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Archive for the ‘The United States’ Category

Understanding Galaxies Far, Far Away

In Education, Science, The United States on September 6, 2017 at 9:55 am

The 40th anniversary of the Voyager launch was yesterday and the day before that Elon Musk predicted World War III. Because we only post on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I thought I would use Wednesday’s post to talk about science, or more specifically science education in the US.

I am a huge huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson. I listen to all of the StarTalk podcasts, read his books, watched all the Cosmos episodes on Netflix and of course I follow him on Twitter (and his Tweets are great). He was recently on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah and the interview was, as usual, fantastic.

Science education hits a sore spot with me. I went to a rural high school and our science program was terrible. Our science teachers were terrible. The science curriculum was terrible. I was fascinated by planets, galaxies, black holes and anything to do with outer space since I was a little kid and my high school and those terrible teachers ruined it all. In fact I was almost tempted to get into contact with some old classmates just to get his name and put it on here for all to see but decided against it. How terrible was it? For example my ‘chemistry’ class was us sitting in a classroom for an hour, looking at formulas. He would do zero teaching, pass out the required examinations, and encouraged those who didn’t ‘get it’ to find someone else who did and just copy off them. He encouraged us to cheat, facilitated it, and we learnt nothing. Oh and he was also the Physics teacher.

And it wasn’t until around 14 years later after reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything that I remembered that I loved science.

Ok rant over.

Neil deGrasse Tyson recently stated that science illiteracy in the U.S. is a serious threat. Of the 40 most advanced countries, the US is actually number 38 when it comes to students graduating with majors in science, or STEM degrees (BUT we’re ahead of the Netherlands!). If you compare education systems around the world and test skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students, you’ll see that the US is only slightly above average of the OECD average or even below average when it comes to Math. And though this is using only one test, there are countless others that are used and the results are the same. The US is behind other countries when it comes to STEM education and the trend is not improving.

So why is this happening? Especially when the US is still considered the most innovative country in the world, producing countless numbers of innovative products in Silicon Valley, hosts many of the top engineering schools, and leads the world in scientific research?

There are many reasons for this.

One reason many point to is that STEM has a branding problem. Kids are not excited enough about STEM majors, we still have a culture of calling those who are geeks and nerds and some have argued that schools are not teaching enough science in a creative enough way in elementary school. Students are simply losing interest in STEM when they reach high school and should they hold their interest when they get to college, out of the 40% of declared majors being STEM by college freshman only 16% actually receive a degree in that field.

Another reason is that there is a growing opinion gap between what the public believes to be true and what scientists believe to be true.  Only 1/3 of Americans believe evolution is a myth, and many outspoken leaders in US politics believe that a snowball is proof that climate change isn’t real and vaccines cause autism.

A more telling and perhaps controversial reason is simply the influence that local populations have in dictating curricula in science classes. For example, Florida’s legislature recently approved a bill that would allow residents to question what educators teach students. Idaho removed references to climate change from state’s science standards and in Alabama and Indiana, resolutions were passed to support teachers who include different views on evolution and human cloning. As of May 2017, eleven bills have been proposed that are designed to alter science-education standards in the US.  In short, parents and local communities are trying to influence the curriculum that students have in high school, and it’s not surprising that this is predominate in areas with more conservative and religious demographics.

Look, the US is a big place with a lot of different views on what is fact and what is fiction. The organization of elementary and secondary education has been a topic of debate for a long time and educators, politicians, and the general public generally agree that is has to be improved. The worry for me, as someone currently working in education, is allowing an environment where communities that have little to no academic, practical, or scientific educational experience or knowledge dictate what should and should not be taught on a wide scale. If the US wants to keep its status as dominating in scientific research, education and attracting highly skilled, highly intellectual people and education it needs to fix this problem.

Because I started with Neil deGrasse Tyson I will end with him speaking to Trevor Noah about the benefits of having a cosmic perspective.


Nuke ’em! (But please don’t)

In China, Foreign Policy, North Korea, The United States on September 4, 2017 at 12:27 pm

Either my hangover was really bad over the weekend or the constant sabre-rattling between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un was really that loud to pierce the inside of my temples and give me a headache.

Donald Trump likes to tweet and he makes it well known how he feels about North Korea and what he would do. He’s used such rhetoric as raining “fire and fury” on North Korea and saying that the US is locked and loaded. Kim Jong Un decided to respond on Sunday by hitting a personal milestone for his country. The most powerful nuclear detonation the nation has achieved so far.

So today we have military drills by South Korea simulating a North Korean attack, Donald Trump criticizing South Korea’s strategy, and a claim by North Korea that they now have the ability to make their nuclear weapon small enough to put it on an ICBM.

Sounds pretty scary right? That’s because it is.

There are two lines of thought, or strategies, in dealing with North Korea.

The first one, which is currently the status quo, is a mix of sanctions, multilateral talks, and negotiations usually led by North Korea’s closest ally, China. This has been going on for a while now and it has pretty much worked because North Korea hasn’t nuked anyone. There have been many starts and stops over the years but it has been pretty stable.

That started to recently change with the continued imprisonment of Americans visiting North Korea, the most recent and disturbing being Otto Warmbier who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment with hard labor, fell into a coma shortly thereafter, was finally released to the United States and then died. The family refused an autopsy and there hasn’t been any confirmation on how he died.

The second one, which has been floating around out there for quite some time, is that North Korea is on the verge of collapse and by confronting them and forcing them to respond by holding military drills, missile tests, and ramping up its nuclear program, it will only accelerate the inevitable. Think of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. So it’s not a surprise that you are hearing a lot of hard talk. The US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, believes that further talks will only make it worse and actually suggested that the only way to solve this thing is for the south to take it over. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis also used the threat of ‘total annihilation’ of North Korea. Or in short, the only solution is to hit it fast and hit it hard. Basically nuke the hell out of them.

So who is right and who is wrong?

The scary thing is that we have no idea. North Korea is secretive and it’s hard to judge what is actually happening. Though sometimes they let us know, albeit unintentionally (I didn’t know Yahoo! sports covered foreign policy). The belief that it is on the verge of collapsing is based on the assumption that its communist based economy is not working and corruption on a massive scale by government officials is jeopardizing any growth that it could possible obtain. And this may not be entirely true.

Also if there were a military option on the table, and President Trump did say that all options are on the table, the strike would have to be very very big. And even then it may not be able to completely eliminate all of Kim’s short-range missiles.

And then there’s China.

Many have stated the only reason North Korea hasn’t collapsed is because of the economic support China provides. At least two-thirds of North Korea’s trade is with China after all. Therefore China has decided to link itself to North Korea and one cannot really discuss one without mentioning the other. China has positioned itself to be a superpower and is also quite sensitive on how it’s perceived in the international relations arena. And Beijing is indeed losing its patience when it comes to North Korea because it does have legitimate concerns on what could happen should North Korea collapse, including the possible tidal wave of refugees to China.

I do agree somewhat that direct confrontation with North Korea would probably accelerate its collapse. But should this be the end goal or is the end goal forcing North Korea to discontinue its nuclear program and stop launching missiles? If it’s the latter then direct nuclear confrontation is probably not the way to go because as mentioned above, it wouldn’t work 100%. Whether President Trump likes it or not he must work with China and China is and remains the key to this situation. After all it’s still North Korea’s most important ally, which makes this whole thing interesting from an international relations perspective especially because it’s still building islands in the Pacific, pissing off South Korea, Japan and the Philippines.

I would personally conclude that China is losing in this situation and it will be forced to change its policy toward North Korea regardless. And nuclear weapons wouldn’t help. More sanctions possibly. But definitely not more angry tweets. So perhaps stop tweeting? I don’t want our inevitable nuclear destruction to be caused by an angry white guy’s offending tweets. Especially since twitter is probably banned in North Korea. Which does bring a bit of irony in this situation.

Health Care in the United States

In Health Care, The United States, Uncategorized on August 30, 2017 at 10:22 am

Somewhere in my social network world I saw a post from CNN in March comparing the US health care system with that of other European countries, focusing on the UK. Bouncing off of Monday’s post on how severe natural disasters displace the poor the most, and poverty rates increase by 1%, and the fact that having health insurance is still an issue in the United States, I wanted to use this Wednesday’s post to talk about health care. Ok. Here we go.

Let’s make something clear here. Health care systems around the world are far from perfect. Each system has its flaws, its challenges, but also has its own distinct advantages. One of the biggest frustrations I experienced when following the debate on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as well as the recent attempts by Republicans to reform or replace the ACA, was watching how those opposing health care would find the most terrible examples in other countries, whether true or not, and use that as an excuse to not fix the current system. Look, if you want to find something bad or a nightmare scenario about a health care system in a particular country, you’re going to find it.

When we look at the US, the biggest disadvantage of health care is that it’s expensive. Very expensive. In fact, among ‘western’ countries, it’s the most expensive. According to a OECD report, the US spends two-and-a-half times more than the OECD average per person. In recent dollars that’s going to be about $9,523 per person. There are a few reasons why it’s so expensive.

The biggest expense seems to go back and forth between two factors so I’ll start with one that surprised me the most. Administrative costs. The US health care system is complicated because there are many parties involved in reimbursement such as government and insurance companies, or in short, there is no single payer scheme. Instead of having a single payer scheme, there are public payments and private payments. So when you get sick and you need to go to the hospital, the stay in the hospital could be covered by a government entity while your medicine is covered by your private insurance company. Having a single payer system, such as they do in Europe, significantly helps to reduce these costs.

The other large expense is the increased costs of health care goods and services. This includes the price for procedures, new drugs, development of said drugs and its marketing, which is passed on to the consumer. In short, Pharmaceutical companies, hospital conglomerates and physician groups get together and decide to charge whatever they want in order to gain the maximum profit. I personally believe this sounds too much like a conspiracy theory and I’ll point to other related issues such as overuse of specialty care, physician fees and malpractice costs or what is termed as “Defensive costs” as contributing more to those costs than a draconian cartel. These costs exist because doctors and hospitals do not want to get sued if something goes wrong.

Despite administrative costs and health care expenses the elephant (pun intended) in the room is simply the general health of Americans. We’re fat and obese. We eat a lot shit, drive everywhere even if it’s 10 feet away, and well, we just eat a lot of shit food. This to me is the main reason why health care costs haven’t decreased substantially like Obamacare promised. And this is a hard thing to do and even if we all decided to become healthier overnight, it would still take quite a few years before we could notice any substantial change. The main issues that Obamacare addressed were that people were no longer able to walk around without insurance and we were able to put more money in the general pot. The other issue it solved was that health insurance companies can no longer deny insurance to people with pre-existing conditions. Thank god.

Now for the opinion part.

If we want to have true health care reform in the States there are two main points that we, Americans, have to accept:

  1. We do not buy health insurance for ourselves. It’s not money that’s put in a bank for a rainy day when we accidentally get hit by a car. It’s money for those who were born with pre-existing conditions, handicaps, those who have chronic illness and anyone who needs medical help a lot or most of the time. But it’s also indeed useful if you get hit by a car. This is a very hard concept for Americans to swallow. We have the feeling that if we have to pay a tax we should directly see the benefit. Unfortunately health care doesn’t work that way and you will now scream that I’m a socialist
  2. We need to get healthy. When I mention the above examples, I’m not putting Dave who decided to become obese and now has type 2 diabetes in there. This is an oversimplification I know and obesity in many cases also has a lot to do with mental health. But for a general society who likes to eat a lot of calories each day, moves very little, and continues to put a lot of bad stuff in their bodies like high fructose corn syrup, guess what? This also puts a strain on the health care system. Preventive health is the key. Stop drinking so much, eat some vegetables every now and then and see what the inside of a gym looks like.

Obamacare is not perfect and no health care system is. For further reading, this is a pretty damn good article from March in Forbes that talks about Healthcare Reform in America. This is a pretty damn good study comparing health care systems in the US, Germany and Canada.

The Hurricanes

In Natural Disasters, The United States on August 28, 2017 at 9:12 am

The biggest story over the weekend was the expected defeat of previous UFC champ Conor McGregor by Floyd Mayweather. MMA is a completely different sport than boxing and the guy did survive 10 rounds against the best boxer in the world (he’s now 0-1). Can you imagine changing to a different sport and going up against the best and lasting more than 10 minutes?

Oh, and this hurricane also happened…

I want to highlight this article from the BBC that gives an incredible story about how the poor are affected the most by natural disasters. I know this is an obvious statement but is worth revisiting nonetheless. Especially since:

-Home ownership insurance in the US is more than twice as expensive for those with poor credit scores (usually those living in poverty or rely on credit cards)
-The damage may possibly match that of Hurricane Katrina
Poverty rates increase in the US by 1 percentage point in areas hit by severe disasters

It is at this point too early to evaluate the US government’s response to the hurricane but President Trump will visit the sites on Tuesday. He has also been tweeting away praising the local authorities’ response to the hurricane. Robert Siegel, the acting director of Homeland Security, did add his thoughts to the response and advised to stay off the roads. This is a great article from CNN describing why the mayor of Houston didn’t order the city to evacuate backing that statement up. You can view the White House’s official statement here.

This is Texas and there are other concerns, especially alligators and other dangerous animals being displaced.

This natural disaster will be the first under the Trump administration and it’s a big one. And really, it doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you stand on a lot of people will agree that the Trump presidency has been a disaster. The Republicans haven’t gone full out rebellion yet but John Boehner is leading that charge.

Look, if you’re President of the United States you have a lot going on at the same time. Also, Donald Trump communicates through twitter. So you can’t criticize the guy when he tweets about the hurricane and then follows up by mentioning he’ll be visiting Missouri and he’s still going to build that wall. And Mexico will still pay for it. Mexico stated it’s still not going to pay for it but did offer its assistance to Texas.

Natural disasters are never fun and I really hope Houston and the surrounding areas are following the advice of local authorities and are staying safe. And if there’s any comedy to be found in this it’s that the Hurricane’s name is frickin’ Harvey. It’s a stupid name but there are rules to this.


Weekend Round-Up – 25/08/2017

In Middle East, The United States, Weekend Round-Up on August 25, 2017 at 12:20 pm

So that happened: Your weekend round-up

There are some weeks where I am convinced that I’m either dead, am living in a simulation or dreaming. Or perhaps it’s all of the above. But this has been one of those bizarre weeks.

Saudi Arabia did a good thing for once and decided to start arresting people for doing the Macarena in public. Perhaps the wrong thing would have been to arrest a 14 year old boy but let this be a lesson to the rest of the world. Saudi Arabia will be vigilant against these acts of terrorism. But seriously, I hope this kid gets out ok.

In Trump news, President Trump will allow the government to shut down if Congress doesn’t fund that Mexican wall everyone’s been talking about these days.  Regardless of where you stand on this, I think everyone can agree that both sides should just shut up and take a chill pill.

Speaking of rich people, the US Treasury Secretary’s wife proved that she’s a bitch and she hates poor people by posting images of herself disembarking a plane in Kentucky whilst tagging designer brands like Tom Ford, Hermes, Valentino among others. Though the only brand I’m familiar with is Tom Ford, I don’t mind looking at rich people on Instagram. I only mind when they start to reply and try to prove they have an opinion on such things and understand the intricacies of economics and international relations, whilst also misusing computer slang in the form of lololol. In context this isn’t surprising because she also had issues in the past, specifically understanding the situation in Zambia. I’m just happy that someone from Scotland actually went to Zambia and Kentucky without literally destroying the place.

I respect firemen and we all know these guys put their lives on the line everyday. Anyone who works in the White House knows this. But these are real fires and real situations and by golly, in the good ole days the firemen wouldn’t come to your door unless you paid them or they expected a cut of whatever you had in your house. In fact, Italy tried to revisit those good ole days recently without any success. Regardless, I think it’s just fair that if you’re going to save 18 piglets and two sows you should also be able to eat them for dinner.

And finally speaking of pigs and in local Dutch news, Albert Heijn is a fucking liar…again.