A Quick Guide on How to Chillax and Quiet Your Mind Through Meditation

You wake up, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind?

Depending on where you live your answer might be as varied as your ethnicity or your language. For some of you the answer may be as simple and terrifying as “how am I going to pay rent this month?” or “what am I going to eat?” (hopefully not), while for some others the answer is a million other questions. For the sake of my point let’s broadly generalize that answer to be, “a bazillion things!” And if you’re one of the few who wake up with not a care in the world, then you must live a kick-ass life and I envy you for it. As for the rest of us, well, we have minds full of worries that won’t give us any breaks any time soon.

The thing is, I don’t know about your individual daily routines, but if you’re like any of the other seven billion humans alive today then it’s safe to assume that as soon as you wake up you are bombarded with thoughts before you even get a chance to get up. Admittedly, the first thing I do before I even get out of bed- and I’m pretty sure a lot of you do this as well- is check my phone. We can’t help it but reach out and see what the world was up to in the hours that we were offline, literally. Some of us tune in to the news, or pick up the newspaper, or if you live in 2015 you check online news to see what’s going on. And then there are other people in other corners of the world who wake up with only a few urgent thoughts in mind that in some cases are, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

No matter where you live or who you are, we all have thoughts and ideas and worries that drive us to perceive the world in a certain light and act upon those perceptions. They reel on inside our heads at all times of the day and when we’re asleep it seems our brain works extra hard to either produce them or file them away in neat little mental cabinets. Our brain does this so well that at times it might even seem that we’re not in control of what we think or even how we think, we just take it for granted that we do.

We’ve allowed our brains to do this without barriers or speed limits partly because, again, we’ve assumed that it is a normal process to just let our thoughts run wild and unchecked. We’ve learned we can’t help it, and over time we’ve rushed to cram more and more things in there for our benefit- or detriment- often without even noticing which is which. It’s with this same helter-skelter enthusiasm that we go through our short days with a laundry-list of things to do, trying so hard to cross every item on the agenda, hoping that one day we’ll reach the end. Many of us are eager to busy ourselves with these daily tasks, while others burn out at the first sign of distress. And in the wake of all this mental waxing and waning, we’ve easily come to accept that there’s nothing that can be done about the collateral damage we’ve created for ourselves in the form of information overloads, and we allow this incredible burden on our minds and bodies to pass as just a byproduct of our daily life.

While we may have come to accept this crazy rhythm as normal, it is by no means healthy.

If you’ve ever wondered just how much sensory data our brains receive, accumulate, and dispose of from all of our senses on a daily basis you will probably won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a massive amount, more than most regular computers could handle. But unlike even the most powerful computer systems in the world, our relatively small brains are capable of decoding all this information in real-time and also to decide what information is worth keeping and what is just clutter. This natural filtration system hidden in our neurons and synapses work precisely to prevent our brains from crashing. Sometimes though that’s not enough.

Just like physical pain, mental stress is a warning from our bodies telling us that there’s something wrong. The problem it seems is that the way in which we handle stress is not only unnecessary at times but counterproductive, and thus more often than not, the cure is often worse than the disease.

Think of all of the ways in which you unburden yourself after a stressful day- or life. Some of us turn to beer and pizza while others lose themselves in the brawn of pumping iron. Some people are riskier and gravitate towards the drug of their choice and some others embrace the boredom of thought and create something out of it, or we drown time in hobbies (concerts, friends, gun-range, etc.), while others turn to god and prayer. Most of us do a combination of these, or all- but we all try to find ways to relax our minds and find some comfort.

And it works, doesn’t it. As soon as you step foot in your house after a stressful day at work, don’t you just feel the stress melt away? And that’s good. That’s exactly what we want after all. However, there are other things we do to unwind that don’t really take care of the issues in our heads so much as they delay them.

What we often fail to realize is that the way in which we “relax” the mind is a method akin to throwing a trash-bag on top of a pile of trash hoping it bags itself. Whatever method we use to unburden the mind is basically just one more thing to pile onto it and what we end up doing instead of giving our minds a break is basically self-medicating with a temporary fix to a permanent problem.

By this I’m in no way suggesting that what you’re doing is wrong, and if it works for you then keep doing it. But have you ever wondered if it’s enough? Are you doing enough to take care of your mental health? If you sometimes feel like what you’re doing only works for a while- or doesn’t work at all- then I’m here to offer a simple solution that just might work for you, and as bonkers as it might sound what I offer is to simply forget about the problem. Yup, forget about it.

 

White Noise and How To Deal

 

What?! Forget about the problem, are you going bananas?

I realize that the reasoning might not sound as the most constructive- or instructive for that matter- after all this is definitely not the way we would approach a lot of other issues in our lives, but be aware that I’m in no way saying that you should forego all reason and live in a nudist colony in the junge for the rest of your life as if you had no care in the world. There’s actually a method to my madness.

Cue in meditation.

What comes to your mind when you hear meditation? For some of you meditation runs along the lines of the laughable: mall gurus, palm-readers, astrology, witches, Eastern medicine, etc. While Western medicine has its ways to fix many ailments, physical and mental, until meditation entered the picture- what I call the “sideline mainstream”- there was not really anything substantial and widespread to help the individual mind ease the stress of daily life. Part of the reason is because society as a whole has gotten it into its big, stubborn head that the mind exists outside the realm of the body, when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ll wait until you realize it. No seriously I’ll wait…

Okay, so now that you’ve realized that the mind is just as part of the body as your arm, or your hair, or even the billions of tiny organism that live in your gut, you can also see that the mind is unlike any of these mentioned things. It is complex, abstract, destined to be contained in a physical element but unbound by its limitations, and seemingly pertaining to a different reality that we don’t yet fully understand. Yet we live with it, and like it or not we are affected by it, not just mentally but also physically. But more importantly, it requires a different maintenance manual than other parts of you.

I’ll speak for a moment about me.

Whether it’s due to a conscious personal history, or an unconscious genetic one, I’ve always been a sort of angsty person. Although my mood did improve after the dreadful stretch of puberty, for some reason or another I’ve always felt that my more introverted nature has somehow prevented me from being genuinely happy, even if things in my life are going well (I’m sure there’s a psychological disorder with a name for that). I often mistakenly attributed all this angst to things that, in retrospect, were perhaps out of my control, or due to my own failings. But no matter what I did, I just wasn’t happy.

To get rid of this subtle anxiety I tried many different things including, exercise, pot, going out, and even prayer during my more religious years. Some of these things worked better than others. Excercise for example made me feel more energized which in turn improved my mood. Drugs opened my mind in other ways, they made me more creative but when I returned to reality I returned to the same reality I was in before. And prayer- for its very nature- did the opposite of what I wanted, which was mental isolation and calm.

It was through much frustration and research that I eventually arrived at meditation. And when I started practicing it I started to feel differently about the world, and for the first time in my life I found an answer that wasn’t so much an answer as it was the comforting lack of one.

Of course, this is hardly good- or even comptetent- evidence to start a radical change in your life, so I don’t expect you to take me at my word. But if you do a quick Google search about meditation, you’re sure to find thousands of hits ranging from the specific to the mundane. Anything from its history to its benefits (which there are many). But take it from me, none of this matters as much as what it does for you. That’s because meditation doesn’t require you to know any of these things for it to work. And to the disapproval of some yogis and experts on the subject, what I have found from practicing it, is that the technique can be as specific or as broad as you want it to be- the important thing is that you do it.

 

Calm Your Mind- What Is It and How Does It Work?

 

You will forgive me for not being overtly specific about certain aspects of it, opting instead to make this post a bit more about my subjective experience rather than as objective one.

Meditation is simply a way to calm the mind by training it for some specific purpose. And before we get into what it does let me first say that there are different meditative techniques to achieve different goals. I will not presume to know what all of these techniques are or what they do because I honestly don’t know. But for all intents and purposes I will focus on the type of meditation I practice which is Vipassana, or insightful meditation.

Instructions are fairly simple.

First you find a quiet, comfortable place and you sit in a chair, or a couch, or you cross your legs yogi-style (what’s called the Lotus position). Then, close your eyes and make sure to keep your back as straight as you can to prevent falling asleep. Let your breath flow normally, do not try to control it. And finally, try to focus your attention on some part of the meditation, whether it’s your breath, or the rising and falling of your chest or abdomen, or the feeling of your body against the chair. Now this is the hard part, try to not think about it. Focus without focusing. Basically, let your mind feel it. Now here’s the really hard part, try to focus on it for as long as you can without getting carried away by thought.

While meditation is supposed to bring you in contact with the now, for something that sounds so simple, it sure as hell is one of the hardest things to do. Ironically, that’s what makes it so effective.

Because your mind is so used to being so free-spirited, if you will, it doesn’t matter if at first you can’t tame the wild horse inside it. In fact, I recommend that you don’t even try it because that will only leave you more frustrated than when you first started, trust me on this. At first your mind will be unruly and quite ironically it will try to prove that it can’t control itself because it does what it wants. But don’t let this deter you, it is perfectly normal to be carried away one thought at a time. The point of the exercise is not to control your thoughts, but to accept that they are there. Once you do this without frustration or prejudice you will have achieved what many people spend their entire lives trying to do.

Whether it is the act of repetition in the breath or the stillness in the environment we perceive when we’re quiet and at peace, meditation has been proven to alter brain waves in roughly the same way that sleeping does (for the most experienced meditators) and even alter the very physical properties of the brain in the form of gyrification.

The real point of meditation is acceptance. Acceptance that thoughts will exist. Acceptance of the now. Acceptance that yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not yet here. Acceptance of the reality around us. Acceptance is also the first step to take if you want full control of your mind, which is to say full control of your emotions, and thus every aspect of your life.

But meditation also does something else, something crucial. It is an exercise in patience. I have many friends who claim they would never try meditation because they are too impatient or don’t have the discipline to see it through. Some of these people are the same people who claim that to be happy all you gotta do is be it. Both are illogical arguments. The first one is the same thing as saying “I don’t eat because I’ll only end up shitting it out.” The second is illogical because not everyone is cut from the same cloth, so how can you be happy if you aren’t to start out with?

By meditating you are essentially training the body and the mind to be patient. No one is saying that you have to spend a whole day meditating as if you were a yogi. You don’t even have to do it for a whole hour- I do it only fifteen minutes a day. You can start with five minutes and increase your time the more comfortable you get.

Comfortable with what? you may ask. Comfortable with knowing that you can sit for five minutes just “observing” every thought that naturally springs up without trying to analyze it or worry about it. Or better yet, trying to think of absolutely nothing for five minutes.

Let’s try a little experiment right now. Sit in a chair, close your eyes, and try to think of nothing for one whole minute. Chances are you already lost by thinking of not trying to think. Hence the patience. And also here’s why I mentioned earlier that to get rid of the dead-weight you feel in your head you simply have to forget about your problems.

In meditation your best friend is nothingness, because it allows you to experience the reality that your mind perceives in a way you’ve never experienced before, without clutter or bullshit. In a way it passively forces you to be more in contact with reality, with the now, and forget about anything else but the now.

Here’s the possibly discouraging part about meditation. In order to get the full benefits of meditation you will have to practice it for months, even years, before you can experience the type of consciousness that only (relatively) few have achieved. But hopefully that will not matter because- and here’s the upside- if you have stuck it out every day, you will have already felt the short-term benefits of it, which is a huge step in the direction of unburdening your mind and bringing you closer with reality and happiness. Or at least just reality. This is one of those things where the benefit lies in the practice rather than at the end.

So what exactly are these benefits I speak of?

I cannot say what others have felt because I am not others, I am aware only of my own. But ever since I started meditating, my mood has definitely improved, which is to say I have a better grip of my emotions. I feel more mentally balanced than I have ever felt before and even my family and friends have noticed a positive change in the way I carry myself. Also where it used to bother me before, I no longer feel like being alone with my own thoughts is a bad thing, I now enjoy my solitude when I find it and I feel comfortable with myself. But I have also felt other changes. So far, I’ve noticed I’ve had a spike in concentration, creativity, and patience. But most of all I have found that I am more compassionate towards people, and that’s a big deal for me because I usually hate having to deal with people- that’s a story for another day though.

Overall, I feel that for as long as I’ve been doing it, I’ve already drawn as much beneficial content from meditation to merit a longer experimental trial. I can only imagine the kinds of benefits I’ll be enjoying a few years from now as I am able to get better and better at focusing on mindfulness.

But perhaps the best benefit of all, is that I think more positively now. And whether it is just a placebo effect (very unlikely) or it actually causes physical changes that impact my very psychology (very likely) I also cannot say for sure, but from what I’ve read it seems the answer is much more of the latter than it is the former.

In my personal experience though, the main thing that meditation has done is that for about fifteen minutes a day I am able to escape the bullshit in my life, or at least observe it from a distance, from the outside per se. And by the time my session is done I feel lighter, for lack of a better word. Lighter in the mind and in the body, and energized in a way.

 

Frame of Mind series. Composition of human face wire-frame and fractal elements with metaphorical relationship to mind, reason, thought, mental powers and mystic consciousness

Open Your Mind

 

Meditation, like everything else, is not a one-size-fits-all solution you can wear and take off at will to improve your life, and it shouldn’t be approached as such. It’s neither a vehicle towards happiness, nor happiness itself, but rather one of many roads to wherever you decide your mind should be. If you want to concentrate better, or improve your outlook on life, or simply just shut the world out to oblivion for a few minutes, meditation can definitely help you accomplish that. The mind is like a muscle and it gets stronger or atrophies depending on the use you give it. It takes hard work and dedication for meditation to do what it’s supposed to do, but you are also not obligated to be part of it if you know yourself and your limitations.

There is no shame in admitting that perhaps meditation is not the right way to go for you, there is if you want to improve your life and you choose not to try all sound available options.

But because our histories and backgrounds are different, just as our genetic makeups are, and our experiences, educations, friends and family, problems and issues, interests and curiosities, etc.- it’d be irresponsible to say that this particular thing (or my particular brand) will work for you as it did for me. So I suggest that when you read this, you take it with a grain of salt, but that hopefully it will have sparked enough curiosity in you to at least give it a shot.

If anything I guarantee that you will at least feel good that you tried it. But should you do decide to stick with it, you will notice a definite change in your perception however small and insignificant it might seem at first. Read into the properties of meditation, the different techniques to achieve different things, and figure out what is most important for you and try it.

We all want good things in our lives. We want to live happy and free of worry. Of course life often throws us curve-balls that sometimes we can’t dodge. Happiness, after all, is neither eternal nor guaranteed. But maybe with a little help you can stretch out this elusive happiness a little longer by making sure it’s always at hand. And maybe this little technique that has been practiced for thousands of years can help you get there. But most importantly, hopefully it’ll help you stay there.

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TL;DR:

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Interesting Reads:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4109098/

http://bigthink.com/21st-century-spirituality/the-difference-between-prayer-and-meditation

http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/meditation-and-the-nature-of-the-self

 

 

 

School Me: America’s War On and For Education Pt. 1

The year is 2015 and America is fighting a war that has nothing to do with WMDs, drug-lords, or crazy religious fundamentalists in some remote country. Nope. The war is at home and we’re fighting it for and against ourselves to win and lose even though we’re doing everything we can to lose it (to win it) while fighting to win it (to lose it). Confusing isn’t it?

Just like any war, the battles we’re fighting each and every day leave collateral damage behind, only this time the victims are not enemy combatants, or traitors, but our children. Our what? Yup, kids. But even more importantly what our children represent- the future.

If this sounds drab, dark and slightly apocalyptic, is because it kind of is. I might be a bit melodramatic, that at least is true, but that’s only for effect. But we can at least agree on one thing, that the education system in America is failing from the bottom up and soon this war that our politicians, our corporations, our religious institutions, ourselves and each other are fighting will set us on a path that eventually will lead us to one of many eventual demises.

So, sit back and relax, and let’s explore how the war on education is rotting the core of what America is. A war that is unnecessary and easily winnable, but a war that we seem determined to keep fighting for better and for worse.

 

First Steps

 

Think for a moment about how you raise your children, or if you don’t have any children just daydream for a second about how you would raise kids if you had any. It’s a scary thought, I agree. After all, going to any Chuck-E-Cheese anywhere in America will make you think twice about having kids if you don’t have them, or make you re-think your choices if you do. And although making kids is probably the most fun you will ever have, raising them is no picnic- at least not a sunny one. Each stage of raising a child has a different level of difficulty that no one expects. Life is uncaring as to your early baby-planning or your college fund, and it’s something that not even the wealthiest parents in the world can prepare for. Remember that having money doesn’t exactly mean that they will turn out to be the best people in the world- in fact, sometimes it’s quite the opposite. It’s then that the old adage fits perfectly: No one is ever truly prepared for kids. That’s just one of those inescapable universal truths that every parent learns one way or another.

But think about how you were raised. You turned out fine, right? Kinda? Don’t feel too bad if you still live with your parents, or if you’ve been to juvie, or at 30 you don’t have a stable job, or haven’t gone to college yet or blah blah blah. All you have to do is turn on the news and you’ll immediately feel better and realize that “kinda” maybe isn’t all that bad. Agreed, it’s a half-assed way to live life, but in context, “kinda” is just the space between good and bad and nothing else. You are at the center of the balance and only you have the power to tip it one way or the other.

But what got you there? Sure, a lot of people talk about genes and outside influence. But if you pay close attention, you will notice that while DNA plays a huge role in who you are, for the most part, what you do is closely related to how you were raised. And this is where we start.

You’ve probably heard the saying “education begins at home.” People don’t just say it for nothing, the path to education begins from the moment you come out of the womb and continues throughout those first fragile formative years. By the time formal education begins (meaning school), kids are already walking and talking, and like it or not they have also adopted some of their parents’ ways of thinking including basic forms of thinking and prejudice. And you can’t really blame the way they are- at least not during the first few years of school- on their schoolmates, seeing as how they spend most of their time behind school walls, because the behavior had to have come from somewhere in the first place. So being totally frank, if your kid is an asshole in school it’s mostly not his/her fault. Then again, it’s not mostly your fault either- although you did raise them. No excuses to be had here Biebs.

But that really is an interesting question to ask, whose fault is it for children’s bad behavior? Is it the parents’ fault; is it the schools’ fault? Is it no one’s fault (genetics)? Environmental? Chemicals in the food? Media content? Someone has to bear that responsibility, but who? In my non-expert opinion I believe the problem to be an unequal combination of all of these factors with two being the main culprits- the parents and the education system. “Why me?!” I can hear parents and teachers yelling in unison. Well, again, child-rearing begins at home. It’s simple, if your kid watches Jersey Shore and acts like the douchebags in it, it’s only because you allowed them to. If your kid curses it’s not her fault, she probably doesn’t even know what it means. If your kid punches some other kid, it will inevitably be part of his genes to be prone to anger, but it’s learned behavior that dictates how he will behave in the future given the appropriate instruction and/or punishment. In other words, morality is instilled at home. Technical instruction is given at school.

Consider this, conventional wisdom- and science- tells us that the perfect age to have kids is in your 20s. Too young (20s-) might mean an unstable financial situation and too old (30s+) could mean more of a burden on your body.  Of course there are more things to consider than just a good job and a good uterus, but for the most part you’d want both to be in good condition. But the thing that no one really thinks about is that no matter at what age you get pregnant, the thought of becoming a first-time parent can be a daunting and scary thing to prepare for. It’s only logical that you would need help with that responsibility, not only from other parents but also from experts in child-rearing and education. After all, you want to give your child the best possible start.

This 2008 report by statesmanjournal.com, details how 95% of funds going towards education are allocated only for formal education, which means that what the state spends on education is only relevant until after children have already been acclimated to their parents’ way of thinking. Forget sponges,  during those formative years children’s brains are more like powerful (and fragile) machines that react to nurturing just as much as they do to nature-ing. In fact, there’s research to suggest that due to neural interactions, a child learns much faster than you do.

What this is all saying is that between the age of 0 and 5, a child’s brain develops faster and stronger than it will ever do in that child’s life; during those years the information it acquires is essential for his/her psychological development and it is crucial in establishing a well cemented base for future learning. And yet- at least in the U.S.- less than 5% of the educational resources are going towards this age-group. Why?

I’m not sure exactly (or maybe I’m too incompetent to find out why- thanks school!) but it seems that those in charge of the money do not consider this to be a priority even though amounting research suggests that more money should be put to good use in this area. It appears the government trusts YOU too much with your own child not to offer much help.

In my opinion, more resources should be allocated to implement government-subsidized child-rearing classes that continually evolve with new research, to help young parents and/or first-time parents raise their children better until they start school. I’m sure there is something like that already, but is it enough? It’ll take a whole generation to find out.

Of course, education has changed in the classroom. If we read into that history and compare educational methods, say, from 100 years ago, then even the poorest of nations has a lot more information to impart in the classroom than they did before- and hopefully better methods also. That they don’t want to or don’t care to is another matter. That also varies by country, by region and even by school.

 

Resources: Substance and Style

 

But education is dependent on more than one factor, not only on what we know. For example, children who live in poor nations, in conflict-ridden areas, and girls more than boys are much more at risk of missing out on the kind of education that children are afforded elsewhere. This is something we know, but still not enough resources are available to help with children’s educations besides a few charitable organizations and UN programs. Food availability, distance,  parent’s marital and social status, social conflict, etc. These are all factors, among many more, that can greatly affect the chances of a child going to school.

But what about here in America? Surely we don’t run into issues like those. Do we?

If you’re naive enough to think so, you are dead wrong. Recent studies show that the link between poverty and children’s educational development is strong stateside. And with poverty come a whole slew of other problems: family instability, domestic violence in some cases, and behavioral problems.

For example the Bible Belt, which is the Southernmost area of the United States, is the poorest clump of states in the nation. Not coincidentally it is also where students K-12 are the least educated. This interesting report by the Huffington Post finds the connection between what each state spends on education and children’s education ranking by state, among other criteria.

But lack of money is not the whole problem. Ironically, having it and not using it properly can be just as detrimental.

Look around you. Most people now have more than three devices to use to watch their favorite shows, download music, read stuff on the internet, watch cat videos, blog, vlog, etc. Just now I’m sitting at my desk watching Netflix on an iPad. My laptop is sitting right in front of me, my phone is in my pocket, my TV five feet away from me, and my roommate’s TV ten feet away. Each and every one of these devices capable of doing all of those things I mentioned and more. So in a fifteen feet radius I have more computing power at my disposal than all of the computers in the world combined during the 60s. You see where I’m going with this?

Somehow we haven’t realized that the future so many sci-fi writers wrote about in past decades is now! We are not making use of the technology that we have at our fingertips precisely for the most noble purpose there is: the advancement of education. Or at least, we’re not doing it enough. Any parent should walk into a classroom and see their tax-dollars at work (or at least a bigger chunk of it) in the form of a personalized computer for their kids. We have enough resources to provide every child in America with an iPad to use and to learn from.

Schools should prioritize what they teach our kids. Cursive writing is not a priority, computer science is. For the sake of our future generations, it is imperative that we get rid or minimize non-essential subjects and replace them with advanced sciences and skills that they will need in the future.

This very day, most countries are sitting on endless mines of information and we simply do not use the tools at our disposal to get to the treasure. Like the likable character Roman on the film Ocean’s 13 once said, we are “…analogue players in a digital world.” The children in our classrooms are still using notepads and pencils when they should be using iPads and stylus pens. And even poor nations have these capabilities, if they spent more on education that is.

The internet came at a time of vast technological advancement and that advancement doesn’t seem to be slowing down but rather speeding up. Not only has technology caught up with the power of the internet itself, but it’s now helping it grow faster and stronger. That’s something to exploit to the maximum.

The perfect analogy to use here is a dam. We are like fish, living in a little puddle of information while water trickles down from a wall. On the other side of the wall is a vast lake that we just can’t get to. I suppose I don’t have to tell you that what any of this represents.

This knowledge that I talk about is universally beneficial. But is knowledge even enough? With the amount of information that we now have at our disposal, it is more than just an excuse not to impart it correctly. We have come far from when used the abacus to make simple calculations, now we use calculators. Perhaps it’s time we upgrade, and not just what new technology we have available, but also in our right to use it. Teachers should encourage children to use the technology at hand to acquire as much information as possible; but we as parents also need to learn Information in bulk is not necessarily education. Another problem I see today with the way schooling (institutionally and at home) is done is that we are too preoccupied teaching children what to think, and not necessarily how to think.

 

Making the Grades: The Evolution of Teaching Methods
Image source: www.topeducationdegrees.org

 

Scoresheet

 

Considering that the United States is still a technological, military, and economic superpower it’s only logical that we should also reign as an educational giant as well. And yet, in terms of primary and secondary education we’re not in even in the top 10 in two of the most important areas!- science and math. By now it’s probably been drilled into your head from several different sources how education in America is lagging behind other countries in K-12 education, especially in the mentioned disciplines.

This research by pewresearch.org, with data from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), shows that improvement in areas like math and science for American students has been a slow one, and we still shadow many countries, including most industrialized nations.

The average scores indicate that for all 15-year-olds from various nationalities who participated since the triennial survey was last taken in 2012, the United States scored in 27th place in mathematics, just above Sweden and Hungary but lower than any of the major industrialized nations in the world with Singapore taking the top spot. As far as science goes Americans fared a little better in 20th place, scoring well ahead of Italy, Norway, and Russia.

It’s encouraging to know that we are doing better than we did a couple of decades ago, but let’s not pat each other’s backs just yet, we’re not that well off. If we take into account our massive budget, we should be spending much more on education that we give ourselves credit for. There is no excuse why these scores shouldn’t be much higher.

The 2014 federal budget  provided $71 billion in funds to the Department of Education, or 4.6% of national spending. Yeah this is a huge number, but it’s nothing compared to the gigantic $526 billion allocated to the Department of Defense.  That’s seven times more than what the DoE gets! You would think that those 71 billion dollars would put us ahead of little Singapore in something as small as math and science education, a country with a relatively small GDP of $298 billion compared to America’s $16 trillion, but somehow something just doesn’t fit. Of course, Singapore doesn’t have nearly as many enemies as the U.S. and their budget doesn’t allow for much international expenditures as our does, but… come on! 71 billion dollars! If Singapore can subsidize its entire education system and pay its teachers better than we do ours, then surely we can move some money around and give the DoE a couple more billion dollars and do the same or something similar here. It would not only make sense, it’s the right thing to do.

This is a noble competition in which every country should strive to take the top spot. Education is nothing to compete over, except when we’re doing it against ignorance and the countries that can afford to do so are helping themselves by coming to the aid of those at the bottom and helping them rise.

 

Put To the Test

 

We talked about outdated technology. Now let’s talk about outdated methods. In the post-internet era, we are still teaching children with the same methodology that schools used from before even the fall of the Soviet Union, despite psychiatry, psychology and neuroimaging making new important discoveries every year, including child rearing and child behavior. And unfortunately one of those areas in which we don’t seem to be advancing but rather regressing, is standardized testing.

Children today in the United States get tested on as if they were all about to colonize Mars! You might be thinking “what’s the big deal? So they get a few tests here and there.” But they don’t just get a few tests here and there. While testing is an important part of learning, just like everything else, in excess is counterproductive. Kids today get tested on English, Math, Science, Physical Education, History (one of the few subjects that actually evolves merely for its content, or rather by its content). They get tested two, three, five, sometimes even ten times per trimester. They get federal testing, state testing, school testing and on top of that, they get regular periodic tests. Dozens of hours are spent on just testing these kids; and you as a parent are left thinking, “What the hell are they teaching them that they have to test them so much?” Mars huh?

Many parents- perhaps even you yourself- are now wondering if we are overtesting kids. A lot of them are wondering if all this testing is actually leading us somewhere or if we’re just walking to the edge of a cliff. And many are starting to push back.

Well, it didn’t take long for the issue to become political. Now Congress is also starting to ask the same questions parents around the nation are asking- “Is there a benefit?

To get to the root of the problem we have to observe our own kids. When they get ready to take a test, are they doing everything they can to learn the information and use it on the test, or are they doing everything they can to pass the test no matter how they do it? And if it’s the former, is the information even being retained?

Where I’m going with this is that if school is supposed to be beneficial in the sense that it’s meant to be a knowledge machine, why are we throwing nuts and bolts into it thinking it’s helping when it’s just breaking everything inside?

But don’t be too quick to blame teachers. Many of them also think that testing- or rather administering tests the wrong way- is bad for our students; psychologists have taken careful notice of what goes on when we overtest and have arrived at the same conclusion- when it comes to testing, or more importantly, to learning, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

 

Homework? So 1900s

 

“Oh no, don’t mess with the homework dude! That’s my off time.” Some parents are undoubtedly thinking this. Kudos to you if you actually help out your kid with her homework, or with that science project that we all know will turn out to be a papier-mâché volcano.

Well while it will help you bond better with your kids, making them bury their noses in a notebook for three or four hours a day will not necessarily do anything.

Just like exercising the muscles, working out the mind also has a resistance limit after which there is no beneficial gain to keep pushing. Well, it turns out that contrary to what you may believe (possibly arrogantly about yourself), humans have a rather short attention span of just minutes. For adults it happens to be between 15 and 20 minutes while children have much shorter attention spans.

What does this tell you about homework? Yes, you might be walking by their rooms and they’ll be pretending to read the book. Hell, they might even actually be trying. But I- and more importantly, psychologists- assure you that while their eyes are scanning the words, their brains are flying far far away.

Like over-testing, spending too much time doing homework seems to have a negligible result in standardized testing, and in more cases than not, it directly hurts the chances of a better score. This study from researcher Jose Muñiz from the university of Oviedo in Spain says as much- while effort, parent aid, and [daily] frequency of homework helps a lot, spending more than two hours a day on homework doesn’t.

The alternative is much simpler- school should make learning much more accessible by allowing students free expression and help mold the young mind into something desirable to pursue. While parents need to devote the time to fine-tune that learning at home, and not necessarily doing homework.

Let’s not kid ourselves (pun not intended), homework will not go away anytime soon- although it should. However, the way in which homework is done can have a great impact in how well your kid advances not in class, but in understanding. Psychologists and sociologists have concluded that the manner in which you as a parent help your kid with homework makes more of a difference than you taking direct control. This just plays into the whole idea that kids need to be allowed free rein and explore imaginatively, rather than being dictated to and limited.

 

Invisible Roadblocks

 

If you thought I wasn’t going to mention religion in this one, you are dead wrong.

Already too many states in the United States (guess which ones) teach creationism along with evolutionary biology by local political mandate, despite the 2005 landmark Supreme Court case Kitzmiller v. Dover, where the court ruled against the teaching of creationism, or the word-savvy intelligent design, in public schools.

In the first link provided (in the hook “too many states”) you will find an interactive map of all the states that have, in some form, a creationist curriculum that openly challenge evolution science as something more of a fable and not completely testable. The fucking irony.

As if it wasn’t enough to have kids recite a Pledge of Allegiance (something bordering on creepy and Big Brother-y), and one created in part to sell flags, Eisenhower added the word “god” to counter the godless Communist threat back in 1954. As if being godless was actually what inspired Stalin to kill 100 million of his countrymen… or as if adding the word “god” to the pledge actually helped.

The point is that since the pledge and even before it, schools still have the nerve to question hundreds of years of data without base. These people are more than eager to teach their absolutely unverified and untestable version of the “truth” to all children alike, without regard or consideration for children’s backgrounds, something which puts everyone behind. And on top of that, the children of secular parents are being punished for something which they have little control over.

If you know this blog then you must know that my feelings towards religion are ones of suspicion and contempt. I, along with millions of others, feel that religion is in its most intrusive,  most harmful, and most illogical form when it is taught in the classroom.

Personally, I see no useful purpose for religion in today’s world, not even- and especially- as a moral yardstick. Contrary to popular belief, science can now explain morality thoroughly without the need of superstitious rituals. Yet, a lot of people don’t see it that way. They hold on to the old beliefs and what’s worse, the religious are playing the last card they have to play, children. Because they are innocent and thus impressionable, it is easier to manipulate a child to believe in abnormal things.

I would be understating the issue if I said that religion has absolutely no place in public schools, not just legally but also in terms of relevant information. And before we get into a theological debate, you should note that I said religion, meaning all religions. What is especially troublesome about an imposition of religious rituals or religious teaching in school is that you can’t possibly accommodate the thousands of religions that exist in the world in a place that intends to make use of the most down-to-Earth (pun intended), verifiable, and impartial information there is. Which is why science is there to save the day.

While religious fundamentalists argue about whether the Earth is 6,000 years old or 10,000 years old based on nothing else than Bible interpretation, the core of science has gone out and researched endlessly and compiled all known data into verifiable textbooks that kids now use in the classroom. It is unfair, not to mention arrogant, for religious parents and teachers to force distorted views of the world as they see it to kids who will very much grow up believing this stuff. What they fail to realize is that everything has a connection to something else. For example, teaching a kid that the Earth is younger than some known tree species we know might not make much of a difference if the child grows up to be a musician or an actor. But if that kid wants to become a biologist, or anything science-related actually, he or she will be the laughing-stock of academia a la Waterboy. 

I’m not saying that you don’t have the right to believe in whatever you want to believe, just not in a public taxpayer-funded school. The Constitution of the United States expressly prohibits the teaching of religion in places funded on the taxpayer’s dime, so in the interest of fairness, or at the very least for the sake of your child’s future, keep the Bible at home or at church where they belong, not in the classroom.

 

Okay, Einstein, what’s the best thing to do?

 

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

The concept of school is an ancient one. For thousands of years people have been teaching each other what they know about the world. It hasn’t always worked the way it should, but it has worked- case in point, we know a lot about a lot today. So it would only make sense that school should be an institution where knowledge is born and not merely cascaded down. However, it seems that’s actually the way it is. The institution has come to a point where individuality is repressed in favor of mass instruction. Something especially apparent in testing- which we mentioned before.

Do you remember that part on Forest Gump where Sally Fields’s character tells young Forest that he’s the same as everyone else, but then when the principal tells her that her son is different she comes back with, “Well, everyone’s different…” Of course it sounds way funnier in the movie, but it’s true, we’re all different and we’re all the same in different contexts obviously. Yet, school seems to want to make us all the same. At least in the way that we learn.

Like I mentioned before, now we know with proof what we’ve always known subconsciously, that kids learn at different rates and with different techniques. Some kids learn best by reading, others by looking at pictures, others are better at math than they are at history. The point is to instill in students a sense of comfort. To play their strengths and work their weaknesses, but what tests do is assume that every student is the same. Again, benchmarking is important because there definitely needs to be a basic average level that every student needs to be in every subject, but it seems that we’re only stopping there. Where’s the individuality? Where’s the push for greater knowledge?

You might infer from what’s being said that exclusion will lead to kids becoming territorial- even more so- but what we’re trying to achieve is just the opposite- inclusion. And inclusion is key. Due to many factors, some kids will learn faster than others. That’s just one of those things not even a teacher can control. However, taking into account those earlier things I mentioned about psychology, psychiatry, and technology, surely we can devise ways to measure kids’ performances without having to burden them with endless homework assignments, stressful rounds of testing, and outdated teaching techniques that don’t do much more than make kids loathe school, and as a consequence possibly even learning. They have enough to worry about in the recess yard to make them worry about what goes on inside the classroom.

 

Graduation

 

Let me conclude by saying that I am no education professional, medical professional, or an expert in any of the fields mentioned here, so do read this with a grain of salt. I merely offer my personal opinion on an issue that I consider to be one of the most important ones in our time, but more importantly for the future.

Of course there are many more things that can affect child behavior and learning capabilities: nutrition, bullying, outside influence, etc. I will probably touch on these subjects later on in other blogposts. But for now I just wanted to go a bit more in-depth about how education is not being given absolute priority in our country and elsewhere in the world.

The question to you is, do we really want to stress our kids out? School is undoubtedly necessary for our children, it’s not only a right of passage, it will prepare them at least in an academic level for the things they will need to know in the future. In the courtyard they will get a taste of what’s to come in life in terms of social connections; while the classroom is supposed to make them wonder about the bigger things. Children are supposed to go in to school with a hunger for learning, not to be afraid to do so. We need to demand, as well as help forge the better way to make the former happen and avoid the latter. Is stressing them out more important, or teaching them? Is showing them more important, or letting them discover? Is it more important to tell them which problem to solve or teaching them how to solve it? Are we hoping to build robots, or thinkers? Do we want them to come out of high school reading about the future or writing it? It all starts with learning. But learning is also a process. I guess the most important question of all is: are we doing it right?

 

fascinating book

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In part two I’ll be talking about college and the roadblocks students encounter while trying to continue their education at the next level in America and abroad, the consequences of these limitations, and what we can all do to help each other and ourselves.

And please leave a comment, a question, or curse me out if you want to if I missed something you believe is important or if any of my information is wrong. I welcome all feedback! And if you’re a teacher or a parent, I don’t mean to step on any toes, I welcome your thoughts as well.

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Interesting Reads:

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/07/09/36jouriles.h33.html

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/spending-too-much-time-homework-linked-lower-test-scores-180954814/?no-ist

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/15/cutting-through-the-stupid-on-annual-standardized-testing/

http://www.thedailyriff.com/articles/21-things-that-will-become-obsolete-in-education-by-2020-474.php

School Me: America’s War On and For Education Pt. 2

Back again for more huh!

Okay so this is part two of last week’s post when we started talking about our education system and about the challenges our kids face with homework and standardized testing. I also talked about technology and outdated methods, and even religion got an (dis)honorable mention in there. No one was safe from it, parents, teachers, politicians… since we are all part of the pie, we all got a slice of it.

Today I’ll talk about the challenges college students face (provided they made it all the way to college) in the classroom, but mainly outside of it. On this post the blame will be almost completely shifted to our policy-makers, corporations, and the universities and colleges themselves so I will not go in-depth about fraternities or the “college experience”, but rather focus more on the financial aspect of higher education and the ripple effect they cause. But, while distancing myself from too much math, I’ll mainly be talking about student debt and we’ll analyze a risk-versus-reward type situation. So if you’re one of these people suffering from studentdebtitis (don’t try to pronounce that), then you will read some facts here that perhaps you didn’t know. Hopefully I can help in some way or another.

Let’s get into it!

 

All In the Numbers

 

Assuming you passed all that required testing we talked about before- SATs, college admission tests, etc.- college is a new and exciting time that is about to begin! No more lectures about being late to class, no more bullshit about cleaning your room, in fact, if you choose to live in a dorm, no more parents for a while. Man is life great! Well for you. For your parents it’s a different story.

For those putting themselves or their kids through college, it’s important to know where they are in terms of payment if they stand a chance. Forget for a second the very confusing college-application lingo, first you have to know if you can even afford it. The pressure of not knowing whether it will be possible to send your kids to college (or put yourself through college) is only part of a reality we live in today’s America where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a good job, and even harder without a college education, an education that while beautiful and necessary is not free.

So with that in mind, let’s check out some important numbers and see how it all ties in with this higher education I talk about.

College Tuition- Since the 1970s, college tuition has been increasing steadily over the years to an unimaginable 1120% (yikes!), and even without inflation we are paying more for higher education now than we have in the past 40 years, or ever actually.

Student debt- American students have an outstanding $1.2 trillion dollars (that’s 1,200,000,000,000) in student loan debt which is significantly more than American credit-card debt which stands at a little under $700 billion. To put it into context, our national GDP is $17 trillion, which means that student debt is roughly 7% of that. Insane!

Number of Americans with college debt- 40 million. For comparison that is roughly the entire population of Argentina.

Average debt per student- Today college graduates are entering the job market with an average of $26,000 in debt.

Interest rate for college loans It floats between 3% and 6% depending on the type of loan you get.

National median income- As of February of this year the median income was roughly $41,000.

Now comes the hard part trying to make sense of it all.

We all pretty much know the ritual. Students go to college, they get jobs, get married, have kids, and they pay for kids’ college. Well, that’s not happening so much anymore. Less parents are now paying for their kids’ education, which means that now more than ever American students are financing their own educations. This is just a side-effect to the increasing college tuition. But it is also due to other causes one of which is the disparity between what parents make and what college tuition amounts to.

According to a report by the Washington Post from March, adjusted for inflation take-home pay only increased by a measly 0.1% in 2014 for middle-class people, and although the unemployment rate is at a little under 6%- the lowest it’s been since the middle of 2008- and 2.6% for college graduates, job outsourcing to other countries has left the middle-class worker with little or no leverage to negotiate higher wages. This leaves college students in a bind. They can either choose to pay for college themselves, take out a bank loan, try their luck with financial aid, or, if they’re not agile enough to get a scholarship, opt out of college altogether. But wait there’s more bad news.

As of last year, interest rates rose again for college students, mind you it’s not an outrageous amount, but it’s not a negligible amount either. I’m sure that there are a thousand fiscal details to work out that have endless ramifications, but the fact of the matter is that middle-class parents cannot afford inflating college costs, especially when interest rates on college loans usually float around between 3% and 6%. And I’m not even including bank loans, credit cards, or any other alternative means of paying for college, simply what the federal government loans out.

Now this is where you might get a little pissed off, the Federal Discount Rate, which is the interest rate at which the Fed loans money out to banks is .75%. True, this is only for very short-term loans, but even regular loans to huge multi-billion dollar banks are disproportionate to what the regular American student borrows. In other words if the regular American student were a corporate bank (with the current interest rate on college loans), it would’ve either dissolved a long time ago, collapsing under its own debt, or it would’ve gone overseas for a better deal. The reason for that is that a bank would never agree to such high borrowing rate as American students now graduate with. The fact is that the interest rate for students is disproportionate to what they and their parents make, and still a heck of a lot more than what the government loans out to banks. And while the whole comparison between students and banks is an apples-and-oranges scenario, it’s actually more of a gala-apples-and-golden-apples situation.

So it seems that pay-raise is not proportionate to the inflating college bubble, so just as we feared, there is no sustainability between what middle-class people make and the college debt accrued by those same people. And if I told you what investor and shareholder pay, corporate assets, and golden parachutes is, you might just go into a passive-aggressive fit of rage and throw your puppy out the window.

Ironically, for a lot of these students- younger and older- the problem is not acquiring the money they need to start their careers (although that is a problem too), rather the problem is actually getting it. And in a cruel twist of fate what many of these students end up in a “beware what you wish for” situation as soon as the first loan clears. And since a college loan is the only financial instrument that allows you to borrow more and more while your interest balloons up, it makes it a very dangerous tool to resort to.

Obviously the details are varied and extensive but this is pretty much a summary of what’s going on.But that’s still leaves us wondering why college tuition keeps going up despite a slow economic growth.

This is a difficult question to answer since it depends on more than one factor including: rising costs for room and board, slower graduation rates [1], budgetary limitations (whatever that means), skyrocketing costs for research institutions (which actually makes sense), government subsidies for grants and loans, and even the rate at which universities recruit can have an impact on these rising costs. There’s no way I can list all the reasons and the figures for each point, but this comprehensive article by the Washington Post from 2013 lists more exact figures for why tuition has been increasing, especially in smaller colleges and universities around the country.

What this all means is that it costs the state and the students more money and energy to pay tuition and to pay off that debt than to actually use the skills they went to school for in the first place. It’s a psychologically discouraging thing to graduate from college with upwards of $50,000 in debt without being ever comfortable in a job that you love, only to work in a job that you need. That is a debt that most likely will take someone the rest of their lives to pay. The true American dream is to accrue an insurmountable amount of debt after you start working, not before.

Some students and alumni are worse off and some are better off, but the harsh reality is that for of those who do owe, most of their financial decisions for the next few years to come (hopefully just a few) will be based around that debt.

 

Where Does It Go?

 

So where does the money go? Let me ask a simpler question, do you sit back with a beer and relax to watch college chemistry competitions; or college advanced math lectures? Unless you’re Ross from Friends, then I’m guessing the answer is no. College football, that’s the thing you watch.

Turns out that in some universities- those whose intercollegiate athletics programs are not self-supporting- a large chunk of what students pay goes to athletics programs that many of those students will never even attend. This also includes the salary for coaches and their assistants which is an obsene amount of money (in the millions) compared to what a regular college professor makes- less than 200K for the most experienced, much less for the majority. According to research by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, not only is the cost for these athletic programs increasing- which of course has an impact in rising tuition costs- but also almost 20% of Ohio University students wish there was less funding for these programs.[2] I can’t speak for any other colleges, but I’ll leave it to your discretion to assume what other sutdents around the country think about their own athletics programs.

In no way am I suggesting that we scrap athletics programs, but it seems that colleges are more known for how well their football teams and their glorified players performed than for how academically competent they are. Now it would make a big difference if the money the games brought in were evenly distributed across the board (meaning to cover other university costs other than the athletic departments) or even to compensate the players OR their families, but I am pretty sure that’s not the way it is.

Fortunately, most of the money a university receives from tuition, grants, government and private entities, and other sources, is efficiently utilized to pay mainly for instruction and research, and also for other services that the university provides. And a big part of that money goes towards financial aid which is mainly aimed at working-class students in an effort to get them in school.

But the less that states spend on college-level education, the more that public and private universities will need to make up the shortfall by increasing tuition and making cuts in how much it is spent per student. It’s simple economics and as much as I hate to admit it, colleges and universities are a business (even if educaiton isn’t), and as such it also governed by the same laws of economics as any other business.

 

Noble vs. Practical

 

Today everyone and their grandmothers know that going to college is part of an evolving society and by-and-large a great asset to possess if you want to make it in the real world comfortably. While in college you’ll form a relationship with blah, blah, blah.

The truth is that while there are many reasons why people go to college, they all boil down to two main ones: the noble, either because they find some discipline or art truly intriguing and they want to learn everything about it; or the practical, because they want to make money. These two people are not too different from one another, because they both know that whatever the reason, whatever the motivation, having an accredited higher education stamped on a diploma opens a lot of doors in the real world that are becoming increasingly hard to open without it.

This is a mantra that has been drilled for generations into the minds of children. Not a bad one to have drilled actually, but we’ll get to that. The point is that when people finally realize that everything we have now, from the laptop sitting on their desks to the crowns on their teeth, are the product of an incredible amount of study, perhaps a college education is not a bad thing to back you up.

But this constant reminder, like an alarm clock going off at all hours of the day, that they need to go to college right after high school, that they need to graduate and that they need to start making money right away becomes a tedious affair, one that undoubtedly bores some people. They get it from every angle, their parents, their teachers, their employers, even from banks themselves. Again, not a bad piece of wisdom to be given, but for what purpose?d

The message is clear: make money before you die!

It might sound a bit cynical to say something like that, but it’s a truth crudely reflected in numbers. In a survey taken in 2012 by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) in collaboration with UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, found that 87.9% of first year college students go to college to “get a better job.” [3] This pretty much translates to “because I want more money.”

That answer comes to no surprise to anyone since we are still recovering from a very nasty recession and the housing-bubble burst. And even though that survey was taken three years ago, an article by the Washington Post included data from a more recent survey by the same collaboration that echoes the data from 2012. So basically, yes, most people go to college to make money. Can you blame them?

From the 2014 survey, the second most important reason why people go to college is “to learn things that interest me” at 82.2% as opposed to 86.1% for “…a better job.”

What does this mean for college students?

In the first part of this blog-post I mentioned that schools should do away with unnecessary subjects or at least increase school-time in subjects that will be productive and necessary, like technology and the sciences. But I also mentioned that it is our responsibility to make them think and wonder, and not merely become slaves to themselves.

In this second part, it may seem as if I’m changing my views, but I’m not. The point is quite pragmatic in itself: those skills acquired in more elementary education is partly to prepare them for the college life and/or a life that is more technologically centered. I’m not suggesting we get rid of the sciences, or art, or sports, but rather that while elementary education is important in awakening the mind, college education is supposed to refine it, shape it, and prepare it to send it out productively into the world. It’s not really a change of mind, merely just an evolution of ideas.

There’ no doubt in my mind that there are lawyers who simply love law, or doctors who are passionate about human anatomy, or architects who are drawn to numbers and design, otherwise how could they live with themselves for all their lives doing something they hate just to make money? However there are those who view college as a business decision rather than an intellectual one. Which brings me to my next point.

You know how most children when asked what they want to be when they grow up choose the most selfless, most noble careers, e.g. firefighters, cops, doctors; but when they do grow up the smartest ones end up being stockbrokers and politicians? Well there’s a reason why that happens.

Every single day we read in the news words like “golden parachute”, “billion-dollar deals,” “Fortune 500 company,” and if you’re like me, you think to yourself, “man, I’m in the wrong business.”

The fact is that the rest of the arts and sciences are being out-competed by the money and the behavior that making money is more important than anything else is being reinforced in practically every aspect of American life. Fortunately, the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) sciences are on the rise, but we need to build more of that momentum and reward those who make our lives easier (scientists) instead of those who merely make life easier for themselves. That’s where college culture comes into play.

Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson said it best when he remarked:

 

I’m not here to convince you that money doesn’t get you happiness, believe me it does. However, I’m here to tell you that there’s no need to sacrifice something that you really like for something that makes you money. So in choosing a career, it is better to choose something that satisfies your curiosity, and a career that you’re drawn to (or a variation of it that will get you a bit more money), rather than something you hate that will leave you more money.

Case in point, when I was younger my grandfather knew the benefits of going to college and he urged me to choose a career in medicine or law. I have nothing against doctors or lawyers, but I immediately hated the idea of becoming either one, and I knew that if I ever succeeded at it, it would not only be half-assed, but I would be risking more than my own life in the process. I am now 27 and I finally have an idea of what I want to do with my life, and not one second goes by that I regret that decision. I am perfectly happy with who I am and what I do, and I know that I would have been miserable otherwise.

Life is about happiness, your happiness. Not anyone else’s. And it’s not a race, nobody wins at life, in fact the only way to win is to be the happiest that you can be without hurting anyone else or the world around you.

The issue with student debt has been an efficient political tool for both parties in “the Hill” for quite some time now, and a hot-button issue in Main Street; many even point out that student debt not only affects things here at home, but abroad as well. In this competitive world where countries like Russia, India, and China are fast risers in the global economic food-chain, it is more important than ever for America to invest in the best resource and asset it has to outcompete these nations and become once again a leading nation in education, technology, etc: an army of high-skilled and educated people. But is it possible- or have we lagged too far behind?

Today we discuss the education business in America and the next generation waiting to take the torch.

 

A Solution?

 

Often we read cases about graduates living frugally or doing economically-savvy things to pay off their loan so, and we rejoice when we hear one or two people did extraordinary things and got rid of their debt in a few short years. Honestly, yay for those people. But personally, I find it depressing that we have come to glorify the exceptions to the rule, as if it were a heroic thing to live on instant soup so for years on end just to not live with that debt until the day they die. That’s not how the American dream was sold to our generation. Debt wasn’t supposed to happen until later on in life.

The issue that we have is that with college debt, it’s not only the students and parents are paying the bill, but also you, the taxpayer. And it’s an expensive bill.

President Obama’s loan forgiveness program which he passed in 2013 aims at giving college graduates the opportunity to pay only 10% of what they earn towards their premiums for a period of 10 years, after which time their college debt will have been forgiven. But what happens to the rest of that money? Put simply, we pay for it, college graduate or not, we’re all paying for all 1.3 trillion dollars of student debt. As Jeffrey Dorfman of Forbes appropriately writes in this article, “If government wants to subsidize college education it could simply directly subsidize it rather than making loans that are designed to be forgiven.”

He’s completely right. Why do we keep beating around the bush when it comes to college tuition and loans that hurt financially not just the students and their parents, but also universities, financial institutions, and ultimately the government by loaning money we don’t have to people we know will have a hard time paying? A direct subsidy will save us billions in the long run.

But President Obama has his eye on two fronts, this one and also in his plan to make all two-year community colleges completely free to all students who wish to go- rich and poor. The move is not exactly a novel idea as it has already been implemented in Chicago and Tennessee for high school graduates. But his plan, formulated to cover all students regardless of previous education, is intended to be available across the nation.

By making it possible for students to go to college for free, at least for the first two years, the government would be giving those students a break to save up for their continuing education or to make it easier for them to obtain one, once already in college, basically providing a foothold.

But the program intends to do much more than that. By making it easier for all students to start college, its intent rests also in more socioeconomic integration by raising the number of minorities, and economically disadvantaged students and mixing them with students of higher means. The psychology behind it is very promising as it will undoubtedly boost campus and individual morale, something which can have a good effect in the future of those communities.

But what does that matter?

According to a report by Christina Ciocca and Thomas A. DiPrette of Columbia University- using various statistics and surveys- they found that minorities and economically disadvantaged students are at a higher risk of dropping out of public universities and two-year colleges than white students and middle-class students by several percentage points. Following is an excerpt of their findings:

“The National Center for Education Statistics (Snyder and Dillow 2012: Table 379) reports that while 63 percent of white first-time beginners in four-year institutions receive bachelor’s degrees six years after college entry, only 41 percent of Black students achieve the same. Gaps also exist at the two-year level, with 17 percent of white students and 11 percent of Black students receiving associate’s degrees, and 13 and 5 percent of each group transferring to four-year schools and achieving a bachelor’s degree, respectively.” [4]

The report (which I recommend you read) is very interesting and lists possible reasons as to why that happens not just for black students for also for other minorities.

So it makes sense that anything that can be done to help those drop-out rates, should be in place already. This idea (modeled after a Republican plan) has already been met with skepticism from liberals and conservatives alike, both demanding to know just how exactly are we going to pay for the $60 billion that it will cost over a decade. But fret not, my friends, there’s already a plan in motion for that as well. The government will pay for three quarters of the cost while the states chip in with the rest, obviously the tax-payer will get some of that bill.

But why the hell should we get to pay for college even if we’re not attending? Well, why pay taxes at all unless it’s for my own benefit? That’s basically what you’re saying. And since we’re on that question, why don’t you ask the same about elementary and secondary education, it is basically the same argument.

There is something fundamentally flawed about the education system in America. In my personal opinion, it has been commercialized and treated too much like a business rather than a necessity. Obviously we cannot dismiss certain businesslike aspects of it, especially when it comes to big research universities that depend on grants and also tuition money to continue important research. But if we’re admitting things, then we also have to admit that at its most basic level, higher education in the U.S. is becoming much too expensive to afford, and almost not worth the job that most students will get upon graduating- if they’re lucky enough to get one.

And although admirable, even Ivy League schools like Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale- which provide free education for students and families making less than a certain amount ($125K/yr, $120k/yr, $65k/yr, and $65-$150k/yr respectively) [5]– are the exception, not the rule.

Which brings me to my next question. What, if anything, could take from our European neighbors?

 

Brain-Drain

 

You might have heard that in other industrialized nations, higher education is incredibly more accessible than in the U.S. and in many cases entirely subsidized by the government- I use “subsidized” to not use free, because as it happens, there really isn’t such a thing as a free lunch. These are the countries we’ll use as a model of what an outdated system should turn into and I will try- in my limited knowledge- to explain how they do it (although it’s obvious enough).

Nordic countries, as well as some historically socialist Western European nations, have taken up the noble course of lowering college tuition to- wait for it- NOTHING. I can already feel the seething anger at the mention of “socialist”. But if you can get over it for a second, I will have you know that the word “socialist” here is not strictly implying a socialist political system- at least not in the way that those European nations conduct business. What I mean by socialist rather is the implementation of social programs for the benefit of a society modeled after a socialist framework. This means that the government controls these programs and not private entities.

If you, as a red-white-and-blue blooded American, staunch opponent of Big Brother politics and faithful defender of all things free, believe that America hasn’t been touched by the evil wand of socialism (the political system now) then I’m sorry to tell you that you have not only been fooled, but you have been the recipient of this socialism.

Long story short, these socialist programs created and enforced by the government have in fact made America a better country for it. Among these that have benefited all citizens of this great nation are: emergency services, postal service, transportation, the military, some forms of health care, even ones that you wouldn’t expect like sewer systems and trash collection. And education. All of these programs and many more have been introduced to the American public administration after administration, sometimes with opposition. Can you imagine any of these in the hands of private companies? It’d be disaster. Even without the hand of privately owned enterprise, education in the United States is costing trillions of dollars and not getting much better. Surely some European countries are doing something right if they beat us in: record numbers of college graduates, higher test scores, more productivity, etc.

So where in the world is college education cheaper than in the U.S.? Trick question: everywhere!

Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Slovenia, and France are among very few European countries that offer free or low-tuition college education, all in their respective populations’ dime. For the first three countries mentioned, foreign students are also welcome to enjoy the same educational benefits as their own citizens- higher education free of charge! In the case of Sweden that law has been rescinded to ban foreign students to study there completely tuition-free; but nevertheless the country has allowed many organizations to help cover the tuition of non-EU students, or other students who wish to study there, which still makes higher education in Sweden an inexpensive option.

But what about the rest of the world?

While many universities around the globe might not offer cheap or free tuition to foreign students, they do still offer those same privileges (incentives rather) to their own students. Some of the countries with the cheapest college education include: Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Netherlands, and Brazil.

While these are just some of the countries with low-cost college education, they are by no means the only ones. This site has an interesting composite of information about the aforementioned nations on college costs, as well as other ones around the globe that also offer low-cost higher education. It’s important to note that for some of these countries (as in the case of my native Mexico) low-cost education is only available for state universities and colleges, while private universities will be more expensive.

But where do we rank in terms of higher education in comparison to other countries?

Well, we’re drawing from a different bag there.

According to this independent research judged by top academics from all over the planet, eight of the top ten universities in the world are in the U.S. of A. In fact, the website offers information on the rankings of more than 300 academic institutions and more in-depth information about them.

So being that American universities hold the top positions for education among the most respected in the world, why is it so difficult for Americans to obtain a college education… in America?

While this question is significant, I believe the better question to ask is: why do some of these other countries allow others to come and study- sometimes for free- only to leave, taking the skills they obtained to another country?

Perhaps they believe in the real value of higher education, or maybe they understand that not everyone can afford to go to college. Maybe it just makes good economic sense to allow students to take advantage of a good thing and offer them the opportunity to stay in their country and exploit those newly acquired skills there. It’s not only ethical, it’s practical. Not to mention that making education free makes good political sense.

Let’s form a comparison. In Germany, the state pays for college education for everyone who wants it, even for foreign students. Parents and students do not need to worry about tuition debts and high interest rates that will slow down their education and therefore increase drop-out rates. The snowball effect of leaving college in the middle of a degree is detrimental in large numbers. Therefore, by using pure mathematical logic, we can see that the cost of sending a whole generation of students to acquire high-level skills is minimal compared to the debt accrued if they don’t pay. The latter is essentially betting on the failure of students. And a debt that governments and financial institutions will be forever trying to collect.

On the other hand, if the education budget can be restructured properly, the gain from creating generations of high-skilled workers is nothing compared to the subsidizing of education in large scales.

We could bring up monopolistic sentiments about why the American education system is fairly inadequate in comparison to the mysticism that the United States has in the world: a powerful country unrivaled in mostly everything. But the simplest answer is usually the right one- our politicians simply prioritize other things over education.

 

Alternative Education

 

In this day and age there are still plenty of people- even here in America- who still don’t have access to education in their own countries and communities. For that reason, charitable organizations and public and private universities, who believe in the power of education have decided to get together and collaborate on massive projects that aim to change just that.

MOOCs- or Massive Open Online Courses- are exactly that, online courses available to anyone with a computer and internet connection in virtually any part of the world, and completely free or of very low cost to those who wish to take them.  These courses, or rather crash-courses, vary in length and can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and some can even last for months at a time, like a regular college class would. They are taught in many languages and you can find just about any subject you want, anything from cooking, to advanced trig, to film critique, to computer programming. Not only are these courses taught by accredited professors from some of the best universities in the world, but they also follow the rigorous online-college course model.

Most universities though do not certify credits accrued from MOOCs however, although there are some that do. But at least those interested in learning something new or in using MOOC services as aid to their actual schoolwork can have the opportunity to do so free and with virtually no restrictions.

MOOCs and other alternative forms of education are a great way to get started on a path for higher education. I, myself, have taken several MOOC courses and am a very big fan of them and I recommend them. So if you’re interested, here‘s a list of several MOOC providers that are for-profit and non-profit. Honestly, I have only used Coursera, but I can tell you that all the courses I’ve ever taken have been free. So feel free to sign up for something interesting to get your mind tickling.

 

Graduation

 

To conclude this, let me tell you that although I believe in the immense power of education, college is not for everyone. Don’t mistake that for “education is not for everyone”, because that would ring false and counter to my beliefs, not to mention detrimental to our society. But employers, teachers, parents, and most of all you, need to understand that true education, true knowledge can only be the product of true curiosity, unhindered by rules and social norms, by restrictions and roadblocks. Forced desire to learn will always yield negative, or at least lukewarm, results. We have to encourage our kids and ourselves to learn, but we also have to provide them with the means to do so.

In the first part of this blog I wrote that America is waging a war against our youth, against education. Let me tell you that it is a false war, an illusion of sorts. Because education transcends all barriers and ideologies, it is one of the few non-partisan issues that we can all make better. But only if we really want to. It is of no consequence what political party you belong to, or nationality, or religion (or lack thereof), or socioeconomic bracket you’re part of- I think we can all appreciate the huge benefits that a well-educated, well-informed generation can bring. And we can make it happen if we work together to make it so.

 

“There are many problems, but I think there is a solution to all these problems; it’s just one, and it’s education.” -Malala Yousafzai

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character- that is the goal of true education.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” -Benjamin Franklin

“He who opens a school door closes a prison.” -Victor Hugo

“The highest result of education is tolerance.” -Helen Keller

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Citations

[1] http://www.bankrate.com/finance/college-finance/6-reasons-college-costs-are-soaring-3.aspx

[2] http://www.centerforcollegeaffordability.org/uploads/Funding_the_Arms_Race.pdf

[3] http://heri.ucla.edu/briefs/TheAmericanFreshman2012-Brief.pdf

[4] http://paa2015.princeton.edu/uploads/152299

[5] http://thinkprogress.org/education/2015/04/02/3642085/stanford-free-tuition/

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Interesting Reads

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/04/07/college-tuition-is-getting-more-expensive-heres-whos-actually-to-blame/

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/corinthian-college-graduates-protest-student-loans-175051741.html

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ccap/2014/09/04/fed-data-show-college-isnt-a-good-investment-for-all/

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-11-13/college-tuition-in-the-u-s-again-rises-faster-than-inflation

http://college.usatoday.com/2014/08/26/how-much-student-loan-debt-is-too-much-2/

http://useconomy.about.com/od/monetarypolicy/a/fed_funds_rate.htm

http://www.forbes.com/sites/keithweiner/2014/12/22/can-the-fed-raise-interest-rates-2/2/

http://consumerist.com/2015/03/19/legislators-once-again-introduce-bill-that-would-allow-student-loan-refinancing/

http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/articles/2015/03/25/take-4-steps-to-understand-student-loan-interest-rates

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-salaries-dont-rise/2015/03/11/38c08cea-c81d-11e4-b2a1-bed1aaea2816_story.html

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2011-12/world-ranking

Government Expenditures

https://www.usaspending.gov/Pages/default.aspx

http://demonocracy.info/infographics/usa/us_deficit/us_deficit.html

https://www.usaspending.gov/Pages/default.aspx

Pew Data

http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/10/07/the-changing-profile-of-student-borrowers/st-2014-10-07-student-debtors-03/

Cool It! -My Two Cents On Climate-Change Denial

Hey readership! Before we start, I apologize for going m.i.a. these last few posts. I’m not one to make excuses so I will not… the truth was that I was kidnapped by aliens and depraved experiments of sexual nature were performed on me. That was actually quite pleasant, which is why I stayed on their ship to get more of the good stuff so… now you now.

Okay fine! The real truth was that my absence was due to a mixture of that terrible disease we writers refer to as “writer’s block” and another incurable one most people on Earth refer to as “a shitload of work to get done.” For that I apologize. But now that I’m back, let me tell you about a funny experience I had the other day while stuck in traffic (impossible I know but just you wait). But before we get there, let me tell you a little about where I live so you will understand better where I’m coming from.

Texas has been my home-state since I was 13 years old, so basically I’ve lived in Texas longer than I’ve lived in Mexico, my native country, and for 14 years I’ve loved my adopted home as any other native Texan would. This place has everything to offer, even though where I live we are sort of devoid of mountains which I do long to see. Nevertheless, its deserts, lakes (some of them man-made), the Gulf of Mexico, Big Bend National Park, the richness and diversity of nature, its sprawling cities and the badass fact that it has it in its constitution the right to be its own country- all these things make Texas one of the best places to live in the open-wide United States.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area where I live is a dynamic growing city with all the excitement and amenities of any big city and the warmth and closeness of any one of the thousands of picturesque small towns that dot America. I always like to think of Fort Worth as either a big town or a small city, and I have always loved that balance. Although I’d say I’m more of a city guy, the calmness of this place makes it just the perfect place to raise a family or to start a new career.

Texans are very proud of where they live and they show it with every opportunity they have- and rightly so- after all they did fight off an entire army and won their independence. I would not be wrong to say that being a Texan carries a lot of arrogant pride at times; but it would also be unfair not to say that the people here are warm and hospitable, probably more so than any other place. And that’s what makes Texas just as iconic a place as California or New York, and trust me, we like to prove it!

However, just like any other place where pride is a big part of local identity, we are not without our faults either. And this is where I came to a very funny realization the other day.

If you as a tourist came to Texas, you would see clean streets, parks devoid of trash and litter, and maybe even a cop handing out a fine to some passerby for throwing away trash on the ground instead of the garbage can where it’s supposed to go. All of this is part of that whole pride thing I was talking about, and it came about from concerned people for the state of their…well, state! And it was for that reason that in the name of conservation the Department of Transportation (of all the agencies) came up with a way to keep Texas clean and beautiful. Now, any Texan can recite the easily quotable and iconic slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas!” created to reduce roadway litter around the state’s highways and show the nation that here in Texas we don’t mess with our state. For some people though the slogan has come to represent much more than that, it is a source of pride to show to the world.

Well it just so happens that the other day while stuck in traffic, I saw the iconic slogan imprinted on a sticker placed in the back window of a monster four-by-four. And as I stared at it and stared at it, something about it just didn’t make sense. And suddenly the irony came to slap me in the face- either that or it was the plume of black smoke coming out of the massive tailpipe. I realized that while we as Texans are so concerned about not polluting the streets with plastic bottles, cigarette butts, or even gum, we are perhaps a bit hypocritical about not messing with our state in other ways. And I think I’ve finally figured it out. Could it be that we’re simply more concerned about how our home looks and not exactly how clean it actually is?

 

The Important Hoopla

 

In the wildly popular follow-up to Carl Sagan’s 1980s tv show Cosmos: “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson talks about our (referring to the whole of the human race) addiction with fossil fuels- byproducts of the compression and extreme heat of carbon fossils to produce what we now pull out of the ground in the form of oil and natural gas and refined to fuel-grade substances that power most of our machines. In the show he speaks of the dangers of these nasty pollutants and how over the course of a century our recklessness has done to the planet what it would normally take thousands of years for the planet to do to itself: global warming.

You’ve heard that old tale before. We burn stuff, the CO2 gets trapped in the atmosphere before it can be recycled by plants and the ocean and what happens is that the Earth gets hot because the sun’s heat cannot escape, just like a pressure cooker. What you don’t believe is just how implausible it all seems! And it does, I mean come on! We, little old humans can affect the global temperature of an entire planet? Please. Yes, the Earth is a small planet, but even with close to 8 billion of us, it is still gigantic!

Right now… on the day that I’m writing this sentence, easily 97% of scientists all over the world believe that global warming is a real phenomenon happening to our planet, and what’s more, they are almost certain that we “little old humans” are at the root of it all. The other 3% were asleep the day the poles were being taken. 97%. If you’re not impressed by that number try getting the government to agree 97% on anything. Good luck!

We’re not talking here about political scientists, or architects, or psychologists, but about climatologists, astronomers, physicists, astrophysicists, paleontologists, seismologists, even mathematicians. In fact, a wide range of disciplines of science are almost convinced that it’s happening. So why is it that these people who paid a loooooot of money to go to school and spent several years not having fun, not going out to get trashed, probably not having a lot of sex, just sitting there day after day thinking for many years about these problems- why is it that despite their expert advice we don’t believe them- us, who did get to do most of those things?

Psychologists are still trying to understand where that disconnect happens between the population and the scientific community. I’m no expert, duh, but I think there are a few reasons besides the obvious ones like political agendas, corporate greed, and religious convictions that do not get mentioned a lot that we should also be talking about.

Please know that the reasons I’m about to list are not in any way trying to influence you to change your mind- after all if you don’t believe in global warming, you are probably not a scientist- but I list them so you can at least ask yourself “is this something I’m doing?”

 

The Counterproductive “Probably”

 

At this point in time, the climate-change debate is not really a debate anymore so much as it is a one-sided argument. Like I mentioned before, global warming in the scientific community is a non-issue, in the context that the discussion has gone from “Is it real?” to “how do we fix it?”

The problem scientists have (aside from lack of research funding) is interpreting faithfully the data that is collected in order to inform the population. If you think that scientists have an agenda, you’re not wrong. The agenda is trying to convince you that we need to cut the shit and start acting right. Not a bad agenda if you ask me.

Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done. Even collecting any piece of reliable data is very difficult to do, because it takes years to observe measurable change, analyze it, compile it, compare it, file it, publish it, and get it peer-reviewed for it to be an acceptable piece of evidence. If somewhere along the way an error is found, then the process starts over again.

Scientists will tell you, sometimes it is frustrating that after so many years of work, you publish and people don’t even believe it. It’s understandable for the layman to be skeptical when a lot of the science- especially related to GW- is not 100% accurate, which can be misleading.

Scientists understand that there are margins of error that we cannot get past, after all, there are a great deal of things we still do not understand about many fields, things that you wouldn’t believe are related to climate, such as mathematical chaos, “random” events, etc. These factors, and others, for which we still do not have an accurate model of are part of that margin of error that prevents us from knowing with total certainty what the weather is doing and whether it is apt to change in the near future. It is this margin of error that leads humble scientists to use words like “probably,” “we’re not completely sure,” and “we believe…” These phrases often get misconstrued in people’s minds as “we don’t know,” which has devastating effects on the public psyche regarding cold, hard facts we’ve collected about the world that are reliable.

In the scientific community an “I don’t know” stance is a respectable answer to a question for which we don’t yet have enough information about. Not so much in politics, religion, or economics. We are so used to expecting an answer to our questions- even if it’s the wrong answer- that we have come to expect the same from science, and of course the scientific method doesn’t work that way. What we should be doing instead is put on our thinking caps and our science goggles and look at the world through the eyes of a scientist. Look at and study the data and try to understand what the professionals are talking about instead of trying to shout over them. In other words, look at the evidence objectively.

People don’t often question any other element of their lives as much as they scrutinize scientific facts (especially those that have become political or financial tennis balls), but we need to be aware of the simple fact that although being skeptical is a very good thing, we should know when we’re wrong and change our minds when the facts are overwhelmingly in-your-face. It’s a hard thing to do to admit that you’re wrong, but if scientists do it, why can’t we?

 

Why Is It My Fault? Why Should I Change?

 

You’ve heard it before: change is difficult. But why? Well, in this case it’s not hard to see why we’re obstinate to continue burning fossil fuels at the rate that we are, and in my opinion I don’t think that the answer is money. Well, not the whole answer.

Despite the dire warnings that in the “business-as-usual” path we’re at, global temperatures could rise as much as six degrees by the end of the century, we continue to burn fossil fuels at exorbitant rates. I say “we” because the gas your car needs to move, the hot water you use to shower, and the electricity you use don’t come out of nowhere, some of those are products of the burning of fossil fuels, so whether we want it or not, we are all contributors of global warming.

And although six degrees does sound a bit too much, that is the most extreme scenario, but just try this out for fun: raise your house temperature by six degrees and see if you don’t feel a difference. The world works the same way, but the really big difference is that raising the global temperature even one degree can have radical alternate effects on the environment, let alone six. At six degrees, the world will basically turn into an oven where natural disasters will become incredibly violent, much more frequent, and very polarized (some regions will experience severe droughts while others will see a rise in sea level.) The upside is that they will at least be more predictable. I forget why that’s a good thing.

Even if we stopped the current model today, temperatures are still expected to rise one or two degrees well before the end of this century, like a runaway freight train. If you think you can adapt to the heat, maybe YOU can, but you have to understand that the world depends on a delicate balance and that you’re not the only living thing in it. In fact, thousands of species depend on global temperatures staying the way the are and they cannot cope with the changes fast enough to evolve. Believe me that if temperatures rose by six degrees in one year, the world would experience mass die-offs, even bringing humanity within an inch of extinction.

If this sounds alarming it’s because it is. But why is it that this doesn’t sound alarming enough to take action?

One of those reasons I mentioned for why this happens is the inability for people to accept fault. That, coupled with the dread of change. It is, after all, much easier to keep things as they are than to change them.

You see it everywhere, people complain that it’s too hot and yet they buy bigger and bigger gas-guzzlers. We express grief that another species dependent on a delicate environment has extinguished and yet we complain about gas prices. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We have acquired this passive-aggressive mentality that all it does is stall, and ‘m guilty of the same crime. Environmentalists complain about gas companies and yet they drive to the rallies while stopping to gas up on the way there. There’s no denying the hypocrisy that undoubtedly exists, and we bear the blame. But if we think about it, it is a vicious circle that starts and stops with us. There is such a thing as responsible (or responsible-ish) use of fossil fuels, but we also have to accept that we have been conned, and conned good.

As it stands, the fossil-fuels industry is experiencing its golden age of advertisement, much like it was for cigarette companies in the 60s. Gas companies will claim that the fuel we’re burning has ethanol, that it’s safer for the environment, that uses more plant derivatives, etc. But what they don’t tell you is that the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is so accessible nowadays that it’s far from impossible for billion-dollar companies to make that switch. However, it is inconvenient. For them because that would mean spending a lot of money on something that they would lose money on. At the same time they shamelessly guilt us into thinking that “putting out the fire” will put many people out of work.

There’s no denying that change has consequences. Even good change can have bad consequences as I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” But in the end, I am more than positive that responsible governments can- and should- create or re-position the jobs lost due to a global energy switch when the demand for cleaner energy begins- after all alternative fuels aren’t going to create themselves.

Renewable energy is cheap and virtually limitless. It’s inconvenient for you right now because even the switch is admittedly still a bit expensive to implement- and for them [corporations], because they can cash in on that inconvenience. That doesn’t change the simple fact that once implemented, renewable energy is cheap and limitless. Hopefully typing in bold letters will have some kind of positive effect.

But despite my best efforts, it seems reasons not to make that switch are also limitless. Let’s see what’s another one.

 

Invisible Doom

 

This past winter, North America saw one of the coldest winters on record. Temperatures dropped to double digits and snow buried entire towns. Like clockwork, climate-change deniers immediately jumped up at the chance to prove us all wrong and tell us just how much of an illusion GW is by… holding up snowballs. If this isn’t the pinnacle of stupidity, I don’t know what is. The least he could’ve done is start a snow-ball fight in the middle of the senate floor… it would at least make C-SPAN more interesting.

I remember a few weeks ago I saw something on the magical gem that is the Internet that got me laughing and thinking at the same time. The joke was in response to people who say that global warming must not be real if it still snows on winters, and I should have saved the exact quote or taken a picture of it, but here’s a funny approximation: “I got cold today, yeah, global warming must not be real.”

It must be tiring for scientists to have to repeat themselves over and over again- sorry Neil Degrasse Tyson. Yes, it’s cold during winter. Yes, climate change is still happening! And yes, there is a scientific explanation for it, that we fortunately do have.

However, scientists understand that your mind gets easily distracted every ten seconds, so for the sake of hope that it might stick one day, they are happy to repeat the statement: GW is indeed still on.

The fact that most people don’t believe that fossil fuels can have such an impact on global warming is due to two reasons: the change- although extremely fast in geological timelines- seems slow-to-a-crawl for us humans and therefore unnoticeable- at least until the planet hits two degrees, then everything will start going downhill real fast; and the second reason is that most of the people with the luxury of denying a changing climate already live in urban areas, which let’s face it, have problems of their own.

In the span of a person’s life (roughly 80 years in developed countries), climate will have barely warmed one degree, maybe two. Again, us humans are very resilient creatures and though one degree of difference is nothing to be alarmed over, the planet sees it differently; and people living in poor areas see it even more!

One degree of difference in global temperatures in New York City might mean warmer Texas-like summers. In Texas- where I pitch my tent- it hardly matters because the weather just does what it wants over here anyways, but even here the heat waves will become extreme. But other places in the world are not so lucky. California is experiencing some of the worst droughts in recordable history, and Australian wildfires are out of control. Elsewhere it might mean disappearing coast lines as temperatures rise thus melting the polar ice-caps and glaciers that sustain local ecosystems.

You have the luxury of messing with your thermostat when you don’t like what the weather is doing. Other people are not so fortunate and they experience the effects of a changing climate in a more direct and terrifying way.

The fact that the planet is slowly warming (in our terms) has little to do with the fact that this is the fastest warming the world has ever naturally experienced. In other words, it is unnatural the pace at which the Earth’s climate is changing. But you wouldn’t feel much of a difference if you were not looking for clear signs, as scientists do.

Some years ago British scientists discovered– through a lot of research- that there was a hole in ozone layer over Antarctica. You might have heard about this or you might not. Ozone is a poisonous gas at ground-level but in the stratosphere where it resides, it protects us against harmful ultra-violet (UV) rays from the sun. Without it we are toast… quite literally.

The normal person wouldn’t have known this hole even existed had it not been for the research presented. Hell most people before then probably knew very little about the Ozone layer itself. But it was this research that showed how the ozone hole was not created due to natural causes but rather the direct cause of human-made ozone-depleting pollutants. And where do most of these pollutants come from? Take a wild guess.

Living in the city, or near an urban area, might make you a little less adept at noticing changes that happen to other species because of climate change. The reasoning behind it is simple: there just isn’t a whole lot of nature to observe, therefore it’s easier to miss. Even the lush local vegetation of clean cities doesn’t compare to the vast expanse of a rain forest or a tropical area. But take a trip to what’s left of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (still one of the most breathtaking places on Earth) and even the locals will tell you how much of it is gone- a lot of that to ocean acidity, which is a product of rising temperatures. But this isn’t exclusive to oceans- which bear some of the heaviest burden due to pollutants like oil spills as well as heat entrapment– but also rainforests affected by deforestation, tropical areas, the tundra, and even deserts.

Eventually the changes, even in your city, will become so pronounced that there will be no denying it, climate change is happening and it’s happening because of what we are doing. And because of the concentration of humans in cities, high-rises, mountains, local ozone-layer depletion, metal and asphalt, and very little vegetation, heat will not be able to disperse as easily.

The fact that global warming is invisible like the wind, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. And what’s more, the fact that you don’t think you’re contributing to it means nothing to the generations who will curse you for not acting because you felt like it wasn’t your job.

 

Why Deny it?

 

If it sounds scary it’s only because it should be. The reality is that painting that scary picture is the only way to get people to act. It’s really sad that scientists have to almost resort to scare-tactics to get our politicians to act and for normal people to force them to act.

It seems like such a waste of precious time and resources for scientists to have to prove to the layman what has already been debated among themselves for decades with people smarter than you and I. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ask questions. But when the evidence is overwhelmingly against your favor, maybe it’s time to pay attention.

A lot of people who deny climate change say something along the lines of “but how can humans change the planet’s climate? That sounds far-fetched!”

Well, not if you look at the massive damage that we have done to the planet, and that we keep doing. Current climate change stems from a combination of many events, both natural and man-made. It stems from the detonation of thousands of nuclear weapons over the years, to the razing of rainforests, to the spilling of oil and chemicals into the water (oceans and freshwater), to the modification of local climates; all, and more, of this combined with the Earth’s natural heating and cooling cycles.

Again, I will not discuss the reason for why the current warming is not just the Earth being… melodramatic as in past times. You can find that information in the bottom section under “Interesting Reads”. Today I am discussing some of the [unusual] reasons for why I believe people don’t believe current climate-change is man-made or anything to take seriously. I don’t want to step on any toes here, but I think these reasons are valid given proper study. But even if I’m wrong, that doesn’t mean that the experts are. You should at least listen to what they say and act accordingly.

 

What’s the problem?

 

The problem we have in Texas is the same problem we have throughout the United States and indeed throughout the world. It’s not a shortness of resources, how could we, every single minute we are bathed in the byproduct of the most resourceful element in our galaxy- the sun. Wind power is virtually limitless, unless one day the wind stopped blowing. Nuclear energy, although still harmful to a certain degree is also basically limitless and thousandfold times less harmful than fossil fuels. Motion energy is, again, endless. So what is the problem then?

In many ways the problem is the most serious and dire one we have. The resource that we lack does not belong to the physical world and yet, it is the thing we lack the most: will. It is the will to change that’s carving one of two paths for the future history of our world and our species and all the species in it. Notice how I put “the world” ahead of everything else? That’s because whether we make this place a shithole or a paradise, the world survives without us- it’s impossible for the inverse scenario to happen. We cannot survive without the world. Our greed and insatiable appetite for quick profits and “act-later” attitudes is fast outpacing our very own survival. I think it’s obvious to see why, after all we don’t have a colony in the moon to go to, or space cities we can take refuge in. This is all we have… well, this is all we have, our generation of humans. But what about the next generation or the next or the one after that- what will they have? Or actually more like, what will they have left?

And this brings me to the stupidest reason we can possibly find to not act.

 

When That Happens I Will Be Long Dead

 

This is perhaps the more irresponsible position to take. Whether you have kids or not, being a responsible human being means looking out for the world of the future, for the generations that will come after you.

If you live in what’s called a “first-world” country (a term I despise), then you were born with the luxury of not having to fight for food every day of your life- hopefully. Imagine a world where every single day your biggest fear is to find food only to have to kill for it, even if it’s from your own family members. If we continue on the path we’re on, eventually that is what will happen in a 3-4 degree world. It will not happen overnight, but each barrel of oil more that we burn will inexorably lead us to the collapse of modern civilization. And those who live in the cusp of 2-3 degree change, or 3-4, or 5-6 (if there are any people left in the planet), will undoubtedly curse us all. But what does it matter, we’ll be dead, right?

The point is to take a responsible approach. In the same manner that we resent past generations for past atrocities, future generations have one of two paths carved out for them: they will either be part a futuristic, sustainable global civilization that will do great things, far greater than we can ever imagine; or they will dwell in an uninhabitable lawless wasteland where there will be no more future for the human race. And one of those futures will happen by how we act today.

Can we possibly hope to change?

 

Cool It!

 

If you’re anything like me, you probably freak out when you spill juice on your carpet (I do it all the time) or when your bathroom looks like Gollum made it his lair, or when the dishes pile up everywhere. You set a day to just clean and you do it. And again, if you’re anything like me, you probably feel amazing once everything is nice and clean and sparkling. Okay I pay for people to do it, but the whole point is that you like your environment clean. So why is it such a crazy idea to want an extended part of your environment, mainly the environment, as clean as you’d want your house?

I see the whole environmental issue effectively as a non-issue, but rather a matter of commmon sense. When non-environmentalists grill people for being whiny about wanting to have a clean world, basically what they’re saying is “Why the hell woudn’t you want a big oil spill in that water you drink, are you against progress or what?” At least that’s what I hear.

Chances are you will read this blog, just as you have done with many others, be concerned for about 10 seconds, maybe even donate $5 to a local group and brush it off thinking you did your part. Throwing money at the problem will not fix it. But it just so happens that there is something you can do that is effective and inexpensive, and it all starts with how you live.

You don’t need to go out there and try to change governments and destroy oil rigs. By doing simple non-intrusive things at home, you can do your part. Here are some you can try:

  • Conserve water whenever possible by taking shorter showers, watering your lawn a bit less and recycling water.
  • Recycling. Using less plastics and more organic stuff can make a great impact!
  • If possible, change your energy demands. If it’s within your means, install solar panels in your home and/or switch to alternative methods of energy: wind or solar. If not, then even changing the light-bulbs at home to more energy-efficient ones can make a big difference and it’s relatively cheap.
  • Tough it out a bit during the summer and winter. Keep your thermostat a bit cooler in the winter and a bit warmer in the summer at home and not only will you be helping the environment but also your pocket.
  • Think green! Get plants a lot of plants for your home. It’ll look nice and it will oxygenate your house. And if you can, plant trees! Maybe one or two will not make much a difference, but it does make a difference.
  • Reduce the fuel you burn. Buy more energy-efficient vehicles and try to stay away from big gas-guzzlers. Explore your city more instead of traveling by car or plane. Or try to save fuel whenever possible.
  • Talk about it. You’re bound to catch someone’s attention. Tell people the good things our planet is losing to burning fossil fuels. And scare them with the possible future realities if necessary. But overall spread the word.

Right now it’s too late to reverse the course of a one-degree increase. But it’s not too late to stave off disaster. All it takes is a little will. If you love your state like I do, if you love your country like I do, if you love this world like I do, I urge you to show it. Change the culture. Maybe it’s time for a new slogan: Don’t Mess With Planet Earth!

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And as always I leave you with this little gem… enjoy 😀

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Interesting Reads:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/21/us/politics/obama-administration-unveils-federal-fracking-regulations.html?_r=0

http://www.iflscience.com/environment/gulf-stream-weakening-bad-news-north-atlantic

http://www.dangersoffracking.com/

http://www.livescience.com/27692-deforestation.html

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-determine-the-scientific-consensus-on-global-warming/

http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/home.html

For a chilling description of degree-by-degree destruction check this out:

http://globalwarming.berrens.nl/globalwarming.htm

A Universe of Knowledge

 

 

What’s Been Happening Lately

 

Excitement galore people!

I just finished reading Andy Weir’s “The Martian”and I have to say that if you haven’t picked it up yet, you are missing out on some great literature!

In the same way that Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” spark an old curiosity for space exploration, Mr. Weir’s book- which is being turned into a movie by Hollywood and scheduled to be released next year- does the same, and in a great way!

Praised for its technical accuracy and flowing story line- even by actual astronauts- this story about an astronaut who gets stranded in Mars after a series of freak accidents is a total page-turner. From the moment that you open the book until the last paragraph read, it’s evident that Andy Weir did his homework researching each and every element of space exploration, not just the big-picture stuff, but even the most minute details, and it is these that make the book so realistically possible. Most authors will only go so far as to research only the essential stuff while leaving some room for interpretation or for fantastical elements (what is known as “creative license”), but as we seem to enter a new literary age of hyper-realism, it’s clear that Weir did not wish to leave anything up in the air. And as you read paragraph after paragraph you begin to imagine the scenario come to life in a way that leaves no room for creative licenses to distort the story. The math alone will make your head spin, but Weir is always careful not to lose you. Told from a first-person perspective, in a sort of entry  log or diary-type situation, all the technical stuff is essential to the story, but if you are not math-savvy, don’t worry- neither am I; the story takes care of itself and unfolds effortlessly, even with the math which is told as if you yourself were NASA, being part of the tale in a one-way conversation with our hero. But the calculations that Weir clearly did research on, baffle you, but they don’t belittle you. In fact, its gravity pulls you stronger and faster and soon enough you’re sitting there amazed at all the technical bits that are often missed in the science-fiction genre.

As the world comes together in this age to begin a new chapter of space conquest, this book, whether it self-includes or not, is part of a new wave of interest in space, a legacy that was briefly forgotten after the last of the U.S.’s Apollo missions and the Soviet Union’s Luna missions concluded.

For the past several years, new breakthroughs, both in technology and in research, have been building up to tackle the mother-lode of all space projects, Mars.

On December 5th, the unmanned spacecraft Orion– an updated version of the old Apollo spacecraft, and in a way the first of its kind- completed two full laps around the Earth before splashing down just off the coast of Baja California. Technicians and scientists working for NASA (that’s the guys that put someone in the moon all those years ago) declared that the launch, trajectory, and crash had gone exactly as planned, in other words a perfect flight. Completely flawless. Now that is good news because eventually, that same rocket will deliver a payload of supplies, technical equipment, and research stuff…oh yeah and humans, to Mars sometime in the 2030s. Mars. Not shitty, old moon, but Mars. Okay it would still be pretty cool to send someone up to the moon again, but you gotta walk before you can crawl. Or something like that.

If it works, that’ll be a huge step for mankind and something that we have dreamt about doing since humans had imagination. I mean if we put someone on the surface of the planet at any point during the 2030s- albeit without killing them- then that means that less than a hundred years before the crew of the Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface, and a little over a hundred years after the invention of the airplane, a yet-unknown crew will have set foot on Martian soil, effectively colonizing the planet in the name of mankind.

This is very exciting for a lot of reasons. For one, it would be the most ambitious project humanity has ever worked on. Secondly, it would give us a foothold into another neighborhood turning the planet into a sort of gas station that would help us hop onto other worlds. Eventually- I mean far into the future- I’m sure humanity will be able to colonize all the other planets, providing us with immeasurable information about our little galactic corner. Thirdly, the moment the first human sets foot on Mars, we will know for sure that we are not grounded to this world forever; that day we will know that there is always a horizon to cross. But the main reason why all of this is exciting, is that perhaps humanity will come together for some other purpose than destroying ourselves and the only home we have ever known.

But that’s not the only thing that’s been going on lately.

Over the next few years another very ambitious, although much less dangerous, project will poise to tackle another one of those scientific conundrums that at some point even scientists thought would be impossible to accomplish. I guess we still haven’t learned not to use that word anymore- impossible.

With a “little” tool called the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, researchers at M.I.T. will be taking high resolution images of the black hole that lives right at the heart of our very own Milky Way galaxy. And if you know just how much of a diva our black hole is (that sounded weird) then you might guess just how hard it is to paparazzi a pic of it.

In this groundbreaking project  all the major super-telescopes around the world- and outside of it- will work in tandem in unprecedented collaboration to basically turn them into a giant mirror the size of Earth. Working as one, the new “it” will be programmed to snap a series of composite pictures of unrivaled quality (even by the Hubble Telescope) that, if it works as it is supposed to, will finally prove the existence of black holes by taking the very first picture ever of the one that resides near Sagittarius A.

Super-massive black hole (SMBH) swallowing nearby star. photo credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via photopin cc

Super-massive black hole (SMBH) swallowing nearby star.
photo credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center via photopin cc

How is it that we know where black holes are, if their namesake says it all? Up until now, the famous black holes we hear so much about have only existed on scientific papers and in computer simulations, even though there is very strong evidence that supports the idea that such phenomena actually exists in the universe. Scientists and researchers have been able to find where these black holes exist by measuring the loops and velocity of the stars that surround them (and the ones being gobbled up by them) with great success although lacking in actual visual technology. By using an array of existing equipment and powerful infrared and radio telescopes, these astronomers have spotted where most major super-massive black holes, or SMBH, are.

But why haven’t we done this before- you may ask? As I said before, black holes by definition are exactly that- super-massive vacuums that range in size, from several million solar masses to several billion (meaning the weight of several billions of our suns); however, they are totally and completely black. That’s because their gravity is so powerful that any information they eat, cannot escape, and that includes light- so far as we know. Hawking Radiation, named after astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, does a good job at explaining what goes on in the life of a black hole. By using light refraction and other methods, scientists have a pretty good idea of the size of these monsters and where they reside. And it just so happens that with some very advanced math (more advanced than your run-of-the-mill high school physics), they know just where to look. Up until now, the only impediment we ran across was that we didn’t have a sophisticated-enough camera to take that picture. Well, that is just about to change. And if it works, not only would they prove a theory that many thought could never be proven, but we, as humanity, would be taking a huge step forward in science, and THAT my friends is worth talking about.

Now if for some reason you think this is bullshit science or you believe that it cannot be possible, when you consider the amount of resources and thinking that go into making this possible, your head would spin faster than a neutron star (for this specific science reference check this out).

Just think about this, from our planet to where astronomers believe this SMBH is located- at the center of the Milky Way in the cluster of stars that is known as Sagittarius A– is a distance of 26 THOUSAND light-years. That means that going at the speed of light, it would take you 26 thousand years to reach it. That translates to a measurable distance of 141,087,012,989,961,860 miles. quatrillion is it? Not sure, but that’s a lot of numbers. Anyways, even with the most star wars-y ship ever constructed, there is nothing we could build that can go at the speed of light and thus, nearly impossible that we’ll ever see one up close. Then again, impossible is not something that applies anymore.

As for a wormhole that could bring us close to the black hole- impossible, they are purely theoretical, despite what the movie Interstellar might suggest. And besides, who the hell other than Matthew McConaughey- and maybe Han Solo- would want to get close to an object that swallows you forever? Okay I would actually want to see one…but still! Even though the math does have some evidence that wormholes could exist, they are not nearly as observable as black holes, and that is saying A LOT.

And then there’s the telescope itself. The technology involved in the project is state-of-the-art, and it even makes the Hubble Telescope look like a disposable camera next to a Canon EOS. Not to mention the painfully exacting level of coordination that it requires to coordinate most of the world’s major telescopes. The most precise atomic clock ever constructed was tailor-built specifically for this project in order to get all these major telescopes to work together in tandem.

So imagine being able to peer through the lens of a very, very, very expensive camera that is able to take a few pictures of something we cannot see, at a distance that is inconceivable. Not an easy thing to do. And that is why it is impressive.

 

The Push for Knowledge

 

It is the hunger for knowledge that drives humans to forgo the quickly-aging concept of conflict and war in order to discover the secrets the universe has in store for us. In a more adult way, we are like children being distracted at playing Indians and cowboys by the fireworks.

Right now, the world is currently experiencing the most peaceful era yet since we evolved into our current form of existence. I know what you’re thinking, “Are you fucking nuts?” Yes I agree with you, just when the world seems to be at its most fucked up, how can anyone say that nations are at their most polite behavior with each other? That says a lot about our nature. But if you step away from a minute from the constraint of time and become omnipotent- not sure how you could achieve that, but if you manage it let me know- then you would see that most of the wars that have been fought throughout history have been wars of ideologies and greed and not exactly for the acquisition of resources. I’m no one to argue with an historian, but I will venture my personal opinion and say that from my own look at history, it seems that until very recently, we’re talking merely a few dozen years, wars have been fought for the acquisition of resources. Even if it might appear that kingdoms and governments went to war for the natural resources of other nations (England and France are experts at this), with a little research what we start to realize is that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, conflicts due to ideologies are quickly becoming the thing of the past. Now this is actually a bad thing, for it means that the types of conflicts we are engaging in now are becoming increasingly about resources and less about “you don’t think what I think so therefore I must kill you.” Even at its most depleted, the world had healed enough that every nation- or nearly every nation- had enjoyed a higher level of natural comfort that urbanization has now taken away. So what we are left with is to investigate other reasons for why conflicts happen other than to take the same stuff that the people we are conquering already have.

Ideas. Mankind has fought and died for them, only because we had nothing to fall back on. In the good old days when you could make a claim about pretty much anything and if you made it sound convincing enough turned out to be “true”, nobody had the burden of proof. This created a huge problem because what the majority said, was law. This is a momentum that was violently halted several times by those in power who had different ideas about how the world was and about the questions and answers that a sixth grader could easily answer today. What we were left with were endless conflicts and violent suppressions of knowledge precisely because we knew nothing.

Since reason made its leap, humanity has slowly realized that the need for war is an obsolete human concept, a bad habit that is hard to get rid of. More and more people are banding together to cash in from the accomplishments of earlier men and women who dared to ask how and why. And their curiosity is justified. Scientific projects like the I.S.S. (International Space Station), the thousands of research efforts to eradicate disease, those others aimed to create more sustainable ways to keep the planet producing fuel and food for us while at the same trying to keep from destroying it, are only possible because more and more humans know now that together we make bigger and more significant leaps than the small steps we all take alone. How could any one country hope to do this all by itself? It would be nearly impossible, it takes a whole world to make it happen.

It is true that wars of ideologies still exist, you see them all the time on the news. But so do the wars for control of natural resources, and it is unfortunate that in this day and age, more and more battles are being fought to claim the resources of other nations. This only means that we should be doing a better job at keeping the planet healthy and alive. But it also means that there is still time and that opportunities should not be squandered fighting for them, but working actively and proactively to share them. It is illogical to use the resources you are fighting for, to make war to destroy another nation for those same resources. In this endless cycle of destruction, these resources like oil and natural gas and coal pollute not only the planet itself, but our future. And while the water-wars are claiming more lives every day, on the other side of the world, we couldn’t be happier about getting our new swimming pools installed. This is not a criticism for either party, for we should all be able to enjoy a drink of water as well as a morning swim, but it is a harsh criticism at the inability for all of us to help each other.

Meanwhile, there are idiots still fighting 14th century wars. And as the guns and bullets (objects shaped and created and dominated by scientific principles used for nefarious purposes) fly all about, those who fire them are still stuck in the notion that they know everything there is to know without any proof whatsoever. While the rest of the world is already several steps ahead of the curve, these miscreants are still killing each other over what a curve is. Now this wouldn’t be so bad if these children didn’t drag the adults behind. By this, I’m not saying that the rest of humanity doesn’t have a responsibility to stop this type of behavior, or that we should be content with the ignorant killing each other, but simply that some ideas warrant more attention than others. In my personal opinion if I have the choice to stop two idiots from killing each other over what the color red means, or to be able to peer into the depths of space with a telescope, admittedly 99 times out of 10 (you read that right) I would choose the latter. Of course if I can get the idiots to stop fighting by letting them peer into the universe themselves, then even better. But realistically it can’t be done simply because of the adamant ingrained hatred these idiots have for knowledge. What we come away with is a deep sense of sorrow that the rest of us can, quite literally, see the stars that dot the night sky, while others merely imagine that they’re there.

But do we have the resources to make the proverbial blind see? The answer is an easy ‘yes’. I would assume that if the transcendental works of Plato, or Newton, or Curie, or Einstein, or Hubble, or Hawking could bring us nearly infinite sources of energy like nuclear power, or things like rockets that shuttle us to structures of unimaginable size that house people that live outside of our planet, or devices that allow us to see trillions upon trillions of miles into the heart of the cosmos- then we certainly have the power and ability to get everyone on Earth involved in the future that all these people imagined for us.

 

What Does Science Do For Us? 

 

Science dominates our wor…err… our universe rather. It is is not a concept that can be divorced from our physical reality because it itself is our physical reality. Science is not just one thing that we can choose to ignore if we don’t like one, or all elements of it, it is an explanation for how things work, for how they are, for why the are. Science is both the interpretation of the order of things and the order of things themselves. But what is most beautiful about it is that we don’t have to rely on the interpretation of anyone else to know it is there, we can see it for ourselves if we are willing to look.

Everyday, the various fields of science create, destroy, discover, unearth, build things that only the crazy minds of all those science-fiction writers have thought of. In essence, science as a whole is a discipline of creativity.

A friend and I were talking about astronomy the other day and she explained to me how she is in love with math. I told her that I love that math exists (and how could it not), but that I cannot understand it even though I have such a passion for it as an amateur observer. As our conversation went along, she said that sometimes to think about math is to think outside the box, and I corrected by telling her that from what I’ve seen, especially in all those Wikipedia articles- probably the easiest way to read advanced math for me- is that all the math that has been discovered by all of those men and women who have dared to go into the crazy that crazy and abstract territory, have formulated these theories outside the box. There’s no other way really. Math in essence is a gift for those who are crazy enough to be that creative, and a curse to all of those who simply understand it. Math being the framework of all things scientific, is rebellious in that more rules exist outside of it than within it, we just haven’t discovered them all yet.

But from a practical standpoint, science has given humanity everything we see around us. Everything from your shitty old cellphone to your shitty new cellphone. Just think about the world that we are living in today and you will realize that all the stuff you see is the product of scientific discovery. From the pavement we walk on, to the very shoes we wear, to the cars we drive and yes, even the pollution that they cause.

problem solving concept

I know what you’re thinking- … okay I don’t know what you’re thinking but I can guess. Yes science can and has been used for nefarious purposes, in fact science is always being used for nefarious purposes. Guns, poisons, missiles, explosives, nukes! All of these inventions cause pain and suffering every single day. So why trust something that creates morally reprehensible objects of death! Valid question. Nuclear power, for example, has brought much calamity to humanity since its discovery. During World War II- a time when most of mankind’s greatest discoveries went to cheapen humanity’s ingenuity by being applied to things to kill other humans- two whole cities were obliterated and literally leveled due to man’s appetite for destruction. Over time, thousands of lives have been extinguished both in intentional and unintentional incidents involving nuclear power, some of them very recent. It is a bit depressing, after all, to know that the first thing created after the discovery of nuclear power was specifically invented to incinerate the bodies of living people, and whether or not you believe that dropping those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved more lives than they took, we will never know. What we do know is the unprecedented destruction that they caused, not to mention the millions of lives (Men, women, children, the elderly, and animals) that they took as the terrifying mushroom clouds towered up into the Japanese skies. And then there’s the peace-time accidents such as those in Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the most recent in Fukushima. But if we look at things objectively- hard to do when you’re talking about human lives, or any lives actually- since their invention, guns alone have killed many times more people than all the nuclear accidents combined. And just like any other invention, guns too hold a special place in the Wall of Shame of human inventions. In this case, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that nuclear power has been grossly misused, when it could be used, as it has been, for peaceful purposes, creating cheap energy that is virtually limitless.

Yes, science can be scary and deadly, but it is also a thing of beauty. And without going too much into philosophical or religious themes, I can also say that contrary to what many people believe, science does offer a moral framework that we need not look anywhere else for, and it lies in the peaks and valleys of human comfort (to borrow from Sam Harris‘ “The Moral Landscape”). By how we behave with ourselves and others, we can infer as to the type of people we are and the type of humans we hope to be. By learning more about the world and about the universe and about humans and how we relate to everything and to each other it is possible to have a good moral standing when it comes to knowing what to do with the power at hand. In effect, science can bring us together, as it has before.

 

The Humans of Today

 

And then we have the scientists who actually push the envelope to educate and inform the people about what science is, how it works, and why it’s useful. People like the astrophysicsts Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye “the science guy”, and the team of the Orion project, and the White Coats who work in labs and hospitals all over the world, and those honest ones who wish to advance this knowledge, all of them, a few among many, who wish to change the environment of ignorance that still to this day plagues our schoolrooms. With their own knowledge, they wish to entice people to learn about science and to be curious about it.

And behind them there are students, artists, bloggers, reporters, and amateur scientists, or simply the ranks of the curious, always pushing for new discoveries and always standing by when called upon for help. These people are the modern humans of today who see a benefit to all this. Those are the humans that our early ancestors considered gods as they wondered what was in the plants and in the waters and in the stars as they gazed up at the firmament.

science

The humans of today, well most of them at least, understand the importance of scientific discovery. And one of the beautiful things about science in general is that we can all be players to a game for which its rules we all understand and one where we all stand to benefit in some way. Which is why we are spending more and more money on scientific research worldwide- granted, not as much as we should be spending, but still a lot.

But as we acquire a deeper understanding of those mysterious and hidden things, it would serve us well to exercise a measure of control in the way we use that knowledge. Unless we want to see the next invention disappear an entire country into a plume of dust a la Angels and Demons, we need to be morally responsible for how we use science and be held responsible for when we misuse it. It’s bound to happen again, hopefully our discoveries will not end the planet as we have threatened to do in years past.

 

WHY SCIENCE?

 

Why not? Nothing else is- or has, for that matter- advanced knowledge the way science has in all of human history. Let’s go back a couple of million years when our primate cousins were starting to get down from the trees and were experimenting walking upright. The thing we now know as science was pushing these creatures to discover new “heights”. Now let’s move forward a few thousand years. Sometime in our early past, a person discovered how to make fire, how to carve a wheel out of stone, how to wield iron; all of these examples of our early ingenuity are examples of the early science of mankind. And although we don’t know the names (if they even had names) of these early humans, their discoveries remain with us to this day. That’s pretty impressive for someone who still fought sabretooth tigers!

So as we enjoyed watching the meteor shower that just happened a few days ago, or the bright objects in the firmament some of which are planets, other stars, and yet others objects made by the hands of men and women, we can be certain that scientific inquiry will not only find ways to explain the seemingly unexplained but can also create seemingly impossible things to create in a universe where the “impossible” is just another frontier waiting to be crossed.

 

 

A beautiful nebula (irregular galaxy, NGC 4449) over the Earth

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For more information about the Orion spacecraft and other space articles, check out these interesting pages:

http://www.theverge.com/2014/12/5/7338839/the-first-test-flight-of-nasas-new-orion-spacecraft

http://www.theverge.com/2014/12/8/7353221/us-navy-rescued-orion-from-ocean-nasa

http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/OrionMARAugust2013.pdf

http://news.yahoo.com/russian-scientist-spies-mountain-sized-asteroid-heading-way-170022867.html

And if you wish to know more about science in general check out these websites:

http://www.livescience.com

http://www.nasa.gov.

http://www.howstuffworks.com

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Oh and by the way, if you wish to see a really intersting movie about one of humanity’s brightest living minds, you should check out “The Theory of Everything” about astrophysicist Stephen Hawkins’ life. It will not disappoint you.

 

Skepticism. Believe it!

Questioms in question mark

 

The realm of science can be a very tricky and unknown place filled with doubt and wrong turns. Sometimes it can get pretty dark and lonely, and for each useful discovery, there could be hundreds that are not so easy to find and even less that are very useful. And while you may think that every scientific discovery is worth knowing about, every now and then, humanity uses them for evil, fucked up purposes. And yet, I still trust science more than anything else. And so should you.

That tragic scenario I just described is just one face of the scientific process where even your guides (scientists) doubt themselves often and where even the smartest people in history have felt dumb at times. Science is a surefire way to humble even the most learned, the most respected, the most insightful of human beings. Why? Because it’s perfect!

 

Be a Skeptic!

 

Imagine if all the works of your favorite author, whether it’s Fitzgerald, King, Hemingway or even Dr. Seuss, had never been properly edited and carefully combed through for mistakes and errors, imagine how many glaring punctuation fails and misspellings (Scott Fitzgerald was known for not knowing how to spell simple words) those famous and important documents would be full of had not an army of editors fixed them word by word to shape them into the timeless works of art that we have now. I simply couldn’t imagine having to go through “For Whom the Bell Tolls” stopping every two words to make sense of what I just read- not that Hemingway was a terrible speller or a bad punctuationalist (I think I just invented a new word). Imagine just how difficult to understand anything would have to be if there were not people criticizing and editing every book that came out.

Believe it or not, science works the exact same way. With each experiment performed, and with each result obtained, there is usually an army of scientists all over the world expecting to scrutinize those results to fine-tune the original hypothesis, or to add commentary on it. Sometimes this “fact-checking” starts long before the actual experiment is done and continues on long after the results have been published, sometimes taking years, decades, or even centuries of proofreading, if you will.

Science is like a very exact and methodical art. Unlike a painting, science cannot just be created or manipulated at will, it cannot be thought up or destroyed and restarted, science is discovery, and while some experiments can in fact be manipulated and created, most of the science that is performed in labs, under very specific conditions, follows very strict rules that all scientists are bound by.

If you are thinking we created things like nuclear power, I will be inclined to say that you are very, very wrong. Nuclear power has existed for billions of years, and it is even the stuff that powers our very own star- the sun. However, humans did invent a way to harness that power for good and for nefarious purposes. It can be used as fission to create huge amounts of energy that could power entire cities with just one nuclear plant, or it could be used to destroy entire cities with one bomb. But putting aside for a second the moral implications of this discovery, we can all assert that even discoveries like these- used for good or bad purposes- usually follow this scientific process that we call the scientific method.

Mostly all scientists who devote their lives to the fields of science, recognize the necessity to employ this scientific method in all their work. After all it was a practice (more like a discipline) that has been evolving for millennia and continues to evolve. Without it, perhaps every scientific field would not have gotten as far as it has, and many more preventable accidents would’ve occurred, not to mention that the incidence of questionable practices might have multiplied many times over from what we know now. Along with the moral rules that evolved into their present form not too long ago, the scientific method is not very old either, although its background extends further than we think. But today we will focus on one specific part of this process as you can definitely find everything else there is to know on the rest of the scientific method.

What might look like a common cut-throat practice- as the revision process can be quite brutal sometimes- the scientific method allows scientists to build upon the initial research and help their fellow scientists achieve that goal in global unity. Skepticism is name of the game! It is a very important part of science that, once again, although it might seem harsh at times, it is essential in understanding the work better.

Over the years, many scientists have been bullied and sometimes even discredited for publishing works that, at the time, were condemned by their peers. Some of them have been avenged by the advancement of technology, allowing modern scientists to test these otherwise untestable theories and confirming or denying their results. Some others slipped into obscurity due to the harsh rejection. But for every instance in which a scientist has been rejected even by their own community, there are countless others who have pushed forward progress and understanding due to their ability to work with other scientists in testing these theories. Another important reason to use the scientific method is to simply find better ways to do things.

It is no wonder that in less than 30 years, humanity went from carriages to cars, from dreaming about flying to achieving flight. And less than 50 years after the invention of the first flying machine, humanity was able to do what early humans first thought about doing- reaching space.

The clear, and rather fast, advancement of technology to what we have today is only a testament to the power of this discipline. The power to ask why and how has pushed through boundaries that humans believed were impossible to reach. And yet, there are many who are unbelievers just for the sake of it.

In the realm of science there is a little device each and every scientist must make use of to expand the knowledge that any person has just acquired, not only for the advancement in his or her field, but for everyone’s understanding, the scientist and the layperson alike, this thing is called skepticism.

If you were not aware of this before, skepticism, in this context, is not the willing deniability of something simply because you don’t believe it, it is the questioning of ideas and processes to better understand them. Basically, it’s scrutinizing the scientist’s own work. Why do scientists do this? You might ask, well the answer is a lot more fascinating than you think. Keep reading, if you are interested to know just how skepticism, not only helps science, but actually is one of its cornerstones.

Skepticism takes whatever claims science and scientists make about the world and questions them to make sure that what’s being said is correct and clear and that it benefits us in some way. Sometimes the results, even those already questioned, are a bit muddled and what they say doesn’t benefit us in the ways that we would like, but really the point of being a skeptic is to understand the conversation. And in this regard, we are all beneficiaries.

There is also an ugly side to skepticism that doesn’t benefit anyone, not the scientists, not the policy-makers, not the public, not anyone. This ugly side actually shuts down the conversation and stops whatever possibility of understanding right in its tracks and it should never be used. Deniability is the thing to avoid.

 

Deny the Deniers

 

Imagine that you’re standing in the Louvre, there are hundreds of people crowded around you trying to get a glimpse of one of the most important paintings ever, and all you can see is a wooden frame, no picture inside it. You’re wondering what the hell is going on, you even ask someone next to you what it is that everyone is staring at. You expect some museum curator to walk out with DaVinci’s famous Mona Lisa. The person next to you turns and starts laughing at you, and you’re just there wondering why all these crazy people are laughing at you.

Deniability exists everywhere. From the moment we wake up, to the time we go to bed, we are deniers of one thing or another. Whether we believe in god or not; whether we believe in aliens or not; whether we believe in the healing power of popping plastic air bubbles or not, deniability exists everywhere. The world is ripe with it. However, there is one place where deniability just has no place for. If you said “church”, you might want to stop reading here and go pray or something. And no, the answer is not the church.

While you may think that denial and skepticism are two faces to the same coin, or that there is a fine line in between them, let me tell you flat out that you are wrong! To not make it sound so harsh I’ll just say, nah.

The word skeptic is not very well understood by many people, while the word “denial” is clearly defined by most, the problem is when people confuse the two- and it happens a lot more often than you think.

Let’s go back to the Louvre.

Imagine yourself among hundreds of people laughing and pointing at you and you are just terrified. People are urging you to look at the picture, but all you see is an empty wooden frame hanging on the wall. How can you possibly see something that it’s not there? Then someone tells you to go and touch the picture. You do, and to your surprise, before your hand touches the wall it touches something else. It feels flat and grainy- a canvas. Then you see it, the face of the Mona Lisa staring at you smirking, watching as the security guards are racing towards you to tackle you.

Science is very much like this scenario. Researchers and scientists formulate conjectures about problems they come across and review ideas formulated much earlier than them to turn that canvas into something real. Sometimes it takes a lot of work and a long time to make that canvas appear before all those who can’t see it. These people are trained over many years and mostly always have a lot of schooling behind them to prove that the rest of us are not just crazy, and that certainly they themselves are not cuckoo.

So when does skepticism become deniability and how does it hurt us?

At present, 18% of people in the United States don’t believe that global warming is a real phenomenon. An even bigger number, 40%, does not believe that it is man-made. And being skeptic about the following poll numbers, a preposterous 36% of Americans believe that global warming is directly related to the end-times. Now I don’t want to offend anyone, but this is my blog so I can pretty much say what I want, and in that regard I’ll say, don’t pay attention to this last group of yahoos. As for the other two groups, there is a huge disconnect between what scientists know and what people believe, even though those numbers have been declining over the years.

It is no secret that people will believe what they are often told by authority figures, even if some of those figures have nothing to do with scientific research, ahem, politicians, cough cough. And it is also not news that what people believe is psychologically understandable in some context or other. What seems to be true however, is that the majority of people often believe- or don’t believe- what is convenient or inconvenient, respectively, for them. Even when the problem is staring them straight in the face.

China is the most populated country on Earth. Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, China has 1.3 billion people living within its borders. Out of those at least 50% of its population already live in major cities where the vast majority of rivers and canals are severely polluted to the point that there will not be any potable water left in China in the next few decades. These are figures that you can find anywhere but even the Chinese ministry of public health is saying that soon even the aquifers are going to go dry and that there will be no more clean water in the surface. And yet, there are no massive mobilization efforts to clean up the very water that the Chinese people consume on a daily basis.

If you can muster the courage to look at the pictures of animal carcasses floating by a child swimming in oily, trash-ridden, lakes and rivers, you should. The clear devastation of the environment in a growing economy, cannot and should not be ignored any longer and yet it is. It is inconvenient for the Chinese government to reduce it’s CO2 output and stop factories from dumping acid in the water systems. It is inconvenient for a growing economy and at best it is mostly allowed by the Chinese population, at worst they are being victimized by it.

There is no reason to deny such clear-cut evidence of human destruction on the environment on this case- any attempt would be cynicism at its worst. But there are other instances in which the evidence is not so well defined by what we can see, and which affects us at a pace that’s so slow that most of us deny it almost unanimously. This is when scientists have the hardest time convincing us that the Mona Lisa, really is there. Yes, this is one of those blogs!

 

Why Should We Trust the White Coats?

 

Right now, there is no doubt that the planet is heating up. The polar ice caps, and many glaciers around the world, are melting faster than previous years, and the chaotic weather anomalies all over the world seem to be multiplying year to year.

Over the decades many people, some scientists included, have declared that these weather patterns and natural occurrences are not due to human actions (“how could they be?” is their battle cry for some). But as more and more studies are done, something incredibly difficult to do by the way, many of these people have even retracted their statements showing- keyword SHOWING- us that not only is global warming a real issue, but that it is also man-made because of the burning of fossil fuels combined with the natural heating patterns of the planet, among other causes.

We could debate the issue in public forums, and we could even go as far as to say that the research is incomplete or fabricated, and yet we continue to experience rising temperatures and crazy weather all the time. The people denying these claims simply say that it is a normal occurrence and forget that 97% of scientists  (government and private organizations included) say otherwise. And that their denial hurts honest opportunities to set the course straight.

But that is the beauty of science, that it is blinder than justice, because although you can mask the results, destroy the research, even stop all further inquiry, the answer will always still be there, truer and permanent for any other person to eventually find it. Many discoveries scientists, or natural philosophers as they were known not too long ago, have been duplicated and even rediscovered by a lot of people over the centuries in different ways or for different purposes.

Most people who deny sound scientific evidence, cannot themselves put forth a better explanation of the facts and/or lack the capacity to conduct these herculean researches due to a lack of understanding of science. I mean 97% of scientists is no small number. Most of these people often fear what the results will show and thus deny them out of incomprehension- this is involuntary denial. These are the ones we forgive because with education we can show them that the evidence, while scary, it’s true and most of all important for we can still reverse that course. Then there is the other kind, those who deny it out of interest. Those are certainly the ones we do not forgive, even though they often walk free. It is no surprise that destroying the environment is much more profitable than protecting it, but if these people at least had the balls and the decency to admit what their interest does, not just to environment but to all forms of life, us included, and stopped trying to falsify the evidence and hard work that has been put into showing the population what they do to us, then maybe we would have a greater chance of doing something about protecting the environment or at least giving a lot more credibility to scientists and researchers. Until they do, public policy will always sway in between those who believe and those who stupidly don’t, to the benefit of no one. It is sad to admit that while science is infallible, public opinion and public action are not.

 

The Benefit of Believing.

 

If you are one of the objective ones, it will console you to know that the gap between those who trust science and scientists and those who still do not is narrowing. In essence, as the population gets smarter and more educated, there is a new front pushing for logical principles based on evidence, and this totally helps the scientific cause- the most noble of them all.

No one is telling you to believe blindly. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Scientists and researchers invite and encourage others- especially people not very literate in science- to question everything, even their very own beliefs. They ask you not to trust, in good faith (pun intended), anyone’s claims until they have been substantiated by hard evidence, through the revision of their work. And we should trust what scientists have to say because unlike the rest of us, they can actually explain it and they do. Not to mention they way more PhD’s than I do. The best part is that the more they know, the more we know and then we can influence our decisions and base our fears on more solid evidence than on no evidence at all.

It is a basic human need to feel accepted and included, and even scientists feel annoyance, frustration and even anger when the arduous work they put into understanding something doesn’t yield the results they hoped for or is simply not accepted by the scientific community or the public. However, most of them are adult enough, and sound enough, to admit when they are wrong and when their research lacks substance. But unlike the scientists from thousands of years ago, when nobody had any idea what the hell was going on, and even if you did you couldn’t prove it, the science from today is conducted in a more professional manner in which not only you question what they do, but they also question it among themselves. And if you have ever been questioned by someone who knows exactly how your job is done, then you know just how frustrating it can be.

Scientists- or at least the honest ones- are not making empty claims that they know you will simply trust. Unlike religion, or other organizations that make impossible-to-prove claims, science is relatively easy to use, if you have the know-how, and everyone is welcome to do it. I will not deny that science has created some of the most vile inventions in human history and I will not justify that reality. But, if humanity had the power and determination to create such horrible things, then we surely have the power to turn that destruction into creation. Let’s not forget that scientists are humans too and they err, but lets’ also remember that science is true and that it exists whether we deny it or not, but most importantly, it can be tested and proved to be either accurate or otherwise.

There is an obvious benefit to trusting what people who are more knowledgeable than us can teach us. Not only will we know way more about the world we inhabit and the universe we are part of, but we can also spot the threats, change the course in which history is going, and perhaps even one day do what countless generations before us have imagined they could do, to go places where we think it’s impossible to go. While other, less true disciplines deny their own impossibilities, science is the only one that can prove that nothing is as impossible as we once thought. And we should trust that.

But above all, question everything.