Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Reading

Stop Helping Them — Zerlina at Feministing would like journalists to stop enabling the Obamacare bashers.

If I see one more journalist symbolically log on to the Obamacare website, I’m going to scream. If you’re making faux calls into the call center, only to complain about the lack of hold music, as if that is what’s critically important here, you’re severely missing the point.

And even when you defend your negative reporting about the Obamacare website glitches, as The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein did last night on MSNBC, having the privilege of analyzing the process from the perspective of someone who is already insured and not in need of coverage allows the core impact of the new program on the health and security of millions of Americans to be missed.

[…]

Obamacare is more than a website. More than half of the people I worked with on the Obama campaign in 2008 said health care reform was their reason for joining the campaign and working to elect a Democrat. Forty-seven million Americans, including me, were uninsured until now. When I finally was able to log into the site–after a few days and a few false starts–I was floored by the number of affordable options. When I scrolled through my list of choices–124 different plans to be exact–I realized that this is the reason Republicans hate the program so much: it will fundamentally change lives, including my own.

There are a few glaring omissions in the coverage of Obamacare’s shaky rollout. For the most part, those covering the problems are insured themselves and consequently greatly underestimate the patience of a chronically uninsured person who has been counting down the days until Obamacare began so they could have a little peace of mind that if they got sick they wouldn’t be staring down bankruptcy.

And while some young men may think they are invincible and don’t need health insurance, preventative care is not something that the majority of women can roll the dice with. Between recommended regular pap smears and appointments to access birth control, seeing a doctor is often a necessity. And, let’s be clear, thanks to Obamacare, young people can stay on their parents insurance until they are 26; By 27 young people, regardless of their gender, tend to be more responsible and much more risk averse.

The website problems are being fixed–the New York exchange that I am using to compare plans is working just fine as of this morning–and the Obama administration has promised to work on the glitches to ensure that Americans who will likely wait until the last minute to sign up will have a working website. Enrollment lasts until February 15th and the coverage begins January 1st. While the early website issues are frustrating, they by no means indicate that the program as a whole has failed.

And unless you are a journalist who has been chronically uninsured, your feigned frustration about website issues reeks of privilege. To me, a few website glitches are a lot less frustrating than having to use the same inhaler for over a year because I can’t afford to go the doctor. Perspective is everything.

Think of That — In The New Yorker, Gary Marcus evaluates the threat of artificial intelligence.

If the New York Timess latest article is to be believed, artificial intelligence is moving so fast it sometimes seems almost “magical.” Self-driving cars have arrived; Siri can listen to your voice and find the nearest movie theatre; and I.B.M. just set the “Jeopardy”-conquering Watson to work on medicine, initially training medical students, perhaps eventually helping in diagnosis. Scarcely a month goes by without the announcement of a new A.I. product or technique. Yet, some of the enthusiasm may be premature: as I’ve noted previously, we still haven’t produced machines with common sense, vision, natural language processing, or the ability to create other machines. Our efforts at directly simulating human brains remain primitive.

Still, at some level, the only real difference between enthusiasts and skeptics is a time frame. The futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil thinks true, human-level A.I. will be here in less than two decades. My estimate is at least double that, especially given how little progress has been made in computing common sense; the challenges in building A.I., especially at the software level, are much harder than Kurzweil lets on.

But a century from now, nobody will much care about how long it took, only what happened next. It’s likely that machines will be smarter than us before the end of the century—not just at chess or trivia questions but at just about everything, from mathematics and engineering to science and medicine. There might be a few jobs left for entertainers, writers, and other creative types, but computers will eventually be able to program themselves, absorb vast quantities of new information, and reason in ways that we carbon-based units can only dimly imagine. And they will be able to do it every second of every day, without sleep or coffee breaks.

For some people, that future is a wonderful thing. Kurzweil has written about a rapturous singularity in which we merge with machines and upload our souls for immortality; Peter Diamandis has argued that advances in A.I. will be one key to ushering in a new era of “abundance,” with enough food, water, and consumer gadgets for all. Skeptics like Eric Brynjolfsson and I have worried about the consequences of A.I. and robotics for employment. But even if you put aside the sort of worries about what super-advanced A.I. might do to the labor market, there’s another concern, too: that powerful A.I. might threaten us more directly, by battling us for resources.

Most people see that sort of fear as silly science-fiction drivel—the stuff of “The Terminator” and “The Matrix.” To the extent that we plan for our medium-term future, we worry about asteroids, the decline of fossil fuels, and global warming, not robots. But a dark new book by James Barrat, “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era,” lays out a strong case for why we should be at least a little worried.

Barrat’s core argument, which he borrows from the A.I. researcher Steve Omohundro, is that the drive for self-preservation and resource acquisition may be inherent in all goal-driven systems of a certain degree of intelligence. In Omohundro’s words, “if it is smart enough, a robot that is designed to play chess might also want to be build a spaceship,” in order to obtain more resources for whatever goals it might have. A purely rational artificial intelligence, Barrat writes, might expand “its idea of self-preservation … to include proactive attacks on future threats,” including, presumably, people who might be loathe to surrender their resources to the machine. Barrat worries that “without meticulous, countervailing instructions, a self-aware, self-improving, goal-seeking system will go to lengths we’d deem ridiculous to fulfill its goals,” even, perhaps, commandeering all the world’s energy in order to maximize whatever calculation it happened to be interested in.

Fading Fast — Charlie Pierce on the future of Republican Savior Marco Rubio.

His strength is failing. The shrink-wrap is winning. And Marco Rubio (R-Flashinthepan) continues to flail around like a scarecrow in a windstorm. When our adventure began, young Marco was going to be the smiling face of the rebranding of the Republican party, which was going to habla the daylights out of the ol’ espanol because it finally had concluded that it wasn’t going to win an national election even if it did get the votes of everyone who owns the complete Murder, She Wrote on Blu-Ray. Of course, then Rubio made the mistake of believing that the party was serious about this whole rebranding business, proposed an immigration reform plan that made a little bit of sense, and then found his standing in the party sinking into Middle Earth. Ever since, he has done everything to romance the base save dress up as Angela Lansbury.

Witness recently, as he announces, in his Young Statesman’s voice, that his signature issue is as dead as Kelsey’s nuts because the president has declined to destroy the signature accomplishment of his administration the way that Marco Rubio would like him to do it, because the president’s duty is to help stop the crazy people in the Republican party from being so mean to Marco Rubio, Transformative American Political Figure.

Sen. Marco Rubio gave a downcast assessment Sunday about Congress passing immigration reform, arguing that fellow Republicans are leery about dealing with President Obama on the issue since he would not negotiate fairly during the recent fiscal crisis. “Immigration reform is going to be a lot harder to accomplish than it was three weeks ago,” Rubio, R-Fla., who helped pass the Senate legislation handed to the Republican-controlled House, told “Fox News Sunday.”

If there is a more pathetic figure in American politics today, I don’t know who it is. He’s crossing the yard again. Does he see the rake? Are you kidding?

Whap.

Religious Teachings — Charter schools are being infected with faith-based curricula.  Jonny Scaramanga reports in Salon.

When Joshua Bass, an engineer, sent his son to iSchool High, a Houston charter school, he was expecting a solid college preparation, including the chance to study some college courses before leaving high school. Instead, the Basses were shocked when their son came home from the taxpayer-funded school with apparently religiously motivated anti-science books.

One of these books blamed Darwin’s theory of evolution for the Holocaust:

[Hitler] has written that the Aryan (German) race would be the leader in all human progress. To accomplish that goal, all “lower races” should either be enslaved or eliminated. Apparently the theory of evolution and its “survival of the fittest” philosophy had taken root in Hitler’s warped mind.

For Joshua, attacks on science in the classroom were unacceptable. Joshua began to research ResponsiveEd, the curriculum used at iSchool High. It emerged that ResponsiveEd was founded by Donald R. Howard, former owner of ACE (Accelerated Christian Education). ACE is a fundamentalist curriculum that teaches young-Earth creationism as fact. Last year it hit headlines because one of its high school science books taught that the Loch Ness Monster was real, and that this was evidence against evolution.

ResponsiveEd is the latest in a long line of concerns raised over the religious affiliations of charter schools. Civil libertarians have raised concerns over Jewish schools converting to charter status. In 2010, more than 20 percent of Texas charter schools reportedly had a religious affiliation. And ResponsiveEd aims to expand further.

After Howard left ACE in the 1990s, he founded Eagle Project charter schools, which became Responsive Education Solutions, or ResponsiveEd, in 2007. ACE’s selling point was that it integrated Bible lessons into every academic subject. ResponsiveEd planned to do the same, but without the explicitly religious basis. Howard told the Wall Street Journal in 1998: “Take the Ten Commandments ­– you can rework those as a success principle by rewording them. We will call it truth, we will call it principles, we will call it values. We will not call it religion.” But in Joshua Bass’ mind, at iSchool High, his son was taught religion in class.

Charter schools receive public funding but operate privately. While promoting creationist science is deemed unconstitutional in public schools, ResponsiveEd charter schools appear able to challenge mainstream science in the classroom.

ResponsiveEd says it has 60 schools in Texas, with an extended charter to open 20 more by 2014. It also has facilities in Arkansas, and plans to open in Indiana. Amazingly, it isn’t the only charter school curriculum based on Accelerated Christian Education’s format.

Paradigm Accelerated Curriculum (PAC) was founded by former ACE vice president Ronald E. Johnson. Where ACE is an “individualized, accelerated” curriculum based on the “five laws of learning,” PAC is an “accelerated individualized” curriculum based on the “six principles of learning.” Like ACE and ResponsiveEd, it questions the theory of evolution and presents the “catastrophist theory” of Noah’s Ark as a credible rival explanation. Like ResponsiveEd, PAC teaches that the theory of evolution influenced Hitler to create the Third Reich.

Doonesbury — Pay to play.

2 barks and woofs on “Sunday Reading

  1. Re: the religious charter schools. The US has already fallen way behind other countries in knowledge standards. These schools will make things worse. And how are the kids going to get into college? Yes, there’s always Liberty U. It’s a form of child abuse not to provide a good education. Guess this could be called artificial intelligence…

    • I agree, Julie. It is embarrassing that our educational system would ever, anywhere promote Creationism. It is so ridiculous. it is not surprising between the charter schools and the folks that home school.

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