Sunday, February 24, 2008

It changes your life

Slate's been posting these terrific videos of Alex Chadwick setting up a card table with a sign that says "Interviews 50¢". People come up and talk to him.

This one is the most striking I've seen. I remember how many random people told me when my wife was pregnant with our first child. "It changes your life." I had no idea what they meant. The depth of the sympathy I have for this man is one way it's changed me.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Corruption in Kenya - Old news

This past week a judge in San Francisco tried to shut down Wikileaks, a website that publishes leaked government documents. One of the documents on the site is a report, known in Kenya as the "Githongo Report" that outlines the extent to which ex-President Moi used his position to extract money from the country. The report is sort of old news, but I wasn't aware of it. What's more, I didn't realize that it had been suppressed by the very person who commissioned it, current President Mwai Kibaki, of electoral fraud fame.

Apparently Moi and Kibaki became close political allies. According to the Wikileaks site:

Ex-President Moi, a corrupt, brutal, discredited former dictator, has somehow again become a key player in political life in Kenya - so much, that he is now an essential pillar in current President Kibaki's re-election campaign. His massive financial resources are expected to be used to buy Kibaki popular support particularly in the populous Rift Valley region, which voted almost to the man against Kibaki in the last election, and in November 2005 during a constitutional referendum. The leaker thinks the re-emergence of President Moi is scandalous and must be stopped.
What's clear is that money and power had a lot more to do starting the current violence in Kenya than did tribe. (Moi is Kalenjin, one of the tribes that's attacked, and been attacked, by Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe.) It's tragic that once corrupt leaders let the tribalism genie out of the bottle, there's no putting it back.

Update: Nicholas Kristof wrote a powerful column in today's NY Times that's good evidence of how far out of control things have gotten.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Like disposable people"

Last weekend I got the wrong paper. We usually get the Sunday New York Times, but our local metro paper came instead. One syndicated article struck me hard. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times decided last year to report on every homicide that occurred in LA county.

I wanted readers to see all the killings -- roughly 1,000 violent deaths each year, mostly of young Latinos and, most disproportionately, of young black men. The Web offered what the paper did not: unlimited space.

So the Homicide Report, as it was called, began with the simplest of journalistic missions: exposing a painful, largely unseen problem. The first list of homicide victims, published slightly more than a year ago, contained the names of 17 people. Eight were Latino. Six were black. Two were of Cambodian descent -- killed in a double homicide. None was white. Most were in their 20s.
And so it went. The list is frighteningly long, and the number of the really young is startling. I'm ashamed to say that most of what I know about the world that many of these murders come from is gleaned and extrapolated from the HBO show The Wire, but that's enough to have made me cringe in horror and recognition when I saw the list and read one person's comment "Almost like they're disposable people."

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Biofuels and global warming

A couple of papers got published online in Science last week that gave me pause, and that I think everyone should know about them. The basic message of both papers is that even though biofuels are theoretically carbon neutral (carbon taken in from the atmosphere when the plants are growing is then released when they're burned), converting land for the production of biofuels leads to such a huge release of stored CO2 that the overall effect is to increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The papers are here and here. An interview with one of the authors is the first bit of this podcast. A very nice set of interviews on NPR's Science Friday, including a discussion of alternative ways of producing biofuels, is here.

Worries about Obama

So, after the caucus in my state, a bunch of Obama stickers appeared on cars in the faculty parking lot. The students had been all over him for a long time, but we needed him to win the state by a huge margin to come out of the closet.

The other consequence is that there's been a lot in the press lately that brings up worries about an Obama presidency. Some of these have provoked thought. So, here are some thoughts.

Trouble from detractors. Paul Krugman wrote a column more than a week ago comparing the beginning of a potential Obama presidency to the beginning of the Clinton presidency in 1992, when, in Krugman's telling, attacks from Republicans over anything from the staffing of the White House travel office to the childcare arrangements of potential appointees seriously hampered the effectiveness of the new administration. Krugman's point is that Obama's apparent inablity to play hardball would make him vulnerable to similar attacks. Maybe. I feel like Obama done a pretty good job dealing with the Clintons' attacks during the campaign so far. His "aw shucks" appeal to the moral high ground has the effect of making his attackers look bad in a way that the hyper-defensive Clinton style didn't.

But Krugman's column brought up a different worry for me. My recollection of the early Clinton years is of a time when he had to struggle with not only attacking Republicans, but the Democratic leadership in Congress, which had been there a long time and which seemed to resent his "skipping over" of the party hierarchy. To my mind (and I'm not a historian or a political scientist), it was this infighting among the Democrats that opened the door for Newt Gingrich, the Republican congressional majority, and the attack machine Krugman warns of. This is the scenario that I worry might play out again in an Obama presidency, especially after the close primary contests. If he can't bring the Clinton supporters and the mainline Democratic establishment around to support him, then the broad coalition he hopes to form falls apart not becuse he can't reach across the aisle but because he's lost people who should be natural supporters. There's a lot of talk about the Democrats pulling together before the general election. I worry about them staying together afterwards.

Troble with supporters. David Brooks wrote a masterful column last Sunday about why Obama pulled in more educated, higher income people, while Clinton got lower income, more working class voters. It comes down to marketing. Obama hits the same "aspirational" place as Starbucks and Whole Foods, taking the mundane into big ideas, new ways of doing things. Clinton's supporters want the basics at an affordable price. They shop at Safeway.
I felt completely pegged by this analysis. Besides that, I felt a little worried about the depth of support. When I'm feeling poor, I make my own coffee. (Okay, so it's shade grown, fair-trade beans from the local independent version of Starbucks, but still...) What happens to Obama's support when times get rough for the majority?

Check out this (semi-serious?) piece about how he's "so last week".

Finally, there's the cult of personality thing. There's a lot that's been made of this. I'm quite sure that there's a there there. I've seen enough in his books, in his speeches before he was officially a presidential candidate, and in that old New Yorker piece to be convinced that he's a serious thinker who'd be able to take in enough information and advice to make good decisions (and who'd stay firmly rooted in the "reality-based" world). But there's something to the fretting about the rockstar like appearances, about the bizarre "Yes We Can" video, about the way that message can be misread as just "vote for me". There's part of me that worries it'll go to his head too much. I don't think so, but I'd love it if he'd just give me a little of that thoughtful, earnest, junior senator from Illinois act that I fell for in the first place every once in awhile.

Update: Here's a piece from Slate (and CNN) political analyst John Dickerson with similar concerns.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Academic Honesty

About two weeks ago, Freeman Hrabowski came to our campus to give a series of talks. Dr. Hrabowski (I don't usually call Ph.D.s Dr., but he mentioned several times that students call him "Doc" so...) is the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which is best known (at least in the crowd I run in) for the Meyerhoff Scholars program, which has achieved a fantastic success rate in producing minority, especially African-American, research scientists, not only among the scholars but throughout the university, and has provided a model that many in the country are trying to emulate. 

The main reason for Dr. Hrabowski's visit was to deliver a convocation address (audio and video available here) that marked the beginning of Black History Month. It was an fantastic talk, that left few dry eyes, but it wasn't the most important part of his visit, at least for me. The previous day he delivered a talk at our Learning and Teaching Center to a group of mostly faculty on "Diversity in the Sciences: Creating Climates of Success" and then later in the day had a conversation with mostly students (though I and a few other faculty were there) on more or less the same topic. Both of these conversations were, as a colleague puts it, "focused, blunt and intense" but also amazingly funny and comfortable. I had a feeling of being in the presence of someone who tells the truth - the truth that you already know in a fuzzy way, but either haven't had the guts to say or haven't been able to put together in a way that would convince anyone. 

The take-home lessons for me were all about honesty. 

• You can't solve a problem if you don't state the problem. The retention rate for African-American students at liberal arts colleges in general, and ours in particular, is worse than for majority students. Retention in science majors for under-represented minority students (African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, some Asians) is worse than for majority students. Hrabowski told the story of encouraging some prospective students who'd been admitted to Harvard that they should come to UMBC instead. When asked by someone at Harvard why he would do such a thing, he said "I want those students to become scientists. If they went to your place, they'd end up as lawyers." Talking in generalities about "climate" or about how the statistics of small numbers makes these patterns harder to follow avoids stating the problems, and can make them harder to solve.

• In general, people are more comfortable around others who share similar backgrounds, at least at first. Dr. Hrabowski said this again and again. His point, or at least the point I took, is that labeling as racism the frustrating slights that minority students commonly experience - being the last to find a partner when the professor says to break up into groups, the initial awkwardness that can turn into long term awkwardness in interacting with professors, the difficulty in joining study groups - isn't helpful. These are very real problems, but they come from carelessness and a mostly unconscious desire to stay in one's comfort zone, not from maliciousness. Solving them should involve creating awareness and situations in which students interact with each other in ways that force them out of that zone. 
It also means that pointing out the slights when they occur can be the most effective way to fight them. Dr. Hrabowski told a story of getting his first exam back in graduate school, where he studied math. The professor had written "You did surprisingly well." Hrabowski approached him afterwards and asked "Why the adverb?" That was all it took. The professor hadn't even thought about the impact when he wrote the comment, and never would have realized if Hrabowski hadn't pointed it out. Doing so took courage and confidence, but also trust - trust that the professor was a well-meaning, if slightly clueless (aren't we all!) educator, not an ogre.

• Preparation matters in the math and science. The example Dr. Hrabowski used was long division. It's just not possible to do long division if your multiplication and subtraction skills aren't well honed. That kind of cumulative accumulation of skills is taken for granted in college science and math courses. Students are expected to be comfortable with algebra and with basic skills in the sciences when they arrive. Upper level courses depend on concepts from lower level courses. This seems fairly obvious, but the consequences can be devastating for students who come into college science classes without a few crucial skills that their classmates got in high school. It makes it extremely difficult to continue in the major successfully without doing well in the intro courses. Hrabowski encourages students to retake intro courses if they didn't get an A or a B, something that's against the rules at our institution. He discourages students from taking multiple science courses simultaneously during their first year, so they can focus on getting the crucial material in one class at a time. He's fine with students taking more than four years to graduate, if that's what it takes to do well in the classes that they do take. 
Implementing these suggestions, though, takes honesty. It takes both students and advisors who will figure out where the gaps are in a students background, and do what needs to be done to fill them. It takes an understanding that these gaps have nothing to do with intelligence or ability. It takes changing or working around rules that were make when the college had a more homogeneous student population. All of those things are hard. 

• Students need to talk to each other about how they're doing. There was a marvelous moment when Hrabowski asked students who was excelling in their science classes. Embarrassed silence. Students at our place simply don't speak to each other about their grades. They'll say things like "that went pretty well" about a test, or "things are okay" but they won't go through an exam with a classmate or a group and figure out how to do the problems they missed. (I often worry that students won't even do this on their own.) This is a great way to put cement on the gaps in knowledge. Of course it's hard to show a classmate that a test that didn't go well. But hiding it away, saying that everything is "okay", or joining the "organic chem is kicking my butt" group on Facebook isn't a productive way forward. 

• Above all, it's important to treat students as individuals. To learn their strengths. Not to make assumptions. It's too easy to fall into the trap of talking about "these students", to make generalizations. To be too careful about what is said. That can be as problematic, as dishonest, as doing nothing at all.

About Me

I'm a biochemist at a small college.