Rise of Heroin Addiction in U. S.

Deaths from overdose by heroin have more than doubled in America since 2005.

After a decline in the 1990s, heroin has come roaring back. The dishing-out of prescription painkillers earlier this century got millions in the West hooked on opioids; a tightening-up of the rules then sent them looking for substitutes. The heroin dealers were waiting. In America, where this trend is most acute, the number of annual users has almost doubled in the six years to 2013; overdoses have risen faster still (see article). (html)

This graphic only shows whole population statistics (any age, any race, any socio-economic status). A graph separated out for middle aged, lower class whites would be even more pronounced.


There is a hidden drug crisis in America of astounding proportions. See Opioids, Alcohol, Suicide


No Care Left Behind

Students at Sal Khan’s new school combine a progressive sense of care with a Silicon Valley focus on data-mining consumer behavior.

The students of Khan Lab School are back from lunch, standing in a circle, trading public accolades. “I have a shout-out for Mary, because when no one would take me to the bathroom, Mary did,” one student announces. “It showed conscientiousness and social intelligence.” Another student adds, “I have a shout-out for Mishal for being a really good sport about going inside and about not eating with everyone else. It showed social intelligence, self-regulation, self-awareness, and conscientiousness.” After each compliment, the entire student body waves their fingers and chants “faaaantastic!”

It’s the kind of Kumbaya moment that could easily occur in squishy-minded, confidence-boosting schoolrooms across the country, with one difference: Orly Friedman, the school’s director, asks the students to add every remark to a Google form that tracks who delivered the praise, who received it, and which specific traits they called out. Over time, she says, she will have a detailed analysis of her students’ character development. (html)

There are a couple routes into this, but the most interesting one is to ask what this record adds to the students education. And perhaps the most honest answer is we don’t know yet — it could be a very profitable activity if certain actionable patterns are discovered. And of course, this is a lab school, and labs must keep good records.

Another way to look at it, however, is that they are trying to find a formula of sorts for care, one that could be applied in classrooms with less skilled teachers. Whatever the first results of this experiment will be, Goodhart’s Law will prevail: the minute that metrics of care are made a quantifiable target students, teachers, and administrators will manipulate the record to goose the scores.

A third way might be to see the data collection as a religious rite of Silicon Valley, a way to signal the importance of a thing. Viewed this way, we might be excited: it’s a school that signals the importance of caring in the best way it knows how: by logging it. This is not a bad thing at all.

A final concern might be the trust in a spreadsheet of care over the intuitions of a teacher. There are many places metrics give us a clearer picture, but do we honestly believe that care is one of them?


Bibliometrics provides a good example of Goodhart’s Law. It also shows how a biased environment uses metrics to reinforce privilege. See Impressions of Objectivity

Bad Adsorption Activity shows how rigidity in delivery method can be counterproductive.

The model of the lab school is a good one, and we should celebrate et tech’s embrace of it. See The End of Open-Endedness

The End of Open-endedness

David Graeber has a far too long essay in The Baffler, which is not worth reading in full. In the end, though, it comes to a common but worthwhile point: the structure of research today can’t be open-ended in any real way, due to creeping managerialism, and this kills any possibility of revolutionary technology:

That pretty much answers the question of why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes. Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something. But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.

This is a major problem in technology, though maybe not for reasons Graeber would identify. As Engelbart noted, the Tool System is only one half of the equation. True progress uses the Tool System to leverage change in the Human System, and in turn uses changes in the Human System to identify necessary tool modifications.

Engelbart’s solution to this, still underappreciated, was to have a team of developer-users that could alternate quickly between designing tools and constructing the culture and practice around them. That takes time, but as the Mother of All Demos showed, it can have fantastic results, because sometimes the future is only comprehensible when delivered as a package.Current models of development don’t allow that sort of development to occur, and while that is not the reason that flying cars never came about, it is the reason that computer technology has advanced so slowly since the 1960s.

If you wanted to really revolutionize educational technology, for example, here is what I think you could do. Get together a representative group of developers to pair with a small laboratory school, and work so closely with it that the developers could walk in each day and observe ways in which the latest build had succeeded or failed. Talk with teachers about what works and what doesn’t. Organize technology around a new curriculum, then organize the new curriculum around the new affordances of technology.

Do this with ten, twenty, fifty schools, each school no larger than 500-1000 students. Leave these experiments alone for seven years.I guarantee you at the end of seven years, one of those schools will have truly revolutionized education, and produced more innovation and “progress” than we’ve seen in the past 50 years. And the reason would be that the practice and the technology and the culture and the curriculum all grew together, reacting to the possibilities each exposed, rather than being developed separately.

But we can’t do that sort of thing because “waste” and “metrics” and “accountability”. So in this case I agree with Graeber. I just wish he’d find a way to get to his point sooner.

Source: The End of Open-endedness

Johnson’s Productivity Crisis

Concerns over automation and joblessness during the 1950s and early 1960s were strong enough that in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson empaneled a“Blue-Ribbon National Commission on Technology, Automation, and EconomicProgress” to confront the productivity problem of that period—specifically, theproblem that productivity was rising so fast it might outstrip demand for labor.

The commission ultimately concluded that automation did not threaten employment:

“Thus technological change (along with other forms of economic change) is an important determinant of the precise places, industries, and people affected by unemployment. But the general level of demand for goods and services is by far themost important factor determining how many are affected, how long they stay unemployed, and how hard it is for new entrants to the labor market to find jobs. The basic fact is that technology eliminates jobs, not work” (Bowen 1966, p. 9).

However,the Commission took the reality of technological disruption as severe enough that it recommended, as one newspaper (The Herald Post 1966) reported, “a guaranteed minimum income for each family; using the government as the employer of last resort for the hard core jobless; two years of free education in either community or vocational colleges; a fully administered federal employment service, and individual Federal Reserve Bank sponsorship in area economic development free from the Fed’s national headquarters.

From ”Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation” by David H. Autor

Source: Johnson’s Productivity Crisis

Bad Adsorption Activity

An example of Khan Academy Bad Design. Here the activity asks students to read Adsorption Lines, using the traditional “Five Right in a Row” formulation. But in this case five right in a row will just lead to frustration.

Adsorption Activity Screenshot
Adsorption Activity Screenshot

Why? Because for this particular concept even being able to do it once indicates a grasp of the concept. At the same time there are certain quirks to reading these lines (just getting the scales lined up) that mean that you will occasionally fail even though you get the concept. This is frustrating for students at best and at worst it can suggest to competent students that their correct understanding is wrong.

The solution here is to key the number of correct “in-a-row” answers to the concept we are attempting to transfer.

Source: Bad Adsorption Activity

Impressions of Objectivity

Bibiliometrics are the rage in academia, attempting to quantify the quality and impact of publication. As Paul Jump notes, getting impact down to a number gives “at least the impression of objectivity.” But what are some of the drawbacks? (html)

Jump reviews a new report, The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management, and pulls out some dangers of bibliometrics.

First, research managers can become “over-reliant on indicators that are widely felt to be problematic or not properly understood”. Every metric has strengths and weaknesses, but this is not always understood institutionally.

Second, these metrics can distort research priorities, push early career researchers to focus on publishing the “right” things in places with the highest Impact Factor instead of making the most useful contributions to research.

Third, bibliometrics have a gender bias. Research shows that men are reluctant to cite women.

Altmetrics, which would quanitfy impact outside of the normal journal citation calculations show some promise. These would look at mentions in blogs, media, and other digital publication. But altmetrics are even more highly sensitive to context than traditional bibliometrics.

And, we’d add, what is the chance they’d avoid the gender bias and incessant gaming already on display in traditional bibliometrics?


Virtual and IRL tipping are practices that may increase inequity. But what are our other options? See How to End Tipping

Source: Impressions of Objectivity


The class blog 3010tangents was a class blog for Math 3010, taught by Dr. Evelyn Lamb at the University of Utah. Posts were tangentially related to information information encountered in class, hence the name. Tangent also has a mathematical meaning as well, of course. (html)

The writing on the blog is quite good, and consists of researched pieces on various elements of mathematics.

It’s interesting to me that this site has the same issue as class wiki. These are great treatments of various subjects, but they are subject to decay, they can’t be built on or out.


For a more bloggy approach to mathematical blogging, see Blogging the Foundations of Math

Blog As a Learner Too

Advice from Casey Douglas, who runs student blogging in his class. It’s not enough to just blog as a teacher. You should keep a blog documenting your own learning as well:

I think the most important advice I have is to maintain a blog yourself, and not just one about teaching.  It can be a wonderful experience for teacher and student alike to share their thoughts on mathematics via their blogs, especially when the mathematics involves not just the topics discussed in class but the mathematics that happens to be on someone’s mind.  For instance, I knew that I wanted to use my blog to keep track of some research interests I was pursuing the first time I taught FOM, and it was helpful for me to feel like a student again.  I documented my progress, my setbacks, and my new ideas on my blog (never expecting or requiring students to read these entries, but never hiding them either), and it helped me understand better the progress, setbacks and ideas my own students were sharing on their blogs.  It let me model for my students how to approach struggles and questions in mathematics, it also helped students view me as a member of their learning community. (html)


More on Casey’s work with math blogging, see Blogging the Foundations of Math

Blogging the Foundations of Math

Casey Douglas discusses his use of blogging in a Foundations of Math class. Blogs here replace the journals that had typically been used to get students to engage on a daily basis with the material. It is a good representation of a use for student blogging in a STEM environment. (html)

Casey’s comments about the practice mirror those of teachers in other disciplines, but a short summary of observations:

  • The core of blogging is daily reflection and application, getting students to think about the subject outside of class.
  • Offering pseudonymous blogging is important.
  • WordPress was chosen partially because of its excellent support for LaTeX, a key in math classes.
  • Students are initially reluctant to blog, because it’s a lot of work. But of course, that’s the point, it gets students to put in the daily effort they need to succeed.
  • Students are generally positive about blogging by the end of the class, because seeing what other students are doing helps them better understand the material and tasks. Some students remain negative, but those are the breaks.
  • Biggest unexpected benefit: reaching introverts.

Casey’s guide for his students on how to blog the Fundamentals of Mathematics is here. (html)


Casey’s biggest piece of advice: Blog as a Learner Too.

3010tangents was a class blog for a math class.

Ungodly Turbulence

Contrary to what many believe, relativity and quantum mechanics are not considered to be the hardest concepts in physics. That distinction goes to turbulence, a flow characterized by chaotic property changes.

False color image of the far field of a submerged turbulent jet (wikipedia)
False color image of the far field of a submerged turbulent jet (wikipedia)

Heisenberg is reported to have said “When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why Turbulence ? I really believe he will have an answer for the first.” (wikipedia)

Turbulence is considered an unsolved problem in physics. (wikipedia)

Fields medalist Terry Tao explains why the core problem of turbulence is so hard (from a mathematical perspective). (html)