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2021 JAN 20

TOMMOROW (January 20, 2021)
This is the third in a series of essays (YesterdayTodayTomorrow) that describe the transition of the presidency during the last two weeks.

I watched the inauguration of Joseph Biden to the presidency of the United States today with tears of joy in my eyes. I don't remember  ever having been affected so emotionally by an inauguration ceremony. And my memory of these ceremonies goes back to that of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

All of the speeches and all of the participants reflected the theme of unity under the umbrella of multiculturalism: a scene that we have rarely ever witnessed on a national stage. Of course, given Mike Pompeo's recent statement to the effect that the United States should not tolerate multiculturalism, "It's not who we are.", the inauguration must have been difficult for him to watch: good.

But as for the goal of unifying a divided political electorate: I don't think so. Fully 70 percent of Republicans remain convinced that the election was fraudulent, that Trump actually won the election, and that he played no role in fomenting the riot at the Capitol on January 6th. Almost half of this country votes Republican. How can you unify with so large a portion of the electorate that fails to accept facts clearly demonstrated, and continues to support an individual who is the antithesis of truth, and a model for antihumanism. Trump's behavior clearly lacks one iota of empathy for his fellow human beings, even his steadfast supporters. He is the living definition of a sociopath.

Trump's role in fomenting the riot is plain to watch on any social media outlet. It is Interesting  that some important Republican leaders have publicly stated Trump's complicity on national TV, including the redoubtable Mitch McConnell,  but he is an exception to  Republican opinion in general. My opinion is that Biden will face significant opposition to his legislative agenda similar to that faced by Obama, simply because the Republican mantra has become one of "Winner take all". Republican congressmen and women who disagree with that approach are few and far between.

I think the only hope for Biden's administration is to demonstrate competency in directing the handling of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution, so that indeed 100 million people become vaccinated in the first 100 days of Biden's presidency. Becoming vaccinated is about the only thing that Republicans are seeking with the same advocacy as Democrats, antivaxxers notwithstanding. The winds of competency may be able to effect some change in opinion.

We have never been a unified country from our earliest history. The only real evidence of unification was in the calculated extermination of this country's previous inhabitants, whose technological inferiority and susceptibility to germ warfare accelerated their demise. More recently our entries into both World Wars were opposed by a majority of Americans, despite the predicaments of our allies abroad. Describing Hitler and Hirohito as "predicaments" is certainly the epitome of understatement.

No,  we will never unify with the existing coterie of Republicans, and the alt-right fringe groups, whose only ideology is that of anarchism to be achieved by violence.

Our only hope is our youth who are growing up in a multicultural society of their own making: due primarily to the prevalence of social media. Here they learn the value of tolerance for cultural differences, simply because they get to experience first hand the value of accepting other people's means of coping with life, and making the best of it. Clearly they get to witness events that otherwise were hidden from their parents, and all the generations prior to them. This isolation made it much easier to inculcate youth with the biases and intolerance of their parents. Not so today.

To help perpetuate this cultural revolution, and grow it into an adult culture of tolerant, cooperative and thoughtful decision makers, we need to upend our antiquated educational system. We need to convert that system from a commodity assembly line into  a custom manufacturing industry. We need to do that from preschool through graduate school. The key is in meeting the needs of students on a one to one basis. We need to have students learn how to take responsibility for their own educations, rather than doing that for them. Only then will they be prepared to care for themselves financially, emotionally, and motivationally when they leave the school environment.

We need to ready students for a life where updating their knowledge and skills will be as acceptable as is maintaining the software on their phones and computers today. We need to stop testing students for common achievements,  and help them master the skills that they themselves have chosen to learn. It's a tall order, but it will rid us of a system that generates people who have no real motivation for lifelong learning.

Democracy can only flourish in a society where all generations have the skills to make well informed choices. Without those skills, as we see today, the electorate has no choice but to sink into an abyss of ignorance, subject to the words and promises of any grifter with an appealing message having no basis in fact.

2021 JAN 17

Having wintered over at McMurdo Station, Antarctica in 1965-66 (Bartol Research Foundation — Junior Physicist — Cosmic Ray Program), and having had plenty of time to read during the dark winter months, I have a few corrections to make to Ms Foreman's description of the historical figures that played a role in Antarctic exploration.

Ms Foreman describes Robert Falcon Scott as "the British explorer". Scott was anything but an "explorer". His only claim to exploring was a previous visit to McMurdo (~ 1901-04) leading a naval expedition whose primary goal was attainment of the Pole. He failed at that, of course, knowing absolutely nothing about polar exploration, but like the rest of us, he fell in love with the place.

Great Britain at the time ( ~1911) was at the height of its colonial usurpations, and determined to establish yet another colony in the Southern hemisphere, Scott easily obtained the funding to return with the assurance that he would be able to add the South Pole to Britain's colonial empire. Scott had "determined" that horses (ponies) were the solution to the supply chain necessary to reach the Pole.

Roald Amundsen, on the other hand, had spent his entire life, about 40 years of age at the time, exploring. He was the first to complete the sought after Northwest Passage, and had learned a great deal about polar survival by living with the Inuit. He became especially familiar with the handling of sleds and sled dogs, which made all the difference in his attaining the Pole in a timely fashion.

Amundsen was a professional explorer; Scott was a professional naval officer seeking fame; neither men were scientists, but both contributed much to our understanding of the Antarctic. Scott died returning to McMurdo from the Pole, because of poor planning, a late start, bad weather encountered because of his late start, equipment failure that deprived them of fuel for their stove, and the idea that they could man-haul their equipment from McMurdo to the Pole and back.

He left a diary from which I quote. Referring to the Pole he said "Great God this is an awful place, and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without the reward of priority".




2021 JAN 09

TODAY (January 9, 2021)
I wrote a piece the other day allowing that the absence of an armed force capable of preventing what we saw happen at the United States Capitol on 6 January was the best choice we could have made based on the outcomes of all the other possible choices. I stand by my position as the actual outcome has demonstrated.  

None of the choices available were what we might call "acceptable" from a humane point of view, but we do not live in a world where humanism prevails. We are a violent species and we prove it on a daily basis, thrusting violence of every sort on our fellow human beings both as groups or as individuals. We have done so ever since history has been recorded, and we did so even as hominins arose as an evolutionary path. Intolerance is our legacy, and violence our preferred method of obtaining what we want.  

The choice we made on 6 January 2021 not to interfere was most likely supported by the president and his cronies (or more likely the other way around), as evidenced by their reluctance to call in a force majeure to stop the rioting even as they watched it happening in real time. I am not sure how they expected to "finish" this exercise, but it certainly was their expectation that it would lead to a continuance of Trump's faux dictatorship.  

Today, the better utility of nonviolence as a mode of resistance is being demonstrated to its fullest extent since the riot. Just imagine what we would be going through at present if the crowd had been stopped by bullets in response to some people in the crowd throwing Molotov cocktails at the defending force. There would be no path to a better future outcome, just recriminations growing daily on both sides. Yes, people did die and many were injured in the event, but the numbers were much less by comparison than would have occurred if violence had been used to prevent entry into the Capitol building.  

As it was, the Capitol building was cleared of the "rioters" in a more or less peaceful manner, and Congress was back in business in that building on the very same day. The scenes of the crowd destroying Capitol property, injuring and even killing a member of the Capitol police force, and desecrating what many considered to be hallowed ground are flooding TV and other forms of social media. Congressmen who supported Trump's false claims of election fraud are being accused of helping foment the riot. And people in the crowd responsible for acts of violence, destruction, and desecration are being identified and arrested. Their "cause" is in ruins and their own future as a political force to be reckoned with is no longer extant. Their puppet leader — Donald Trump — has been denigrated throughout the land, and his access to social media denied by the very organizations who helped him gain recognition for his political, social and environmentally destructive behavior. .

These organizations: Twitter, Facebook, and others have finally decided to lay the Golden Goose aside, before they too suffer a similar fate. Remember, however, that for the last several years how much they have profited by allowing Trump and his cronies to spew their venom on the public airwaves, ostensibly as a First Amendment right, but in reality driven by purely profit-making motives. Such is the irony of capitalism playing out in a democracy. The two are not really compatible in the pure form that the Republican party would have you believe possible.  

I look forward to Trump's impeachment, his being barred from future political activities, and his arrest for many of the crimes that he has perpetrated both during and prior to his presidency. I also look forward to the disintegration of the current Republican party, to be replaced by a more empathic and thoughtful group of people for whom the term "compromise" is recognized as the only means of moving our society in a humane and environmentally safe direction.

2021 JAN 07

YESTERDAY (January 6, 2021)
If you aren't living under a stone, yesterday you watched a mob storm the Capitol building in Washington, D.C, and disrupt the proceedings to confirm the results of November's presidential election. Unprecedented was the fact that this riot was instigated by the outgoing president of the United States, Donald Trump, who will be leaving office in less than two weeks. Remarkably the people comprising this mob were there under his invitation and direction to "take back their government".

What a shock for them; there was nothing to take but empty rooms. More importantly what this mob learned was that our government is a government by choice. A government in Abraham Lincolns 's famous words "... of the people, by the people, for the people". What they learned is that our government is not a building, not a small group of people who dictate their future, and not even a document, or set of documents, that direct the proceedings of this government. What they learned was that our Federal government is at its roots the collective opinion of the citizens of this country. An opinion determined by elections held regularly in order to reflect that opinion. And that if you don't agree with that collective opinion you are going to have to work to change it to your liking through the election process. There is no other way. Not even by having the president of this country claim that the elections are unfair unless they agree with HIS opinion.

Whether by design or miscalculation, the absence of a force to meet and contain the mob at the Capitol building was a brilliant maneuver. Some members of the normal Capitol police presence even assisted the mob to enter the building. The mob reacted by filling the building, and waving flags of all descriptions from the balconies and windows; some of which they felt the need to break in order to enter the building, when they could have walked through the front door. What surprised me was the reaction of many of these people as they entered the building, and passed through the large space of the rotunda under the Capitol dome. They walked slowly in a line, along the pathways constrained only by the velvet ropes and posts, pausing along the way to look up and around at the beautiful glass, statuary, and marble surroundings. I am sure that for many of them, this was the first time that had ever been in this building. And it had the same effect on many of them as it does on most tourists entering a large cathedral: one of awe and reverence.

Some of the mob of course acted like drunken teenagers, taking advantage of the parents' absence from the house of a friend. Released from normal constraints the only rule of behavior became — everything that was forbidden was permitted. But, to a large extent, the contents of the building were left intact and undamaged, and the formerly riotous crowd left peacefully at the urging of a force majeur that arrived some hours later. Perhaps leaving with a greater appreciation for the "seat of power" and with the realization that they can accomplish nothing without the support of the vast majority of the people who actually are the government of these United States.

Later that same evening their elected representatives were back in that same building conducting the business of government that had been delayed, but not obviated, by the presence of the uninvited guests earlier in the day. Surely this quick return to normalcy is the best assurance that our democracy and our government are resilient enough to handle even an insurrection in its midst, and then continue to function in a normal fashion, notwithstanding the temporary shock of intrusion on our elected representatives. Imagine the surprise and admiration of the people of the world as they viewed this event from afar, having never seen the like of which in the history of human governance.

CODA: It is with great regret that we mourn the loss of one of the demonstrators to a gunshot wound. Given the extreme nature of this event, it is surprising that more lives were not lost in this experience from which we have all learned important lessons. Her loss will not have been in vain.

I'd also like to add that the Capitol police who were injured deserve medals of honor, and that the force as a whole acted with remarkable restraint in the face of overwhelming danger to themselves and congressional staff members.

2020 DEC 27

I applaud the efforts of Melanie Moses and Kathy Powers to describe the potential inequities in vaccine distribution to prevent COVID-19 from spreading to non-white populations. Unfortunately a design for distributing the vaccine, featuring a correctly biased plan of distribution, would occupy more time than actually distributing the vaccine to the entire population of the United States.

The primary reasons for people of color being more adversely affected by the SARS-Cov-2 virus are highly correlated with their socioeconomic status. Indeed a close look at the correlations will reveal the actual causes for their increased morbidity, as so aptly pointed out by Moses and Powers. Unfortunately, in the next few months, we can't solve the problems created by history and long-held cultural values, changes which are needed to create a society where "all men [Homo sapiens] are created equal".

I have modeled the infection dynamics of COVID-19 and arrived at the conclusion that herd immunity will not protect identifiable population clusters. Herd immunity will prevent the exponential growth of the virus among the general population, but will not prevent the spread to microclusters within that population. Even if vaccinations reach the herd immunity threshold (approximately 55 percent of the population), the virus will continue to spread albeit at a much slower rate. (see: COVID-19 Infection Dynamics)

Given our lifestyle in these United States we do have a very large mixed population - people don't stay home, but congregate in places at random times that feature large numbers of people traveling freely. This is the primary reason we are seeing the surge in infections that we are currently experiencing. This surge will continue as long as people continue to actively ignore taking preventive measures to minimize transmission from person to person.

Socioeconomic status inherently biases the transmission and morbidity of the virus, as well as adversely affecting the distribution of many other factors that contribute to our material wealth and general well-being. We need to solve the problems that arise out of the context of the system in which we currently live. We just are not going to be able to do that in the timeframe needed to serve the greater good.

see: A Model for a Just COVID-19 Vaccination Program

2020 DEC 10

It means, for example, that some education bureaucrats, somewhere, have decided that by the fifth grade a student should be able read at the fifth grade level. Problem is, any definition of  a fifth grade reading level is completely arbitrary.  Our brains don't work like that. When a kid is capable of reading, they will read. When I started school  in the first grade they handed me a Dick and Jane reader. On the first (maybe the second or third) page were the words: "See Spot run". That sentence took up the whole page along with a drawing of a black and white Cocker Spaniel running.

(NOTE: I hate that breed. A black and white Cocker Spaniel used to chase me up a street sign pole every day that I walked home from school in the third grade.)

Turns out that I could read  stories in the sixth grade reader at the time. Do you think that they would have given me a sixth grade reader instead of the Dick reader. No. I was forced to read out loud with the rest of the class (half of whom I suspected were as bored as I was) until weeks later we finished Level 1. Guess what level we were assigned next.

There is a private school in England called Summerhill. Kids are sent there when parents have given up trying to have them educated in public school. This was extant as far back as the 1950s. Summerhill continues to this day. The first thing a new student noticed was that no one payed any special attention to them. They could pretty much do what they damn well pleased. In particular, they were not expected to attend classes. As far as rules go, the kids themselves made them up in meetings that were held every so often as required. Consequences were meted out to kids who broke the rules. They might be forbidden to attend classes for a week for an egregious offense.

This might have struck a "problem" child as odd, given that they themselves hated going to classes. This seeded the question in the "problem" child's head: What is going on in these classes that makes all these other kids attend them?  That curiosity enabled the first real choice they could make on their own regarding their educations. It was empowering. Instead of giving up their freedom of choice, they had gained it.

Classes, of course, were nothing like those a "problem" child had experienced in public school. The children were as much participants in the process as the "teacher". There was a lot of back and forth between the students and the teacher, and between the students themselves. Often the students would provide an answer to another student's questions. Class time flies when you are having fun, and are a full participant in the educational process.

And here's my point: when students are ready to learn to read, they learn to read from Dick and Jane to the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or Harry Potter at a speed of their own choosing, which always consumes less time than that found in a public school setting. Kids who are both cognitively and emotionally ready to read learn to read quickly and with ease.

NOTE: It is up to the teacher to recognize cognitive impairments that impede the progress of students in any subject in which the students may have an interest. In a public school setting these impairments may go unnoticed, or may be intentionally hidden by the student to avoid embarrassment. It is up to the teacher to establish such an environment of trust, that the student will seek aid when it is needed. Or for the teacher to approach the student in private to discuss the problems they are having, and work together to solve them. We call these kids special needs students today and do seek to help them, but a lot more kids who are not significantly impaired fall through the cracks. We need to recognize and help them succeed (not fail) as much as is humanely possible, in order to allow them to live full and intentional lives.

The only falling behind that the kids do in public, private, and charter schools today, is not meet the expectations of the adults who are being held responsible for the kids meeting arbitrary standards. Standards set in an arbitrary manner by people whose only goal is to treat kids like commodities on a production line. "God help me if the line should ever slow down or come to a complete stop." I call this the Henry Ford model of education. It is very popular with bureaucrats. And it is the reason that so many people in our society today do not have the critical thinking skills needed to make good choices for their own lives, and good choices for the people that they elect to public office.

2020 DEC 03

Over the past several years I have had the misfortune to require health care for several problems, some of a serious nature. Most, if not all,  of the initial diagnoses were flat out wrong. What's more, as I sought treatment from different physicians, each of them proposed that the nature of my problems arose from disorders in which they specialized. Reading this article ( simply confirmed my suspicion that the medical profession relies more on pattern recognition than on critical thinking. There exists a tremendous bias based on their professional experience: they have seen this problem before, they have treated it in this manner, and the problem was resolved. Period.

That might work for a significant fraction of their patients, but it probably has the same probability of being successful in recognizing a problem as does racial profiling  among our police forces. I really became upset with physicians, and began my own crusade to rectify this situation.

Professionally over many years I have been both an educator (all levels from elementary through college), and a systems engineer (complex hardware, software, and environmental systems). I have an undergraduate degree in physics and graduate degrees in both education and systems engineering.

My first observation was that my appointments in physicians' offices , and that of many other patients, consists of a 15 minute visit where the physician, or more often a physician's assistant makes a snap judgement as to the nature of your disorder. They recommend a test or  series of tests based on that judgement. If the results all come back negative - which in my case most of them did - they feel that their job is done. "See you in six months", or more likely a year or never again.

What is going on here? First, the time frame which the health care industry allots to a problem for the individual patient is determined more by the economics of running a business than it is by the nature of the problem with which they are being confronted. Doctors simply do not have the time to spend on individual problems to the extent required to do a thorough analysis. The only analysis for the problem offline is when the test results are placed in their hands, and this usually acts to reenforce or negate their initial opinion, whether communicated to the patient or not. Treatment recommendations are usually based on these results (as illustrated in Michael Lewis' article).

Secondly, the tests that are run based on the physician's initial conclusion (it is just that, rarely is it treated as an hypothesis), are usually absent of any previous history of the patient's physiological record in this matter. To me it sounds like trying to predict the future behavior of a complex system by talking a snapshot of its activity in a very short interval of time. In my case I had kept meticulous records of my PSA values over many years. In the past couple of years the values had increased dramatically so that the values appeared to be growing exponentially. Since the total values were still below any value to cause a more extended review of my case, and no tumors were detected on the basis of initial physical examination of the prostate, no alarm was raised by my general practitioner, nor the physician's assistant I managed to see at a urologists' office. I insisted on an MRI. I was told that was out of the question, that the insurance company would never approve of it at the relatively low levels of my total PSA.

I did some reading and asked for a fractionated PSA test: total , bound , and free. The results came back indicating a high probability of cancer. I got the MRI I had requested on the basis of this information which showed a tumor. I also had requested the 3T multiparametric MRI so as to give a high resolution image: one that could assist in a directing a needle biopsy. NOTE: A needle biopsy is the normal first procedure once a digit exam reveals a tumor. Without imaging the needle biopsy  is purely a "random" sample of the prostate: 12 needles. Ouch. The results may reveal nothing amiss even if a tumor or tumors are present. Furthermore a needle biopsy so messes up the interior of the prostate that a follow up  MRI must be delayed by at least six weeks before an accurate image of the prostate can be obtained.

Along with the typical biopsy data I requested a genetic analysis of the type of cancer involved. The results of that analysis indicated a rather aggressive form of prostate cancer. The tumor plus many diffuse sites were near the margins of the gland itself. My urologist recommended removal of the prostate. The radiation oncologists agreed with me that radiation was the best solution. I went with the radiation, successfully.

If I had the space I would describe my efforts to convince various physicians that I was suffering from Lyme disease and its antibody after effects. Same problems. No proper analysis of the data nor any reference to my physiological history.

Given my personal experience with the health care business, especially as I grow older, I find myself very sympathetic to Don Redelmeier's cause. And as a result I am in the process of designing a curriculum for students of human health. The program requires a paradigm shift in the way we educate people who would solve the intractable problems that arise in the context of the human biosystem. One of the program's most important features is an emphasis on mathematics, especially discrete math (includes probability and causal inference) and on subjects relating to the cognitive and social sciences. We need a systems approach to medicine. Not a bunch of authoritarians with preconceived notions and the constraints imposed on them by business and insurance practices.


2020 Nov 24

Is the subtitle of a book by David Epstein titled "Range". Epstein's book  covers this theme in depth with many examples to show how people with broad interests find it much easier to excel at their activities of choice, even more so than people who have spent their whole lives specializing in just one. This is a must read if you are raising kids and one of your goals for them is to be really good at "something". One of the most important criteria for "success" in this aspiration is to let the student do the choosing. Our job as parents is to expose them to as much of the world as we possibly can so that they have a plethora of activities to choose from.

Having had a lifetime interest in education, I can tell you honestly that this is probably the best book on the subject of how to be "successful" in life that I have ever read. It provides the basis for decision making in anything we do to improve our skills in dealing with life in a way that will contribute to our happiness and self esteem, as well as being able to excel at something if that is one of your goals or a goal for someone else. One of the book's best features are its discussions of what does and what does not work in our quest for achievement. Epstein is also a great writer and a pleasure to read.

This book should be required reading for both educators and students in a formal education setting whether it be STEM subjects or the humanities. One interesting irony is that it will show how wrong an emphasis on focusing on STEM subjects is as an exclusionary educational practice. For the rest of us it reaffirms the value of trying on the  many different costumes of activities that serve people as careers or avocations. The more we experience the better we become at being able to make important choices in life through association. It is a skill that is impossible for AI software to emulate no matter how fancy the algorithm, and the reason why AI will never be as "good" as a human being in decision making in activities that require associative judgements.

2020 Nov 21

What is the best winning political strategy for Republican members of Congress right now? The question each of them needs to answer for themselves  is: How should I respond to Trump's current behavior in light of his loss to Joe Biden in the presidential election? There are a few possibilities, none of them have good outcomes, so the members are forced to choose the outcome which has the least negative consequences.

Criticize Trump
In light of the danger that Trump's behavior poses on many fronts, including the welfare of this country's inhabitants, and the threats posed to national security, each of them should be protesting Trump's behavior and calling for action on a number of fronts. Of course, they perceive this option as antithetical to Trump's large support base — which they perceive as also representing their electoral base — and if they value reelection they should not antagonize this base by criticizing Trump. Getting reelected has always been their highest priority.

Support Trump's argument that the election results are fraudulent
Like Mitch McConnell they could angrily insist that Trump has the right to pursue all his legal options in contesting the outcome of the election, until those legal options are exhausted. They perceive this as the "high moral ground" argument. On the other hand, Trump's arguments about election fraud are baseless, and have been refuted by each and every electoral commission in every state. So pursuing this option makes them look as foolish as Trump. It also pushes any supported transition activities to the limit of the lame duck period, also endangering national security.

Do nothing, remain silent.
Trump's reign (as he perceives it) will be over on 20 January 2021. That's less than two months away with large recesses in between. If they say nothing, they will not be perceived by their support base as critical of Trump, thus (probably) not impacting their reelection potential. Also they will not have to justify their position to national media audiences, which is sure to attract negative attention one way or the other. And this criticism will all blow over quickly once Biden assumes office, and has to deal with all the negative consequences that Trump hath wrought throughout his term in office, including these last two months. People will be blaming Biden because they will be occurring on his watch, not Trump's. Therefore, the probability of the electorate affixing blame to them for any untoward outcomes, as a result of their collective silence, will be pretty low.

The choice is clear for the "Do Nothing" party.