On hubris and climate change.

On hubris and climate change.

Recently, a local science teacher sent me an essay written by a climate change skeptic.

Well, okay. I figured that I could skim the essay, look over the data, and briefly explain what the author’s errors were. After all, it’s really important to help teachers understand this topic, because they’re training our next generation of citizens.

And I thought to myself, how hard can this be? After all, I’m a scientist. I felt unconcerned that I’ve never read research papers about climate science before, and that it’s been years since I’ve worked through the sort of differential equations you need for even basic fluid mechanics calculations, and that I’ve never run any simulations on oceanic heat transfer or glacier melting.

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Since then, I’ve read a fair bit about climate science. I’ll be honest: I didn’t go through the math. All I did was read the papers and look over the processed data.

This is lazy, I know. I’m sorry. But my kids are at home. At the moment, this is the best I’ve got.

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Prominent climate change skeptic Richard Lindzen, an emeritus professor of meteorology, recently delivered a lecture to the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I wholeheartedly agreed with Lindzen when he stressed that the science behind climate change is really, really complicated.

Former senator and Secretary of State John F. Kerry is typical when he stated, with reference to greenhouse warming, ‘I know sometimes I can remember from when I was in high school and college, some aspects of chemistry or physics can be tough. But this is not tough. This is simple. Kids at the earliest age can understand this.’

As you have seen, the greenhouse effect is not all that simple. Only remarkably brilliant kids would understand it. Given Kerry’s subsequent description of climate and its underlying physics, it was clear that he was not up to the task.

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Climate science is tricky. In a moment, I’ll try to explain why it’s so tricky.

When people make predictions about what’s going to happen if the average global temperature rises by half a degree – or one degree, or two – their predictions are probably incorrect.

My assumption that I could skim through somebody’s essay and breezily explain away the errors was incredibly arrogant. I was a fool, I tell you! A fool!

But my arrogance pales in comparison to the hubris of climate change skeptics. Once I started learning about climate science, I realized how maddeningly difficult it is.

Lindzen, who should know better, has instead made brash claims:

So there you have it. An implausible conjecture backed by false evidence and repeated incessantly has become politically correct ‘knowledge,’ and is used to promote the overturn of industrial civilization. What we will be leaving our grandchildren is not a planet damaged by industrial progress, but a record of unfathomable silliness as well as a landscape degraded by rusting wind farms and decaying solar panel arrays.

There is at least one positive aspect to the present situation. None of the proposed policies will have much impact on greenhouse gases. Thus we will continue to benefit from the one thing that can be clearly attributed to elevated carbon dioxide: namely, its effective role as a plant fertilizer, and reducer of the drought vulnerability of plants.

Meanwhile, the IPCC is claiming that we need to prevent another 0.5ºC of warming, although the 1ºC that has occurred so far has been accompanied by the greatest increase in human welfare in history.

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So. What aspects of climate science can we understand, and what’s too hard?

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Our planet gets energy from the sun. The sun is a giant ball of thermonuclear fire, spewing electromagnetic radiation. When these photons reach Earth, they’re relatively high energy – with wavelengths mostly in the visible spectrum – and they’re all traveling in the same direction.

What we do – “we” here referring to all the inhabitants of our planet, including the rocks and plants and other animals and us – is absorb a small number of well-organized, high-energy photons, and then release a larger number of ill-organized, low-energy photons. This is favorable according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. We’re making chaos.

And here’s the greenhouse effect: if the high-energy photons from the sun can pass through our atmosphere, but then the low-energy photons that we release get absorbed, we (as a planet) will retain more of the sun’s energy. Our planet heats up.

Easy!

And, in defense of former senator John Kerry, this is something that a kid can understand. My children are four and six, and this summer we’re going to build a solar oven out of a pane of glass and a cardboard box. (After all, we need stuff to do while all the camps are closed.)

If we fill our air with more carbon dioxide, which lets the sun’s high-energy photons in but then won’t let our low-energy photons out, the planet should heat up, right? What’s the hard part?

Well, the problem – the reason why climate science is too difficult for humans to predict, even with the most powerful computers at our command – is that there are many feedback loops involved.

Some of these are “negative feedback loops” – although atmospheric carbon dioxide causes us to absorb more energy from the sun, various mechanisms can buffer us from a rise in temperature. For example, warm air can hold more water vapor, leading to more cloud formation, which will reflect more sunlight back into space. If the sun’s high-energy photons can’t reach us, the warming stops.

And some are “positive feedback loops” – as we absorb extra energy from the sun, which causes the planet to heat up a little, various mechanisms can cause us to absorb even more energy in the future, and then the planet will heat up a lot. This may be what happened on Venus. The planet Venus may have been habitable, a long long time ago, but then runaway climate change led to the formation of a thick layer of smog, and now it’s broiling, with sulfuric acid drizzling from the sky.

On Earth, an example of a positive feedback loop would be the melting of polar ice caps. As polar ice melts, it reflects less light, so our planet absorbs more of the sun’s energy. Heat made the ice melt in the first place, but then, once the ice has melted, we heat up even more.

And it turns out that there are a huge number of different positive and negative feedback loops. After all, our planet is really big!

For instance, the essay I was sent included graphs of ice core data suggesting that, in the ancient past, changes in average global temperatures may have preceded changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Frank Brown Cloud holding demo ice core.
Holding a demo ice core like my spouse uses in her classroom. The real ones drilled from glaciers are several miles long! I haven’t spent enough time at the gym to lift those.

But this is just another feedback loop. In the past, there was no mechanism for carbon dioxide to pour into our atmosphere before temperatures rose – dinosaurs didn’t invent internal combustion engines. This is the first time on Earth when carbon dioxide levels could rise before temperatures, and we don’t know yet what the effect will be.

Extra carbon dioxide will probably cause an increase in temperature, but a planet’s climate is really complicated. We have huge quantities of poorly mixed water (otherwise known as oceans). Our topography is jagged, interspersed with valleys and mountains. There are huge forests (only some of which are on fire). The air is turbulent.

We might find that temperatures are buffered more than we thought. The ocean might act like a giant heat sink.

Or then again, the ocean might warm up, accelerate polar ice loss by lapping at the undersides of glaciers, and magnify the changes.

The mathematics underlying fluid mechanics and heat transfer within an enormous, inhomogeneous system are so complex that it’s almost impossible to say. Nobody knows how much detail you’d need to put into a simulation to get accurate results – all we know for sure is that we can’t simulate the world with as much detail as actually exists. All our models are approximations. Some of them contradict each other.

With my admittedly limited understanding, I don’t think anybody knows enough to assert with confidence whether our climate will exhibit either buffered or switch-like behavior. Maybe we can muck about without hurting much. Or we might bring about our own doom with a tiny mistake.

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Our planet’s climate is so complex that you could make a similar argument – we really don’t know whether we’re going to be buffered from future changes, or whether we’re at the precipice of doom – no matter what evidence we obtain.

Maybe sea levels start rising – well, perhaps that will somehow reduce the further heating of our planet. Maybe we get more horrible tropical storms – well, perhaps they’re linked to a greater density of sunlight-reflecting clouds.

Maybe things seem to be changing fast for a little while, but then we enter another stable state.

Or, insidiously, maybe it will seem like we’re in a well-buffered system – pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere without seeing much harm – until, suddenly, we tip over the edge. We often see that sort of behavior from positive feedback loops. Nothing seems to happen, for a while, then everything changes at once. That’s how cooperative binding of oxygen to hemoglobin works in your body.

Another problem is that climate change will probably happen on a very different rhythm from our lives. Weather happens on timescales that we can understand. A decade of droughts. Two years of tropical storms. A few hard winters, or hot summers. But climate happens over hundreds or thousands of years. Most of the time, it changes more slowly than we’d notice.

A two degree shift in average global temperatures, spread out over a few decades? That’s bad, but it’s boring. Which was the main focus of Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather.

History not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become history. With regard to the fate of our planet – which is also the fate of our species – that is a profound problem. As the marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson put it, “Climate is quite possibly the most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.”

Climate science doesn’t fit our culture. Especially not now, when the pressures of surveillance capitalism have forced even the New York Times to run like an advertising company. They earn more from news that gets clicks. Stories need to be sensational. Yes, they run stories about climate change. For these, the polar bears need to be dying, now, and there needs to be an evil villain like Exon lurking in the shadows.

Nobody wants to click on a story explaining that we, collectively, have made and are making a whole lot of small shabby decisions that will cause grizzly bears and polar bears to re-mix and de-speciate.

I got bored even typing that sentence.

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Life is incredibly robust.

Our planet has swung through many extremes of temperature. At times, it’s been much hotter than it is now. At times, it was much colder. And life has marched on.

The human species is much less robust than life itself, though. Our kind has flourished for only a brief twinkling of time, during which our climate has been quite stable and mild. A small change could drive us to extinction. An even smaller change could cause our nations to collapse.

Disrupt our food supply – which could happen with just a few years of bad weather, let alone climate change – and there will be war.

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So. I tried to learn about climate change, focusing on the work of skeptics. And in the end, I partly agreed with the skeptics:

I agree that climate science is too complicated for anyone to understand.

I appreciate that people are trying. I had fun learning about ice cores, atmospheric modeling, energy absorption, and the like. Well, sometimes I was having fun. I also gave myself several headaches along the way. But also, my kids were being wild. They’ve been home from school for three months now! I was probably on the precipice of headaches before I even began.

Here’s where I disagree with the skeptics, though: given that climate science is too complicated for us to understand – and given that we know that small changes in average temperature can make the world a much worse place to live – why would be blithely continue to perturb our climate in an unprecedented way?

Maybe things will be fine. Yay buffers! Or maybe we’ll reduce the carrying capacity of the planet Earth from a few billion humans to a few million, dooming most of our kind.

I know, I know – eventually our universe will dwindle into heat death, so our species is terminal anyway. We will go extinct. It’s guaranteed.

I still think it would be neat if our great-great-grandchilden were out there among the stars. At least for a little while.

Or even, if they stay here on Earth, it’s nice to imagine them living on a comfortable planet with lots of beautiful trees, and interesting animals to see.

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Also, I’m biased.

After all, what are the things that you’re supposed to do if you want to reduce your carbon emissions?

Eat fewer animal products. Live in a smaller home. Drive less. Fly less. Buy less stuff.

Those are all things that I’d recommend to most Americans, for ethical and philosophical reasons, even if we weren’t concerned about climate change. So for me, personally, I don’t need to see much proof that we’ll ruin our climate unless we do these things. I think we should be doing them anyway.

Instead, I think the burden of proof should fall to the people hawking Big Macs. I’d want them to show that a world full of CAFO-raised cows won’t cause climate change, won’t propagate antibiotic resistant bacteria, won’t condemn billions of conscious beings to a torturous existence.

The world is complex. We’re going to err.

I’d rather err on the side of kindness.

On grammar in Latin and English.

On grammar in Latin and English.

I spent most of my time during high school doodling in notebooks – during an entire year of biology, the only thing I learned was that the word for several fish of a single type is “fish,” but the word for several fish of different species is “fishes.” 

For dissections – earthworms, giant crickets, pig hearts, and frogs – we were partnered with whomever sat at the table with us.  My partner always brought the newspaper and ostentatiously checked stock prices during class.  The kid in front of me spent a few weeks reading A Confederacy of Dunces. 

My eyesight wasn’t good enough to read over her shoulder.

At least the distinction between fish and fishes turned out to be correct.  My statistics teacher was a baseball coach – he didn’t know calculus, so the only explanation he gave for the workings of a Gaussian distribution was that the numbers were printed on a chart. 

The baseball team had a winning record, though. 

Even in English class, my brain was filled with junk.  We were taught not to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions.  These are sensible rules in Latin.  An infinitive – like “to read” – is a single word in Latin, so it would be quite strange to put another word in the middle.  Latin also has strict rules about word order — a sentence would be garbled if the preposition was in the wrong place.

But we weren’t learning Latin!  We were learning English, and – lo and behold! – the grammar rules of English are different.  In English, word order is flexible.  A lot of nuance comes from the arrangement of our sentences.  English doesn’t have as many tenses as other languages – there’s no subjunctive – so we English speakers need to scrape out nuance where we can.

In my high school English class, we were also taught not to use “their” as a singular possessive.  Even now, I rarely do – I don’t write “Each student brought their book,” I instead sacrifice the meaning of my sentences and write things like “Students brought their books.”

I was hoodwinked!  Instead of using the word “their” as a singular pronoun – which it is, in English – I trusted my teachers when they claimed that this word was exclusively plural.

Hogwash!  The equivalent claim would be to say that it’s incorrect to write:

You are reading this essay.

After all, “you” is a plural pronoun.  And “are” is the plural conjugation of the verb “to be,” which I used only to match the expected conjugation of the pronoun “you.”  The correct thing to write is:

Thou is reading this essay.

See?  There’s only one person reading, so I need a singular pronoun, “thou,” and a singular conjugation, “is.”

From What’s Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron, I learned that the pronoun “they” has been used as a singular since the 1300s.

In a sense, singular you is even more of a newcomer on the pronoun scene.  The plural you was applied as a singular pronoun to address royalty as early as the thirteenth century and was used in other situations demanding deference and formality – call the monarch thy majesty instead of your majesty and it could mean off with your head.

But you doesn’t appear as a singular in all contexts until the 1600s, when it slowly, slowly starts pushing out thou, thee, thy, and thine, second-person singulars that English speakers had been using since the days of Beowulf.  The th- singulars persist even now in some English dialects, and nineteenth-century grammar books regularly demanded singular thou and thee, along with thy and thine, even though these pronouns were no longer considered standard English.

It consoled me somewhat to read that students have long been taught outdated, inaccurate information.  It’s not just my brain that was filled with rubbish.

When a cabal of misogynistic grammarians worked to replace singular they with he in English textbooks, people tried to protest. 

In 1885, in an article titled “The New Pronoun,” the Atlanta Constitution printed:

There is nothing awkward or ungrammatical in [singular they] so far as the construction of English is concerned.  It is ungrammatical when measured by the Latin method – but what has Latin grammar to do with the English tongue?

If you wanted, you could even make a scientific argument for the validity of singular they – in quantum mechanics, the state of each single particle is described by a superposition of states.  Immediately after a measurement, wavefunctions can “collapse” to be composed primarily of a unique form – after a photon passes through a polarizer, it’s fluctuation will be parallel to the polarizer’s axis.  But even this “up and down” state can be expressed as an equal superposition of two perpendicular polarizations tilted forty-five degrees.  Indeed, the latter expression is the only useful way to describe this photon if it’s about to pass through a second polarizer tilted forty-five degrees from the first.

We are not monolithic.  Each and all of us can be described as an amalgam of many different traits.

But we don’t need any scientific justification for the use of singular they in English.  This grammatical usage is deeply enshrined in our language, and the singular pronoun “they” can best convey the plenitude of many individual humans’ identity & experience.

It’s still difficult for me to use the word “they” as a singular pronoun in formal sentences – my crummy education was pernicious.  The proscriptions are deeply ingrained in my brain.  But I’d like to think that I’m not totally calcified in my ways.  And I’m quite grateful that Denis Baron prepared such an erudite history of English pronoun usage.  What’s Your Pronoun​? is a lovely little book.

I hope that my kids’ brains will be less muddled than my own.  When we read stories aloud, we typically correct unnecessarily gendered language.  Girls and boys become kids.  An actress is an actor, too.  Our Curious George lives in a world of fire fighters and police officers.

I was reading Rob Harrell’s gorgeous Monster on the Hill to our kids when our three-year-old interrupted me.  At first, I couldn’t understand what she was saying.  I asked her to repeat herself.

“You should say spouse.”

from Rob Harrell’s Monster on the Hill

She was right, of course.  I’d unthinkingly read the text as written.  So I felt embarrassed … for a moment.  Then I remembered to feel proud.

On worms.

On worms.

My spouse is a high school teacher, and because her students are no longer attending class, they have more time to make TikTok videos.

I’m not quite sure what a TikTok video is.  I think it’s something like a Vine video, but longer.  Or perhaps something like a YouTube video, but shorter.  Or perhaps something like a Music Video, but not introduced by Kurt Loder.

Last year I was volunteering with a local sixth grader once a week, working mostly on music theory and game design, and every so often he’d eye me as though I were a Homo erectus freshly emerged from a block of glacial ice.  My gaffes weren’t even that egregious!  I just don’t know about TikTok!

So it goes.

While working on a TikTok video, one of my spouse’s students messaged her to ask, “Would you still teach me if I was a worm?”

My spouse wrote back, “I don’t know. One of my kids had ringworm last year and it was awful!”

Ask a silly question, you get a silly answer.

And that’s where it should end, right?  But the student persisted – after all, my spouse’s answer was insufficient basis for a good TikTok video.

“No, I mean like a regular earthworm.”

So, here’s the deal.  If you ask a silly question – once – you get a silly answer.  But the second time?

That’s when we unleash the trolls.

And by “trolls,” I mean me.

Image by Thomas Brown on Flickr.

If I were working with a student interested in the educational capabilities of earthworms, I’d first mention Charles Darwin’s experiments on earthworm intelligence.  Worms dig little burrows in the dirt, and they often plug the entrances of these with leaves. 

So Darwin gave the worms novel building materials – not space-age polymer fabrics or anything, just different types of leaves – and let the worms choose which to use to plug up their burrows.  In his estimation, the worms made sensible choices.  You can read a lovely description of this experiment in Eileen Crist’s “The Inner Life of Earthworms.”

Then I might slide into a discussion of equality among worms, perhaps citing the recent children’s picture book, Worm Loves Worm.  I imagine that, like the other characters of that story, our worm’s schoolmates would benefit by having more diversity in class.

And then, because my thoughts tend to careen suddenly to darkness, I might mention my unfinished horror novel, “Our Heroic Annelid Makes a Daring Escape.” 

You see, moles often capture worms and save them for later.  The doomed worms are stored inside the mole’s burrow. 

The mole doesn’t kill the worms – then they’d rot.  But worms can’t just be left inside a mud-lined burrow – then they’d dig their way out. 

So moles mutilate their captives.  An injured worm is unable to dig free, and, because worms rely largely on their sematosensory system to construct a mental image of the world, the worm is partially blinded.

But worms can regenerate.  So the tension of the story becomes, will the worm heal before the mole returns to eat it?

So spooky!

By Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8923296

All told, I would be willing to teach an earthworm.  It seems that worms have the cognitive capacity to learn at least a little.  But it would be heartbreaking to have one of my students captured by a mole.

On sacrifice.

On sacrifice.

Worldwide, people are making huge sacrifices to quell the Covid-19 outbreak.  The burden of these sacrifices falls disproportionately on young people.

Across the United States, universities have closed for the year.  My governor has announced that all elementary and high schools will be closed at least until May 1st.  Bars, restaurants, and malls have been forced to shut down – their employees have been laid off.

Graduating during a recession greatly reduces people’s lifelong earnings.  Young people who have the bad luck of entering the workforce in the next few years will suffer the consequences of this shutdown for their entire lives.

Childhood development has an urgency unmatched by other stages of life.  When children don’t learn to socialize at the appropriate age, they will always struggle to catch up with their peers.  Across the country, huge numbers of children were first learning to read in kindergarten and the early grades.  Now they’re watching television. (My kids, too.) With schools closed until May, and summer break coming soon after, they might be watching TV for months.  They’ll have to work harder to match other people’s educational achievements, for their entire lives.

Many students depend on school meals to stave off hunger.  Kids on free & reduced-price lunch often dread holiday weekends – now, not only have their educations been yanked away, but they’re also suffering through worse food insecurity. Schools and communities are scrambling to provide resources. 

Everyone is being asked to stay at home, to keep at least six feet away from other people. 

The cost of social isolation is lower if you’re established in a white-collar or professional career.  Many office workers can work from home.  The people who were cleaning those offices, or selling coffee and bagels to people on their way to work, get laid off.

The cost of social isolation is lower if you have enough money to stock up on supplies.  The cost of social isolation is much lower if you’re retired.

Everyone is being asked to make sacrifices, but young people are sacrificing more.

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This pandemic wouldn’t be as bad if people could be tested for the virus. We could quarantine the sick and staunch the spread.  But U.S. citizens don’t have access to a test.

Why not?

In their article for the New York Times, Matt Apuzzo and Selam Gebrekidan write that:

As the virus reached into the United States in late January, President Trump and his administration spent weeks downplaying the potential for an outbreak.  The Centers for Disease Control [a government agency gutted by our current president] opted to develop its own test rather than rely on private laboratories or the World Health Organization.

The outbreak quickly outpaced Mr. Trump’s predictions, and the C.D.C.’s test kits turned out to be flawed, leaving the United States far behind other parts of the world – both technically and politically.

Indeed, the Republican party consistently argued against preparing for the virus, downplaying its significance, even as Republican senators used information from confidential briefings for illegal insider trading, selling most stocks and buying shares of companies that make teleconferencing software.

This risk of pandemic was exacerbated by voters who put the Republican party in power.

This is a problem that was created by older Americans.  By age, these were the results of the 2016 presidential election

Image from Wikipedia.

Anyone who is currently younger than 22 – the people who are being made to sacrifice most during this crisis – was not allowed to vote in the 2016 election.

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I was too young to understand the 1980s HIV crisis, but I imagine that it was at least as scary as the Covid-19 pandemic for the people at risk. 

That virus was inevitably fatal.  The deaths were agonizing.  Rampant homophobia and cultural stigmatization – even in the medical community – meant there were few places to seek help. 

The only way to keep safe was to make sacrifices.  Fooling around is fun, but it seemed like it might kill you.  To stay alive, you’d have to tamp down your desire.

But if you made that sacrifice, you’d be safe.  The people making sacrifices were the people who’d benefit.

What about now, during the Covid-19 pandemic?

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My whole family probably contracted Covid-19.  There’s no way to know for sure, because at that time the U.S. didn’t even have tests for people experiencing the acute phase of the illness, and there’s still no antibody test to check whether someone was exposed to the virus in the past. 

I fell sick on February 10th.  I had a pretty bad case, it seems. I had to take high doses of naproxen, but the week-long fever still left me dizzy at times.  The only way I could breathe well enough to sleep soundly was by taking puffs of my spouse’s albuterol inhaler.  My joints ached so much that it hurt whenever I went running even three weeks later.

My children were sick on February 11th and February 13th.  Each napped for half the morning and then felt better.  They’d spiked a high fever, but these lasted less than a day.

In China, 87% of the people who got sick enough to be tested for Covid-19 were at least 30 years old

Only 2% of the people who got sick enough to be tested were 20 years old or younger.

And the risk of death is even more skewed.

Image from Wikipedia.

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Young people are being forced to make tremendous sacrifices.  They will suffer the consequences of this disruption to their education for their entire lives.  But they aren’t the people who benefit. 

Young people have very little risk from Covid-19.  It’s no fun to be sick, but when my children contracted what I assume to be Covid-19, it was no worse than any of dozens of other coughs or colds they come down with each year. 

Most teenagers – whose lives are being up-ended by school closings – could contract Covid-19 and be totally fine.

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My spouse asked, “What would you do about it?  Not months ago, but if you were handed this crisis today?”

My answer was the same as always.  We should enact a wealth tax – preferably a global wealth tax to undermine the tax havens – and use it to fund a guaranteed basic income. 

Using a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income would help address the persistent inequities caused by historical injustice – it would be a sensible form of reparations.  It would provide a buffer against the economic insecurity caused by automation and the gig economy.  It would transfer money away from the people who drew salaries during the years when we really ravaged our environment, and give it to the people who must now settle for a lower standard of living due to climate change.

Right now, there’s another rationale.  Young people are making huge sacrifices during this pandemic; older people receive the benefit.  A wealth tax used to fund guaranteed basic income would provide some recompense for the sacrifices of young people.

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My family is practicing “social isolation,” although it hasn’t been mandated yet.  My children are willingly making sacrifices for the benefit of others, insofar as a four- and six-year-old understand what’s happening.  And yet I’ve seen little acknowledgement in the news of the enormous, selfless sacrifice that children are making – that young people across the country are being forced to make.

They will endure the consequences of this sacrifice for their entire lives.  This sacrifice almost exclusively benefits others.  And yet there’s been no talk of recompense.  No gesture of gratitude from the people who benefit toward the people who are paying the costs.

Which, unfortunately, is how our country has often worked.

On education rankings.

On education rankings.

Note: the original version of this post included a section on individual teacher ratings. I could not find public references for the statements I made, and have deleted these two paragraphs. My apologies!

I recently placed a copy of How to Lie with Statistics in a little free library near campus.  Not because I want people to be more deceitful – if you don’t understand how to trick others, then you yourself will be easy game.  Numbers sound like facts.  They can be used for malicious ends.

Consider medical ratings.  These are ostensibly beneficial – prospective patients get to learn how well-trained their doctors are! 

Saurabh Jha wrote an excellent essay explaining why these rankings are misleading, “When a Bad Surgeon Is the One You Want.”  In brief, doctors who take easy cases will improve their ratings – their patients are more likely to have good outcomes.  When doctors are assessed on their patients’ outcomes, then the doctors who take hard cases will appear to be incompetent.  Even if they are much better at their craft than others.

The same phenomenon holds in teaching. Schools and teachers are often evaluated based on their students’ performance, without normalizing for the unique challenges faced by different populations of kids. 

This week, the Indiana Department of Education released federal evaluations of local schools. 

The elementary school located amidst our town’s most expensive houses, at which the lowest percentage of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, was rated as “exceeding expectations.”  

The elementary schools that serve our town’s most disadvantaged students – one of which holds bilingual classes in English and American Sign Language to support deaf children, and has 86% of students receiving free or reduced-priced lunch – were rated as not meeting expectations.

My spouse and I are sending our own children to one of the schools that was rated as not meeting expectations.  We know a fair bit about education – among other things, my spouse is the editor-in-chief of a national journal of teacher writing.  I’ve observed classrooms in this low-rated school, and they are excellent.

But teacher morale is low, because the teachers are continually evaluated as being sub-par, despite the fact that they have chosen to work harder than others.  Our school district is mandating that teachers in the low-rated schools spend time on unfulfilling test-prep regimes, even though these practices are known to further alienate under-resourced students.

Our nation’s school administrators ought to read How to Lie with Statistics, it seems.  They’ve looked at a set of numbers and allowed themselves to be misled.  Which bodes ill for the learners in their care.

On re-watching The Matrix, twenty years later.

On re-watching The Matrix, twenty years later.

The Matrix is an incredible film.  The cinematography is gorgeous. The major themes – mind control, the nature of free will, and what it means to reject the system – are no less relevant today than when the Wachowski sisters first made their masterpiece.

The Matrix also features many, many guns.

Graffiti in a tunnel in London. Photograph by Duncan C. on Flickr.

I recently read many of Grant Morrison’s comics.  After The Invisibles, which was rumored to have a major impact on the visual style of The Matrix, I felt inspired to re-watch the film. 

For the most part, I still loved it.  But the action scenes were, for me, a person whose spouse is a school teacher, viscerally unpleasant.

On my spouse’s second day of student teaching in northern California, a child arrived at her school with an assortment of lethal weapons that included a chain saw and several pipe bombs.  The child was tackled; the bombs did not explode; nobody died.  Media coverage was minimal, even in the local news.

On multiple occasions, classes at her schools have been canceled due to credible threats of violence.  A few years ago, a student lingered after the bell, wanting to talk.  “I have a friend who I’m a little worried about …”  Later, after this kid had unspooled more details to a guidance counselor, police officers came.  The troubled student was sent away for treatment.  Once again, nobody died.  Media coverage was, to the best of my knowledge, nonexistent, even in the local paper.

Crisis averted, right?  No need to alarm everyone with a write-up, a terrifying enumeration of the arsenal retrieved from a student’s locker.  Although, in a town this small (population: one hundred thousand), plenty of people heard rumors through the whisper network.

Students today are growing up with far more stress than I experienced.  Among top students, more emphasis is placed on applying for college, and the process of getting accepted to the “best” schools is more arduous.  There are more AP classes, more clubs to join, more service projects to undertake, plus the pressure of having some uniquely-honed skill that marks the possessor as somehow deserving of a spot at schools like Harvard, Stanford, or Yale.

That’s rough. 

Only a subset of students are subject to those particular torments, though.

But also, simply existing has grown more stressful for kids.  For every single student inside the building.

Growing up in a house where the parents are seething with rage, slowly and arduously divorcing, is pretty hard on children.  That is now a burden that all students have to bear.  The political atmosphere of the United States is like a nation-wide divorce, with the two dominant political parties unwilling to agree on common norms, or even facts. 

When individual people argue, they often cloister their perceptions inside bubbles of internally-consistent narration.  It’s quite common for each parent to sincerely believe that the other is doing less than a fair share of the housework.  There obviously is an objective truth, and you could probably figure out what it is – by installing security cameras throughout their home, a couple could calculate exactly how many chores were being done by each person.  But in the moment, they just shout.  “Well, I unloaded the dishwasher five times this week, and I was cooking dinner!”

I have a pretty extreme political bias – I’m against regulating behaviors that don’t seem to hurt anyone else (which adult(s) a person marries, what drugs a person consumes), and I’m in favor of regulating behaviors that endanger a person’s neighbors (dumping pollutants, possessing weaponry).  But I also talk to a lot of different folks, and I live in the Midwest.  It’s pretty easy to see why a person with different religious beliefs than mine would find my political stance immoral, if not downright nonsensical.

The Republican Party – which by and large espouses political beliefs that I disagree with vehemently – is correct that the United States was originally founded as a Christian nation.  The underlying philosophy of our constitution draws upon the Bible.  And the Bible does not promote gendered or racial equality.  In the Old Testament, the Bible tells the story of a people who were chosen by God for greatness.  In the New Testament, the story is revised such that all people, by accepting Jesus as lord and savior, can join the elect; still, the New Testament draws a stark contrast between us and them.

From a Biblical point of view, it’s reasonable to subject outsiders to harm in order to improve the circumstances of your own people.  Indeed, it would be immoral to do otherwise. 

It’s like Alan Greenspan’s devotion to the concept of Pareto Optimality, in a way (“Pareto Optimality” is the idea that a distribution of goods and resources, no matter how unequal, is “optimal” if there is no way to improve anyone’s circumstances without making at least one other person worse off.  Even a situation in which one person owns the world and no one else has anything is Pareto Optimal, because you can’t help the masses without taking something from that singular world owner). 

Using an expensive jar of oil to anoint Jesus’s feet is fine: she was helping the elect.  It was be worse to sell that oil and use the money to aid non-Christians, because then your actions only reduce the well-being of God’s people.  (Within a New Testament worldview, the possibility for future conversion complicates things somewhat, but if you knew that someone would never embrace the Lord, then you’d be wrong to help that person at the expense of your fellow Christians.)

And so it’s perfectly reasonable that people who vote for the Republican Party support policies that I abhor.  I wouldn’t want to be married to those people … but, by virtue of the social contract that we were born into, we are constitutionally bound together.  And we’re bickering.  Endlessly, maliciously, in ways that are damaging our children.

Worse, kids at school are subject to the constant fear that they’ll be murdered at their desks.  Horrific stories are routinely broadcast on the national news … and, as I’ve realized from my spouse’s teaching career, the stories we’ve all heard about are only a fraction of the terrifying incidents that students live in dread of.

Student protest at the White House to protest gun laws. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not the fault of The Matrix.  But this film sculpted the initial style for school shootings.  The Matrix was released on March 31st, 1999.  Twenty days later, on the day celebrated both by potheads (based on the police code for marijuana) and white nationalists (because it’s Hitler’s birthday), a pair of students murdered many classmates at Colombine High School.

In The Matrix, a character named Morpheus explains:

The Matrix is a system, Neo.  That system is our enemy.  But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see?  Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters.  The very minds of the people we are trying to save.  But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemies.

The murderers saw their classmates as enemies.

You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged.  And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

Within the world of the film, this mutability is made explicit: any character who has not joined the heavily-armed heroes could blur and become an Agent.  The beautiful woman in red, an unhoused alcoholic man bundled in blankets – either might suddenly mutate into a threat. 

And so Neo kills.  He and Trinity acquire military-grade weaponry; they stroll into a government building and murder everyone inside.

Anyone willing to complacently work there is, after all, the enemy.

I teach poetry classes inside a jail.  Through Pages to Prisoners, I send free books to people throughout the country.  I think that the criminal justice system in the United States is pretty abhorrent.

But that doesn’t mean the people who work within that system as corrections officers are bad. They have families to feed.  And many are surely aware that if too few people worked as corrections officers, leading the facilities to be understaffed, the people incarcerated inside would be much less safe.

Experience lets me appreciate nuance.  I am an ethical vegan; good people choose to become butchers.  I don’t like our criminal justice system; good people work inside.

When I was a teenager, though, I felt moral certitude.  I didn’t like school.  And so, if you were the sort of drone who could sit contentedly at your desk, I didn’t like you.  And, yes, I too had notebooks where I’d written the sort of vitriolic short stories about leveling the place with a Golden-Eye-(the N64 game, not the movie)-style grenade launcher, an onscreen point counter tracking deaths.  Yes, my friends and I made short films with BB gun props full of senseless killings.

One of my old notebooks that I must have deemed sufficiently innocuous to save.

I remember one of the films we made as being pretty good.  But after Colombine, we destroyed the video tapes.  I threw my notebooks away.

And I was pissed to be called so often to the principal’s office.  I understand now why they were worried.  Moral certainty is dangerous; it lets you consider people who disagree as the enemy.

Twenty years later, my body stiffened and my heart sank when I watched The Matrix.  I loved that movie; I’m not sure I’ll ever see it again.

And, glory be, I am now blessed to live in a nation led by a president who feels nothing if not moral certainty.

On suboptimal optimization.

On suboptimal optimization.

I’ve been helping a friend learn the math behind optimization so that she can pass a graduation-requirement course in linear algebra. 

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool.  Biochemists love it – progression toward an energy minimum directs protein folding, among other physical phenomena.  Economists love it – whenever you’re trying to make money, you’re solving for a constrained maximum.  Philosophers love it – how can we provide the most happiness for a population?  Computer scientists love it – self-taught translation algorithms use this same methodology (I still believe that you could mostly replace Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations with this New York Times Magazine article on machine learning and a primer on principal component analysis).

But, even though optimization problems are useful, the math behind them can be tricky.  I’m skeptical that this mathematical technique is essential for everyone who wants a B.A. to grasp – my friend, for example, is a wonderful preschool teacher who hopes to finally finish a degree in child psychology.  She would have graduated two years ago except that she’s failed this math class three times.

I could understand if the university wanted her to take statistics, as that would help her understand psychology research papers … and the science underlying contemporary political debates … and value-added models for education … and more.  A basic understanding of statistics might make people better citizens.

Whereas … linear algebra?  This is a beautiful but counterintuitive field of mathematics.  If you’re interested in certain subjects – if you want to become a physicist, for example – you really should learn this math.  A deep understanding of linear algebra can enliven your study of quantum mechanics.

The summary of quantum mechanics: animation by Templaton.

Then again, Werner Heisenberg, who was a brilliant physicist, had a limited grasp on linear algebra.  He made huge contributions to our understanding of quantum mechanics, but his lack of mathematical expertise occasionally held him back.  He never quite understood the implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and he failed to provide Adolph Hitler with an atomic bomb.

In retrospect, maybe it’s good that Heisenberg didn’t know more linear algebra.

While I doubt that Heisenberg would have made a great preschool teacher, I don’t think that deficits in linear algebra were deterring him from that profession.  After each evening that I spend working with my friend, I do feel that she understands matrices a little better … but her ability to nurture children isn’t improving.

And yet.  Somebody in an office decided that all university students here need to pass this class.  I don’t think this rule optimizes the educational outcomes for their students, but perhaps they are maximizing something else, like the registration fees that can be extracted.

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool, but it’s easy to misuse.  Numbers will always do what they’re supposed to, but each such problem begins with a choice.  What exactly do you hope to optimize?

Choose the wrong thing and you’ll make the world worse.

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Figure 1 from Eykholt et al., 2018.

Most automobile companies are researching self-driving cars.  They’re the way of the future!  In a previous essay, I included links to studies showing that unremarkable-looking graffiti could confound self-driving cars … but the issue I want to discuss today is both more mundane and more perfidious.

After all, using graffiti to make a self-driving car interpret a stop sign as “Speed Limit 45” is a design flaw.  A car that accelerates instead of braking in that situation is not operating as intended.

But passenger-less self-driving cars that roam the city all day, intentionally creating as many traffic jams as possible?  That’s a feature.  That’s what self-driving cars are designed to do.

A machine designed to create traffic jams?

Despite my wariness about automation and algorithms run amok, I hadn’t considered this problem until I read Adam Millard-Ball’s recent research paper, “The Autonomous Vehicle Parking Problem.” Millard-Ball begins with a simple assumption: what if a self-driving car is designed to maximize utility for its owner?

This assumption seems reasonable.  After all, the AI piloting a self-driving car must include an explicit response to the trolley problem.  Should the car intentionally crash and kill its passenger in order to save the lives of a group of pedestrians?  This ethical quandary is notoriously tricky to answer … but a computer scientist designing a self-driving car will probably answer, “no.” 

Otherwise, the manufacturers won’t sell cars.  Would you ride in a vehicle that was programmed to sacrifice you?

Luckily, the AI will not have to make that sort of life and death decision often.  But here’s a question that will arise daily: if you commute in a self-driving car, what should the car do while you’re working?

If the car was designed to maximize public utility, perhaps it would spend those hours serving as a low-cost taxi.  If demand for transportation happened to be lower than the quantity of available, unoccupied self-driving cars, it might use its elaborate array of sensors to squeeze into as small a space as possible inside a parking garage.

But what if the car is designed to benefit its owner?

Perhaps the owner would still want for the car to work as a taxi, just as an extra source of income.  But some people – especially the people wealthy enough to afford to purchase the first wave of self-driving cars – don’t like the idea of strangers mucking around in their vehicles.  Some self-driving cars would spend those hours unoccupied.

But they won’t park.  In most cities, parking costs between $2 and $10 per hour, depending on whether it’s street or garage parking, whether you purchase a long-term contract, etc. 

The cost to just keep driving is generally going to be lower than $2 per hour.  Worse, this cost is a function of the car’s speed.  If the car is idling at a dead stop, it will use approximately 0.1 gallon per hour, costing 25 cents per hour at today’s prices.  If the car is traveling at 30 mph without breaks, it will use approximately 1 gallon per hour, costing $2.50 per hour.

To save money, the car wants to stay on the road … but it wants for traffic to be as close to a standstill as possible.

Luckily for the car, this is an easy optimization problem.  It can consult its onboard GPS to find nearby areas where traffic is slow, then drive over there.  As more and more self-driving cars converge on the same jammed streets, they’ll slow traffic more and more, allowing them to consume the workday with as little motion as possible.

Photo by walidhassanein on Flickr.

Pity the person sitting behind the wheel of an occupied car on those streets.  All the self-driving cars will be having a great time stuck in that traffic jam: we’re saving money!, they get to think.  Meanwhile the human is stuck swearing at empty shells, cursing a bevy of computer programmers who made their choices months or years ago.

And all those idling engines exhale carbon dioxide.  But it doesn’t cost money to pollute, because one political party’s worth of politicians willfully ignore the fact that capitalism, by philosophical design, requires we set prices for scarce resources … like clean air, or habitable planets.

On attentiveness and names.

On attentiveness and names.

When a scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name it.  Sometimes these names seem reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or “cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,” etc.

Fruit fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other scientists.  There’s the gene “cheap date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable to process ethanol and  so quickly passes out.  Another genetic mutation produced male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,” because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.

Yup, some gene names were bad.  One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.

Other gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying. 

A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog.  It seemed funny at the time!  See?  The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it?  You get it, right?

 Okay, so this Sonic Hedgehog protein doesn’t look all that much like Sonic the Hedgehog.  But spend enough time staring at something like protein crystal structures and you’ll experience pareidolia, like seeing animal shapes in irregularly dappled plaster ceilings, or anthropomorphic gods amongst the twinklings of the stars.

Well, the Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells to recognize their spatial position in a developing body.  If a human fetus comes to term despite having a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain defects.

And then a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog mutation.”

And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes.  Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.

Words have power, after all.


Some people are more attentive to their environments than others.  During evolutionary time, this trait was obviously good for humanity.  If your tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody around who is paying attention to the world.  A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion about to leap out and attack.  Maybe we should take a different path.  Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

Other people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem.  During evolutionary time, this trait was surely good for humanity, too.  It’s helpful to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously.  But it’s also helpful to have somebody who might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets.  A way of cooking mud into pottery that could carry or store water.

Image by Herb Roe on Wikimedia Commons.

Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself.  Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges.  Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish.  A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.

Left to our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at different times.  Some brains are primed to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night.  And that’s good.  It reduces the amount of time that a tribe would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.

But in the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity that allowed our species to thrive.  The high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag themselves through morning classes like zombies.  They’ll be midway through first period before the sun rises.  Their teachers glance derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.


Eventually, humans invented language.  Much later, we invented writing.  Much, much later, we invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.

Of course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.

If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait.  When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away.  When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to. 

People like me, or this kid at a library, totally would’ve been lion bait.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then.  Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success.  People like me become medical doctors.  Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.

And so, when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit disorder.

Identifying those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead, we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.

I’ve never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.”


Childhood trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit disorder.”  Which makes sense – if you’ve gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should learn to be more aware of your environment.  It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven itself to be dangerous.

Even for somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling grizzly fifteen meters away.

Some children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly.  And if it can happen to him, why not other grown-ups, too?  Best to stay on high alert around the teacher.  She’s trying to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?


Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world.  They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).

Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad.  And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds.  Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.

In poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.

I groaned.

“I know, I know,” he said.  “But I might be out on Monday.”

“What happened?”

“Failed a urine screen.  But I was doing good.  Out for six months, and they were screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”

“With … ?”

“Meth,” he said, nodding.  “But I wasn’t hitting it bad, this time.  I know I look like I lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was hard getting enough to eat.  Wasn’t like last time.  I don’t know if you remember, like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in.  But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “

This is apparently a common phenomenon.  When we incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the world.  Inside the jail, there is a set routine.  Somebody is often barking orders, telling people exactly what to do.  There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan CO shirts and dark brown pants.

The world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make.  Will you sit and try to listen to the TV?  (The screen is visible from three or four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.)  Try, against all odds, to read a book?  Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?

After spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in a cast.

And these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.

“ … so I vape a lot, outside.  I step out of this place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette.  And, every now and then … “

He feels physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings.  And so he doses himself with chemicals that let him ignore the world as well as I can.

And, yes.  He grew up with an abusive stepfather.  This led to his acting squirrelly in school.  And so, at ten years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.

Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing.  The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.


Words have power.

We can’t know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?

On substitutes.

On substitutes.

When I started bouldering, I had the pleasure of attending a gym run by Jess McCauley.  He was an excellent climbing coach – although this was a very small gym in Mountain View, California, many of the kids he taught excelled at national competitions.

Then Jess decided to become a school teacher.  He was clearly great at working with kids, and had a B.A. in history focusing on African studies, so he figured he could do more good inside a classroom than a gym.  As he finished his education degree, Jess began working as a substitute teacher.

His first job was in my spouse’s high school “Biotechnology” class.  The day before, she exhorted her students: “The sub tomorrow is a good friend of mine, and I’m gonna be really upset if you’re hard on him.”

Everybody knew Jess was great with kids.  He’s a funny, charming, knowledgeable, muscular dude.  But every time a substitute teacher steps into a classroom, the chance that something will go wrong increases dramatically.

desk.jpg

Teachers build relationships with students over the course of a year.  As you work with a group of people, you learn to read subtle social cues – you’ll know when two students need to be separated from each other, when somebody might need to take a momentary breather in the hallway.  There’s a lot going on inside a high school beyond content education, and teachers develop an intuitive feel for the social dynamics inside their own rooms.

With experience, most people get better at this.  I imagine my spouse’s content knowledge didn’t improve much over her first five years in the classroom, but she became a better teacher.  She learned how to read and work a room.

And I know how much effort she puts into establishing a culture of trust inside her room.  But there are still problems.

In the morning, she teaches AP biology to her school’s “best and brightest,” kids bound for college at top-tier universities.  Many of those students would probably learn fine if you gave them all textbooks and put a straw-filled scarecrow behind the teacher’s desk.  Their neurochemistry tends to mesh well with the norms of public education.

In the afternoon, she teaches “Earth and space science” to kids who actually need a good teacher.  (Unfortunately, many schools pair their best teachers with the honors students and assign whomever’s left to the kids who need the most.)  These are students whom administrators often expect to fail – and yet, when given appropriate challenges (like a recent assignment engineering challenge to build a functional solar still), they shine.

Still, when a substitute steps into these classrooms, there’s a major risk that something will go wrong.

Last year, when our family traveled to St. Louis for the National American Biology Teacher meeting, one of my spouse’s students punched a classmate in the head.

During another of our trips, a student flipped a desk.  The year before, some students locked a sub out of the room and looped twine between the door handle and a lab table, tightening their barricade with a bar from the coat closet.  Those same kids stole the fire extinguisher that day (which my spouse only knew because they gleefully hugged her and told her so at graduation – nobody expected for these kids to receive diplomas, so they were understandably elated to be there).

When my spouse plans trips, she requests that only experienced substitutes be assigned to cover her classes, but there’s only so much that somebody unfamiliar with the room can do.  I imagine that if she were subbing for somebody else, the chance of something going wrong would still jump, even though she can keep her own classrooms orderly.  Those are students she’s grown familiar with.

High school is a stressful environment.  And putting a new face into that kind of situation can trigger trouble.

But, what’s a little worse than high school?  In terms of, like, people don’t want to be there, emotions flare, you’ve got massive numbers of athletic young men crammed into a cramped little space?

Oh.  Right.  Prison.

prisoners.JPG

One consequence of the federal hiring freeze is that many prisons have been relying on substitute guards.  These subs might be trained guards who usually work other blocks – or they might be classroom instructors, medical staff, clerks.  Female secretaries dressed in their office clothes (i.e. skirt, button-down blouse) might be suddenly assigned to patrol the halls of a men’s prison.

When a substitute steps into my spouse’s classroom, kids might get hurt.  When a substitute enters a prison, people could die.  According to a terrifying article from the New York Times,

As the shortage of correctional officers has grown chronic under President Trump – and the practice of drawing upon other workers has become routine – many prisons have been operating in a perpetual state of staffing turmoil, leaving some workers feeling ill-equipped and unsafe on the job, according to interviews and internal documents from the Bureau of Prisons.

Dozens of workers from prisons across the country said inmates had become more brazen with staff members and more violent with one another.

The traditional rules go unenforced, which emboldens people to push the limits further.  When guards can’t be relied on to keep a prison orderly, gang violence often takes over as an alternate form of control.

In My Brother Moochie, journalist Issac J. Bailey describes the emotional fallout that accompanied his older brother’s violent crime.  After this brother, Moochie, was sent to prison, Bailey’s family crumbled.  Several of his younger brothers got involved with petty crime and have been cycling in and out of prison ever since.  For instance, Bailey’s younger brother James, who is traumatized by the violence he witnesses in prison:

The man who was killed was “a little Asian dude smaller than me, so about fifteen of them ran into the room and started stabbing him,” James said.  “Dude was supposed to go home the next week.  What’s crazy is dude is from California and he can’t even speak his family’s original language.  They stabbed him out of fear.”

A shortage of prison guards throughout the state’s correctional system meant the few on duty didn’t always manage to make the rounds through the dorms on schedule.

I teach at our local county jail.  During a staffing shortage two summers ago, the jail became much less safe.  According to former inmate (and excellent human being) Max Smith, “Guys learned to time things.  A guard would be walking through for the count, some guys would be wailing on somebody inside a cell, they’d have somebody go up, ask the guard a question, distract him right when he got to that window.  Then he’d keep walking and they’d continue beating the shit out of somebody.  It was a scary place to be.”

Maybe there’s more that my spouse could be doing to establish a culture that will stay calm even when substitutes come into her classroom.  But I know that she’s already trying awfully hard, and she’s one of our country’s best teachers.

I think it’s safe to assume that the average prison guard puts less energy than she does into cultivating a safe and respectful environment.  When subs cover for them, bad things are going to happen.

Maybe we as a country don’t want to spend so much money on our prisons.  If so, we should probably be spending a whole lot more on education, so that we won’t feel the need to lock people up – public schooling is a chance to turn people’s lives around, but it’s not like we’re pouring money into that.  And there’s sentencing reform.  With shorter prison sentences, we wouldn’t need so many guards.

But I can’t imagine that the best solution is to conscript secretaries, teachers, and medical staff into patrolling the halls.

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

A man in my poetry class recently told me, “Ugh, cocaine is awful.  You use some, you’ll want some more, but I hate it.  It makes me such a jerk.  I mean, I’m not like this, I’m never like this, but if I’m on coke, I’m like, bitch, you best make yourself useful around here.”

Cocaine has a reputation as a fun party drug, but nobody in jail has anything nice to say about it.  And it’s not that they’re down on drugs in general – that same man told me:

“Meth?  Meth is great – you should never try it.”

And then he explained the social niceties of trying to shoot up in the home of a friend who was recently diagnosed with HIV.  This friend was apparently cavalierly sloppy with needles:

“Like, blood was spurting, and I was scooting back thinking, like, god, I wish I was anywhere but here … “

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Glasseelskils_0European eels are endangered.  They swim huge distances to complete their life cycles – hatching at sea, undertaking a voracious (oft cannibalistic) quest up rivers, then returning to their birthplaces to spawn – and have been thwarted by hydroelectric dams blocking their migration, and the tendency of an insatiable terrestrial ape to catch and consume huge numbers of their kind.

Now these eels face another obstacle: they must complete their voyages while blitzed on cocaine.  European governments dump drugs into the sea to “destroy” them, but that’s not how water works.  The drugs are still there.  The eels get high.

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576px-Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_Henry_Walter_Barnett_bwAccording to popular legend, Robert Louis Stevenson was very sick before he wrote his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Stevenson had tried many cures; all had failed.  Then his spouse bought cocaine.  This worked.  Suddenly Stevenson could write again.  In three days, he composed his novel.

When he read the first draft to his spouse, she said it didn’t seem sufficiently allegorical.  So Stevenson flung the pages into the fire and began again.  In three more days, he’d composed the version of the story that we know today.

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Dr. Jekyll was a fine man.  On drugs, he became a monster.

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IMG_5233When our first child was just shy of two years old, she liked to wear a green long-sleeve with a picture of The Incredible Hulk rampaging.  She’d pull it from her drawer; I’d say, “Oh, you want to wear your Hulk Smash shirt today?”

One day, I asked her, “N., why does Hulk want to smash?”

She looked down at the picture, then back up to me.  First she signed the word hungry.

“Oh, Hulk wants something to eat?”

She shook her head.  No, that didn’t sound quite right.  She looked down again, then made another sign, banging her hands together for the word shoes.

“Hulk is upset because he has no shoes?”

She bobbed her head yes.  No shoes.  That would make her rage, too.

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Once, some runners on the local high school cross country team asked me who would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk.  They’d reached a detente after one claimed that the Hulk was unstoppable when enraged (“… and nothing calms him down except his girlfriend.”), and the other argued that Superman could turn back time until the moment before Hulk had gotten angry, then smash him.

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Superman vs. Hulk by JD Hancock on Flickr.

I demurred.  I don’t think Superman is a very interesting hero, and the Hulk is interesting only in campaigns, not battles.  I like the idea of a hero who might go berserk and accidentally thwart his own plans, but a single bout of wrestling isn’t like that.  I think it’s more compelling to consider his constant risk of hurting the people that he loves.

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fullsizeoutput_12In Educated, Tara Westover writes beautifully about the horrors of living with the Hulk.  Her early years were controlled by a father in the throes of extreme paranoia and delusions of grandeur:

Fourteen years after the incident with the Weavers, I would sit in a university classroom and listen to a professor of psychology describe something called bipolar disorder.  Until that moment I had never heard of mental illness.  I knew people could go crazy – they’d wear dead cats on their heads or fall in love with a turnip – but the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me.

The professor recited facts in a dull, earthy voice: the average age of onset is twenty-five; there may be no symptoms before then. 

The irony was that if Dad was bipolar – or had any of a dozen disorders that might explain his behavior – the same paranoia that was a symptom of the illness would prevent its ever being diagnosed and treated.  No one would ever know. 

Because her father was at war with the federal government, Westover never went to school.  Her birth went undocumented – she didn’t have a certificate that would’ve allowed her to enroll until years later, and even then wound up with a hodgepodge of documents that listed slightly differing names and birthdates. 

And her father needed money, because he was frantically stockpiling food and ammunition.  He needed solar panels (back when they were much more expensive than today) because the power grid was going to cut out after Y2K.

As one of God’s soldiers, he needed to build an ark.  Or tank.  Arsenal.  Whatever.

This constant hustle for money led Westover’s father to subject his children to incredible dangers.  There might be a safe way to do a job, but if the risky way could save two minutes, the man put his kids’ lives on the line.  Westover was forced to ride up to a trailer inside a bin filled with two thousand pounds of scrap iron.  When her leg got caught and she couldn’t jump out, her father still dumped the bucket.  Westover tumbled nearly twenty feet to the ground.  And this was lucky.  If she’d fallen a few inches to the other side, she would’ve been crushed by all that iron. 

Her brothers were injured even more grievously at her father’s hands.

For instance, a brother’s clothes caught fire while he was working with his father.  In Westover’s recollection, the father then lifted his burnt son into the cab of a truck and made him drive home alone.  Only the ten-year-old Westover was there to help him, so she put her brother’s burnt leg inside a garbage can full of ice water.

She thought:

If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn.  Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain.  Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old.  Why it had ended up in a garbage can.

Except that she then realizes that her father must have been with her brother.  He must have been there in order to put out the fire; otherwise the whole mountainside would’ve burned. 

In a footnote, Westover adds: 

Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident.  His account differs from both mine and Richard’s.  In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire.  This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s.  Still, perhaps our memories are in error.  Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass.  What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.

Westover’s father was abusive, and he routinely convinced his children that their memories were in error, instead substituting his own (oft-illogical) versions of events, but he isn’t the Hulk in this story.  Yup, things get worse.  One of Westover’s brothers might suddenly snap and become Hyde.

Westover loved her older brother Shawn, but during an over-hasty job with their father, Shawn fell twelve feet, striking a concrete wall headfirst, and sustained a severe brain injury.  Instead of taking the kid to the hospital, their father propped him against a pickup truck and left him to sit in the hot sun.

His pupils were unevenly dilated.  His brain was bleeding.

Fifteen minutes later, Shawn wandered back to the worksite and started acting wild.  He screamed, flung his father, ran around leaping and howling.  The others tackled him – at which point his head again struck the concrete, hard – and called 911 for a helicopter to airlift him to the hospital.

It took some time for me to realize that although Shawn looked the same, he wasn’t.  He seemed lucid, but if you listened carefully his stories didn’t make sense.  They weren’t really stories at all, just one tangent after another. 

Worse, he was violent.  But unpredictably so.  At one moment, he and Westover might be laughing together.  At another moment, he’d twist her arm behind her back so brutally that she worried her wrist would break, call her a slut, and cram her face into a toilet bowl.  He hacked at the throat of his son’s pet dog with a five-inch knife blade while the animal howled, dying.  He called his sister and placidly explained his plans to visit her university and murder her.

In a lucid moment, he helped Westover install a massive deadbolt in her bedroom door, despite knowing that he was the only person she needed protection from.

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Tara_Westover_1+2-smallerAnd yet, Westover escaped.  Although she’d never set foot inside a classroom, she was accepted to Brigham Young University, where the consensus view of reality was much closer to her own.

Of course, she made a few stumbles.  Because she didn’t understand what course numbers signified, she enrolled as a freshman in an upper-level art history class.  Worse, she raised her hand to ask after the meaning of a word she didn’t recognize: Holocaust.

During one of my own classes, we were discussing poems from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony when I mentioned that Reznikoff had also written about the Holocaust.

“Holocaust, what’s that?” a man asked. 

Unlike Westover, this man had grown up in an urban area.  But he’d stopped attending school when he was pretty young, and there’s a lot of cultural knowledge that we tend to take for granted.

I’d like to think that I handled the situation better than Westover’s professor.  Westover was shamed.  In our poetry class, we instead talked about how the word “holocaust” could be seen as offensive when used to describe the years during which members of the Nazi party murdered at least 6 million people, typically because their victims believed in Judaism.  The word “holocaust” originally meant a burnt offering for God, so Jewish leaders instead referred to this period of history with the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.”  Although even that phrasing seems off, because “catastrophe” generally evokes natural disaster, whereas the Holocaust was mass murder and torture on a scale comparable only to American slavery.  A purely human evil.

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Westover became a historian.  After experiencing firsthand the nightmare of having her own account of reality constantly replaced by someone else’s version, she understood how powerful storytelling can be.  Educated is a beautiful book.  And, to my mind, a much more sensible depiction of unequal opportunity in the United States than J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

Westover recognizes how lucky she was to escape, and how narrowly she avoided the fate of her sister-in-law.  And Westover gives a powerful endorsement of government aid:

I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.  My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens.  My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.