A recent story from CNN recounts how a sliver of the economic 1% hire disabled people to act as part of their vacationing party so that the whole group can jump to the front of the ride lines. The practice is generally meeting with condemnation. I agree with the consensus, but it would be helpful to unpack a bit to better understand why most of us are ticked off at this story.
We should start by understanding the purpose of Disney’s policy of permitting parties with disabled member to jump to the front of the line. As anyone who has been to Disney knows, experiencing the parks requires a fair amount of physical effort. Much of the exertion occurs waiting in line shifting your weight left and right trying to stay comfortable. For the perfectly healthy, the lines and generally getting around can be a physical challenge so it’s easy to imagine the significant strain on someone with a cane, crutches or those friends and family pushing the wheelchair of a disabled guest. In light of the physical demands Disney entails, moving the disabled and his/her party through the lines a bit quicker seems a fair allowance. Additionally, guests with physical challenges already must pay special attention to navigating the parks and coordinating transportation further making the line accommodation a reasonable attempt to provide some balance in enjoying what the parks offer. Disabled folks along with their family and friends deserve to enjoy their vacations too.
With the reasonableness and purpose of the line accommodation established, let’s consider the practice of buying a disabled friend. Here we’ll get into the issue of what money should and should not be able to buy. Few would argue that well-off vacationers should not be able to rent larger, nicer lodging, eat at fancier restaurants within Epcot or fly first-class to get to Disney in the first place. Information regarding the various lodging and eatery options and their costs are made readily to everyone and access is provided on a first-come-first-serve plus willing/able-to-pay basis. This is how the free market works. Everyone knows, or at least can know, the options and pay or not pay as they see fit. If the well-to-do want the nicer things among these options, more power to them. Taking advantage of the line accommodation afforded to the disabled does not apply free market concepts because time is not for rent at Disney. Disney does have a fast pass option, but it’s just a form of virtual queuing available to all guests. Guests agree, overtly and tacitly, to participate in the aspects of the market that Disney makes available. Time is not one of these options.
Speaking of time, there’s also something that simply rubs people the wrong way when one group believes its time is more valuable than that of others. Again, within the free market this is true. An hour of Tim Cook’s time is worth much more than an hour of my time during business hours. But that difference disappears once Tim and I go on vacation or even when we just enter our home life for that matter. An hour of my time with my family and friends has no monetary value and neither does Mr. Cook’s. If you’re a well-to-do parent and think otherwise, then I suggest you set aside some of your significant wealth for the family counseling your miserable kids will soon need.
Now, let’s talk about Kant. One of the basic tenets of Immanuel Kant’s ethical philosophy is that people are to be treated as ends unto themselves and never as mere means. By renting a disabled person for line consideration, the well-to-do treat that person as a means to an end. As far as Kant is concerned, you may as well shove a fat person onto some trolley tracks. But the Kantian objection doesn’t end with the employer. It extends to the disabled as well because treating people as ends is ultimately inalienable – the disabled cannot reduce themselves to means either. Why can’t people reduce themselves to ends? Because the end becomes who they are and, in most cases, people would not want to be identified as that end. Ask a disabled person if they want to be mainly know as the disabled person. I think we all know the answer. So, why should a disabled person engaged in a situation reinforcing the very limited identification they would otherwise choose, in a Kantian sense, to avoid.
So, we see that the well-to-do renter and the rented disabled person are both acting poorly in the Disney line-cutting scenario. The former is advancing their own preferences and valuing their own time through means not generally known or available to all. The latter are reducing themselves to an identity they would, in nearly all other circumstances, take great offense towards and therefore is not theirs to be used to gain advantage.
Looks like the City Council in D.C. is taking a closer look at students’ standardized test scores from 2008 and 2010. It seems that there may have been an usually high number of erasure marks from wrong answers to correct ones. Now we’ll have to wait until the investigation is done to opine much more but I do find the following quote, with my emphasis added, rather telling.
Ms. Rhee issued a statement saying that she did not recall receiving the memo. She added that both the city inspector general and the Education Department had already “reviewed the memo and confirmed my belief that there was no widespread cheating.”
Pay close attention to this story because former school chancellor Rhee is going to want the metric to be about widespread cheating when the metric really should be any level of cheating. In fact, Rhee’s quote seems to be an admissions that some amount of cheating is likely. A USA Today investigation about this situation cites the following test improvement data:
Standardized test scores improved dramatically. In 2006, only 10% of Noyes’ students scored “proficient” or “advanced” in math on the standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Two years later, 58% achieved that level. The school showed similar gains in reading.
If any cheating was “widespread”, then it could be inferred that most of the 10 to 58% jump was due to cheating. Let’s assume for a moment that there was cheating but that it was not “widespread”. How much of the 48% jump could then be attributed to localized cheating? 5%, 10%, 15%? It’s an important question because if the legitimate percentage of proficient and advanced scores in 2008 was only 45%, a minority of all students tested, it is unlikely that teachers and principals would have received bonuses. Moreover, it is unlikely that Michelle Rhee’s post chancellor career path would have had the same “upward” trajectory.
Occupy Wall Street is all about how some people roll in grapes while the rest of us live in cucumber land.
In the highly quotable and wonderfully balanced The Bonobo and the Atheist (TBatA), Frans de Waal offers a naturalistic account for human morality. Essentially, de Waal argues that our morality is variant on mammalian, more specifically, primate morality. Frans de Waal in an atheist and supports the metaphysical perspective of the New Atheists. That said, his approach is more humanistic than those favored by Dawkins and Harris and more consistent than the captivating but mercurial Hitchens. In terms of modern connections, the conclusions de Waal takes from his research and that of other primatologist resemble the recent philosophical writings of Dan Dennett and Philip Kitcher.
Among the observations described in TBatA of chimpanzees and bonobo apes include the instances when one chimp refused a highly-valued grape treat when other chimps were only offered mundane cucumber of carrot desserts. Others studies describe the seemingly solemn attitudes of bonobos viewing the dead body of a popular group member and the prosocial behavior of favor trading. Taken together, de Waal argues that the social hierarchies depicted in these behaviors and the subtleties seen throughout the individual and group interactions reveal a level of empathy previously thought impossible in the animal kingdom outside of humans.
While making the case that morality can be found in the emotional development of evolutionary history, TBatA finds fault in the reasoned arguments for morality found in utilitarianism, the golden rule and Kantian ethics. More compelling that the his perfunctory critiques of basic philosophy is de Waal’s use of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights as a visual index organizing much of the narrative.
You can certainly read more detailed summaries of primatology, study more compelling challenges to established ethics and survey more informed art histories, but you would be hard pressed to find a more readable and humane work that combines many of these ideas than The Bonobo and the Atheist.
Brrp…excu…pffft…Oh, my. Excuse me. Sorry about that. Then again, I don’t think I am. I’m not saying we should be proud of our bodily functions, but after reading Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach you will look at them in a new light. The gastronomical fun in Gulp doesn’t stop with your toots or my burps as Roach goes, among other places, shoulder deep into a fistulated cow. Do a Google image search if you don’t know what a fistulated cow is. Just make sure you’re not in the early stages of digesting anything yourself.
Speaking of fistulation, Roach also tells the story of Dr. William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin who, thanks to Dr. Beaumont surgical skills and some rather lax policies regarding human experimentation in the early 1800s, became a low-rent, gastronomical version of Phineus Gage giving those interested (not many apparently) a window into the human stomach. Here, Roach explores both the humanity of what must have been a rather awkward relationship between Beaumont and St. Martin and the logistics of trying to send stomach acid samples thousands of miles back in the day.
Frank(furter)ly, there’s much to chew on in Roach’s Gulp and she delivers it all with a side of cheekiness and a honey glaze of word play. There may be times when it feels that the stories are designed to serve her wordplay. Much more often than not though her approach to these bits unspeakable material is informative and fun popular science writing.
So, if you want to know why taste researches love catfish, why some believe Elvis died of constipation and how an unsanitary colonoscopy can be a life saver, then enjoy Gulp in all its alimentary gory. Sorry, I mean glory.
I will say from the outset that this book was better than I thought it was going to be. That said, I didn’t have very high hopes to start. OK, that’s a bit unfair. The Emotional Life of Your Brain (TELoYB) is a decent read and does introduce some useful ideas I had not heard before. But, at the end of the day I didn’t feel all that smarter for reading it. TELoYB is one part professional autobiography, two parts popular psychology and one part self-help.
The professional autobiography parts follow coauthor Richard Davidson from his undergraduate days at NYU to his faculty position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In many ways, the biographical stories are the book’s best moments, especially if you’ve spent any time in academia. There is something universal about the anxieties felt by young graduate students and new professors regardless of subject area.
The popular psychology comes from the exploration of the six emotional styles of resilience, outlook, social intuition, context, self-awareness and attention. The self-help bits come from the self tests you can take to assess yourself on these six emotional styles. Frankly, I found these self tests to be the least convincing bits of the book. It seems impossible to get a valid psychology result if you know that you’re being evaluated, especially when you the do the evaluating on yourself. Nonetheless, they are interesting categories and worth thinking about.
The overall conclusion to take away from the book is one that I’ve heard elsewhere (and more convincingly) – the brain can change itself. In the case of emotional styles, the path to plasticity favored by Davidson leads him to various meditation techniques that are certainly worth exploring for the interested reader.
April 8, 2013 Book Review #4: Big Data – A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think
If you’ve spent time online signing up for a user account or buying tickets, then you’re familiar with those annoying pair of text strings you’re prompted to retype. We’re told the purpose is to prove that there’s a human doing the typing but as I learned in Big Data, that’s only half the story. These text strings, called reCAPTCHAs, are part of a text disambiguation project. One of the text strings has already been deciphered by other people; your correct replication confirms your humanity. The second string comes from a digitized text that has yet to be fully deciphered and so, without knowing it, you’re being used as a voluntary translator of sorts. This is just one of the many examples of how the field of big data is being leveraged in a variety of ways.
At the heart of Big Data is the shift from causation to correlation. If you’re a scientist, this shift may not be the tectonic one the authors suggest but attending to the “what” of things as opposed to the “why” is going to take some getting used to as big data becomes more prevalent. Along the way, the statisticians trusted friend, the random sample, will go the way of the dodo. Why settle for a sample size (N) of 1002 when you can get N = all? It’s true that there is a lot of messiness in a data set of N = all; however, the sheer volume of data, and the ability to reuse the data for purposes not yet conceived, makes up for the mess.
Of course, the correlations to be found in big data are not all gravy. Privacy efforts that sever data from individuals can be for naught as the trail of data exhaust makes reconnecting a user to her data one of those easy big data correlations. There is also the fear that we will forget that correlation does not imply causation. Worse yet, we may forget that predictions are hard, especially about the future, and fall under big data’s spell and institute a Minority Report style pre-crime division. These and other dark sides to big data are considered by Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier. Their prescriptions for these dangers may be overly optimistic, but they make a convincing point that, when used well, big data has the chance to unlock more of our humanity.
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman does what good science writing should do. Namely, it broadens the scientific literacy of the reader by combining (somewhat) detailed descriptions of experiments with the occasional colorful anecdote. The experiments Kahneman shares come mostly from his own research that elucidated the concepts of System 1 thinking versus System 2 thinking and the experiencing self versus the remembering self. Briefly, System 1 is the intuitive, rapidly-reacting portion of our mental lives and System 2 is our more deliberate, more rational side. Kahneman takes great care to explain that the terms System 1 and System 2 are only labels and should not be taken literary as there is not a clear neurological connection between all that is System 1 versus all that is System 2. The terms experiencing self and remembering self refer to exactly what you think they would – we live as our experiencing selves but we create the stories of our lives as the remembering self. It seems that, just as we typically react with our System 1 to most situations (sometimes a good thing, frequently not so much), we tend to react to our lives mostly the way our remembering self would prefer. When Kahneman sought some additional real-world connections to his ideas, he found himself talking to economists. The result became known as Prospect Theory for which he was a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. Not too shabby for a non-economist.
As with most popular science books centered on psychological phenomena, there is a tinge of a self-help feel to Thinking Fast and Slow. Thankfully, there really is only a dash of self help going on here as the clear emphasis is on the experiments and their conclusions. While it may be understandable given that Kahneman is not a psychiatrist and he clearly was trying not to write a self-help book, Thinking Fast and Slow does not explore the obvious connections to human emotions raised by these systems and selves. Mine are minor quibbles. Overall, Thinking Fast and Slow is a fantastic read and certainly worthy of your System 2′s attention.