Saturday, April 13, 2013

Alec: In a state near YOU

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: A new version of Missouri SJR 22 has passed the Senate and is lumbering back to the House for another vote. With the weekend adjournment upon us, I decided to google some of the objectionable, vague language of the bill and see where it comes from. I chose “modern farming practices” which can take in anything from Confined Animal Feeding Operations to wacky new genetic alterations in seeds to robot tractors to unlimited spraying of Agent Orange on the land. I suspected that “modern farming practices” was dreamed up by Alec, the American Legislative Exchange Council, those apologists for big business opposed to individual rights. They are world-class bamboozlers. Couldn’t find “modern farming practices” in Alec’s model bills but there were a lot of interesting bits on the Alec site, where the far-right lawmakers can pick up language to introduce in their statehouses. Here’s a bit to guarantee antibiotic use in CAFOs: WHEREAS, the treatment, prevention and control of animal disease is critically important to the health and welfare of animals and the safety of the food produced; and WHEREAS, the availability of antibiotics is a critical tool for veterinarians, livestock and poultry producers to ensure animal health and the safety of the US food supply; and WHEREAS, the use of antibiotics both therapeutically and sub-therapeutically has a long history of success in improving animal health and welfare; and . . . (there are 8 more “whereas” clauses, each more misleading than the one before) . . . NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that The American Legislative Exchange Council supports the use of science based data to assess whether sub-therapeutic antibiotics cause antibiotic resistance problems. BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the American Legislative Exchange Council opposes legislative or regulatory action that may result in unnecessary additional restrictions on the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture that are not based on sound science. Obviously, that resolution could guarantee full employment to a battery of lawyers for lifetime but it doesn’t help ensure public welfare at all. And that’s the point, dear reader. Tomorrow we'll look at the family tree and implications of SJR 22, which has appeared in other states besides Missouri, but that’s enough for today. April 13, 2013.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Only software that can write an essay should be allowed to grade them

By Marc Jampole

One of the many controversies roiling education at the moment is the argument over grading essays with software programs. A nonprofit organization that is a joint venture between Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently began making automated essay-grading software free to any educational institution that wants to use it.

Some think it’s a great idea and even postulate that it will help students improve their writing abilities, as they can retake the same essay test multiple times until the software gives them an A.  Opponents wonder if software could ever capture the nuances of good writing.

I’m tending to side with those opposed to machine grading of essays. I spend a lot of time in my job editing the copy of other professional writers. The difference between good and bad writing is often subtle. Sometimes merely placing the last sentence of a paragraph first creates the structure needed to understand the point.  Or breaking a grammatically correct complex sentence into several simpler sentences can create a process or chain of reasoning where only a simple list existed before.

Writing expository prose entails a complicated balancing of grammar, syntax, cultural allusions, context, subtext, rhythms and emotions. No one has yet produced software to check spelling that is without numerous, and sometimes notorious, glitches. For example, Word’s spell-checker insists that a company is a living and animate thing by correcting “the company that” to “the company who.” In the same wise, it also turns people into things, always automatically changing “the person who” into “the person that.”

There are literally hundreds of these simple syntactical and grammatical mistakes such as confusing “that” and “who” which people make in their writing all the time: “the company and their employees” instead of “the company and its employees;” “the animals comprise the zoo” instead of “the zoo comprises animals” (the famous example from Strunk &White); using “anxious” when you mean “eager” and “jealous” when you mean “envious.”  When I was a college instructor grading essays, these minor mistakes turned an A into a B. In the real world of an advertising and public relations firm, they are the difference between getting a promotion and getting fired.

But beyond the simple mechanics of proper English, there are many nuances that go into good writing. Let’s start with the issue of appropriate language, which essential explore when it’s okay to break the rules.  “Ain’t” ain’t good, but in some formal essays it works if it creates a moment of cleverness or allows the writer to allude to an idiomatic expression or famous quote.   

Will a machine understand a cultural reference, be it an allusion to a song, a novel, a quote or a famous person? What will software think of a reference to rap or a clever circumlocution lifted from an 18th century novel? Will the software know when the allusion is inaccurate?

And what of tone? Will a software program recognize sarcasm, irony, empathy, anger or other sub-textual emotions that propel the best essay writing? Will it notice when the author changes tone and will it recognize when the change is appropriate and when it is merely sloppy writing?

There is also the issue of the passive construction. The passive is grammatically correct, but it makes for uninteresting and dull writing, as it tends to turn everything into a state of being. Some examples:  The film was seen by the students. The building was destroyed by the earthquake. As I sometimes roar out when I see a lot of passives in a piece I’m editing, “Is, is is! Nothing but is!” Will the software know that writing in the passive makes for a much duller essay than speaking in the active voice:  The students saw the film. The earthquake destroyed the building. And just as important, will it recognize the relatively small number of occasions when the passive is appropriate, e.g., when the writer wants to avoid attribution or to describe an actual state of being?

Genre also is an issue in editing.  Each genre and subgenre has its own unique rules and formulae, some of which are hard and fast (a sonnet must have 14 lines) and some of which are quite flexible (the second or third paragraph of a news release should be a quote).  For example, when writing on legal on engineering issues for other lawyers or engineers, the use of the passive is not such a “no-no.” Will the software be able to distinguish between a news story, news feature, news release about news, news release about non-news, OpEd piece, legal prĂ©cis, creative non-fiction, five-part essay and scientific paper?

Finally, there is the issue of logic. Often a sentence or paragraph looks reasonable enough until you read it a second time and see it is completely senseless.  Many sentences with if/then clauses look right because both clauses are true, but are illogical since there is no causal relationship between the two. One can’t go more than a few days reading the news media without seeing an opinion piece in which the author writes factually for many paragraphs and then draws a completely false conclusion. Will the computer pick up on logical flaws?

Years ago, Alan Turing proposed a test to know when a computer acquired the ability to think as humans do: when it is able to hold a conversation with someone and the person thinks he or she is speaking with another human being.

I am proposing a similar test: let’s allow software to grade student essays only when it can write an essay itself. I even have the topic about which the software must be able to write. I take it from an example of the nuances in language that the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein gives in his theoretical essay, “Through Theatre to Cinema,” as translated by Jay Leyda. In Leyda’s translation, Eisenstein writes (and note the passive construction), “How easily three shades of meaning can be distinguished in writing—for example: ‘a window without light,’ ‘a dark window,” and ‘an unlit window.’”

When a software program can write an essay that explains the distinction between these three descriptions, I will be willing to let it grade essays.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

CAFO Far From the Farm

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: Cafo Far From The Farm, arranged by Daria Kerridge in Columbia, was a huge success, according to friends who were able to attend. The 3-day event drew speakers from all over the United States, addressing problems like government financing of CAFOs, environmental degradation, corruption of the food supply and animal cruelty. All the events were held during my busy times—teaching and radio hosting—but I know plenty of folks who went. In fact, that’s the only complaint I’ve heard: Everyone there knew everyone else. It was the same group that shows up for all the foodie programs. My New Year’s Resolution for 2013 was to drag someone younger than myself to any presentation, lobby day, food meal, event, anything I go to. So far, the resolution has been good and I’ve had a great time with my young guests, neighbors or students. We usually go to a meal before or after and I drive so that they don’t have to buy gasoline. We talk about what we’ve seen or done, what we learned, what was good or bad about the presentation. It’s always worthwhile. If we don’t take the kids along, they can’t go. They’re so busy with school, work, dating, figuring out their futures…remember how you were at their age? They aren’t getting the same notices that we’re getting, so they don’t know about the events. And we need them to understand the food system. Every generation gets farther away from the farm, and the industrial system becomes normalized, they don’t know how to do things for themselves from raising food to foraging to cooking. They’re used to getting food wrapped in cellophane, poor dears. At the event last night, a panel discussion, John Ikerd told folks that farmers and consumers need to work together to solve the problems of industrial agriculture in the animal business. Folks who want good meat have to learn about the business and ask the farmers how they manage their animals. Farmers who want to work with the public have to listen to what they want. We can work it out, but we need to listen to each other, in an open and curious way. And that’s all for today. April 11, 2013.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Missouri lawmakers are getting a clue!

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: Apparently, lawmakers are realizing how stupid it would be to change the state constitution to “forever guarantee” “modern farming practices,” and I’m getting more and more feedback about the subject. Tonight there was an anti-CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) meeting in Columbia and I’m not sure if folks there had called their reps, but it would have been a good opportunity to get them to complain about the fact that CAFOs are supported by policy. Young farmers can get loans to start CAFOs because the loans are guaranteed by the U.S. government. Can’t get a guarantee to start a vegetable farm or to buy equipment for a grain mill. When I got home another friend on the phone was complaining about the Missouri legislature and their new ideas about how to ensure that “modern farming practices” are “forever guaranteed” under the constitution. “Whatever they want, I’m against it,” said my friend. He was talking about HJR 7&11 and SJR 22. “Modern farming practices” are not defined in these bills. This is a major problem because these “future” practices could be anything (from corporate controlled CAFOs, to cloned animals, to robot tractors, to complete control of the seed supply…). And this is the Constitution we're talking about.

A proposal to make solar-powered electricity more feasible

By Marc Jampole
In a co-op apartment, each tenant owns his or her own unit and has shares in a corporation that owns the apartment. Joining together collectively as a mini-government or a semi-socialist enterprise, the corporation (or a management company it hires) employs a superintendent and a number of doormen and porters. These people are kept busy—they open the doors, sort the mail, accept the delivery of packages, help carry groceries, clean the shared areas of the building, keep the boiler and washer-dryers operational, do minor repairs, enforce building rules (of which there are always many), hail taxis and keep track of the various workers hired by tenants to work in their individual apartments.  To get these services, the apartment owners all pay a monthly fee—more for larger apartments or those on higher floors (which require more time for the building personnel to serve).  Most owners also give the staff seasonal bonuses at the end of the calendar year.

The other day I was thinking about how convenient it would be to apply the co-op/doorman model to blocks of single-family dwellings. Someone to keep the street safe, accept packages, clean snow and ice off the sidewalks, help carry the groceries in and maybe even serve as the block handyperson for simple faucet leaks and picture-hanging. Having the block equivalent of a doorman would certainly make life easier for everyone who owns a single family home in a city and many suburban neighborhoods.

But then I started thinking about the major impediment to such a plan working—the selfishness of Americans. After three decades of the politics of selfishness, wouldn’t many if not most homeowners worry that someone else on the block was using too many of the services offered by the staff? Wouldn’t some people try to “get the most” out of their monthly fees and try to use the staff all the time?  Wouldn’t most Americans reject the block staff concept outright because of the same shortsighted, I’ve-got-mine selfishness that makes people vote to cut support of public schools and mass transit?

While selfishness and other human foibles can muck up the management of a co-op apartment building, the owners are united in one way that forces them to become part of the social compact that generates all the benefits provided by the building’s staff: They all live together in the same building with the same roof, the same elevator and stairs, the same lobby and most important, the same source of hot water, heat and electricity. The only choice anyone has is to be a responsible co-op citizen interested in the overall welfare of the apartment.

And then the big idea hit me: Doesn’t the co-op model have a place in solving our energy crisis?  Specifically, we already have the technology to build small solar-powered electrical generating plants that can provide the electricity for a few city blocks. Many theorists of solar power have often conceived of a situation in which instead of one central power plant that serves large metropolitan areas, there are many smaller plants throughout a region, each of which produces electricity for its neighborhood and all of which are connected to the national grid.  Utilities and politicians don’t like the individual solar plant model, because they lose control of the power source and the ability to make money from it. But for the public, why should it matter if the power comes from a behemoth plant miles away or from a modest unit tucked out of the way around the corner?  If I may speak for most—what we want is a steady source of electricity that doesn’t pollute the planet and is not threatened by energy scarcity.

The co-op model can make the neighborhood solar plant work. Every house on the block must own a share of the power plant, just as every owner of an apartment must have shares in the building. The building hires the staff to take care of the plant. The natural extension would be for the staff to provide many of the services that make co-op living so pleasant.

I’ve pretty much described a utopian dream which combines some of the best elements of socialism and capitalism to give people more control over their lives in some ways in return for certain restrictions, all of which are for the common good.

Of course, as long as world governments are more interest in solutions that require large organizations, it is nothing more than a dream.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Professional white males of ’50s & ’60s may not have been “Mad Men,” but did better than most

By Marc Jampole

OpEdge logs a lot of keystrokes analyzing logical mistakes that appear to be made to advance a cause or an idea:  Surveys which use criteria that ensure the conclusions will support the beliefs of the survey takers. Articles that give facts but then end with a false conclusion. Mislabeling to make an ideological point, e.g., calling Obama a socialist or Eadweard Muybridge a super-genius. Conflating two acts, so that the more heinous or odd one appears in a better light.

This past week’s New York Times “Sunday Review” gives a maddening example of one of the subtlest of propaganda techniques: a half comparison, which is what occurs when a writer or speaker compares the apples of one group to the oranges of another group, even though both groups have both apples and oranges. The logical mistake comes in the suppression of inconvenient facts related to one or both sides of the comparison.

The article in question titled Pity The Men On Top by Susan Jacoby compares the glamorous life portrayed on the chattering class’s current favorite TV show, “Mad Men” to the drudgery that most professionals experienced during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Here’s the passage in question, and it’s the opening of the article:
“WHEN I dream about my father, as I do even though he has been dead for more than a quarter of a century, I always wake up when I hear the crunch of tires rolling over rock salt — an unmistakable sound evoking the winters of my Michigan childhood in the 1950s and early ’60s. Dad, an accountant, would pull his car out of our icy driveway and head for his office long before first light. This was tax season, and he could keep his business and our family financially afloat only by working 80-hour weeks.

You won’t find Bob Jacoby or his unglamorous middle-class, middle-income contemporaries in “Mad Men,” the AMC series beginning its sixth season on Sunday. If we are to believe the message of popular culture, the last men on top — who came of age during World War II or in the decade after it — ran the show at work, at home and in bed.”

Let’s take a look at the comparison between the glorified fictional image and reality, which is represented by the single anecdote of a single real white male.  What we read about in the real example are the facts of work: getting up early, working overtime, worrying about finances. In contrast, all we read about in the details of the “Mad Men” myth is status related: “ran the show at work, at home and in bed.” It’s a false comparison, because the author tells us her dad ran the business, so he was just as much in charge as the Mad Men, and more in charge than those in the TV series who don’t have ownership interests in the fictional ad agency at the center of the action. We can only imagine that he was also in charge at home, at least when it came to finances.

Later on, Jacoby writes that most blue or white collar jobs didn’t provide the income or freedom to allow for “hotel rooms for trysts with girlfriends.” Her example, though, is not a blue collar or white collar working male, but her father (again), a business owner of a professional service firm. She claims that he didn’t have time for an affair, he worked so hard. Let’s give her and her dad the benefit of the doubt and merely point out that he doesn’t represent the entire class of upper middle class professional white males in the post-World War II era.

I’m not saying that “Mad Men” is a realistic depiction; in fact it is not. Nor am I saying that the life of most upper middle class white professional males in the '50s and early '60s was not drudgery, although I suspect it had more joy in it than was in the lives of repressed and suppressed educated upper-middle class women, poor minorities or unskilled nonunionized laborers of that period.

What I’m saying is that to advance her argument—whatever merit it has—author Susan Jacoby makes a false comparison as a means to argue by anecdote. The polite term for this kind of illogical reasoning is to call it propaganda.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The FDA is a Sham

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: Sunday always seems like a catch-up day and I had a pile of newspapers to read, going back a couple of weeks. And I had two lambs abandoned by their mom to nurse. They had kept me up all night and needed to be fed every 3-4 hours, the male taking longer than the female, like maybe an hour. So the day went like this: Warm bottle for the lambs and feed. Glance through 4 or 5 sections of newspaper, fold for recycling, take a nap, wake up and warm bottle for the lambs, and so forth. So it went along well, until I stumbled on an Op-Ed in the New York Times March 28, 2013. David A. Kessler, commissioner of the FDA from 1990 to 1997, a time of huge expansion in the Confined Animal Feeding Operation era, wrote “Antibiotics and the Meat We Eat.” Too little too late, David. You shoulda checked it out when you were in power. As he said, “It was not until 2008 . . . that Congress required companies to tell the F.D.A. the quantity of antibiotics they sold for use in agriculture . . .” Why didn’t he ask? It’s not a secret that low doses of antibiotics are fed to increase fast weight gain in meat animals. That was one of the first tricks the big corporations used. They followed it by such strategies as feeding arsenic to poultry to compromise the liver and increase blood flow, thus increasing gain. The antibiotic usage in CAFOs accounts for about 80% of all antibiotic sales nowadays and that is causing antibiotic-resistant bugs that flow into the creeks, the rivers, the ocean. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a major problem in hospitals and one doctor has told me he gets a memo every week about what drugs no longer work on what bacteria. Kessler’s last line exempts FDA, the organization that we thought was the watchdog, from responsibility, and sums the problem up: “Lawmakers must let the public know how the drugs they need to stay well are being used to produce cheaper meat.” The industrial system knows that the government system is a sham. After all, industry designed it. But, now, consumers need to demand answers.