Monday, September 18, 2017

Sound Familiar?

It’s interesting how a little critical thinking can anticipate events.  Here is a list of just a few recent news items that looked so familiar in light of my entries on this site over the last six years.

Driverless vehicles:  Almost 4 years ago I asked the question, “What could lie ahead in the case of self-driving cars?”  I suggested driverless 18-wheelers moving freight from warehouses to stores, trash trucks with automatic lifts to both collect and drive the route, a robot to deliver mail from an autonomous vehicle sorting and filling the boxes, taxis with a touchpad to enter destination but no driver and even safer school buses with CCTV to take attendance and keep an eye on the children.

Today we have heard much about testing driverless trucks.  This Guardian article tells us the UK government has approved trials of convoys of semi-automated trucks on their highways.  “Up to three wirelessly connected HGVs will travel in convoy, with acceleration, braking and steering controlled by the lead vehicle, a concept named platooning.”

At the same time that Uber is testing self-driving taxis, in Ann Arbor, MI “Domino’s and Ford are teaming up to see if customers will warm to the idea of pizza delivered by driverless cars.”  It’s all coming true and probably faster than expected.

On another subject:  Many Americans look to our neighbors to the north to set the example for medical care, but recently Manitoba, “the only remaining Canadian province that covers a portion of chiropractic care” has reduced the per visit insurance by about 30 percent and it covers only the manipulation.  This according to Dynamic Chiropractic.

Only a few weeks ago I warned about the dangers and possibilities of fraud concerning chiropractic services.  Apparently most Canadian provinces address these issues by refusing to pay for any of it, letting citizens pay their money and take their chances.

Low-fat diets:  A new analysis presented at the European Society of Cardiology spanning more than a decade and considering 135,000 adult subjects from five continents reveals flaws in government dietary guidelines around the world.  “The ongoing Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) project has found both saturated and unsaturated fat intake linked to better heart health, that a high-carb diet is a better predictor of health risks than fat consumption, and that the health benefits of fruit, vegetables, and legumes like beans and chickpeas may plateau at three to four servings per day.
The dispute about the dangers of eating fat has been going on for almost 60 years.  Unfortunately, the political side crowded out the science.  As I put it earlier this year, "With virtually no evidence that eating less fat had any health benefits, [the authorities] assumed that 'if a cholesterol-lowering drug could prevent heart attacks, then a low-fat, cholesterol-lowering diet should do the same.'  But the research and the experience over many years could not confirm this conclusion."

On the subject of homeopathy:  Recently, a couple of negative articles arrived at my desk on this subject.  One listed almost fifty warning letters sent by the FDA to makers of homeopathic products over the last 10 years.  “Nearly all ordered the seller to stop claiming that products could effectively treat specific diseases or conditions. Some ordered the seller to stop claiming that products were vaccine equivalents. A few involved the failure to use good manufacturing practices.”

The second revealed that the Russian Academy of Sciences has become the latest body to declare homeopathy has no scientific basis and endangers people who believe it to be effective.”  I came to pretty much the same conclusion two and a half years ago in “Homeopathy – Does It Really Work?”

I’m sure there are at least several more, but these are the ones that stood out in my mind or happened to catch my attention.  Seeing some of the trends before they become broadly accepted requires only that one pay attention and try to stay strong in the five key dimensions.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Parents and Homework

As another school year has begun, I saw in a syndicated advice column called Living With Children a question that addresses the idea of parental responsibility and school homework.  I had mixed reactions.

The letter writer, the parent of a child entering the first grade, says that they were notified that the local school expects all parents to check a website, called the Parent Portal, every night to keep up with their children’s homework assignments and to help them when they get stuck.  This parent doesn’t like the idea, feeling that “in effect, we are being made responsible for what, in our estimation, is a teacher’s responsibility.”  Other parents agree.

The columnist also agrees, arguing that such websites take advantage of parental anxiety based on an erroneous belief that “children’s grades reflect the quality of their parenting.”  He worries that these setups will turn parents into “micromanaging enablers” by transferring “a significant amount of responsibility for academic instruction to the home.”  The column continues that enabling in any form shifts responsibility off the children (and possibly the teachers) producing over the long term less mature and effective adults.

The final advice is to not check every night but to help occasionally, letting the “children know that they are responsible for their homework and that there will be consequences should they require [their parents] to get involved." 

My mixed feelings arose from the columnist letting the parents too much off the hook.  The writer seems to want to ignore the website, which was probably too aggressively pushed on them; but this website could also be seen as a tool.  Should those parents wait around as in pre-Internet days for a teacher’s conference to find out their child is lagging behind or not doing assignments as expected?  With this modern tool, parents can spot check what is expected and reinforce those expectations without becoming overly involved.  When parents ask, “Do you have any homework?” and are met with the shrug or the vague answer, they have a tool to fall back on to find the answer.  Reinforcing expectations or answering questions is not enabling.  Nagging constantly and checking answers before they are turned in is.

I also don’t buy the idea that parental involvement has no impact on student performance.  In their book, The Why Axis, Gneezy and List studied the effect of motivation and incentives on student performance.  They tried different incentive programs with students, parents and teachers in Chicago Heights public schools and found that when the incentives were properly designed, the minority students performed just as well as their suburban counterparts in rich, white neighborhoods.  All three parties:  students, parents and teachers, must be motivated and involved.

It’s true enabling weakens – if only Washington could figure that out – but parents should not use the fear of enabling as an excuse to drop the ball or pass all the responsibility back to the teachers.  This lack of parental involvement is one reason more and more decisions about our schools are moving away from the local level toward state capitals and Washington.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Mourning Doves

A mourning dove sits on top of the roof making an owl-like hooting noise.  Wikipedia tells me he is trying to attract a female or trying to draw his mate to the nest.  I wonder if he ever gets tired?  Hoot, hoot, hoot, all day long – and he really means it!  It doesn’t, however, make any difference to me or anyone else passing by.  He can hoot his little lungs out, but we’ve heard it all before.

Sometimes you hear people compared to sheep.  One person makes a new discovery or decides what’s cool or uncool and the rest follow along without taking time to evaluate how it affects their lives.  Lately though, I think people are becoming more like mourning doves.  Instead of hoot, hoot, hoot, we hear things like “Build a wall” or “He’s a bigot.”  They’ve already done the sheep thing, following the lead of a few in Washington who then depend on them to pick up on the mourning dove routine.  You see, the sheep only get to vote every couple of years, but the mourning doves get to hoot all day on whatever rooftop becomes available.  They really mean it, but we’ve heard it all before.

Two problems come from this behavior.  The first is the violence and the second, the lack of closure.

When a flock of mourning doves comes together to hoot for their particular cause, they never seem to notice that baboons have infiltrated their ranks, pretending to be doves.  Baboons are not doves and are not satisfied to sit and hoot.  They are fighters that often must display their dominance through physical force.  All would be calm if the exchange were confined to the doves hooting.  Everyone chants their mantra and goes home.  But the baboons will have none of it and take the first chance they get to lash out at the rival troop.  That gives the baboons hiding in the other flock an opportunity to engage in something more stimulating than hooting.  Chaos ensues.

The second problem is the lack of closure – nothing gets solved by chanting at each other and especially not by fighting in the streets.  These are not nuanced arguments based on data.  These are hoots (with a few creative variations) based on anecdotes and personal prejudices with no room for compromise and no appetite for debate.  We are right and you are wrong! – Hoot, hoot, hoot.  We are moral and you are not!  God is on our side!  And they are so busy hooting; they don’t even realize how much their behavior has in common.

The whole thing sounds pretty uncivilized, but this seems to be what America has come to.  People would rather be right than have a relationship or get anything done.  It’s not about finding a solution; it’s about shouting down or defeating the other side because they are evil.  And proving we have a truly representative government, Washington reflects the same behavior.  They don’t engage in physical fighting themselves, though we’ve seen it happen in other countries; but they delight in the chance the violence gives them to point fingers.

Unfortunately, from time to time the hooting is rewarded when it becomes loud enough to intimidate a company or lawmaking body.  Occasionally the decisions turn out to be right, but not because they are based on clear thinking.  So this normally unproductive, but sometimes risky dynamic continues.

(For perspective, here’s a definition from Wikipedia: “Jihad is an Arabic word which literally means striving or struggling, especially with a praiseworthy aim.”  We are right; we are moral; you are not!  Hoot, hoot, hoot!  Scary.)

Friday, September 8, 2017

Learning From France

Over five years ago I wrote a piece with the title “Learningfrom Italy,” and earlier this week I wrote about “Learning From Harvey.”

One benefit of behavior having consequences is the ability to use those consequences as feedback to make changes and corrections – or to continue on the same course while enjoying favorable outcomes.  When a bad situation can be traced to our own choices, it makes sense to change.  Many people figure this out.  The wiser ones look at the behavior of others, those who are struggling, to discover what behavior to avoid before they encounter the same difficulties.  Learning from the mistakes of others is always the recommended path.

What struck me about the news from France last week was the Washington Post headline about their president:  “French President Macron has spent $30,000 on makeup services in just 3 months.”  That comes out to about $330 per day.  “The fees were apparently for doing up the president in advance of news conferences, public appearances and various travels.”  (And he’s doing this while trying to cut government spending!)

But as long as we are looking at France, what about Macron’s predecessor?  Going back to a New York Times article from about 15 months ago, “President François Hollande’s personal hairdresser has been paid 9,895 euros – over $10,000 – per month since Mr. Hollande was elected in 2012, about the same amount as a government minister’s salary.”  That comes out to a total of close to half a million dollars – for haircuts!  The previously cited WAPO article points out that the makeup spending of Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, who was president before him, was not much different from Macron’s.

French voters are suspicious of their motives for such extravagant spending.  They accuse their leaders of being vain and out of touch.  But as politicians in a digital age, they probably recognize the power of optics.  Anyone who wants to make them look bad need not go to all the trouble of debating official behavior.  All they need are some unflattering pictures to promote a negative impression.  Everyone in the public eye must always look their best, lest their opponents take advantage.

Who decides that?  It’s not the politicians nor the advisors nor the press.  It’s the voters themselves – who not only vote, but also purchase products, attend movies and back causes using the same criteria.  This need for optimal optics is more evidence of the victory of the superficial over the substantive – and that’s a perspective issue.  How much better off would the French citizens be if they put more stock in competence than in appearance.  Shouldn’t we learn from them to avoid facing the same problems here?

That would be great, but everyone knows the same kind of book-by-its-cover judging goes on in America to at least the same extent, as attractive movie stars are allowed to claim credibility on subjects they have no expertise in, from vaccinations to climate change.  Celebrities run for office and win based on popularity rather than qualifications. 

Ordinary Americans also understand the power of appearance in their personal lives spending over $60 billion a year on beauty and cosmetics.  As another example, check out this on-line eyeglasses site offering 200,000 different frames with, of course, many choices of designer brands.  For glasses these days, it’s less about seeing than being seen.  The examples are legion from designer clothing and accessories to fine wine and impressive cars!  (Possibly the core of the race-relations problems and other discriminatory practices in America is the looks-like-me criteria unconsciously practiced by hiring managers and others, and assumed as an imperative when children choose a role model.  Even the concept of diversity is defined more by appearance than true variety of contributions.)

Who are we trying to impress, or a better question may be, why do we let ourselves be so easily impressed by surface characteristics?

How much better off could we be if we wisely learned from the French, demanding our public figures act the part rather than look the part – and especially embedding that philosophy into the rest of our behavior.