Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Against Student Loans

Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the few American politicians willing to challenge the current financial system, has introduced her first bill in the US Senate. With student loan rates set to double from 3.4% to 6.8% on July 1, the Bank on Student Loan Fairness Act would temporarily reduce those rates to 0.75%, which is the same rate that banks borrow money from the Federal Reserve.

There’s certainly something nice about the symbolism of this bill: Highlighting the discrepancy between the rates offered to financial institutions and rates offered to students investing in an education illustrates the inequities of the financial system. When Senator Warren frames it as a choice between students and banks, it’s clear which side you should be on. And since the bill has no chance of passing, that symbolism is important. But the spirit of the bill is misguided, because the problem with student loans is not that they are too expensive, but that they are too cheap. Continue reading

How Does Watson Know What Watson Knows?

Watson, the IBM supercomputer designed to play Jeopardy!, made his television debut yesterday, and while the game may not be over, it was a very auspicious start. Watson is currently tied with one of Jeopardy’s most successful champions, Brad Rutter, and is currently leading the most famous contestant ever, Ken Jennings.

This is pretty amazing on a lot of levels. Computers have been “smart” for a very long time (dating back to at least whenever we started teaching them chess), but Watson takes it to another level. For one, it’s worth pointing out that Watson is not connected to the Internet. In other words, Watson is storing all of the information it has for itself. More impressive, the computer can understand the intricacies of human language better than any other machine, since it has to not only generate information, but also generate the specific piece of information that the clue is looking for. Not to mention the fact that Jeopardy! clues are known for being full of wordplay and allusions that seem particularly troubling for a computer to digest.

While all this is impressive and important to the world of artificial intelligence, I’m more interested in another epistemological component of Watson’s thought process: How does Watson know what it knows? Continue reading

This Day in Revisionist History

January 26:

“You know, putting aside for a moment the atrocities of battle, you have to admit we live in a pretty hilarious time!” – Lieutenant William Gilliam, as he led his troops against the Walla-Walla, at the Battle of Seattle.

There are few things in history cooler than a sloop-of-war, and in the mid-nineteenth century, when it came to sloops, few were as “of war” as the Decatur, which on this particular day in 1856 was anchored in Elliott Bay. However, what could have been simply a “cool” battle turned into one of history’s most absurd stories. (Note: I’m not making any of these names up. Seriously.)

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This Day in Revisionist History

January 19:

“Wait, are you telling me you actually sent that? For God’s sake, woman—it was a joke!” – a hysterical Arthur Zimmermann to his secretary Gretchen, after learning that she had just sent a real telegram on its way to Mexico proposing an allied attack on the United States at the height of World War I.

Gretchen Ziegler certainly was a sweetheart. Whatever else may have been uttered about her in the years that would follow that historic morning, she really was an absolute peach. In an attempt to contribute to the war effort, the shapely university student worked part-time for Foreign Secretary of the German Empire Arthur Zimmermann, who was a friend of her father. It was widely agreed that her charming demeanor, calm blue eyes, and silky voice made her especially suited to sit at the desk of so busy and esteemed a man as Zimmermann. And indeed, naïve though she was, Gretchen was not without intelligence, having earned excellent marks in school. Thus it came almost as a complete surprise when, on the morning of January 19, she committed a grave error that would severely alter the course of modern history.

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In Defense of Duke

As we at NPI have previously hinted, we have all emanated from that majestic and triumphant institution of higher learning, Duke University. In fact, it is fair to say that, without Duke, this blog would not exist. Other gifts to humanity that Duke has bestowed include basketball extraordinaire Jason Williams, former Heroes star Jack Coleman, novelist Reynolds Price, journalist Charlie Rose, and former NFL star Sonny Jurgensen. That’s not a bad list, and it’s by no means everybody.

Of course, Tim, Josh, and I would not say that Duke is perfect. For one, we’re not the kind of people that love institutions unconditionally. It’s pretty obvious that every university has its flaws. In fact, we probably wouldn’t object if you said that Duke has more flaws than your average elite institution.

But when someone who writes for a prominent magazine—like, I don’t know, let’s say The Atlantic—writes an unjustified hatchet-job that is illogical, mean-spirited, and not supported by any hard evidence…well, that really grinds our gears. See, hating Duke has been trendy for about two decades now (it probably started when Christian Laettner stepped on Aminu Timberlake). There are a lot of reasons for this that I won’t bother going into here, but suffice it to say that sometime around 2006, when three members of the Duke lacrosse team were accused of rape,* members of the non-sports media realized they could churn out “polarizing” columns by regurgitating the same accusations of racism and elitism that had been levied against the basketball team for 15 years. Continue reading

This Day in Revisionist History

January 12:

“You know she’s in her fifties though, right?” – Sen. Arthur Vandenberg to an overly optimistic Sen. Edwin Broussard, as the two discussed the arrival of the newly elected Hattie Caraway, the country’s first female senator.

Edwin S. Broussard had been involved in politics since he was a boy, where he participated enthusiastically in school government for the same reason anyone does: to meet and impress girls. In his day, as in ours, the so-called student leaders were simply powerless overachievers looking to pass off weak social lives as a passion for “extracurricular activities.” And true to form, Broussard met his female counterpart, a pretty but rather prudish young woman named Marie Patout, and married her at the age of 29. However, being the overachiever that he was, the handsome Broussard continued to engage in widespread “gerrymandering” with a variety of young ladies about the spirited town of New Orleans. So it was for several years until his philandering came to a brief halt when, in 1930, the charismatic son of Louisiana was elected in a special vote to finish the term of his departed brother Robert. After being sworn in, the surprisingly naïve Broussard discovered, much to his chagrin, that there were no women in the Senate. “They’ve had the vote for ten years…what the hell are they doing with it?” he wrote in his journal, which has remained largely unpublished by his heirs due to the lascivious accounts of the Senator’s extensive “pork barreling.” Continue reading

The Drawing Board: Dividing By Zero

If there’s one experience universal to American boyhood, it’s the untraversable chasm between sports and math. Yeah, that is a word. Math and sports have never really seen eye-to-eye, in part because of confusing mixed messages from the disciplines. For example, your coach says, “Give 110% out there,” and your math teacher says “Basketball practice is not an excuse for not doing your homework.” Or your coach says “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” and your math teacher says “Raise your hand if you want to ask a question.” What the hell? If you were anything like me in school, you were a sports guy. So it probably came as a pretty big shock when a 30-something pointdexter who used to go to college tells you that you can’t divide by zero. Yeah, maybe you can’t, nerd, but I know that right now, this is anyone’s game.

Want to see me divide 5 by 0? Talk to any math teacher and he’ll tell you it’s impossible because you can’t take 5 of something and divide it into zero equal groups. Oh really? Check this out: 5 divided by zero is 5. Why? Because I divided it into zero groups, meaning it’s still all there. If you want to get all technical about it, I didn’t really divide at all, so bam—still 5. Does that mean that I can’t divide it? No, it just means that I obviously wouldn’t divide it because it’s already done. That’s like saying you can’t give a bald guy a haircut–although that is true–but it still applies because they’re both unsportsmanlike attitudes. Think of it as a word problem. Divide 5 into zero parts might as well read Don’t divide 5 into any parts. Naturally, then, the answer is five. Now you try telling your sixth grade math teacher Ms. Covington that, and she’ll tell you the same thing she told me: “Raise your hand if you want to ask a question.” Sigh. So you raise your hand, and she calls on you, and then you give her this look like Are you serious? Do I really have to repeat the question? And she just gives you that smug look, so you decide it’s all-out war. “I can divide five by zero, it’s five.” And she goes “No, five divided by one is five.” And you say, “So what? 2 plus 2 is four, that doesn’t mean 3 plus 1 can’t be.” Now she’s a little irritated because you caught her in a lie.

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