Friday, February 28, 2014

Science from Abroad

My exchange student from Kazakhstan has been taught Lysenkoism (the inheritance of acquired characteristics) as scientific fact.  She told me, “If you draw when you are pregnant, your child will be born an artist.”

I tried to tell her that this has been disproved. She doesn’t believe me and she doesn’t want to look for research to either support or refute what she believes.  She was taught this by schools she believes are better than American schools, so they are right and not to be questioned.  

She was taught that Fleming discovered that mold kills bacteria.  People knew that mold kills bacteria in petri dishes for decades.  Fleming was the first person to think this was a good thing.  Everybody else thought – my bacteria are dead, my experiment is ruined, I’ll have to start over.  Fleming noticed that sometimes we want to kill bacteria, and he began testing different molds to find the best bacteria-killers – hence the use of penicillin today.

Her comment, when I told her this: “We were taught different things.”  Yes, we were.  But does she want to check which story is historically accurate?  No.

There are always different ways to look at the same event.

I’m completely puzzled as to why she won’t look at the evidence from experiments which are readily available on the web.  

I don’t want to make the case that our schools are better than hers.  But I was taught – when in doubt: check the evidence!  She was taught, when in doubt, believe your teacher or your mother.

She told me that her current US textbook says that half of all cancers are caused by the BRCA gene.  I told her that must be a typo, since less than 5% of breast cancers are caused by the BRCA genes.  I asked to see her text book.  She looked at me as if I had asked for something totally unreasonable.  So, I told her, if there is a typo in your textbook, I’ll write the publisher and tell them, so they can correct it for the next printing.  This would not be the first time I have corrected a text book.  She truly thinks I’m insane now.  That I would dare to tell a publisher to correct a mistake.

This same attitude carries over to religion.  She is Muslim.  We were talking about Hagar being sent out into the desert with her baby Ishmael.  I asked what she thought about that.  If she were Abraham, would she have sent Hagar away like that?  If she were Hagar, would she have gone?  She doesn’t think about things like that. She just memorizes the stories. She has not been taught to question anything.

When talking with her, I feel like I’m talking with a Tea Party member.  I have no idea how to bridge the huge gap in our approach to thinking about problems.

Friday, February 21, 2014

You're So Smart

I hated it, as a teen, when adults said to me, “You’re so smart,” when what they meant was, “I didn’t expect you to know that,” or “Why did you memorize that?”  

I felt that they didn’t value what I valued.  Smart has nothing to do with it. If I’ve had a teacher who taught me something unusual, that is not a reflection on me.  And my ability to memorize has nothing to do with being smart.

To me, “smart” means figuring something out.  And when I do figure something out, I’d much rather see the results of my work and maybe receive a “thank you” if my solution helped somebody, than have somebody call mesmart.”  If I fix something, I’m not trying to show off my brains.  I’m just trying to make something work.

So, when my exchange student told me that one of her teachers told her “You’re so smart” because she’d already studied the current biology lesson in Kazakhstan, where she grew up, I became angry on my student’s behalf.

My student wasn’t angry.  She is a good student.  She accepts “smart” as one of her labels. Instead she gave me a lecture on how she thinks education in the United States is poor quality. She thinks her education is deep and details while US education is shallow and general.

I asked for examples.  All the examples she gave me were things she has memorized. She is unfamiliar with hands-on experiments and persisting with variations until a problem is solved.

At one point she asked me what is a hedgehog.  She was sitting in front of her computer which is hooked up to the internet. But she asked me.   So, I gave her an answer. She didn’t seem to think my description was clear enough, so I told her she could type “hedgehog” into her search engine and have a picture and a wikipedia page up in seconds.  This had not occurred to her and did not seem to appeal to her.

At dinner, I showed her how to balance a two forks on a toothpick on the edge of a glass.  She tried a few times and it wouldn’t balance.  I showed her again.  She said, “You’re so active.”  And then, “I’m tired and I have to study for a test.”  She didn’t want to master this new skill.

The next day,  I got out my flip top that turns upside down when you spin it. I didn’t tell her what would happen. I just showed her the top and suggested she spin it.  She asked, “What is supposed to happen?”  I told her to watch and find out.  She saw it turn upside down.  Then she insisted that rubber erasers do this is Kazakhstan.  I have never seen a Kazakhstan eraser. I just consider it unlikely.

After dinner, I made a mobius strip and had her draw a line down the middle until it met where she began.  She noticed that she had to draw for a long time.  I tried to discuss with her how many sides she thought the mobius strip had.  She wasn’t interested.  I made a regular loop of paper and had her draw a line down the middle until it met where she started.  She noticed it was shorter.  I had her look at “both sides” of the paper. Did she see a line on both sides?  No.  But did she see a line on what looks like “both sides” of the mobius strip?  Yes.  But she still wasn’t surprised by this unusual event.  

So, I had her cut the regular loop in half.  She saw that she got two identical loops.  Then I had her cut the mobius strip in half.  She saw that she got one big loop.  Again, she was not surprised or startled.  I had her draw a line down the middle the new bigger loop until it met where she started. At this point she said, “I’ll be drawing forever.” I assured her she would meet her starting point.  She did so.  I asked her to look if the line was on “both sides.”  It was only on one side.

I tried to have the conversation about what was different here.  She was bored.

I asked her to try one more thing.  Cut a mobius strip 1/3 of the way from the edge.  She got all the way around, saw that the cut was not going to meet her starting place, so she cut across the strip to make it meet.

At this point, I was frustrated.  So, I made another mobius strip and I cut 1/3 from the edge.  I showed her how I kept cutting even though the lines didn’t meet.

When I was done, I had one big loop and one mobius strip, looped together.  She said, “This is how I decorated Christmas trees as a child, but I forgot.”   Since, I know that paper chain decorations for Christmas trees have more than two loops, and I know that the loops are all about the same size, I think she truly forgot.

In my mind, there is something seriously wrong with an education system that doesn’t recognize surprise.

I guess I have to start the way I do with a 4-year-old. “ What do you think will happen?”  “Now, let’s try it.” And checking to see if the results match expectations. If not, what happened?  Why?

But she is so used to being RIGHT and getting good grades this might frustrate her.  When you do experiments, things often turn out differently from expected.  She gets “tired” quickly when I set up surprises for her.  The only surprise she has liked so far was doing chromatography with rubbing alcohol, a coffee filter, and a black marking pen to reveal the colors of ink hidden in the black.

She is not used to doing experiments.  She is not used to discrepant events.  She is only used to memorizing.  And she thinks her education system is better.

This is a huge culture gap.  But it has nothing to do with smartness.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

I’ve been trying for 3 days now to get Comcast to fix their Domain Name Server (DNS) so that it will recognize a site that I visit.

Every time I call their tech support, or use their webchat, they ask me my phone number, my account number, my social security number, my operating system, which browser I’m using, have I cleaned my cache and cookies, have I checked my firewall, have I flushed my local DNS, and they claim all this is for the security of my account.  Bah – it’s a total time waster.  

It is not possible to be transferred to the liveware at telephone tech support until your account has been verified by the robot answering program.  It is also not possible to enter webchat without first logging into your account.  They know who you are.  

I finally told them that it is not for the security of my account and I refuse to give them more than my account number and operating system, which is Windows 7 Home Premium 64 Bit, Service Pack 1.

After they give up on getting the trivia, the insanity truly begins.

They want to know:

What browsers have I tried?  What versions?  Then they claim they don’t support the latest versions. They want the versions from several years ago.

Have I accessed this website before? Yes, monthly. And I’ve accessed it via the IP address.  I’ve also accessed it via which is an anonymizer that allows me to use a different DNS.

They have me perform some rudimentary diagnostics.  I tell them I do computer tech support for my profession. I’ve cleaned my caches, deleted by cookies, checked my firewall. No, my computer is not set to work offline. Yes, I’m sure my computer currently has an active connection to the internet. No, I don’t want them to send a reboot signal to my modem.  Yes, I use a router. Yes, my computer is connected to the router by a cable. Not by Wifi.  No, I’m not using a Mac OS (which should have been obvious when I told them what my operating system is.)  And No, I haven’t contacted Windows (which they think is the company that makes Windows). I tried to explain that Windows is made by Microsoft.

Each of the 4 representatives must have had this same nonsensical script.  The problem is the Comcast DNS.  I reiterated this.  I resorted to webchat because I found myself using my Mean Voice.  I don’t have a mean keystroke to irritate them with.

The 4th time through I had a brilliant idea.  “Would you like me to call the company and find out if other Comcast customers are having trouble?”   “That won’t be necessary.”

Aha!  I called the company.  Yes, they are aware that other Comcast customers are having this problem.  

I duly reported this to my 4th inquisitor. I gave her the phone number for the company so she could verify my report.

Finally, the Comcast Customer Support person agreed to report the problem to the Comcast Technical Support.

Then, silly human, the Customer Support person asked, “Is there was anything else you want?”

So, I said “Yes. I’ve wasted about 4 hours on this gobbledygook.  I want a free month of service.”

To my surprise, the Customer Support person said she would give me a credit.

I doubt Comcast will give me a free month.  But I make more than $50 for 4 hours work.

And I think the only way they’ll learn to respect customers if they have to pay for it.

I just checked – Comcast is now letting me access this website by typing its URL in the address bar.   Hurray!

So, if Comcast is blocking you from one of your favorite sites, call the company first.  And then report to Comcast.  Don’t wait until call #4.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Accompanying a Friend to the Neurologist

One of my computer clients called – asking me to accompany her to her neurologist appointment. I agreed.

Usually, when I accompany family members I’m afraid of what the doctors might say.  But with my client, I was more curious than afraid.

My client injured her back. She has a herniated disc, or as some of her doctors call it, a pinched nerve.  She’s tried pain killers but they didn’t work.  She tried physical therapy.  That didn’t work.  

In my world, there are a variety of pain killers.  In my world, different physical therapists have different methods for helping. Some are better than others.  

This doctor didn’t share my view.  She thought that since my client had tried drugs and PT, that it was time for surgery.

My client is terrified of back surgery.  From what I’ve read on the web, back surgery is only effective about half the time.

In addition to visiting this neurologist, my client is also seeing an Osteopath and an Acupuncturist.  The Neurologist didn’t seem happy to hear about either of these.  She suggested a test that my client would need before surgery.  My client agreed to this test, even though she is still hoping to avoid surgery.

An aide at the neurologist’s office also measured my client’s blood pressure.  It was extremely low.  80 over 60.  My client takes blood pressure lowering medicine.  I asked if maybe the dose should be changed.  The aide said to ask the doctor. The doctor said to ask the G.P.  My client said she’s been feeling dizzy. And she doesn’t like her G.P. She asked the neurologist to recommend a new G.P.  The neurologist gave her several names, but said she didn’t know if they are taking clients right now.

When we left, my client asked what I would do.  I told her I’d ask both her osteopath and her acupuncturist if they thought they could stop her back pain and if so, how long would it take. I also suggested she see my favorite PT because maybe he could help her. And I suggested she get a balance ball to bounce on because that helped me when I had a herniated disc.

The main thing that stood out from this visit was how provincial all the branches of medicine are. They could work together. But instead they don’t approve of each other, and they feel constrained by their narrow training.  Letting my client walk out of the office without adjusting her blood pressure medication makes no sense to me.  Pushing surgery when one drug and one PT weren’t successful makes no sense to me.  Surgery is a big deal with many risks.  Pushing surgery when alternatives have not yet been exhausted makes no sense at all.  At least my client is in no hurry for surgery, despite her pain.