There’s quiet, but steady, drumbeat of pushing children and college students into narrow STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, and away from anything that doesn’t contribute to the (narrowly defined) “economy”. The UK Education Secretary said in 2014 that choosing to study arts or humanities could “hold them back for the rest of their lives”. Being trained in both science and engineering, I’m the first to agree that a well-informed scientific and technically literate citizenry is of utmost importance, but it doesn’t follow that we should be just shovelling people into STEM. It’s short-term thinking at it’s worst and is born of the idea that the purpose of education is to train people to contribute to the global neoliberal corporate state, rather than a process of becoming a complete, well-rounded human being.
Recently I stumbled across an old 2014 interview on Moyers & Company between Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP and Ari Berman of The Nation about the increasing attempts to suppress voting in many red states, through adding ever more onerous and complicated so-called “voter ID” laws. During the discussion they lay out all the details of why this disadvantages many people who have been voting using student IDs or other forms of ID for years. And with only 31 cases of in-person voter fraud ever documented in one billion of votes cast in all elections since 2000, it’s a solution in search of a problem. However it was this exchange near the end of the program that really stood out:
Ifill: ….The thing that is the coin of the realm for the common man, we’re coming for that too. we’re going to create this obstacle course that you have to go through in order to exercise this right that should come automatically with your citizenship.
Berman: We have a Supreme Court that wants to make it easier to buy an election than for everyday people to vote in one.
It’s good to see that climate change as a serious issue has returned to US electoral politics (albeit completely on one side of the aisle at this point). However it’s return is being framed in a particular way: using the language of national security. After past efforts to use environmental, public health and economic security arguments have failed to gain the necessary amount of traction to change policy, supporters of action on climate change believe they may be now on to a winner. In the recent Democratic primary debate, Senator Bernie Sanders suggested that climate was not just a “national security” issue, but the biggest national security issue. While framing climate change this way has clear advantages: it gives the issue a sense of urgency and purpose, and it can perhaps convince more hawkish types to take the issue seriously, it is not without certain perils.
In an interesting piece by Issie Lapowsky in Wired, dissecting this new approach, one professor of public policy notes that using national security metaphors:
…reinforces nationalistic responses to solving the problem, as opposed to collective efforts that might be mutually beneficial to the world
In a sense climate change is the ultimate collective action problem, and piecemeal national security responses are likely to run more towards local (or national) mitigation of the effects of climate change, rather long-term systemic changes in the global economy that will be needed to effectively tackle the problem. So if the “national security” rhetoric takes off, environmentalists, politicians and scientists will want to be sure that the other dimensions of climate change policy aren’t abandoned or ignored.
Healthcare technology, and the biotechnology world in general, doesn’t quite work the same way as software. First, it has to deal with the messy analog world of biology: from proteins and cells to tissues and organs, always a complicated proposition at the best of times. Second: the stakes are higher: the costs of getting it wrong go beyond a badly designed user interface, or an app that keeps crashing, they can be matters of life and death. My Amber Biology colleague, Gordon Webster, has a good summary over on the Digital Biologist, of the recent issues at the troubled blood test company, Theranos.
It seems to me that at least of some of the hype that can arise in both software and healthcare sectors is a result of the way investors, the media and even peers unwittingly buy into certain “myths of innovation”, a subject I recently blogged about. …
Having started seeing some more live music again recently, I was inspired to repost some music-related stories from the vault (originally on my old, now defunct, website). The first is an interview from back in the 1990s with the then Brisbane-based electronica act, Boxcar (they since changed their line-up and moved to Sydney). Boxcar went on to release a follow-up album Algorhythm in 1996 and reformed around 2007 for some live dates. Boxcar’s current activities can be found at their website. It’s interesting to see how much has changed, back then there was a real divide between “dance music” and “rock” in popular music, which seems to have been entirely erased.
Techno grooves downunder
An Australian dance band? That actually play live? I don’t believe it! A common reaction when people hear about Boxcar. Alex Lancaster recently spoke with vocalist and guitarist David Smith and keyboardist Brett Mitchell.
This Brisbane four-piece (Carol Rohde and Crispin Trist complete the line up) are making a niche for themselves in a genre that has spawned a host of sound-a-like, fly-by-night acts and they certainly don’t fit into that moribund format of “Oz rock”. This a point which Brett Mitchell brings up: “You can see rock bands getting desperate by those Choirboys posters.” “Have you seen those posters?”, adds Smith, “Classic. ‘Fuck Dance, Let’s Rock’. I mean how many dance acts do you see saying ‘Fuck Rock, Let’s Dance’? They don’t seem to feel threatened by rock music.”
we were saying things like ‘you like AC-DC?’, ‘yaaah’, ‘well we’re not going to play any crap like that’ – and there were threats at the mixing desk”
Mickey von Dassow is a biologist who is interested in exploring how physics contributes to environmental effects on development. He created the website Independent Generation of Research (IGoR) to provide a platform to allow professional scientists, other scientists, non-scientists or anyone to collaborate and pursue any scientific project that they are curious about. I talked to him recently about his new site, citizen science and the future of scientific research and scholarship.
Mickey von Dassow
Can you describe your background?
My background is in biomechanics and developmental biology. My Ph.D. asked how feedback between form and function shapes marine invertebrate colonies. During my postdoc I worked on the physics of morphogenesis in vertebrate embryos, specifically focusing on trying to understand how the embryo tolerates inherent and environmentally driven mechanical variability. Since then I have been independently investigating interactions among ecology, biomechanics, and development of marine invertebrate embryos, as…
I have noticed that in the park outside our daycare, our 5 year-old likes to spend at least as much time in the long narrow garden on the side, with a large tree, flower beds, grass and other fun things, and not just in the more “ordered” gym area surrounded by wood chips. It seems to make intuitive sense that this would be so, and indeed Llewellyn Wishart’s published research found that young kids gain a lot more from environments with higher levels of biodiversity. Much of the built environment and workplaces are sterile enough, so it’s really important to have spaces where kids can be free to play with more interesting natural elements than bolted-down gym. The Finnish seem to understand this more than the United States.
The biodiversity principle in practice in an early childhood space in rural Australia
Our recently published research sheds light on what young children might need more of in their outdoor learning environments.
How do we stimulate well rounded play, physical activity, motor development and simply the joy of being outdoors? In a word think “diversity”. Built and natural design elements with variable surfaces, inclines, levels and terrain make for varied and heightened physical activity and movement experiences. These diverse elements in turn bring challenge and delight.
Parents, early childhood administrators, educators, designers and builders of children’s outdoor spaces should be encouraged to embrace the biophilic design principle of “Biodiversity”. All too often monocultures prevail and children are left with safe, sanitized and flattened outdoor environments lacking in vegetation, imagination and challenge. Biodiversity in plant life, natural elements and materials offers the potential for enriched multi-sensory learning and spaces children and…
A truly systems view of life must account for the remarkable property that cells maintain and reconstitute themselves in the face of a constant turnover of chemical and molecular components. Much research done under the rubric of systems biology rarely tackles this thorny dynamical problem directly, tending to largely focus on modeling of individual elements or pathways, or examining genome-wide, generally static, patterns. Partly this is due to the sheer complexity of even the simplest cell, partly because the data is still sparse, and partly because many of the theoretical constructs are not easily accessible or intuitive to most biologists.
“Autocatalytic sets” are one of several systems-level models developed to explain both the self-maintenance phenomenon and have also been used as possible models for the origin of life, having been introduced several decades ago by Stuart Kauffman. These concepts and models but have been extended considerably…
Innovation. It’s as American as apple pie. From the US President on down, everybody is talking about innovation. From university presidents and corporate leaders to Silicon Valley tycoons, all agree that we need more of it. Airport bookstores have walls of books on innovation: a quick search on Amazon resulted in 70,140 titles containing the word “innovation”, 711 of which were published in the last 90 days alone. Many of them are little more than generic business advice books with the word “innovation” shoehorned into the title, including gems such as Creating Innovation Leaders (earning bonus points for including buzzwords “leadership” and “creativity”). So it was with some trepidation that I recently picked up Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation – first published in 2007 – and found it had a refreshing and unpretentious take on the subject. Since it has become such an overused buzzword, Berkun argues that…