Archive | December, 2012

The Morality of Environmental Destruction

31 Dec

Am still reading Jared Diamond’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, and still enjoying his brutally measured logic. Here I found passages concerning our understanding of how past humans behaved towards the environment (contrary to what we understand of some tribes, many destroyed their environments) and how to consider the issue from a moral standpoint. I believe it is vital to make this differentiation.

 

(…) Today, environmentalists view people who exterminate species and destroy habitats as morally bad. Industrial societies have jumped at any excuse to denigrate pre-industrial peoples, in order to justify killing them and appropriating their land. Are the purported new finds about moas and Chaco Canyon vegetation just pseudo-scientific racism that in effect is saying, Maoris and Indians do not deserve fair treatment because they were bad?

 

In a previous passage, Diamond mentioned how the disappearance of several large land animals from North and Latin America and New Zealand coincided with the migration of Indians and Maoris to these lands.

 

What has to be remembered is that it has always been hard for humans to know the rate at which they can safely harvest biological resources indefinitely, without depleting them. (…) By the time that the signs of decline are clear enough to convince everybody, it may be too late to save the species or habitat. Thus, pre-industrial peoples who could not sustain their resources were guilty not of moral sins, but of failures to solve a really difficult ecological problem.

 

Tragic failures become moral sins only if one should have known better from the outset. In that regard there are two big differences between us and eleventh-century Anasazi Indians – those of scientific understand, and literacy.

 

And among his proposed solution:

 

Archaeology is often regarded as a socially irrelevant academic discipline that becomes a prime target for budget cuts whenever money gets tight. In fact, archaeological research is one of the best bargains available to government planners. All over the world, we are launching developments that have great potential for doing irreversible damage, and that are really just more powerful versions of ideas put into operation by past societies. We cannot afford the experiment of developing five counties in five different ways and seeing which four counties get ruined. Instead, it will cost us much less in the long run if we hire archaeologists to find out what happened the lasat time, than if we go on making the same mistakes again.

 

(…) the American Southwest has over 100,000 square miles of pinyon and juniper woodland that we are exploiting more and more for firewood. Unfortunately, the US Forest Service has little data available to help it calculate sustainable yields and recovery rates in that woodland. Yet the Anasazi already tried the experiment and miscalculated, with the result that the woodland still has not recovered in Chaco Canyon after over 800 years. Paying some archaeologists to reconstruct Anasazi firewood consumption would be cheaper than committing the same mistake and ruining 100,000 square miles of the US, as we may now be doing.

I found it particularly poignant as he mentioned Greece. In movies concerning the region, particularly from Jesus stories, you would not think that it is possible for such an arid area to sustain Israeli population as it was purported to do: allowing for religious factions to develop and young men to forgo their trades in order to follow prophetic figures, most notably Jesus of Nazareth. Such movies depict the landscape in that area as it is today. But biblical entries suggest a far more lush terrain, one of ‘milk and honey’ which allowed for the excesses of King Solomon and foreign tribes to pay tribute from as far as Ethiopia. Watching a food travelogue recently, I was also surprised to see how arid and sparse (vegetation-wise) modern-day Greece appeared. When you match it up with stories concerning the Roman empire: how the grains were able to be carried abroad in battle to sustain their fighting troops. Something is definitely off. The idea he put forth is this: That these great empires, the cradle of civilization, was so devasted ecologically by its inhabitants that they crumbled; and today we see only the shadow of what it was, because the environment that was there to allow such kingdoms to flourish are no more.

 

Today, Israel has become a food net exporter in the region due to energy intensive techniques such as drip-farming and concentrated chemical fertilization. Technology that was not available at that time. The fact that much of that energy and fertilizer comes from petroleum should strike fear into our hearts: that our means to keep back the consequences of our way of using land could very well be used up within the next century.

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Logical Genocide

28 Dec

I started following Israeli-Palestinian conflict news since High School. At the time, post furor of 9-11, a great deal of attention was put on the middle east, particularly the negative and extreme. I was intrigued by the complexity of the situation, the conflicts between the tribes, the wide spread of Islam and how the different sects held sway over the hearts and minds of the people living in Islamic communities. I wanted to understand if there were ways to reach peace. Around the same time, I came across a book called The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, which was written by an Iraqi-born British/Israeli historian based on diplomatic correspondence from the released archives of Israeli history, drawing a long saga since the post WWII founding of Israel. It helped me understand the diplomatic environment at the time, the different roots that spun into the form of the conflict it is today, and battle of wills within the Israeli government that shaped a (throughout 50 years) basically consistent policy of strong defense and pre-emptive offense.

Prior to reading the book, I had many sympathies for Israel. My family raised us Christian and I whiled my incredibly bored Sunday mornings in church away reading the bible, front to back, several times. This proud people that was handpicked by god, that overcame slavery and successfully conquered cities during their long years of wandering so that they finally came to settle in a land they were promised. This people who were scattered to the winds by the Roman empire and faced one of the most well-documented massacres in recent history. There may not be time in our primary school educations to learn about the extermination of the Tasmanians, the Cherokee trail of tears, the U.S. puppeteering of Latin America…etc. But there was definitely time, and plenty of material available, for learning about the Holocaust. I’m not saying that it isn’t a vital story. The message of “Never Again” should never be far from our hearts. But the pervasiveness of this story as (frequently) the only story on genocide that a primary student learns doesn’t help us comprehend the diversity of genocide in other situations, facing different people of different races, cultures and disparity of economic or political situations… or even help us contemplate the possibility that: the the victims could someday act as the perpetrators.

So before I understood the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the triumphs of the 6-day war struck a thrill to my heart. After reading the history, I felt less sure of where I stood, but vastly more sympathetic towards the Palestinians.

Back to today. I feel that there are solutions. I feel there are measures that can be taken to foster peace. I feel that it is possible either for Israel to integrate Palestinians into their nation and offer them equal rights, or recognize Palestine and halt illegal settlements and pestering/blockading methods that continuously open up new sores. I believe it is still possible for Palestinians to gradually mend their wounds and lose their hatred of the Israelis, that it can be possible, with a healthier environment, for the Palestinians to form a democratic government that can best represent their interests.

But with every single peaceful solution that is out there, there are always voices that disagree. You can say that the hatred has run too deep. That mainstream Israelis are have conflict fatigue and just want to live their lives in prosperity. That Palestinians have standing-down fatigue and cannot see how giving one more inch could serve them well. The central issue of the conflict is one that is impossible to solve without a compromise: that the Palestinians want to reclaim the orchards and wells of their ancestors, and the Israelis want that too.

What can the final solution to the conflict be? I once asked the Israeli representative to Taiwan on a campus speech why the Israelis are blockading Gaza. He gave me a long-winded answer the justified the blockade and bombing based on the idea that “What the western media never shows you are the many missile attacks on the borders that take Israeli lives. We are tired of this. We believe it must stop.”

Does Palestinian attacks justify Israeli counter-attacks? Here is a 2000~2012 August statistic on the Israeli v.s. Palestinian deaths:

What does this statistic show you? I believe it shows the final solution that hawkish factions of Israeli parliament has been pushing for in recent decades: a gradual genocide. This is part of the reason for the blockade: so it is impossible for tourists and reporters to see this taking place. This is why, after repeated petitions and protests both by the International community and Israeli citizens, the Israeli government still refuses to take strong action when it comes to settlements. Push the Palestinians off the land; plan public roads and facilities through their orchards, that have to be cut down, to starve them out; make every single attack on an Israeli life an excuse for ‘retaliation’ and ‘investigation’ and kill more of them off. Call the extra deaths ‘collusion with terrorists’ or ‘collateral damage’ or ‘brainwashed children’.

Two years into the blockade, I came across a film of an orphaned little girl wandering among the debris that used to be her home and neighborhood. Rebuilding efforts have been difficult due to the fact that it is hard to get materials into Gaza. She spoke of hating the Israelis. That when she grew up she would kill the Israelis. Looking at her surroundings, I do not think her sentiments required brainwashing to have formulated.

Researching Montessori

25 Dec

*This blog post will be updated regularly as I look more Montessori education result related studies. All studies looked at here are papers that are free for public download.

** Even though my current viewpoint is pro-Montessori, I am still keen to use this post to explore the quantifiable evidence of Montessori effects. I will be disqualifying some research results based on what I understand is important for evaluation, or methodology issues (I will try not to include studies that have methodology issues***, as it takes up too much room to mention, and my aim is not to elucidate what counts as sound methodology.) I hope to predominately use studies conducted in the past 2 decades, as it is a more relevant comparison to the standard public education environment that we have today. 

***Here I draw on my training from the Researching Epidemiology, Experimental Design, and Reading Paper courses in Kaohsiung Medical University.

Recently I have become interested in understanding more about the Montessori method. A book I am reading so far is “Montessori: The Science behind the Genius” by Angeline Lillard, which appealed to me because it looks at research on how Montessori theories match our current understanding of childhood development and optimal outcome. My husband and I also find the Montessori theories, in the broadest sense, tie in with our own experiences of methods that worked or didn’t work for us growing up, and what we hope for our child(ren). Though it has won us over in basic theories, I would like to explore the quantifiable effects of Montessori education by looking at recent studies done on it (and possibly also other alternative education systems) to increase surety that it is the best system out there for our ideals. I hope that we will also have the option in the future to put a 2nd child into the Steiner (Waldorf) method since birth to understand the difference it has on two different children (albeit the sample is so small it will be insignificant for study).

But moving on!

1. Our first paper I’d like to look at here is a 2006 study by Lillard and Else-Quest titled The Early Years: Evaluating Montessori Education. As a pro-Montessori person who wrote the above book, it would not be unexpected if she is strongly biased. However, while the researchers maintain a pro-Montessori tone throughout the paper, the fact that they are published in the Science magazine is some indication of sound methodology.

Method

Mainly urban minority children near the end of the two levels of education: primary (3- to 6-year-olds) and elementary (6- to 12-year-olds) — 6 and 12 year olds whose parents entered the lottery for a Montessori school:

  • Experiment: 59 attending a Montessori school recognized by the AMI/USA
  • Control: 53 attending other schools in the area

90% of parents requested consented to participate.

Results

Screen Shot 2012-12-25 at 1.30.51 PM Screen Shot 2012-12-25 at 1.30.29 PM

Comment

I particularly enjoy that this paper tested for social skills, including positive social strategies. I understand that in most studies done in the past it is found family life is a better indicator of future success than school environment. If a school system can make a difference in that respect, then I believe it is a worthy social investment that goes beyond merely being a daycare for children while their parents are occupied throughout the day.

You can find the link to the paper here: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/313/5795/1893.summary

The full text is free through here:  http://www.montessori-science.org/montessori_science_journal.htm 

I also found this comment and reply very interesting and informative: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/315/5812/596.2.full

2. The second paper is a 2005 study published in the Journal of Research in Childhood Education, by Christopher Lopata, Nancy V. Wallace and Kristin V. Finn, titled Comparison of Education Achievement Between Montessori and Traditional Education Programs.

Method

543 4th and 8th grade students attending the below variety of schools,  comparing Math and Language Arts scores of TerraNova (McGraw Hill, 2002), :

  • public Montessori
  • Structured Magnet
  • Open Magnet
  • Tradition Non-Magnet

Results

No significant difference was found overall.

Comment

The authors here assert that it is necessary to use quantifiable data to study the effectiveness of Montessori education. While I agree with the use of quantifiable data, the fact that the researchers chose to use standardized tests, which I assume that current non-Montessori schools (the other schools listed in this study) train their children to do, makes it an inadequate study in my opinion. At the end of this, it comes down to whether it is possible for the academic field to agree whether academic skills equate standardized test results, or standardized test results just equal standardized test results. I find the fact that it is possible to train for standardized test results, which does not usually equate a better capacity to problem solve in a broader life context, makes it obsolete as the quantifying standard.

Besides this, I understand that what the Montessori method means by academic skills is more an abiding interest in self-learning, and the ability to concentrate/conduct research. This is, sadly, unquantifiable unless one is willing to expend greater experimental resource on having the children write a paper on the same topic, then blind grade the papers, controlling for grading fatigue and subjectiveness (the more graders, the better)…etc. And it will always be suspect because it is not pure numbers.

You can find the link to the paper here: http://www.pearweb.org/teaching/pdfs/Schools/Cambridge%20Montessori%20Elementary-Middle%20School/Articles/Montessori%20article.PDF

Other articles I have enjoyed

Here a Montessori teacher since 2007 talks about the effect Montessori has on her child, comparing with a quality public school. http://www.montessori.org/imc/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=328:why-we-chose-montessori-elementary&catid=16:articles-introducing-montessori-education&Itemid=44

The question I have at the moment is that, why are most of the pro-Montessori resources/testimonials I find on Montessori relevant sites?

I welcome relevant comments and ideas.

Would you read for pizza?

21 Dec
Recently reading Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius by Angeline Stoll Lillard, this passage caught my attention:
We also know that rewards can have detrimental effects on children’s engagement in learning activities, and yet we continue to reward and punish children with grades. Schools today commonly use programs in which elementary school children “read for pizza” or other rewards (including money). Despite the advances in our understanding of how children learn (…)
It brings me back to elementary school. I probably only experienced the ‘read for pizza’ program once, at the tail end of my fifth grade year. Before, I had experienced the ‘read for books’ program about twice. The idea is, you write down on form how many chapters you’ve read from books, and when you fill up the form you get a pizza. My form was probably the quintessential over-achiever’s form. The moment I got the form, I filled half of it with the chapters of 3 books I was reading (even then, I read multiple books at once), and the next day, the form was filled. However, we were only allowed to turn in the form at the end of the week. However, I did not care for deep dish at all. I just liked the idea of giving my mom the pizza token and the feeling of contributing to the family.
The read for books program, now, was probably even less enticing. The books that were available were ‘junior’ versions of classics which I found stripped of much period idiosyncrasies (slang, context, seemingly useless cultural artifacts) and thus interest.
I understand the logic of encouraging children to read through the reward of pizza. I understand the logic of the possibility that, the more children read, the more they will fall in love with reading. I was very glad when the program started in my brother’s class. I had been hoping and hoping that he would become an avid reader too, but my mentoring of his reading had been sporadic at best. Especially since it cut in with my own reading time. It is quite unsatisfactory to share a book, for example.
However, I found it curious that it did not seem to make a lasting impact on my brother. For a while he was devoted to reading at nights, and filled out the pizza form diligently. However, once the program ended, so did his reading.
It was later on, when his peers started being interested in certain novels, that he wanted to see what it was about, and bought a few. And I would read them with him, sort of competitively. That his interest in reading seemed to pick up a bit.
So I am curious, readers out there: Has anyone ever started their reading career through pizza?

我們不要再霸凌中國,好不好?

18 Dec
近來大陸接下來新的領導這表示有意願跟台灣政府進行和談,將成為他執政的重要策略。可以“和談”的基點為何?就是中華民國和中華人民共和國。因位兩方都堅持一個中國。所以現在可以討論:誰才是真正的中國,誰才有主導中國的權力?中共當局下13.28億人口跟台灣兩千三百萬人口相比,這樣和談的結論,於情於理,可想而知。
據外交系的同學指出,中華民國(Republic of China)這個名稱,是我國外交部和國際交涉的官方名稱。從蔣中正的時候就開始了。這也是我國以往跟聯合國爭取的名稱,未曾動搖。這個立場第一次傷害我們台灣的時候,就是當政府為了堅持這樣的立場,於1971年退出聯合國。從此,我們與國際交涉的機會,步步委屈,寸寸艱辛。中國在聯合國中的經營,我們半個邊都無法吭聲:聯合國裡的中文,正式換為簡體字,各個受聯合國支持的組織,儘管是號稱超越政府的,也都默默地在各項活動的報名表中列台灣為:Taiwan, Province of China,或者根本剔除這個選項。台灣學生參加國際活動,只要裡面有中國代表,不管是否與聯合國有關,常常會面臨這樣“突然被改國籍“的錯愕。這次張良伊參選與國家代表最沒有關係的非政府組織聯絡人,都被強冠上這樣的背景,著實令人心酸。
所以你說,堅持這個字眼裡含”中國“名稱,對我們有什麼好處?Republic of China 可以混水摸魚進去聯合國假裝自己是安理會理事國中國的代表嗎?還是被抽換,裡外不是人。另個觀點來看:中共哪肯容許任何國家對其中國領土宣誓主權?
我現在說的不是台獨,因為我相信台灣不需要做獨立的動作:台灣已經獨立了,獨立了超過五載。我現在是說我們集體對中國人做得極其不合理的事:當我們堅持我們叫做Taiwan, Republic of China的時候,我們不僅堅持我們是中國的一部份,我們跟中國做一樣的事情,壓迫中國人,說“你們是我們的一部分!”  這,不是霸凌,是什麼?
這個觀點,是我們心裡明白但意識被綁架的。國慶日的時候,慶祝的是中華民國誕辰,而不是台灣。我們慶祝的是共同為台灣人,但名字被調包了。
當然現在如果改我們的名字,中國不會高興的,因為這樣他們就失去了與我們和談的正當性。而我現在不會奢望去說服台灣的當權者,台灣就叫台灣,不要畫蛇添足。但我緊張我們這一代會繼承上一代的老腦筋,原封不動地接受一種中國帝國主義思維。傷害了我們可以繼續前進,發展身為島國的實際未來。
我們的台灣,該由我們定義。從這一代開始。

Why I can not call myself a feminist

11 Dec
I recently happened across a short clip, where a comedienne pointed out that she is appalled that there are women who say they are not feminists. http://www.upworthy.com/finally-a-video-for-women-who-dont-consider-themselves-feminists
It is true that I can count with my hand how many times I know I have been discriminated against on a gender-based level. The point should be: why should anyone have less opportunities than someone else based on some arbitrary factor of life that they cannot control? And here is why I cannot call myself a feminist. Because this sort of polarization is subjective, a victim mind-state, and could be harmful to the real social dialogue we want to have.
I believe the term feminism, is inherently reactionary: it’s us versus them. It is inevitable that, at some point, the argument will lose perspective. In the field of reason, to claim certain absolutes is considered dogmatic, which can have horrible societal consequences (look at communism v.s. capitalism!). For this reason, I disagree with the canonization of feminism in the academic field as a study. I do believe, however, that women’s rights should be included in the the study of social movements and social phenomenon. It is part and parcel of the continued effort to make our communities more just, more reasonable, with equal respect and opportunities for as many people in a population as possible.
I am grateful for the women activists and social resistors who have insisted on (and are insisting on) our rights to vote, to property, to children, to family time, to equal pay…etc. I stand with them on every issue today. But I have a brother, I have a son, I have a husband and a father. And do I want them to be treated any lesser (or more) than a woman? No. The language is at fault. To call ourselves For One Side inherently says I Oppose the Other. Which can be facile and dangerous. And which will eventually work to undermine the greater picture that we want for our society. I believe that it is important for there to be people fighting for certain groups that have traditionally been vulnerable to discrimination, for women, for immigrants, for people of different skin color or beliefs that those generally in power… I believe it is more powerful to have individuals and groups dedicated to exposing the problems and showing support for one group of people. I believe in many of the work that self-claimed feminists groups do. But I do not believe that the message should be translated into : Because I am female, I am a feminist. Because I am African American, I am an abolitionist… it hurts the conversation because you are also saying Because he is male, he can be a masochist. Because she is Christian, she should be a pro-lifer… To say that absolutely, is to categorize people based on their circumstances. And you would be falling into the same habits as those you oppose.
People are diverse, with diverse inclinations, beliefs, interests in status/non-status quo. My challenge is always to live the world you want it to be. And if there is a name I have to define myself with, I would call myself a humanist.
~ Grace En-Tien Chang
update: Great article I came across that illustrates a female viewpoint without mentioning feminism Men Who Explain Things, by Rebecca Solnit
Update 2013/March 6th Recently came across this article explaining feminism as a civic rights movement. It seems to act as a good counterpoint to my thesis here.
On another note:
This also brought me back to my freshman year in University, when I was interviewed by a professor of gender studies. She wanted to understand what enabled me to study biology. But I was brought to her attention not only because I chose to pursue my undergrad degree in biology, as there were many many other girls who had been admitted to this major, but also because I have had a clear track record of being active in other fields. Of volunteer work, of starting a club to discuss international issues in my high school…etc.
On my part, choosing Biology was simply interest in the pursuit of knowledge in a field that emphasized evidence-based research, had clearer (compared to sociology) facts, and which helped me enjoy and understand life better. That is, I liked it.
I do not think I was a very interesting study subject for her. As to the various questions concerning repression of my interests, I consistently said no. I did not feel gender-based pressure in my high school studies of biology (our Biology teacher was, in fact, female). My parents did not feel the need to guide me in my chosen field (though my uncle did suggest that I should study English, but I thought it was silly as I was already proficient in English and it would be a waste of my time). Gradually I engaged her in conversation about what she was trying to accomplish through the interviews. She was not very clear (I suppose this might do with the fact that I was a study subject). But I was left with the impression that there was a certain bias she wanted to demonstrate, a struggle that females had to undergo in order to reach certain achievements. She wanted to find out why there were still more men in Taiwan going into the sciences than women, starting out from high school. I do not understand why she could not be satisfied that, in certain instances, it may be simply a matter of interest preference. And perhaps, this preference was guided by (or informed) a difference in capacity concerning certain studies such as math, physics and chemistry. Of course you can also say that this difference was enhanced by the way our high school system was designed. I have never claimed to do well in math, physics and chemistry. But I found biology interesting. And I was unwilling to be corralled into a high school class that would teach a less advanced form of biology (plus restrict my college application options) by choosing the humanities class (which, btw, put a greater stress on history, geography, and Chinese which was taught in memorization form in our curricula here and I found memorization very stressful for me. The system designed here in Taiwan is so that, even if you chose the sciences class, you could still apply for the humanities in college and have a reasonable (perhaps even better, because professors find it flattering and rare that a science student would choose humanities) chance of success. Whereas it is more of an uphill battle vice versa. So a third reason for her inquiry may be related to the way the system was designed… which did not do away with the fact that I was quite inept (and rather uninterested) in the other fields of hard sciences besides Biology. You could probably say I was not the proper study subject for her based on my chosen field. The point I want to make here though, is that: I believe her inquiry had an inherent bias towards wanting to put the blame on societal pressures rather than personal interest.

And is it not possible that gender can have an effect on interest? Why not also question why some fields in some societies are more well-regarded than others. For it is not ‘easy’ to be a teacher and guide young children. The challenges are different, but not less, than the rigors of being a physicist.