Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Once again, the newspapers tell us of minor contamination in the drinking water in Madison. Sometimes it is a chemical element, particularly if it is radioactive. At other times, it might be a whole chemical or a bacterium or a virus. Often it is a pollutant that cannot be surely written off as harmless, but threatening enough that there are people who will buy bottled water or invest in a filtering system that requires rejuvenation every six months or so. There are several ways to deal with such a marginal threat, but the cheapest one is for the answerable agency to deny that there is an actual threat there, until all the dodges have been exhausted and the responsible authorities must, finally, deal with the situation. Even when they must eventually do the right thing, the time to correct it can be stretched out by the injection of uncertainty until, in the meantime, much harm can have been done. An outstanding example was the downwinders of Utah living to the NE of the testing range for nuclear weapons. The US Government denied for a whole generation that they were facing deadly radiation while the children grew up to lives dominated by thyroid cancer. Less horrible, but bad enough, were the denials that coal dust was causing cancer, similarly with asbestos, cotton lint, and various sorts of dust. In every such instance there was a commercial interest that would benefit financially by having the threat overlooked, permanently if possible but profitable if temporary. So there was the campaign to prevent the removal of lead from gasoline, to say nothing of the decades of denials that smoking helps cause cancer. In Madison, it is time to take by the horns the obligation to provide the city with drinking water as safe as can be, either by running a system of providing pure water as soon as possible or at least a filter system that flushes itself automatically so that decades can pass between replacement of filters. Until that happens, many people will drink bottled water, and many will discard the bottles where their disposition will be a burden on the City, which will not be adequately addressed by complaining about the bottles that have to be rounded up and disposed of.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Once again, as Martin Luther King moves from civil beatification to sainthood, it is time to remember who has won a place with him in the memory of the American people. For it is easy to forget that the Civil Rights Movement, while advancing the civilization of our people, was a noisy and somewhat disorderly experience, marked by civil disobedience and some that occasionally lacked some of its civility. It is always the case that there are those who would prefer that protest take place at low decibels, so that the ruling classes can get on with their agenda. Cynics describe this as the desire of those classes to have their war in peace. There were places, including some universities, some cities, some states and some countries, that signed on to the protest, and there were others for which the ripples in the fabric of order were enough that they labeled people like Dr. King as disturbers of the peace, even when that peace, paradoxically, involved the passive signing on to war, despite the nagging of conscience. Two of the latter class were named Wisconsin, both the State and the University. In the academic year 1967-68, Dr. King had come out in support of protests against the war, in both places. This irregularity was taken as nearly treasonable by the establishments in both. In the University, he was nominated for an honorary doctorate by the Department of Sociology with scattered support. As nearly as can be discerned in a committee that declined to offer any rationale, the anger that was manifest in some of the Establishment over his failure to second the false account that put us into the war was taken as nearly treasonable. And thus Wisconsin managed to place itself into the dishonor roll of those who would not join in praising Dr. King’s message of peace until later in that year, when he had already been assassinated, and in many cases not until much later. One poet wrote of those who would hold back their praise for Truth “till her cause shall come to flower and ‘tis prosperous to be just”. So today the State and University praise Dr. King every January as though we had not denied him when he was still alive to do his great work.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Close to the center of the rage about the adequacy of teaching in US K-12 schools is the difficulty in reaching students in Mathematics, even elementary Arithmetic. This is due in part to the fact that most students, their parents and their teachers think of Math as the art of carrying out calculations, and these have been reduced to carrying out certain memorized procedures. Indeed, the art of teaching the procedures has been sharpened specifically to eliminate almost all need for a deep understanding, which can command time and attention. In the process, we rob our students of the intellectual adventure that has been so central in creating the growing discipline of commanding the artificial intellectual structure we call Mathematics. When we attempted to improve the students’ understanding in the 1960s and 70s by teaching what became known as the New Math, we ran into a block by parents and teachers who thought that what they knew was all that it was required to know, and resented the idea that they would need to learn some “new” ideas to improve that understanding. The belief in Mathematics not as an adventure in human knowledge of this intellectual structure, but as just the art of getting the answers without being “burdened” with comprehension infects our understanding even well into graduate study. Meanwhile, almost all of the intellectual world (excluding the portion that speaks English) has adopted the New Math and has left us behind while it caters to those who can handle the development of this discipline. Attempts by the universities to expand those theoretical limitations has been rejected by the students, their administrators and parents, who seem to prefer a world of authoritarian rules that can be applied with rote ease and without mental strain. The history and philosophy of this voyage out of ignorance are dismissed as luxuries, with the mechanical extraction of calculation being thought of as the true meaning of the study. Since this end is available without the “philosophy” and can be increasingly built into machines, the human content is eliminated. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is not standing still.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Just this Monday morning, the new WI government slipped all the working people into the chains of an economy run by the representatives of the predator class, a fate that we all bought into in November. Largely through indifference, or ignorance, or pique or not paying attention, we fell into the peril that has always surrounded democracy whenever the electorate slackens its eternal vigilance. It is not as though we have not had most of the XX Century in which to learn that the J. P. Morgans and the bankers and the Enrons and the BPs and the Exxons of the world are not the friends of the working people of US, but for most of this century the Hearsts and the Murdochs of the West have been driving home the pernicious lie that our best interests in escaping the fate of the Russian Empire lie in entrusting our fates and those of our children and grandchildren to the super-rich representatives of the class of the economic pirates and banksters. And last year we again put our treasuries at their disposal, with the economy of the state of WI being put into the care of one of those predatory corporations pledged to the enrichment of their stockholders, instead of the elected leaders of the People. It is not as though the past 10 years had not shown us, in the hands of the Bush-Cheney gang, how thoroughly they could fleece us via the defense scam. But since the socialists, and then the communists, overthrew the medieval Russian Tsars, it has been a prime project of the owners of US newspapers, followed by radio, television, and blogs, to convince us that in order to be free of the Bolsheviks, and even the Cubans, we must entrust our economic welfare to those who have shriveled our unions, overturned the Progressive movement, and turned us back toward the Old Regime in EU in the XIX Century. And now our negligence has meant that it will be at least 4 years, and more likely 8 or 10, until we will have any chance to begin restoring the government of WI to the needs of the People, and away from the predatory rule of WMC and their ilk.