It wasn’t just the Russian bots

I am not a political scientist, but I do appreciate their collection of data. With all of the weird claims being made by politicians, I look for data and ignore pronouncements to understand what I observe.

This Mother Jones article summarizes a study from a research group at Oxford. Just to be clear, the source for the data are the Oxford researchers and not the Mother. Jones writers.

The researchers identified right and left-oriented individuals posting to Twitter and Facebook and then counted the frequency of watch list, junk news, and mainstream news articles promoted by both groups. Conservatives accounted for much more of the watch list and junk news references and liberals more of the mainstream news stories. Of course, conservatives assume the mainstream news sources are biased and so rely on “no spin” propaganda .

Ok, that list sentence was more opinion than data, but you can read the original content for yourself and see if you. Moe to a different conclusion.

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The real issues we should be debating

I need someone to blame. I want to talk about important political policy issues and there is so much attention being paid to personalities and appropriate behavior. Since the Republicans are in power and Pres. Trump does so many inappropriate things I blame them. They control the conversation and seem accepting of the present focus. I guess if you can set the agenda you can get away with this. However, this is a terrible long-term strategy and voting them out could well be the end result of this strategy.  

I would rather comment on:

  • The involvement of Russian actors in our political process, how they are influencing U.S. citizens, and yes, whether Republican actors played any role during the run-up to the election.
  • The budget and how the budget will likely influence the present level of income inequality. In addition, how the budget will influence the national debt and how this increased debt will be addressed.
  • Immigration. What is a reasonable commitment to the national interest (the best and the brightest) and what is the obligation of this country in responding to various crises around the world.
  • Healthcare. Why does this country with all of its assets do such a poor job when it comes to healthcare? What can be done to address the healthcare needs of those who truly need assistance?
  • Net neutrality. My personal interests are heavily invested in technology and Internet issues. Why is our Internet service so inferior to other countries and what can be done to provide an online environment to encourage economic growth, educational opportunity, and to provide a voice for all?
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The value of college?

More and more educators and pundits (a term I use to describe those who comment with or without relevant experience) have questioned the value of college. In part, this seems related to the cost of tuition and other college-related costs (e.g., textbooks, living expenses). To me, the cost issue is very different from the position taken by others that college is not the best preparation for a successful career. I purposefully differentiate career here from a successful life, because I have not reviewed the position of anyone that argues against this larger goal. [An example of this second type of analysis.]

I assume that the k12 educators who raise this issue are not claiming that the k12 experience is adequate preparation for either a vocation or life. This I reject without further comment because such a position seems ridiculous. To be clear, I do not differentiate what some might describe as “trade schools” from other forms of higher education although I do recognize that these institutions do offer a more vocational focus than most college majors. I am guessing that the alternative most have in mind is some type of self-organized set of experiences often including mentoring of some type.

I spent my entire working life as a college professor so it probably comes as no surprise that I would defend the college experience. Included among my responsibilities was frequent responsibility for the introductory course in Psychology – a course a very large proportion of college students take early in their college careers. From these teaching experiences, I recognized that many students are not ready for college as a function of their motivation or independent learning skill. These are different issues which I assume require different solutions. More students should probably work for a time before committing to college. More students need additional assistance improving their reading skills and general academic backgrounds before taking on college courses. These are different issues from the perspective that college does not adequately prepare students for the world we now face.

Are students really aware of professions they are suited for?

Is the focus on a specific profession even a good long-term idea?

Does college provide a reasonable way to develop relevant skills and knowledge?

Let me state again that these are narrow goals and there is much to be said for a breadth of knowledge and skills and the awareness of culture and people that can inform vocational performance, but more importantly offer much more in term of life satisfaction.

To argue against for the present secondary students being ready for much of anything Twenge argues that this generation is maturing less quickly than previous cohorts. In her book, Jean Twenge describes the characteristics of the iGeneration – individuals from the U.S. born after the introduction of the iPhone (2007). She makes the effort to argue it was the cell phone and not other significant issues associated with this date (.e.g, the market crash of 2008)

My story

I think we are all prone to use anecdotal instances to interpret the world. Twenge does this is her book as she uses interviews she has conducted to give voice to the statistics from the large survey studies she cites. Researchers described this as a mixed-methods approach. Among the anecdotes we use to interpret life experiences is our own story. Here is mine.

I went to a state college as an 18-year old just of the farm. The 180 or so mile drive to the campus was the furthest I had been away from home at that time of my life. I had visited the campus previously and there were some unique aspects to my relationship with this particular institution. My parents were both graduates and I had visited the lab of my uncle who was also a graduate and a professor at the institution during my youth. Ironically, I eventually received my Ph.D. from this institution and was housed in the same building as a graduate student I had visited as a youth. My uncle was a botanist and I am an educational psychologist. The building was called “Old Botany” when I studied there.

I went to college to become a high school biology teacher and coach. This was what my life experiences at the time allowed me to imagine. When I tell my story, I include the following anecdote to explain how my world before college shaped what followed. Before I made a visit to the Iowa State University campus during the summer before my freshman year, I asked my high school guidance counselor for help in making contact with the appropriate campus department. He took the Iowa State catalog of his shelf and looked up biology. Iowa State had no biology department at the time, but did have a program in Biochemistry and Biophysics. So I booked an appointment with the biochemistry/biophysics department chair to set up my program of study. When I told the chair I wanted to become a high biology teacher, he said that they had met no one else with this goal. He sign me up for advanced chemistry, calculus, English composition, Introduction to Psychology, and a seminar in lipid metabolism. The quarter nearly did me in. I did meet my wife when we both switched out of our advanced chemistry course to move into the Intro to Chemistry course taken by most students. I don’t recall much about lipid metabolism, but I loved the Psychology course. It turned out that future biology teachers took a combination of courses from Zoology, Botany, Entomology, and Microbiology. By the time I graduated there was a biology department and the chair of this department became acquaintances and we published together when I was in graduate school.

As I took courses in a variety of areas through my sophomore year, I decided I was interested in educational research and intended to focus on psychology as a way to pursue this goal. My parents had no idea where this would lead and rather than talk me out of my ambition convinced me to add a biology major and a teaching certificate to my intended psychology major. They committed the money to cover a couple of extra summer sessions to make this combination workable. I really loved being a college student so year-round college was perfect for me. I did marry the woman I met as an advanced chemistry reject during this time and this also worked out very well.

There were so many things I could not have predicted as a high school senior that would not have happened should my life experiences at that time been the basis for my decisions. I would not have pursued what became an interest in educational research. I would not have focused on working in higher education rather than secondary education. I would not have taken a course in technical writing which more than my high school or college composition courses convinced me that I could write. I would not have taken the breadth of psychology courses that broadened my professional interests beyond teaching and continue to influence my professional interests to this day. I would not have met the people I met including my wife who shaped my present personal and vocational interests.

I don’t think my story is unique. I may reflect on my experiences including so many important education-based events I have not shared here more than most, but it is easy for me to see how my life course built on these early experiences. In no way, could I or would I have ended up in the same place making my own decisions early on. I needed the breadth of experiences I had and I needed to interact with the people that came at me without my solicitation.

Whether focused on vocation or life, college offers a great deal young people on their own are unable to appreciate or are likely to seek out. This may not be the case for those from wealthy families, but for the average kid with academic potential from a family with average means this seems certain to me. This situation (the wealthy have so many unrecognized advantages) seems so unfortunate as those without resources would benefit the most from the college experience.

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Really scary alerts do happen

In response to the scary alert that was erroneously posted in Hawaii, I am reposting this post from 2012. I am in no way implying these events are equivalent or that the event in Hawaii had the potential to generate more negative consequences.

——-Weeks go by when there is nothing interesting to blog about and then there is a day like today.

I was headed across campus at 1 to have lunch with my wife. The emergency alert system suddenly activates:

Evacuate Grand Forks, Evacuate Grand Forks, you will be given further instructions.

Strange I thought. I have actually evacuated once, but that happened in the middle of the night because of a flood. What could this be? We seem an unlikely target for some kind of military action. Not exactly a high value target.

Two possibilities seemed most likely; 1) students from a rival institution had hacked the system possibly related to the potato bowl this weekend (yes, we have a potato bowl), 2) an ammonia tanker in the rail yard had ruptured.

It occurred to me that we were playing a team from the west coast with which we have little history so hacking the system reserved for emergencies seemed something you would save for a rival. The ammonia thing seemed a possibility so I searched for the instructions that were promised. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

I decided to have lunch.

The explanation came 40 minutes later.

The emergency message asking people to evacuate Grand Forks should was intended to be a siren tone test only. A siren-only test is sounded the first Wednesday of each month at 1 p.m.  The Emergency Management Office apologizes for any inconvenience.

You can tell the person writing this announcement was excited. Now, aside from thinking too many people had to be consulted before someone bothered to explain, I am fascinated by this image I now have of the preprogrammed emergency box.

What do you think?

Button one – this is a test

Button two – evacuate Grand Forks

Button three – head for the basement

Button four – head for higher ground

Do you think that in an emergency someone might issue a confusing message or not know what to say? Hence, all emergency messages had to be carefully worded and preprogrammed.

I now think they need a button with the message “Whoops – my bad. Never mind!”



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FCC to lower standards for broadband

In rejecting the existing net neutrality policy, the FCC argued that getting rid of the government protections would improve innovation. It takes some creativity and a narrow view to take this position, but the Republican members of the FCC were willing to try.

An important pro-neutrality argument was that online access cannot be considered a traditional business subject to market pressures because there is so little actual competition. Hence, users do not really have the opportunity to reject the policies of a given provider if no or few realistic competitors are available.

It appears that the FCC has found a way to address this concern. The FCC is moving to lower the definition of broadband access. In a world where U.S. internet opportunities already lag behind other developed countries, the government here is now lowering rather than raising standards. If you struggle to watch Netflix on your existing broadband, just wait until you try with the new standards.

I have written about the logic of this adjustment previously and it relies upon the idea that much online access uses cell phones. The bandwidth you can access with your phone does not come close to the bandwidth you can likely use with your cable or phone company provider (usually at least 25 Mpbs down and most providers are already pushing more expensive higher bandwidth plans as more useful). Also neglected in this position is the reality that data plans are expensive and most “all you can eat” data plans do not allow using the phone as a wifi hotspot.

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A refection for the new year

The concept of a self-made man is pretty much a myth. It is significant that the reference is to men and not women.
Effort with or without opportunity is the difference between having something to eat and increasing your stock portfolio.
The United States is on a path that fails to appreciate this distinction. Without the willingness of government to curb the advantages of differences in past and existing opportunities we are on a path toward growing inequity and the lost opportunity of undeveloped talents.
Recognize your privileges and get over how hard you think you work

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Gifting success

I am horrible at findings gifts for Cindy. We are at the point in our lives that we pretty much buy what we want online when an idea strikes us making finding something useful and surprising beyond my creative talents. I also start far too late – often December 24. This means I must go to a store and we spend our holiday season up north limiting my options.

This year was different and I am declaring my choice a great success. I purchased a lefse griddle. This may sound strange, but Cindy and daughters were planning to make lefse and for success you need a griddle that heats to a higher temp than your standard kitchen appliances. The ideal temp is 500.

I had the insight that led to my success on the morning of the 24th. There is a kitchen goods store in Siren, WI, and I was nearly there when I realized that it was a Sunday morning and most stores are not open. But, it was and they had had a lefse griddle. What are the odds this all worked out.

There is now the very real possibility that I have set a standard never to be achieved again. This is very likely, but for the time being I will enjoy my success and worry about next year on the 24th of next December.

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Facebook offers way to check if you followed or liked Internet Research Agency posts

The Internet Research Agency is a Russian troll farm responsible for spreading many of the fake news stories circulating on Facebook during the 2016 election season. Facebook now offers a tool you can use to see if you were taken in to the extent that you liked or followed any of these sites. It will determine if you viewed these fake sites.

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If you are using Facebook for news, you are probably doing it wrong.

I have several issues with Facebook, but probably more with the average user’s understanding of how Facebook works. There is the issue of how Facebook makes money. You are trading information about  yourself that Facebook can sell to support your “free” use of the system. Use the system understanding how  you pay.

Then, there is the notion of a “news feed”.  Here is a recent study of the “news” most Facebook users receive ( I think a significant issue is that users don’t really understand how Facebook works. They bias their experience by what they like and what their friends forward. The Facebook algorithms will gladly offer you more of the same. Hardly a fair and balanced way to see the world. If you want news within your “news feed”, try following actual news sources – New York Times, Washington Post, etc. Make an effort to view the news as reported by those who actually investigate the issues and not from your friends who likely think like you and only forward stories with this same bias. You can create a more balanced experience if you make the effort.


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Corporate Tax Myth

I remember an analysis of the 35% corporate tax payments from early in the year (I am not sure if I commented on this analysis before or not) and thought it time to share as this critical time in consideration of the Republican budget. The analysis explains what corporations actually paid rather than the theoretical tax of 35%. The actual payment is less than the present 21% proposed payment. The data are convincing. I am not aware that the present budget provides any protections against the continuation of these special corporate deductions.

As I often also complain about the FCC reversal of net neutrality (to improve corporate innovation), I would encourage your close look at the data from this report noting the actual taxes paid by ATT, Verizon, etc.

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