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A Betrayal: A teen who helped police against MS-13 is hung out to die

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Hannah Dreier reports in ProPublica:

IF HENRY IS KILLED, his death can be traced to a quiet moment in the fall of 2016, when he sat slouched in his usual seat by the door in 11th-grade English class. A skinny kid with a shaggy haircut, he had been thinking a lot about his life and about how it might end. His notebook was open, its pages blank. So he pulled his hoodie over his earphones, cranked up a Spanish ballad and started to write.

He began with how he was feeling: anxious, pressured, not good enough. It would have read like a journal entry by any 17-year-old, except this one detailed murders, committed with machetes, in the suburbs of Long Island. The gang Henry belonged to, MS-13, had already killed five students from Brentwood High School. The killers were his friends. And now they were demanding that he join in the rampage.

Classmates craned their necks to see what he was working on so furiously. But with an arm shielding his notebook, Henry was lost in what was turning out to be an autobiography. He was transported back to a sprawling coconut grove near his grandfather’s home in El Salvador. In front of him was a blindfolded man, strung up between two trees, arms and legs splayed in the shape of an X. All around him were members of MS-13, urging him on. Then the gang’s leader, El Destroyer, stepped forward. He was in his 60s, with the letters MStattooed on his face, chest and back. A double-edged machete glinted in his hand. He wanted Henry to kill the blindfolded man.

For years, the gang had paid for Henry’s school uniforms, protected him from rival gangs and given his grandmother meat for the family. In exchange, Henry had delivered messages and served as a lookout. Then the gang started asking him to come to shootouts, to help show strength in numbers. They also beat him for 13 seconds — an initiation ritual — and asked him to choose a gang name. He eventually settled on Triste, the Spanish word for “sad.” What you become when your parents abandon you as a toddler and go to America and leave you behind in a slum.

Henry hunched over his notebook, oblivious to the kids around him. Now he was 12, standing in the coconut grove, and it was time to complete the final initiation rite. He took the machete. It was sharper, with more teeth, than the one he used for chores at home. El Destroyer traced his index finger on the trembling man to show Henry where to cut: first the throat, then across the stomach.

“Your first killing will be hard,” El Destroyer told him. “It will hurt. But I’ve killed 34 people. I’m too tired to do this one.” He said the devil was there in the grove and needed fresh blood. And if Henry didn’t kill the man, the gang would kill them both.

So, to live a little longer, I had to do it.

But now, Henry wrote, he wanted to escape the life that had followed him from El Salvador. If he stayed in the gang, he knew he would die. He needed help.

He tore out the pages and hid them inside another assignment, like a message in a bottle. Then he walked up to his teacher’s desk and turned them in.

A week later, Henry was called to the principal’s office to speak with the police officer assigned to the school. In El Salvador, Henry had learned to distrust the police, who often worked for rival gangs or paramilitary death squads. But the officer assured Henry that the Suffolk County police were not like the cops he had known before he sought asylum in the United States. They could connect him to the FBI, which could protect him and move him far from Long Island.

So after a childhood spent in fear, Henry made the first choice he considered truly his own. He decided to help the FBI arrest his fellow gang members.

Henry’s cooperation was a coup for law enforcement. MS-13 was in the midst of a convulsion of violence that claimed 25 lives in Long Island over the past two years.

President Trump had seized on MS-13 as a symbol of the dangers of immigration, referring to parts of Long Island as “bloodstained killing fields.” Police were desperately looking for informants who could help them crack how the gang worked and make arrests. Henry gave them a way in.

Under normal circumstances, Henry’s choice would have been his salvation. By working with the police, he could have escaped the gang and started fresh. But not in the dawning of the Trump era, when every immigrant has become a target and local police in towns like Brentwood have become willing agents in a nationwide campaign of detention and deportation. Without knowing it, Henry had picked the wrong moment to help the authorities.

HENRY HAD TRIED to escape MS-13 before.

From the day he joined the gang, he was part of an operation that trafficked in a single product: violence. Other criminal enterprises attract members who want to get rich and who sell drugs or women or stolen goods to achieve that aim. Violence is a tool for carving out territory and regulating the marketplace. MS-13, by contrast, was established by Salvadoran refugees in Los Angeles who were seeking community after fleeing civil war. The gang offers a sense of security and belonging to its members, who kill to strengthen the group and move up the ranks. Members sometimes sell marijuana and cocaine, but major cartels have been uninterested in partnering with the gang, because purposeless violence is bad for business. MS-13 kills in large groups to minimize betrayal, and it uses machetes, a weapon even the poorest can afford.

In his first few years running with the gang in El Salvador, Henry witnessed more than a dozen murders. He learned how soft skin feels when you slice into it and how bodies, when they are sprayed with bullets, look like they are dancing. Then, in 2013, a shaky truce between MS-13 and the rival gang Barrio 18 broke down. The country’s slums became as dangerous as any war zone. One afternoon, when he was 15, Henry was playing cards in an abandoned lot when he got a call from a stranger. The voice on the phone told him that if he did not leave the country within 24 hours, he would be disappeared — along with his grandparents. To protect his family, Henry set out that night to join his mother and father on Long Island. Before he left, his grandfather made him promise he would use the new start to break with the gang.

Henry made the journey north through Mexico stowed away in the back of a livestock truck. Some 200,000 unaccompanied children from Central America have shown up at the U.S. border since 2013, and nearly 8,000 continued on to Long Island, most to join parents who had settled there years earlier. The suburbs have proved an ideal landing spot — close to low-wage work around New York City and filled with illegal basement apartments. By the time Henry arrived, so many Salvadorans were living in Suffolk County that El Salvador had opened a consulate in the town of Brentwood, the only foreign government with an office on Long Island.

Henry entered the U.S. legally, turning himself over at the border and pleading for asylum. He was granted release pending a final hearing that could be years away, and sent to join his mother. He didn’t recognize her when she ran up to him at JFK Airport, clutching welcome balloons; in all the time she’d been gone, she had never sent him a photo. As they headed to her apartment, he learned that she had long ago separated from his father. He soon became acquainted with her abusive boyfriend, who one day threw hot cooking oil at her head, landing her in the hospital with third-degree burns. His father helped Henry lie about his immigration status and age to get a job in a factory, where he worked 12-hour shifts punching perforations in toilet paper for $9 an hour. On payday, he handed over almost all his earnings to his mother, who expected him to pay for rent and groceries. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

The US has become a hostile, unreasoning place for its most vulnerable. Take a look at these additional reports:

Former MS-13 Member Who Secretly Helped Police Is Deported – Also by Hannah Dreier, and a follow-up to the story above.

What It Was Like Reporting on a Teenager Marked for Death by the Gang MS-13 – Dreier comments on the emotional and psychological impact of reporting the story

He Drew His School Mascot — and ICE Labeled Him a Gang Member – Dreier reports on another injustice by the US.

Long Island Schools Move to Curb Police Role in Detaining Immigrant Students – A step in the right direction

The Hunted: What happens when you say no to MS-13 – A grim report.

The Disappeared: Police on Long Island wrote off missing immigrant teens as runaways. One mother knew better

Written by LeisureGuy

22 January 2019 at 12:36 pm

Our Language Affects What We See

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Catherine L. Caldwell-Harris, Ph.D., writes in Scientific American:

Does the language you speak influence how you think? This is the question behind the famous linguistic relativity hypothesis, that the grammar or vocabulary of a language imposes on its speakers a particular way of thinking about the world.

The strongest form of the hypothesis is that language determines thought. This version has been rejected by most scholars. A weak form is now thought to be obviously true, which is that if one language has a specific vocabulary item for a concept but another language does not, then speaking about the concept may happen more frequently or more easily. For example, if someone explained to you, an English speaker, the meaning for the German term Schadenfreude, you could recognize the concept, but you may not have used the concept as regularly as a comparable German speaker.

Scholars are now interested in whether having a vocabulary item for a concept influences thought in domains far from language, such as visual perception. Consider the case of the “Russian blues.” While English has a single word for blue, Russian has two words, goluboy for light blue and siniy for dark blue. These are considered “basic level” terms, like green and purple, since no adjective is needed to distinguish them. Lera Boroditsky and her colleagues displayed two shades of blue on a computer screen and asked Russian speakers to determine, as quickly as possible, whether the two blue colors were different from each other or the same as each other. The fastest discriminations were when the displayed colors were goluboy and siniy, rather than two shades of goluboy or two shades of siniy. The reaction time advantage for lexically distinct blue colors was strongest when the blue hues were perceptually similar.

To determine if words were being automatically (and perhaps unconsciously) activated, the researchers added the following twist: they asked their Russian participants to perform a verbal task at the same time as making their perceptual discrimination. This condition eliminated the reaction time advantage of contrasting goluboy and siniy. However, a nonverbal task (a spatial task) could be done at the same time while retaining the goluboy/siniy advantage. The dual task variants indicated that the task of discriminating color patches was aided by silent activation of verbal categories. English speakers tested on the identical discrimination tasks showed no advantage for the light blue / dark blue trials.

Recently the Russian Blues have been used again to investigate how language influences thought. In the journal Psychological Science,  Martin Maier and Rasha Abdel Rahman investigated whether the color distinction in the “Russian Blues” would help the brain become consciously aware of a stimulus which might otherwise go unnoticed. Would salience help a light blue color, or a dark blue color be noticed (i.e., enter conscious awareness) in a situation in which attention is overloaded and not all stimuli can be noticed?

The task selected to investigate this is the “attentional blink.” This is an experimental paradigm frequently used to test whether a stimuli is consciously noticed. Research participants are asked to monitor a sequence of stimuli, displayed at high speeds (typically at least 10 per second), and to press a button every time they see a certain item. The searched-for-item can be a letter amidst a sequence of numbers; or that target can be, for example, an emotion word of in a sequence neutral words. Participants are very good at detecting the first target they see, but if a second target follows immediately after the first, or with a lag of 2-3 items, the second target can be missed. It is as if the brain’s attentional system “blinked.” The reason for the missed item can be understood intuitively: the brain was busy processing the first target and didn’t have attentional resources to spare to detect the second target.

In the decades since it was discovered, the attentional blink has been used in myriad ways to document what stimuli have an advantage in capturing attention. For example, imagine that you are asked to monitor for instances of proper names in a stream of rapidly displayed nouns. You do not miss your own name even if it occurs after a prior target. Researchers conclude that the salience of your own name protects it from the attentional blink.

Would the salience of a blue color contrast, using the Russian Blues, protect a stimulus from the attentional blink? The authors tested whether colored triangles could be detected more easily when the triangles were made visually salient by being positioned against a contrasting color. For example, a dark green color against a light green background is harder to see than a dark green color against a dark blue background. Green against blue is easier to see because of the strong color contrast between dark blue and dark green provided by linguistic categorization. What if the colors were goluboy and siniy? For Russians speakers, contrasting light and dark blue should be as salient as the contrast between dark green and dark blue (always being careful to keep perceptual similarity between contrasting stimuli comparable).

Maier and Rahman designed stimuli that were geometric shapes positioned against a light blue circle. The task of research participants was to press a button when they saw either a semi-circle or a triangle, ignoring stars, squares, diamonds and other shapes. Distractor shapes were plain grey shapes against a light blue background. As noted, the targets, which were triangles or semi-circles, were colored in ways that allowed their visual distinctiveness to be precisely varied. The least salient triangle was a light green triangle against a dark green background. This was not salient because the two green colors are in the same linguistic category. A highly salient stimulus was a green (either light or dark green) triangle against a blue (either light or dark blue) background, because the colors were in different linguistic categories. A stimulus which would also be highly salient for Russian speakers was a light or dark blue triangle positioned against a circle with the differing blue color.

The attentional blink task contained a sequence of 2-6 stimuli to be ignored (non-target shapes), then a colored semi-circle (target 1),and then, followed by a lag of either 3 or 7 items, the second target, a triangle. At lag 3, when participants’ brains were busy processing target 1, how difficult would it be to detect the green triangle?

The results supported the hypothesis that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 January 2019 at 5:33 pm

The Race to Relearn Hemp Farming

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Interesting: trying to recover discarded knowledge. Leslie Nemo writes in Scientific American:

Angela Post wasn’t supposed to study hemp. The North Carolina State agriculture researcher focuses on small grains like wheat and barley. But after the 2014 Farm Bill allowed states to investigate hemp, it became clear the seeds were lucrative. Post had the right equipment to study them, so the job was hers.

At first, Post thought hemp would get as much attention as the other alternative crops she and her colleagues dabble in. “We didn’t know how fast it would grow,” she says. Once the work garnered the attention of hundreds of would-be hemp farmers, “that’s when we got a sense it was something bigger than anticipated.”

Since then, Post’s work has expanded beyond hemp seeds—and her expertise—to fiber and flowers, which contain cannabidiol, or CBD, which is extracted for use in seizure medications and over-the-counter tinctures. But there’s no turning down hemp studies if you’re an agricultural researcher in one of the states where residents might want to grow the crop, including North Carolina, Vermont, and Kentucky.

Hemp used to be farmed across the United States, but thanks to its association with the psychoactive form of cannabis, the government banned the crop from commercial and university fields for most of the 20th century. Now, hemp could once again become an American staple. For that to happen, researchers like Post—employees of land grant universities, which are located in every state and are federally mandated to help American farmers succeed—can fill in the knowledge gaps that have appeared and widened over decades. “We get tens and tens of questions each week that we can’t answer,” says Post.

These gaps include how best to plant hemp, what varieties to use, which insects and weeds are most likely to cause problems, and, most important of all, how farmers can turn a profit.

These are big questions. The answers have been stymied by the fact that, until recently, the Drug Enforcement Agency classified hemp as Schedule I, which meant fines and jail time for unauthorized possession and regulations that have made experiments extremely challenging. While some research exists—especially from Europe and Canada, where hemp science has been legal since the 1990s—the work doesn’t always translate across environments. And as much as researchers had accomplished since the 2014 Farm Bill, they weren’t ready for the 2018 Farm Bill, which was signed into law by President Donald J. Trump in December.

The bill legalizes the crop, allowing any farmer to grow it—whether or not they know how. That’s why NC State’s research approach is, as Post puts it, “all hands on deck.”

Two hundred years ago, cannabis filled the fields of American farms. It also altered the minds of the American public. Often called “hashish,” the plant went into candies and other foods, and went largely unregulated through the 19th century.

But in the early 1900s, around the same time the temperance movement was crusading against alcohol consumption, many Americans adopted the xenophobic assumption that Mexican immigrants were committing cannabis-fueled crimes. This led western states with sizeable Mexican populations to criminalize the plant, and 29 states eventually banned it. The racist fears spread all the way to Capitol Hill. In 1937, Congress passed a bill that taxed cannabis importers the equivalent of about $400 per year in 2018 dollars, and slapped rulebreakers with up to five years in prison and fines that, today, would equate to $35,000.

In 1971, the federal government classified cannabis as a Schedule I drug, which includes those narcotics deemed to have the highest potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. Five years later, researchers realized cannabis ought to be classified as two subspecies. One, now recognized as hemp, produces CBD in abundance, but very little of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. But since hemp was already stuck on the Schedule I list, it wasn’t going to sprout from American farms again anytime soon.

The U.S. kept importing hemp, however, a practice that continues today. The plant’s fibers are good for insulation, fabric, and carpet. The seeds can be eaten or pressed for oils used in cosmetics or paint. Or, if a grower plants certain varieties, they can collect CBD. In 2017, America imported $67.3 billion worth of hemp seed and fiber products, and the CBD market was worth nearly $200 million.

To see if the U.S. could re-enter this market, Congress allowed states to try growing the crop in the 2014 Farm Bill. (Farm bills, typically renewed every five years, are the tools through which the country’s agricultural and nutritional policies are set.) Under the legislation, researchers could study hemp if their state legalized and regulated it. For this to work, state governments, departments of agriculture, and the DEA had to collaborate. This process was often bumpy and put the onus of problem solving on the researchers.

That’s what happened to Heather Darby, an agronomy professor at the University of Vermont—a land grant school in a state that legalized hemp. Darby was eager to start hemp projects, but when she approached the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets and the local DEA office to file requests, she was stalled by bureaucracy. For example, the DEA paperwork she needed was only formatted for marijuana research requests, not hemp. Navigating these oversights, Darby says, “was the biggest barrier.”

Even in North Carolina, a state that’s been relatively proactive about allowing hemp, Post chose to keep her research projects small her first year. There was a lag in the state law that would legalize the work, and she risked getting arrested if police found her driving around with hemp buds.

Then there were issues with funding. Researchers typically get money from the federal or state government. But the 2014 Farm Bill didn’t allocate funds for hemp the way it did for, say, citrus disease. And since land grant universities are federally-backed, administrators have been hesitant to funnel their budget into a Schedule I drug.

As such, hemp researchers have had to get financially creative. For example, the University of Kentucky—another land grant school—funds hemp research through private companies, says David Williams, a plant and soil scientist. Though private investors often ask for study results to be proprietary, Williams claims that the vast majority of the research produced by these partnerships has been made public.

At the University of Vermont, however, Darby has mostly seen private offers where the information can’t be shared. To her, that agreement runs counter to her job description. “My goal through the University of Vermont is to make sure whatever we’re doing is for the public good,” she says, which has “made it difficult for us to secure funds.” To help, Darby launched a public crowdsourced campaign in 2016 with the goal of raising $25,000. As of January, the campaign was only a quarter of the way there.

Post is part of the minority whose work is covered by state and federal funding. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture granted her more than $100,000 in the past two years, and in 2018 she also won a one-time $16,000 grant from a USDA fund set aside for pesticide research.

While several of her requests were successful, Post understands that entering a competitive grant application pool with a crop as new as hemp can be intimidating. “I think people, from what I’ve seen, are afraid to put that time and energy and effort into a big proposal knowing the odds,” she says. “It’s already hard with corn and soybean, so it’s daunting for a minor crop.”

Amid all this confusion, hemp scientists are trying to unravel the intricacies of farming the plant. Most are starting with two key strains that are used to make fiber and seed. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 January 2019 at 4:33 pm

If You Want to Get Better at Something, Ask Yourself These Two Questions

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Interesting article in the Harvard Business Review by Peter Bregman. From the article:

. . . Whatever it is, you can become better at it. But here’s the thing I know just as clearly as I know you can get better at anything: you will not get better if 1) you don’t want to and 2) you aren’t willing to feel the discomfort of doing things differently. . .

. . . Learning anything new is, by its nature, uncomfortable. You will need to act in ways that are unfamiliar. Take risks that are new. Try things that, in many cases, will be initially frustrating because they won’t work the first time. You are guaranteed to feel awkward. You will make mistakes. You may be embarrassed or even feel shame, especially if you are used to succeeding a lot —and all my clients are used to succeeding a lot.

If you remain committed through all of that, you’ll get better. . .

In this connection, let me highly recommend Mindset, by the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 January 2019 at 4:29 pm

The puzzle of Jewish dietary laws and the Muscovy duck

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Dan Nosowitz writes in Atlas Obscura:

THE BASICS OF JEWISH DIETARY law—the laws of kashrut—are fairly well-known: no pork, no shellfish, no milk and meat together. But there are many, many more laws than that, some of which are unclear, some of which are localized and don’t necessarily apply to all countries, and many of which have never really been settled. The case of the Muscovy duck is one of the most fun.

The rules of kashrut have a couple of issues that destabilize the entire process of figuring out what Jews can and cannot eat. One of these fundamental issues is that the laws don’t necessarily follow any larger philosophy. Jewish scholars have long divided the laws of Judaism into a couple of different categories. Mishpatim—the –im and -ot endings of words signify plurals in Hebrew—are laws that are self-evident to the survival of a society, like “don’t murder” or “don’t steal.” The edot are laws usually surrounding holidays, symbolic rules designed to memorialize events or bring a community together, like wearing a yarmulke or not eating bread on Passover. And then there are the chukim.

The chukim are laws that make no sense. They are sometimes phrased in ways to make following them more palatable; for example, that these are laws passed down directly from God, and it is not necessary that we understand them. The rules of kashrut are sometimes, but not always, placed in this category.

Another fundamental issue with the laws of kashrut is the lack of a Jewish governing body. Judaism has no centralized force, as Catholicism does with the Vatican. Instead, there are simply a bunch of extremely learned dudes, throughout thousands of years of history, who are considered very smart and knowledgeable and whose arguments about the various laws are widely read and sometimes adopted. But these dudes—usually but not always given the title of Rabbi—have disagreements, and their own followings.

Because Jews are scattered all over the globe, there is a great diversity in thinking. Different environments call for different rules. And the rules in the Torah are not always clear-cut, so different communities will follow the suggestions of different learned dudes.

The laws of kashrut are a big grab-bag of different types of rulings. Sometimes they’re clear prohibitions on categories, like a general ban on consuming blood. Sometimes they’re specific in giving guidelines: You can only eat fish that have both fins and scales, which disqualifies, say, sharks. Here’s the exact line, translated, from Leviticus: “These you may eat of all that live in water; anything in water, whether in the seas or in the streams, that has fins and scales—these you may eat.”

But even those guidelines can be troublesome. Like, here’s a question: Do sharks have fins and scales? Fins, obviously, yes. Scales? Well, haha, sort of. Turns out sharks are actually covered completely in placoid scales, microscopic spine-like scales. This wasn’t discovered for a couple of thousand years after Jews had already declared shark forbidden. So can Jews eat shark now? Generally, no: A bunch of those learned dudes decided that the reference to “scales” must have meant scales you can actually see and remove. What about, say, swordfish, which has scales when young but sheds them when mature? Responses vary: Generally, Orthodox Jews won’t eat them, but Conservative Jews (at least, those who keep kosher, or who care about these intricacies) will.

The rules for birds are, if anything, even worse than the ones for fish, which makes it even more difficult to ascertain where the Muscovy duck falls in all of this. The Torah doesn’t even bother setting out guidelines; it simply lists a bunch of birds that are forbidden, and says you can eat any other bird. Because the Torah was written thousands of years ago in an archaic form of Hebrew, we can’t necessarily translate and identify all these species definitively. One of the forbidden species would transliterate as atalef. In modern Hebrew, that’s… a bat. Which is not a bird. Most people interpret it that way, assuming that the bat was thought to be some kind of bizarre bird at the time, but not everybody does. Nobody is quite sure if atalef had the same meaning then as it does now, and some early Rabbinic discussion of the Torah described the atalef as laying eggs, but also raising its young. This has led some scholars to believe that the atalef is actually some variety of screech owl, or even—this is a serious argument that was seriously made—a platypus.

There are two separate lists of birds that are forbidden, one in Leviticus and one in Deuteronomy. There are some overlaps, but there are 24 different Hebrew names for birds in these lists. Those are confidently translated by various sources into modern English and typically include the following species: Eagle, vulture (the bearded vulture, white vulture, and black vulture are listed individually), kite, osprey, kestrel, raven, ostrich, jay, sparrowhawk, goshawk, owl, gull, little owl, starling, magpie, heron, cormorant, pelican, stork, hoopoe, and atalef. Sometimes you’ll see discrepancies, like one species listed in Leviticus as “heron” and in Deuteronomy as “ibis,” despite being the same Hebrew word. Sometimes you’ll see archaic English terms, like “sea-mew” for gull and “ossifrage” for bearded vulture.

I left one out of that list, because it’s very fun. One, in the Leviticus list, would transliterate to tinshemet. What, you might ask, is a tinshemet? Nobody knows. Sometimes it’s translated as a swan, some other type of owl, or (again!) as a bat. The same word shows up again a little bit later, under a list of forbidden animals that move along the ground, grouped in with lizards and weasels. There is a minor conspiracy theory that because it referred to both a bird and a lizard, that this word was the name of a flying dinosaur that never went extinct.

Anyway, that list of birds is, obviously, total trash if you’re trying to expand it outwards and figure out what you can and cannot eat. We don’t know whether those words were referring to specific species or whole categories of birds, and certainly many more species have been discovered since the Torah was set down. Scholars, to make up for this, have tried to see the patterns in the banned birds, and then use those patterns to create rules that could apply to species new to Jews, like, say, an unusual duck native to the Americas. This is obviously a fraught endeavor if you subscribe to the belief that the laws of kashrut are chukim—totally senseless.

Over the past 2,000 years, Jewish scholars have arrived at a couple of broad conclusions about what was meant by these particular 24 species. Or, well, 22 species and whatever tinshemet and atalef are supposed to be. In general  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more and the extract above didn’t even get to the good part.

What this shows clearly is that religious knowledge is built of cultural constructs rather than objective reality. When scientists disagree on some issue, they can settle the dispute through seeing what objective/physical reality actually is. That’s not possible with disputes regarding religious doctrines: there is no external reality to which to appeal to settle the dispute. This is why religious disputes, if serious enough, are settled by war: the winner declares himself right.

UPDATE: And see this, in which Coca-Cola plays the Muscovy Duck role.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 January 2019 at 9:44 am

The Philosopher Redefining Equality

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This is pretty exciting. Nathan Heller writes in the New Yorker:

American stories trace the sweep of history, but their details are definingly particular. In the summer of 1979, Elizabeth Anderson, then a rising junior at Swarthmore College, got a job as a bookkeeper at a bank in Harvard Square. Every morning, she and the other bookkeepers would process a large stack of bounced checks. Businesses usually had two accounts, one for payroll and the other for costs and supplies. When companies were short of funds, Anderson noticed, they would always bounce their payroll checks. It made a cynical kind of sense: a worker who was owed money wouldn’t go anywhere, or could be replaced, while an unpaid supplier would stop supplying. Still, Anderson found it disturbing that businesses would write employees phony checks, burdening them with bounce fees. It appeared to happen all the time.

Midway through summer, the bank changed its office plan. When Anderson had started, the bookkeepers worked in rows of desks. Coördination was easy—a check that fell under someone else’s purview could be handed down the line—and there was conversation throughout the day. Then cubicles were added. That transformation interrupted the workflow, the conversational flow, and most other things about the bookkeepers’ days. Their capacities as workers were affected, yet the change had come down from on high.

These problems nagged at Anderson that summer and beyond. She had arrived at college as a libertarian who wanted to study economics. In the spirit of liberal-arts exploration, though, she enrolled in an introductory philosophy course whose reading list included Karl Marx’s 1844 manuscripts concerning worker alienation. Anderson thought that Marx’s economic arguments about the declining rate of profit and the labor theory of value fell apart under scrutiny. But she was stirred by his observational writings about the experience of work. Her summer at the bank drove home the fact that systemic behavior inside the workplace was part of the socioeconomic fabric, too: it mattered whether you were the person who got a clear check or a bounced check, whether a hierarchy made it easier or harder for you to excel and advance. Yet economists had no way of factoring those influences into their thinking. As far as they were concerned, a job was a contract—an exchange of labor for money—and if you were unhappy you left. The nature of the workplace, where most people spent half their lives, was a black box.

Anderson grew intellectually restless. Other ideas that were presented as cornerstones of economics, such as rational-choice theory, didn’t match the range of human behaviors that she was seeing in the wild. She liked how philosophy approached big problems that cut across various fields, but she was most excited by methods that she encountered in the history and the philosophy of science. Like philosophers, scientists chased Truth, but their theories were understood to be provisional—tools for resolving problems as they appeared, models valuable only to the extent that they explained and predicted what showed in experiments. A Newtonian model of motion had worked beautifully for a long time, but then people noticed bits of unaccountable data, and relativity emerged as a stronger theory. Couldn’t disciplines like philosophy work that way, too?

The bank experience showed how you could be oppressed by hierarchy, working in an environment where you were neither free nor equal. But this implied that freedom and equality were bound together in some way beyond the basic state of being unenslaved, which was an unorthodox notion. Much social thought is rooted in the idea of a conflict between the two. If individuals exercise freedoms, conservatives like to say, some inequalities will naturally result. Those on the left basically agree—and thus allow constraints on personal freedom in order to reduce inequality. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin called the opposition between equality and freedom an “intrinsic, irremovable element in human life.” It is our fate as a society, he believed, to haggle toward a balance between them.

In this respect, it might seem odd that, through history, equality and freedom have arrived together as ideals. What if they weren’t opposed, Anderson wondered, but, like the sugar-phosphate chains in DNA, interlaced in a structure that we might not yet understand? What if the way most of us think about the relation between equality and freedom—the very basis for the polarized, intractable political division of this moment—is wrong?

At fifty-nine, Anderson is the chair of the University of Michigan’s department of philosophy and a champion of the view that equality and freedom are mutually dependent, enmeshed in changing conditions through time. Working at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, social science, and economics, she has become a leading theorist of democracy and social justice. She has built a case, elaborated across decades, that equality is the basis for a free society. Her work, drawing on real-world problems and information, has helped to redefine the way contemporary philosophy is done, leading what might be called the Michigan school of thought. Because she brings together ideas from both the left and the right to battle increasing inequality, Anderson may be the philosopher best suited to this awkward moment in American life. She builds a democratic frame for a society in which people come from different places and are predisposed to disagree.

One recent autumn morning, Anderson flew from Ann Arbor, where she lives, to Columbus, to deliver a lecture at Ohio State University. With a bit of time before her talk, she sat in a high-backed chair and spoke with undergraduates about her work. “Almost everyone wants to be respected and esteemed by others, so how can you make that compatible with a society of equals?” she asked. The students, looking a touch wary, listened intently and stared. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

2 January 2019 at 5:45 pm

This Deep-Red State Decided to Make a Serious Investment in Preschools. It’s Paying Off Big-Time.

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Kiera Butler reports in Mother Jones:

Alabama state senator Trip Pittman had always sort of questioned whether nursery schools were worth the investment. Pittman, a conservative Republican, figured the kinds of things you’re supposed to learn before kindergarten—washing your hands, tying your shoes, minding your manners—might best be taught by parents and grandparents at home. Conservatives often argue that kids who attend preschool fare no better than those who don’t. So in 2013, when a proposal came before the Legislature to expand a state preschool program for four-year-olds, Pittman was on the fence.

The folks from the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, a group backing the proposal, were persistent, though. They were sure they could win the senator over if only he would come see the program in action, and so one day he did. Pittman visited a preschool in Prichard, a small, long-struggling city near Mobile, and came away captivated. “I watched the interaction between the teachers and the students,” he recalls. “It seemed remarkable, the fact that you could assimilate children into a classroom environment—raising their hands, going down the hall, being inquisitive. It was really impressive the way the teachers interacted with kids.” The team also showed him data on outcomes for children living in poverty: Sixth-grade preschool alums scored about 9 percent higher on state tests than those who hadn’t attended, and third-grade alums scored 13 percent higher than their peers. “The results I saw,” Pittman says, “were dramatic.”

By many measures, the people of Alabama aren’t doing well. It’s one of the poorest and sickest states in the nation, with high rates of hungerobesityheart disease, and deaths from cancer. Test scores are much lower than the national average. In 2017, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child advocacy group, ranked the state’s educational system 42nd in the nation. But its preschools have been an oasis on that dismal landscape. In 2013, just 7 percent of Alabama four-year-olds participated in the program, which is open to all. By 2017, almost one-quarter did, and Alabama was one of only three states to meet all 10 of the nationally recognized benchmarks for preschool quality, outperforming even states like Massachusetts that are known for great public education.

In the six years that Alabama has collected data on the program, its graduates have consistently outperformed their fellow students. “People look at Alabama and they don’t think of it as No. 1 in anything,” says Allison Muhlendorf, who heads the School Readiness Alliance. “But we’re very proud to be No. 1 in pre-K quality.”

This success has implications well beyond Alabama’s borders. It is the first real test, in the reddest of red states, of the notion that investing in early education can improve not only children’s outcomes, but entire economies. For years, many Republicans have argued that any preschool gains fade by the third grade—and they have used this claim to try to dismantle public preschool programs. In 2014, Rep. Paul Ryan famously charged that Head Start, the federal program that provides free preschool to poor families, was “failing to prepare children for school.” Alabama’s results fly in the face of such arguments. And its program never would have been possible without the support of a committed group of businesspeople and lawmakers—many of them as conservative as they come.

During the first few years of life, the human brain grows with incredible speed, from about a quarter of the size of an adult’s at birth to 90 percent by age six. Some regions undergo particularly dramatic changes—namely the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for complex reasoning, decision making, and navigation of social relationships, says Laurel Gabard-Durnam, a postdoctoral fellow who studies brain development at Boston Children’s Hospital. “What looks like casual play is actually this incredibly complicated set of cognitive processes that all work together to improve the way that you think and regulate yourself.”

It would thus stand to reason that preschool would have a profound impact on how children learn. But over the last decade, some widely publicized research suggested the opposite. For a 2015 paper, researchers at Vanderbilt University followed about 1,100 Tennessee children from pre-K through third grade. By the end of kindergarten, they observed, the benefits of preschool seemed to wear off. And then, shockingly, the preschool grads actually began to fare worse than their peers. The study created a stir, and Gov. Bill Haslam said he would reevaluate preschool funding.

But lost in the shuffle was the fact that Tennessee’s program had issues. Its preschools were over-enrolled and underfunded, with no system in place to make sure classrooms followed the guidelines. The study acknowledged as much, noting, “The idea that pre-k can be scaled up quickly, cheaply, and without professional support or vision is certainly bound to be incorrect.”

Abundant research, on the other hand, shows that high-quality preschools—with small class sizes, low student-teacher ratios, and robust teacher pay, training, and oversight—can have dramatic and lifelong benefits. Consider the Perry Preschool study, which in 1962 began tracking 123 African American three-year-olds from low-income families in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Throughout their lives, the 58 children randomly assigned to a top-notch preschool program have outperformed the kids who didn’t attend. At age five, more than two-thirds of the preschoolers scored 90 or better on an IQ test, compared with 28 percent of the non-preschoolers. Three-quarters of the preschoolers graduated from high school, versus 60 percent of the others. At 27, more than a quarter owned homes, compared with just 5 percent of the non-preschoolers. And by 40, nearly half of the non-preschool group had been arrested at some point for violent crimes, while less than one-third of the preschool group had.

more recent study, from 2016, tracked 1,700 children, some of whom attended Head Start in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In middle school, the attendees had higher math scores and lower truancy than students who didn’t attend. That same year, James Heckman, a Nobel Prize recipient in economics, analyzed preschool data from North Carolina and concluded that states that invest in quality early childhood education stimulate their economies with higher-achieving workers and spend less money than they would have on remedial education, health, and criminal justice. Overall, he calculated, states could see annual returns of up to 13 percent. “Early education is one of the best investments we can make,” President Barack Obama noted in a 2014 speech. “Not just in a child’s future, but in our country.”

Such thinking is catching on. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, 16 states now serve more than one-third of their four-year-olds, up from just three states plus DC in 2002, and state preschool expenditures have more than doubled to $7.6 billion. But spending per child (a data point that correlates closely with program quality) has declined. And preschool budgets vary dramatically from place to place: In 2017, Washington, DC, invested nearly $17,000 per child. Nebraska spent less than $2,000. Seven states spent nothing at all.

The federal government plays an important role in all of this—it funds Head Start, for one. But in a recent op-ed, NIEER founder Steven Barnett noted that Head Start’s 2018 budget was so small that it had to delay plans to expand beyond an average of three and a half hours per day of instruction. (The Trump administration has proposed further cuts.)  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

2 January 2019 at 3:04 pm

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