Saturday, 3 September 2011

Why our educational system is in decline, and how to fix it.

(written for Britain, but applicable to many other places too, I don't doubt)

There are schools, exam boards, and a government.

The schools make money by parents sending their children there, so they want their exams to be easy so the kids score more highly so parents will send their kids there.

The exam boards make money by the schools subscribing to their exams rather than those of a rival exam board. So the exam boards want their exams to be easy so that schools will choose their exams so that parents will choose their school on account of the high grades.

The government makes money by being in a position of power to levy taxes and pay themselves handsomely, so they want the exams to be easy so that kids score highly so they (just like the schools and exam boards) can happily proclaim, each year, that the exam results are the best ever, in the hopes that they are seen to be improving education, or at least, keeping up with what the previous party did.

Consequently, the government strives to allow the exam boards to make the exams as easy as possible. The exam boards strive to make their exams the easiest, while still fulfilling the national curriculum requirements set out by the government. The schools strive to choose the easiest exam board, and focus on teaching only what will be asked in the exam.

Consequently, each year, the exams get easier (and, to compound it, the grade boundaries lower), so kids finish school with less knowledge and more "A" grades than their forebears of the previous year.

Now, not only do they have ignorance, but also the illusion of knowledge. Not even just the illusion of knowledge, but the illusion of superiority, since after all, they got "the best grades ever". Their parents were proud to scrape a handful of Cs, and there they are with an armful of A* grades!

What makes this worse? Same is true of very many university courses; that, and also how universities market themselves around being fun and cool, since it is the kids making the decisions and not the parents.

I strongly suspected this while going through school / university, but had it completely confirmed while later doing some work for an exam board.

Moral of the story? Education was better when it was either State-led or privately sourced. One cannot usefully nationalise the curriculum without nationalising the provision of education in all its components, or at least taking business competition out of the equation.

Potentially useful options, as I see them:

1) Make the whole thing State-led (if I say "nationalise" you'll call me a Fascist, and if I say "socialise" you'll call me a Communist, so I'll just say "state-led", and you'll at least have to be more creative in your labelling).
2) Make the whole thing private (you could call me a Capitalist for this, I think, though I'm really not)
3) Have the State set the curriculum and standards, let the education be provided privately, but have only one exam board, run by the government, so we cannot have the downwards-cascading "bid to be the easiest".

Of these, I'd most suggest 3), and also suggest to have these qualifications be optional, but encouraged.

Source for image:

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Why Vegetarians Are More Intelligent than Meat Eaters


What an awful article, devoid of reason, ill-constructed, unreferenced, and quite aside from anyone's opinion on the topic at hand, a fine example of really bad science.

Another evolutionarily novel value is vegetarianism. It is exceedingly unnatural for humans to be vegetarian.

Humans are naturally omnivorous. We are evolutionarily designed to eat both animal meat and plants. Anyone who eschewed animal protein and ate only vegetables in the ancestral environment, in the face of constant food scarcity and precariousness of its supply, was not likely to have survived long enough and stayed healthy enough to have left many offspring. So such a person is not likely to have become our ancestors. On the other hand, anyone who preferentially ate animal protein and fat in the ancestral environment would have been much more likely to live longer and stay healthier. They are therefore much more likely to have become our ancestors.

Ok, with you so far.

The Hypothesis would predict that more intelligent individuals are more likely to choose to become a vegetarian than less intelligent individuals.

Eh? Wait a minute, you've just been telling us how those that avoided eating meat were likely to die and not pass on their genes. From that information, you hypothesize that more intelligent individuals are likely to become vegetarian??

(I wouldn't usually use double question marks, but I was going to write "?!" and then the chess-player in me realised that in chess notation, "?!" means "a dubious move, but one that is hard to refute", which would be inappropriate here. So I went with "??" instead, which means "Blunder".)

This indeed appears to be the case. Among the British respondents in the National Child Development Study, those who are vegetarian at age 42 have significantly higher childhood general intelligence than those who are not vegetarian at age 42. (Childhood general intelligence was measured with 11 different cognitive tests at three ages before 16.) Vegetarians have the mean childhood IQ of 109.1 whereas meat eaters have the mean childhood IQ of 100.9. The difference is large and highly statistically significant.

Which is of course why they cited their source, to show these statistics. Oh wait, no, they didn't.

And if correct? Correlation / causation, come on, get a grip. We need more pirates.

The fact that the difference in childhood IQ between vegetarians and meat eaters is larger among men than among women makes sense in light of the historical division of labor between the sexes. Throughout evolutionary history, men have traditionally hunted animals for their meat while women have traditionally gathered plant food. So vegetarianism – a complete and total eschewal of animal meat – should be even more evolutionarily novel and unnatural for men than for women. Women are 60% more likely to be vegetarians than men are (3.33% vs. 2.07%).


Since it's even more evolutionarily novel and unnatural for men than for women, it is more likely to have been adopted by those with a masochistic death-wish, which is not necessarily a strong corollary of intelligence.

Childhood general intelligence has a significantly positive effect on the likelihood of vegetarianism at age 42, even net of a large number of social and demographic factors, such as sex, whether ever married, whether currently married, education, income, religion, religiosity, social class at birth, mother’s education, and father’s education, both in the full sample and among men and among women separately. There appears very little doubt that more intelligent children are more likely to grow up to become vegetarian as adults in the United Kingdom. One standard deviation (15 points) increase in childhood IQ increases the odds of adult vegetarianism by 37% among women and by 48% among men.

Here, since there appears to be a correlation (assuming the numbers are correct, which I wouldn't count on, given some other numbers on the site that are clearly incorrect), I would offer an alternative explanation, since theirs doesn't make sense.

My offered (and more likely) possible explanation is that poor people can't afford to be fussy eaters, and uneducated people don't read much. Therefore, it's less likely that they will find it convenient to be vegetarian, or read so many rhetoric-heavy logic-light arguments for vegetarianism.

In case you're wondering, yes, I'd suggest that poor uneducated people are less likely to be intelligent, because:

a) Poverty and lack of education mean a person is less likely to pursue things that will increase their intelligence
b) Those who are poor and uneducated but intelligent will rise above those conditions

[anecdotal aside]

I was born into:

a) considerable poverty (I remember as a child being scolded for not leaving a paper towel out to dry for reusal, as "we couldn't afford the wastage", being scolded for, when washing dishes not turning off the hot tap in between individual dishes ("we couldn't afford the wastage"), the woman who passed for a mother wrapped anything she could find as presents for birthday, Christmas, etc - I was the poorest kid at a rather poor poor-kids' school)
b) terrible education (my first school was the worst of the worst, and has long since been closed down - enough said); I lived with my single mother who was unable to teach me almost anything of value due to her own absence of intelligence or useful knowledge.

However, the squalor of my youth gave me (as it failed to do for many) a thirsty ambition to excel beyond that world, and I withdrew into my bedroom and my mind; I read what books I could get my hands on, educated myself, won a scholarship to a good school, and set about my general path to world conquest etc.

For what it's worth, last I had it checked, my IQ was 142.5. It's probably higher now, as I understand the ability to solve those little puzzles usually goes up rather than down as one applies problem-solving skills in life in general.

I'm not vegetarian, and furthermore, when I don't get enough animal-source protein and fat, my blood sugar levels drop and so does my intelligence.

[/anecdotal aside]

Interestingly, the strong association between childhood intelligence and adult vegetarianism is not replicated in the US.

I'm going to guess that it has something to do with the sample size.

Vegetarians in early adulthood do have significantly higher childhood intelligence in junior high and high school, but the difference is not large (101.5 vs. 99.3). And it is only significant among women (101.4 vs. 98.5), not among men (101.7 vs. 100.1). This is very strange given the historical division of labor noted above. The significant effect of childhood intelligence on adult vegetarianism among Americans disappears entirely once mother’s or father’s education or religion is statistically controlled.

Funny, that.

It is not at all clear to me why the difference in childhood intelligence between vegetarians and meat eaters is so much larger and stronger in the United Kingdom than in the United States. Apart from the national differences between the UK and the US, the two samples also come from different generations. The British NCDS respondents were all born in March 1958, whereas the American Add Health respondents were born between 1974 and 1983. I am not sure if it is the national differences or generational differences, or something entirely different, that account for the observed difference in the association between childhood intelligence and adult vegetarianism.

Yep. Could be those things, or... sample size.

So, you were going to tell us "Why Vegetarians Are More Intelligent than Meat Eaters".

I'm still waiting.

Monday, 18 July 2011

An atheist feminist walks into a bar in Dublin...

An atheist feminist walks into a bar in Dublin. Is it the start of a joke? Well, opinions vary.

For any who have been living under a rock this last while, enthusiastic blogger Rebecca Watson has gathered a lot of attention due to what is not entirely agreed upon as an overreaction to the overreaction to her overreaction to being found interesting.

Attention-gathering is generally spoken of in a negative-fashion; here I simply call it for what I perceive it to be. Drawing attention to oneself means drawing attention to whatever one is doing, which in her case broadly seems to be positive things (such as atheist advocacy in a place that apparently badly needs it). So, sometimes a soapbox is no bad thing.

The nutshell version being that, despite Rebecca mentioning being tired and leaving the bar to head to bed (at 4am), a fellow rode the same elevator, and invited her back for coffee.

The wording, as reported by Rebecca, being:

"Don't take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more; would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?"

Which, depending on your natural reactions to such things, apparently is a matter of great ambiguity, and can be considered anything ranging from a compliment to her intellect, to a heinous and uncouth act, tantamount to sexual assault.

Personally, I'd take it in the former fashion, but the case is surely arguable that inviting someone back to a hotel room for coffee is inviting them back to a hotel room for sex. For what it's worth, I have invited a girl back to my hotel room before now for coffee and conversation, and had with her excellent, enjoyable, stimulating, conversation and coffee. Actually, I lie, the coffee wasn't that great; it was just hotel stuff, but still. So, ladies (or gents, for that matter), if we're at a conference and I invite you for coffee, I mean coffee. If I am inviting you back for sex, I will be bold enough to say so. If it's late and one of us is retiring and conversation is sought-after, I will likely enquire after your breakfast plans. But hey, I tend to be quite unambiguous.

So, was the (as far as I'm aware, unnamed) fellow's invitation ambiguous? Clause by clause, we get:

"Don't take this the wrong way," ie, please do not assume the worst
"but I find you very interesting," ie, I've been listening to you talk all day (but, admittedly, could be a euphemism for "attractive", though I'd doubt it, on account of the foregoing clause)
"and I would like to talk more;" ie, I am interested in conversation
"would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?" - would be ambiguous as a standalone clause, but after the previous three qualifiers? Please, this is no longer ambiguous after being clarified three times previously.

About this, I'll not try to paraphrase Rebecca's opinion, and instead will simply quote. She has to say (about misogyny in general, but suggesting the above incident as an example thereof):

"I think it's worthwhile to publicise the fact that some women will go through this, and that way we can warn them ahead of time of what they might expect, give them the tools they need to fight back, and also give them the support structure that they might need to keep going in the face of blatant misogyny"

So, be clear ladies; if you attend a conference, you may be offered coffee. If you feel the need to fight back against this, Rebecca will give you the tools, and also give you the support structure that you might need to keep going (wait, I thought that was the job of coffee?) in the face of blatant misogynistic offering of refreshments.

Perhaps I am unclear about misogyny. I thought that misogyny involved having a negative attitude towards women.

So anyway, perhaps the reason this has come to such popularity is because Richard Dawkins sat with Rebecca in a panel discussion, wherein this topic was discussed. He argued the same way as I would, albeit rather more in the manner of a personal attack (I am nicer, and disagree in a more civilised fashion), encouraging her to stop whining and grow a thicker skin.

This, of course, has divided the feminist atheist community somewhat, between though who will worship Dawkins no matter what, those who will champion a woman vs a man in any argument no matter what, and those will make up their own minds based on the apparent facts of a situation.

Most entertaining of all, that I have noted, is the writing of a Christian feminist (I have to wonder if she's really read the Bible, though she does give some note to doing her part as an apologist in this regard, picking a few "straw-person" arguments (thank you, I'm here all week) and refuting them), proclaiming that:

"Ladies, Professor Dawkins thinks we are nothing more than animals. He’s an ethologist (animal behavior scientist) who travels the world bragging that he is an African ape. To Dawkins – and the entire skeptic subculture – humans are just a little branch off the primate family tree, caught in Earth’s endless species class war (so to speak). Females are accommodators to males’ megalomaniacal selfish genes, and as long as a girl isn’t deprived of Vitamin D in a burqa, she’s supposed to shut up about it.
That, at least, is the philosophical dead end that seems to come from that worldview – whether subscribers of such consciously emanate it or not."

Wow! The demographic class of those that hold the view that evolution is a more likely explanation for how things are than creationism is a "subculture"? I was under the impression that creationists were a small subset even of the wider class of religious believers, and those that held with the contemporary mainstream scientific view were the holders of the default position? Hopefully this is just wishful thinking on her part!

Speaking of objectification, back to Rebecca:

"it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualise me in that manner"

Ladies, gents, dear readers all: if you have chromosomes, then you have a sex, of some description, whether you want it or not. Offering you coffee does not sexualise you - having chromosomes sexualises you.

As for being a sexual object, well, objectification is a matter of perception, intrinsically in the eye of the beholder. A body is an object, from a reductionist biological view, and having a chromosomal sex it is inarguably a sexual object.

"Semantics!", I hear you cry.

Yes, semantics, the strange and unpopular notion that words have meanings, meaning that misusing them may cause miscommunication. So, let us communicate as clearly as we can. It is a constant challenge, of course, but we can try.

Of course, even by a reductionist view, it's generally agreed upon that a person is not their body, so even if we can consider the body a sexual object, the person may not be so. So what's a person? Plenty of offered answers to that question, and plenty of non-answers. Well, one thing's almost for sure; a person is the owner of the body in question, so even if the body is a sexual object, it's not your sexual object, it's the person's. So, perhaps the moral of this is: don't treat it as yours; treat it as theirs.

Which is pretty much a cornerstone of free-thinking individualism: "respect, where reasonably possible, a person's sovereignty with regard to their body"

Now, "Excuse me, may I use your body like the sexual object it is?" might not be the best thing to say to a tired feminist in an elevator at 4am, but then, it's also not what was said, was it?

Let it be known: I am not a misogynist. I love women. Frequently. Including at conferences. And before it be suggested that this means I see women only as sexual objects, I will confess that I do love men too. Less frequently, but still including at conferences. Now lest it be suggested that this means I see all people only as sexual objects, it is not so. Recall the girl I mentioned previously, invited back for coffee, and, lo, served coffee with no side-serving of sex. In fact, we did the same again, at the next such meeting!

The moral of this?

Sometimes, shocking as this may be, a person can value a person for their intellect, and the person's sex may be completely and utterly irrelevant.

Of course, perhaps this is a biased view: to me, a bisexual, of course a person's sex ranks quite lowly on my list of things that are a matter of importance. But then the same argument could be made regarding "subjective attractiveness" rather than "objective sex". In other words:

Sometimes, shocking as this may be, a person can value a person for their intellect, and the person's attractiveness may be completely and utterly irrelevant.

If you are "not just a pretty face", then have some confidence in that. There are plenty of pretty faces that have a mind behind them that causes their other assets to pale into insignificance. But if your mind can't recognise that about your own face and your own mind, then just how great a mind is it?

Rebecca comes across as very intelligent, so I'll assume this is not the case with her. To this end, I'd suggest that if Rebecca's NOT so foolish as to think she is so much more likely to be valued in a sexual context than an intellectual context despite repeated verbal cues to the contrary, then why did she bring the thing up? Well, as far as I'm aware it was a minor off-hand example, chosen for its recency, of perhaps a lack of thoughtfulness.

Was it a come-on? Well, the only person who will know for sure is the man in question, and he has mysteriously not come forth from the shadows to state his case, and as far as I'm aware Rebecca has been sufficiently courteous for her own part to not mention who it was (unlike the blogger she got called out for naming, justified by the fact that the blogger in question had put their name to their words in public themselves and thus waived anonymity).

Personally, I think the only manner in which the fellow in question has failed to show gentlemanliness is if he has not contacted Rebecca to further clarify his intentions. Had it been me erring thusly, a message would have followed after all this hoopla, whether publicly or privately, with either:

a) Sorry for hitting on you in the elevator! It wasn't very thoughtful of me; you had said you were tired, but it's all to easy to say things without thinking too clearly at 4am after however long in the bar. I appreciate your civility regardless!
b) Just to be clear, because I thought I had been but apparently not, I really was inviting you for coffee and conversation and not sex. Still, it was 4am after however long in the bar, so it's all too easy for miscommunications to occur.

So, perhaps that's really the issue at hand. Responsibility to the responsible! If you screw up, and it becomes clear, sort it out!

Note to the fellow in question: if you did, and it's merely been kept between you, then rock and roll, I salute you. If you didn't… then really, consider doing so! Not for public gossip - personally I don't care much unless I know you (in which case it may interest me more, but I respect privacy regardless), but simply to help show that there can still be such a thing as gentlemanliness.

And, really, there can!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

"The Immortals" - Documentary by Inka Achté

Not the best documentary I’ve seen pertaining to human cryopreservation, but not the worst either.

The documentary was arty, and definitely trying to make a point, and the point intended is that the subject is full of bittersweet beauty and meandering philosophical reflection, when this is about as true of a cryonics case as it is of CPR.

Scenes are interspersed with shots of gently wafting curtains, drops of water falling, etc. There is a soft, slow, tinkling musical refrain that comes and goes throughout, which while pleasant, suggests that we’re all dying more readily than we are; indeed, one may be forgiven for expecting to see a short text exposé at the end of the documentary, letting the viewer know when each of us died.

Unfortunately little attention to detail, such as spelling more people’s names incorrectly than correctly in the credits, which in and of itself is by-the-by, but I must wonder what else was given little attention.

Editing (so not sure for how much of this Inka was to blame as camera operator / director, and for how much of it the editor, Livia Serpa) left something to be desired in terms of objectivity. As an example, in one scene I am giving a group a tour of Cryonics UK's ambulance. Now, I started the tour with the various critical systems, and finished off with a small few odds and ends (washbasin, first aid kit, gloves for handling dry ice, etc), so deciding to clip down the scene, which part does she choose to show? You guessed it, the latter. So, after showing me ostensibly giving a tour ranging from the washbasin to the gloves, I ask the group if they have any questions before having a look around by themselves; there are not (because I was quite thorough), but the lack of questions makes it look like my talk from the washbasin to the gloves satisfied anything that anybody present might possibly want to know about the systems of the ambulance.

(For the record, what was missed out included the various power systems, refrigeration equipment, oxygen supply plumbing, spare oxygen cylinders, the portable ice bath, deployment mechanisms (ramp, tilt functions, winch, etc), multi-level security system redundancies (the system B to which we switch of system A fails, the system C after that, etc), but this was all skipped in favour of making it look like we're excited about having a sink and a first aid kit.

Interestingly, I am also shown priming the perfusion circuit, and for unstated reasons, she has adjusted the apparent ambient lighting, making what was actually a fairly well-lit clinic room (the same one you've perhaps seen in photos on the CUK website at ) look like a dark and mysterious place where I am demonstrating arcane equipment to a crowd of hushed onlookers.

Editing; judicious use of certain pieces of film, and juxtaposition of doleful scenes of cloudy skies and dull-looking houses, makes the three main featured interviewees look like impending death is the primary focus of these people, when in many ways quite the opposite is true.

I think it likely that much of this was an issue of confirmation bias; Inka had an idea of how she wanted the finished product to look, and then used every tool in the toolbox to create that image from what was filmed.

Compare and contrast with Murray Ballard's excellently objective photo documentary, all so recently. Other documentary makers have very high standards to reach to achieve what he has, in something that is objective, a real good-and-bad overview, that presents a very real feel of both the parts and the whole of the global "community" of this field, from pensioners in living rooms to medics in shiny hi-tech places, and much of what is in between, while being not only qualifying as art, but also being accurately informative, and an honest representation.

No, I'm not aware of Inka's documentary film being available on the internet at this time. It was produced for a film festival; I merely have the DVD.

Information about Murray's documentary can be found easily enough here: and the exhibition of his work remains open in Bradford for a couple of months yet.

All Animals Are Equal, But Democratic Socialist Animals Are More Equal Than Others?

Firstly, let me mention that I've not bothered with the usual convention of obliterating surnames in snapshot-grabbed Facebook postings, simply because the Wall on which these things were posted is publicly visible, so all posters chose to attach their names publicly to their words in view of the world. (To view it properly, click on it to see a larger version)

That said, my response to the above was as follows:

BThomas Joy, kudos to you at least for not blocking me as suggested.

I did consider when making my post, that I may be incorrectly assumed to a) be a Fascist, b) be calling you a Fascist, and / or c) both of the above.

In fact, none of the above are the case.

My purpose here is not disruption as the flock here have suggested, but rather merely to note that the stated “mark of the fascist” was somewhat inaccurate.

Allow me to illustrate with a clear example: In WWII, there were at least five main political systems going to war, depending on how you count them (I’m counting Fascism, Communism, Constitutional Monarchy, Constitutional Democratic Republic, and Imperial Despotism - your mileage may vary). All of them engaged in prolific propaganda and manipulation.

To this end, would you still consider “propaganda and manipulation” to be the “mark of the fascist”?

So, no, propaganda and manipulation is merely the mark of the political zealot of any kind, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on what the political zealot (or party) intends to do with the propaganda and manipulation, and the power that it brings.

For what it’s worth, I’m neither a Fascist, nor a Republican as a suggested. Nor am I a paid agent provocateur, though I’m almost flattered that my Socratic poking comes across professionally.

When Americans ask if I am a Democrat or a Repbulican, the simple answer is “No, I’m not”. In fact, the rest of the world’s politics aren’t so insanely polarised as America’s, and I can’t think of another country that has two main equal and opposite parties quite as bizarre as America’s.

To those of you who are *not* BThomas Joy, the reason I referred to you as “the flock” above (I’ll clarify as it may have different connotations for different people) is a nod to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. For those who haven’t read it, it is a satirical political commentary on Russia’s Communist Revolution and the events that followed it.

The animals, fed up with the yoke of oppression, take over the farm, and each different animal or group of animals represents one or more of the key players in the Communist Revolution or the Communist regime that was to follow it.

Sometimes, when there is a questioning dissenting voice, the sheep would (appearing from nowhere if they hadn’t been there previously) drown out the questioning dissenting voice with a rousing bleating chorus of one thing or another (generally some simplified political idea that they had been taught to repeat), such that the dissenting questioning voice could not be heard.

“Agh! It’s a troll! Block it! Delete it! Stamp it out! Don’t listen to it! It's vermin!” is rarely the way to practice the worldview that you claim to champion (I’d assume you to broadly consider yourselves something akin to Social Democrats, correct me if I’m wrong), in which ideology generally it is a popular idea that everyone should get to be heard.

PS, specifically to Kathryn, I should mention that reframing a person as "vermin" generally *is* a Fascist device. I don't think BThomas Joy is remotely Fascist, but that comment of yours rather suggested that you'd be goose-stepping with the "best" of them.

Hello, 2011!

So, I've had a long six months of doing a lot more work than blogging. To this end, rather than try to catch up on the things I've missed, I'm just going to start adding in some blog entries here and there as appropriate.

If I have both time and inclination I might fill in some of the gaps with some of the events and goings on of the past 6 months, and tweak the days so they appear in the correct place regardless.