) even if they do exist, the tests are mostly written by smart white people to evaluate smart white people, so they may not accurately measure useful intelligence in other cultures, (2) there are way too many confounding variables to give a lot of accuracy to comparisons, and most of the differences seen at face value are very likely not to turn out to have meaningful genetic or racial sources.

If you were to go to, say, Japan or Russia and say to a scientist, "Some races have higher genetic disposition for intelligence than others", he will most likely shrug and say "Yeah, so what?"

Despite the fact that I disagree with you, I actually agree that this SHOULD be our reaction. I really have no clue why people are so obsessed with proving (or disproving) racial differences in intelligence, when there are so many other interesting confounding variables that have been PROVEN to play bigger roles in shaping intelligence. Even if we did find some sort of minor difference, why the heck is this significant? On the basis of research by people who have tried to take these confounding variables into account, the general consensus is that any minor differences of a few IQ points are NOT enough to explain away disparities in, say, socioeconomic outcomes of other races.

And, if you look back at that history of people who claimed racial superiority for one race or another -- even promoting "scientific" opinions -- you'll find that they disproportionately have a racist agenda. I'm not saying you do, but it's hard to figure out why people are so obsessed with this unless they view race as something so significant that these differences overshadow other factors... unless they have a racist agenda at heart.

And that's probably the reason for your observed "weirdness" of people avoiding claims for racial differences -- in the past, the vast majority of those claims were bogus and promoted by racists. It's hard to separate the very minor differences that might be legitimate.

about two weeks ago



Music Training's Cognitive Benefits Could Help "At-Risk" Students

AthanasiusKircher AthanasiusKircher writes  |  about two weeks ago

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) writes "In recent years, emphasis on standardized testing and basic skills has forced many schools to cut back on things like arts and extracurricular activities. A study out this week from Northwestern University hints that schools may be hurting "at-risk" kids even more by cutting such programs. Just two years of music lessons were shown to have significant effects on brain activity and language processing which the researchers argue could help close achievement gaps between at-risk students and more affluent students. Aside from better brain response to language observed in the lab, practical effects of the interventions were readily apparent: 'Leaders at Harmony Project approached the researchers after the non-profit observed that their students were performing much better than other public school students in the area. Since 2008, over 90 percent of high school seniors who participated in Harmony Project’s free music lessons went on to college, even though the high school dropout rates in the surrounding Los Angeles areas can reach up to 50 percent.' Note that this is only one of several ongoing studies showing significant cognitive benefits for music training among at-risk students; an article last year from The Atlantic gives a more detailed summary of related research."

Thousands of Workers Strike to Reinstate Fired Grocery CEO

AthanasiusKircher AthanasiusKircher writes  |  about 2 months ago

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) writes "Have you heard of Market Basket, a regional grocery chain which brings in $4 billion per year? If you're not from New England, you may not know about this quirky century-old family business, which didn't even have a website until two days ago. But that's only the beginning of its strange saga. In a story that labor experts are calling 'unique' and 'unprecedented', shelves in grocery stores across New England have been left empty while thousands of Market Basket workers have rallied for days to reinstate former CEO Arthur T. Demoulas, who was fired last month (along with a number of his management allies) as part of a long-standing family squabble. At a protest this morning, 6,000 protesters gathered at the Tewkbury, Massachusetts location where the supermarket chain is based, similar to rallies that have been staged at various locations over the past week. Unlike most labor protests, the workers have no demands for better working conditions or better pay--they simply want their old boss back. Reaction from consumers has been swift and decisive as well: a petition was submitted to the board this morning with over 100,000 signatures from customers calling for the reinstatement of the CEO, and over 100 local lawmakers have expressed support for the workers' cause, including the governor of New Hampshire and candidates for U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races in the region.

In an age where workers are often pitted against management, what could explain this incredible support for a CEO and member of the 0.1%? Columnist Adrian Walker from the Boston Globe described his interview last year with 'Artie T.': 'We toured the Chelsea store together... the connection between the magnate and his employees was frankly shocking. Demoulas knew almost everyone’s name. He knew the name of the guy cutting meat whose wife had just completed chemotherapy and asked about her with obvious concern. Customers came up to him and hugged him, cheered him on. The interactions were too numerous and spontaneous to be staged.' Workers at Market Basket are loyal to their employer and often stay for 20, 30, or more than 40 years. Even lowly store clerks receive significant quarterly bonuses, and experienced loyal workers are rewarded and promoted. Despite running a $4 billion per year business, 'Artie T.' over the years has shown up at countless family events for employees, even visiting sick family members of employees when they are in the hospital. But his generosity hurt the bottom line, according to other board members, who have sought for years to increase profits by raising prices and reducing employee benefits to be in line with norms at other grocery chains. (Market Basket has commonly led grocery store lists for value in regional price surveys.) As one possible resolution to the crisis, the former CEO yesterday offered to buy the entire grocery chain from other board members; this morning, the board stated they were considering the offer."

Judge Throws Out Thoughtcrime Conviction and Frees "Cannibal Cop"

AthanasiusKircher AthanasiusKircher writes  |  about 3 months ago

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) writes "The story is classic: Boy meets Girl. Boy likes Girl. Boy goes on the internet and writes about his fantasies that involve killing and eating Girl. Boy goes to jail. In this case, the man in question, NYC police officer Gilberto Valle, didn't act on his fantasies — he just shared them in a like-minded internet forum. Yesterday, Valle was released from jail after a judge overturned his conviction on appeal. U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe wrote that Valle was "guilty of nothing more than very unconventional thoughts... We don't put people in jail for their thoughts. We are not the thought police and the court system is not the deputy of the thought police." The judge concluded that there was insufficient evidence, since "this is a conspiracy that existed solely in cyberspace" and "no reasonable juror could have found that Valle actually intended to kidnap a woman... the point of the chats was mutual fantasizing about committing acts of sexual violence on certain women." (A New York magazine article covered the details of the case and the implications of the original conviction earlier this year.)"

An MIT Dean's Defense of the Humanities

AthanasiusKircher AthanasiusKircher writes  |  about 5 months ago

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) writes "Deborah Fitzgerald, a historian of science and dean of MIT's School of the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, speaks out in a Boston Globe column about the importance of the humanities, even as STEM fields increasingly dominate public discussion surrounding higher education. '[T]he world’s problems are never tidily confined to the laboratory or spreadsheet. From climate change to poverty to disease, the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale, and engineering and science issues are always embedded in broader human realities, from deeply felt cultural traditions to building codes to political tensions. So our students also need an in-depth understanding of human complexities — the political, cultural, and economic realities that shape our existence — as well as fluency in the powerful forms of thinking and creativity cultivated by the humanities, arts, and social sciences.' Fitzgerald goes on to quote a variety of STEM MIT graduates who have described the essential role the humanities played in their education, and she concludes with a striking juxtaposition of important skills perhaps reminscent of Robert Heinlein's famous description of an ideal human being: 'Whatever our calling, whether we are scientists, engineers, poets, public servants, or parents, we all live in a complex, and ever-changing world, and all of us deserve what’s in this toolbox: critical thinking skills; knowledge of the past and other cultures; an ability to work with and interpret numbers and statistics; access to the insights of great writers and artists; a willingness to experiment, to open up to change; and the ability to navigate ambiguity.' What other essential knowledge or skills should we add to this imaginary 'toolbox'?"

Wu-Tang Clan to Release Only One Copy of New Album

AthanasiusKircher AthanasiusKircher writes  |  about 6 months ago

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) writes "Wu-Tang Clan's double-album The Wu — Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was recorded in secret, and they recently announced that only one copy will be sold. Wu-Tang member Robert 'RZA' Diggs described the concept: 'We're about to sell an album like nobody else sold it before... We're about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music. We're making a single-sale collector's item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.' Before the album is sold, probably for millions of dollars, it will tour the world as part of special listening exhibits. Patrons will be subjected to heavy security to ensure that no recording devices are allowed, as a single leak would spoil the artistic project. As RZA noted: 'The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years. And yet its doesn’t receive the same treatment as art in the sense of the value of what it is, especially nowadays when it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free.'"

A Corporate War Against a Scientist, and How He Fought Back

AthanasiusKircher AthanasiusKircher writes  |  about 7 months ago

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) writes "Environmental and health concerns about atrazine — one of the most commonly used herbicides in the U.S. — have been voiced for years, leading to an EU ban and multiple investigations by the EPA. Tyrone Hayes, a Berkeley professor who has spearheaded research on the topic, began to display signs of apparent paranoia over a decade ago. He noticed strangers following him to conferences around the world, taking notes and asking questions aimed to make him look foolish. He worried that someone was reading his email, and attacks against his reputation seemed to be everywhere; search engines even displayed ad hits like "Tyrone Hayes Not Credible" when his name was searched for. But he wasn't paranoid: documents released after a lawsuit from Midwestern towns against Syngenta, the manufacturer of atrazine, showed a coordinated smear campaign. Syngenta's public relations team had a list of ways to defend its product, topped by "discredit Hayes." Its internal list of methods: "have his work audited by 3rd party," "ask journals to retract," "set trap to entice him to sue," "investigate funding," "investigate wife," etc. A recent New Yorker article chronicles this war against Hayes, but also his decision to go on the offensive and strike back. He took on the role of activist against atrazine, giving over 50 public talks on the subject each year, and even taunting Syngenta with profanity-laced emails, often delivered in a rapping "gangsta" style. The story brings up important questions for science and its public persona: How do scientists fight a PR war against corporations with unlimited pockets? How far should they go?"

Federal Government Surveillance of Santa Superior to Private Companies

AthanasiusKircher AthanasiusKircher writes  |  about 9 months ago

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) writes "This year, competing tracking services for Santa led to confusion for children worldwide. At one point on Christmas Eve, Santa was reported to be over Romania by NORAD's Santa tracker, while Google claimed he was in Madagascar at the same time. Moreover, the estimates for total toys delivered varied wildly, with Google claiming only 770 million at the same time Google estimated 2.8 billion. Veteran Santa analyst Danny Sullivan explained the discrepancies: "the precision offered by NORAD’s satellites likely is superior, offering it the ability to lock onto the position of the sleigh within a matter of inches. 'They’ve been doing it for almost 60 years,' Sullivan said.... He said Google likely relies on alternative technology, such as tracking Santa’s in-sleigh WiFi signal, causing a possible lag in showing his exact location. Sullivan also guessed that Google was using an algorithm to estimate the number of gifts delivered, while NORAD might have the ability to identify individual gifts, and perhaps even smaller items such as stocking stuffers.""

"Brain Activity" Found in a Dead Salmon Demonstrat

AthanasiusKircher AthanasiusKircher writes  |  about 5 years ago

AthanasiusKircher writes "Neuroscientist Craig Bennett used a dead salmon in his Dartmouth lab as a test object while they were evaluating new lab methods. The lab even followed proper experimental protocols, including showing the salmon photos of humans displaying various emotions. They were somewhat surprised by the results:

When they got around to analyzing the voxel (think: 3-D or 'volumetric' pixel) data, the voxels representing the area where the salmon's tiny brain sat showed evidence of activity. In the fMRI scan, it looked like the dead salmon was actually thinking about the pictures it had been shown.

Of course, the salmon wasn't actually responding to pictures illustrating human emotions. But the data manipulation commonly used in brain studies caused apparently significant patterns to appear by chance. More from the Wired article: 'The result is completely nuts — but that's actually exactly the point. Bennett, who is now a post-doc at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his adviser, George Wolford, wrote up the work as a warning about the dangers of false positives in fMRI data. They wanted to call attention to ways the field could improve its statistical methods."

The study demonstrates the potential for misinterpretation and misuse of data in brain studies, particularly as data manipulation becomes more and more complex. Bennett notes: 'We could set our threshold [of significance] so high that we have no false positives, but we have no legitimate results.... We could also set it so low that we end up getting voxels in the fish's brain. It's the fine line that we walk.'

So far the paper has been rejected for publication a number of times, but there is a poster available that was employed in a conference presentation. Recently it has been making the rounds informally in the neuroscience community."

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