Nation Building

Here’s a topic I have never written about before… Nation Building. I just want to point you to a great article I read in the Globe yesterday that puts some meat on the question of “Nation Building,” when has it happened before? How long does it take? What is really happening? How does it start and how does it finish?

Here’s the crux of the argument in “How to build a nation” – The Boston Globe

“Identities are chosen strategically, they evolve over time, and people make decisions about what identities to prioritize,” said Jeremy Weinstein, a political science professor at Stanford University who studies ethnic politics and democratic transition in Africa. “This suggests there is room for fluidity and change.”

The lesson of history, it appears, is that tribal division isn’t a permanent condition: It’s just the default when people don’t yet have a nation they have a good reason to identify with. As it turns out, there are examples to follow. And it does not take centuries — or even more than a generation — to build a sense of citizenship. In fact, what we know about forging national identities actually makes the situation in the Middle East seem less dire than it would first appear. (from “How to build a nation” – The Boston Globe)

An excellent article.

My New EXCLUSIVE at Salon: National Security Lab Hacks Diebold Touch-Screen Voting Machine by Remote Control With $26 in Computer Parts

Continuing my linking to Election related news, check out this post Diebold Touch-Screen Voting Machine Hacked by Remote Control With $26 in Computer Parts from The BRAD BLOG:

"What makes this hack so troubling — and different from those which have come before it — is that it doesn’t require any actual changes to, or even knowledge of, the voting system software or its memory card programming. It’s not a cyberattack. It’s a "Man-in-the-middle" attack where a tiny, $10.50 piece of electronics is inserted into the system between the voter and the main circuit board of the voting system allowing for complete control over the touch-screen system and the entire voting process along with it."

New Jersey election fraud? Or coverup? Or just human error?

Andrew Appel is one of the best known academics studying and commenting on elections and computer science and technology related to elections. He wrote a really interesting report, “New Jersey Elections Coverup“, going into great detail about a specific incident during the June 2011 New Jersey primary election where the reported outcome of a particular race was demonstrated to be incorrect.

It was a small election and so they could literally get affidavits from voters to prove this. Mr. Apple was hired as an expert (apparently he does a lot of this, which for me colors his words to some extent) to help investigate what might have happened. The report tells a compelling story.

If you are one of those who wonders whether election fraud happens or can easily happen, this report will interest you. It also adds weight to the conventional wisdom among security and computer experts a physical paper ballot, marked by the voter, and scanned by a computer is really the best and perhaps only way to ensure fair elections.

Instead of giving out grades in a class, give out experience points

If you watched (or didn’t) the preceding video by Jesse Schell you might have caught one throw away idea mentioned that really intrigued me: Eliminate grades and instead adopt a system modeled more like experience points in a game. The idea he mentions I believe came from a Professor Lee Sheldon. Here’s the link to his course, Gaming the Classroom.

In my teaching at Brandeis, deciding how to handle grading is one of the trickier problems to solve. While my experience teaching so far is quite limited I have come to believe you need to be aware that your students’ expectations about what ‘counts’ towards the grade will heavily influence their behavior.

Whether you like it our not that which they feel will help their grade they will do more of and less of the latter. Yeah I would say that they are sincerely there to learn and do their best given all the circumstances. But it’s human nature: when it’s 2am and they need to decide whether to tackle the final homework, go to sleep or go to a party, you can bet that somewhere in the back of their mind is the impact they believe it will have on the grade.

So, what might this new scheme look like?

  • All activities that occur during the term can potentially gain a student experience points. Start simple:

    • Show up on time: 1 point
    • Show up on time for a week stretch: 5 points
    • Ask a question: 1 point
    • Answer a question: 1 point

  • Homeworks can give you points too:

    • Hand in your homework on time: 3 points. down to 2, 1 and 0 if it’s late by 1, 2 or 3 days
    • Quality of the homework can gain you between 0 and 10 points

  • Let’s say that your course has an element of team work

    • Every week, each member of a team gets 5 points that they can award to one or more teammates for contributing to the project
    • For every team delivery that’s on time, each member of the team gets 2 points

  • Each student’s total points is posted electronically every day on a leader board
  • A student or a team can ‘level up’ by making a certain number of points
  • Each level comes with certain privileges
  • And at the end of the term, your ‘grade’ is a simple, predefined formula based on your points

How is this different from what I did before?

  • It’s more granular. Each small event becomes converted into a standardized fungible unit, a point
  • It’s granular chronologically too. You know day to day how you are scoring
  • It’s more fun and introduces an element of competition, prestige and pride into the experience
  • It’s public yet doesn’t reveal too much.

It does have problems though:

  • The student who is not doing well is publicly exposed. This is probably a bad idea, and, it might even be unethical or illegal.
  • You need to be very careful about how you set up the points because, referring back to my original point, it will modify behavior and you will ‘get exactly what you are paying for’ which might not actually be what you want.

Anyway, it was an inspired idea. Not sure if it’s practical but it does make me think…


The flaw in the deal

I am assuming that you’ve followed the nonsense that has been going on in Washington D.C. about our so-called debt ceiling. If not this post will be meaninless and boring to you.

The deal stipulates that a new super-commision will be formed to sort out the additional 1+ Trillion in defecit reduction.  A majority of the commission has to agree on the particular program which will then be sent to the Congress for a “simple” up or down vote.

The famous triggers are designed to force this commision to come to a recommendation and the congress to accept them, because if they don’t there will be trouble. Trouble in the form of a forced set of cuts to Social Security (which liberals will hate) and to Defense (which conservatives will hate.) So the commision is amost guaranteed to come up with a compromise, even if very difficult, because the alternative, the trigger will be unacceptable.

Hmm. Didn’t we just go through this? There was an alternative which would be so unbelievably painful, that both sides could not help but make a compromise. That didn’t happen. No, the tea party decided to hold us all hostage (yes, I think that analogy is apt) and threaten to let the untinkable happen if they didn’t get their way.

The same damn thing will happen again with the so-called select committee. They will hold out to get everything they want even if it would mean serious and dangerous cuts to defense and serious and inhumane cuts to social security.

I don’t know who or why anyone thinks this time will be different.


What I told my Congressman and Senators

“Dear Congressman,

I implore you to PLEASE do all you can to break the deadlock and the impasse. I am not saying what proposal I would like you to back. What I want is that you compromise and get others to compromise so that this thing is solved TODAY.

It’s way passed midnight and the spectacle that we are seeing in DC is embarrassing and shameful.

There are no good guys anymore. All of you are acting badly. Compromise already. It takes two to tango, so it’s not ‘the other guys’ it’s just us chickens.

Please I beg you ALL to get along!

Pito Salas”

Bill Gates and Microsoft

I still don’t love Microsoft. I used to, actually, use Windows day in and day out, for years. But I am known to frown a the thought of sitting down and usingn Windows 7 or whatever it’s called these days.

But isn’t Bill Gates awesome? After building Microsoft into a hugely successful business behemoth he takes his money and builds an awesome charitable behemoth:

“”We all know that there are these exemplars who can take the toughest students, and they’ll teach them two-and-a-half years of math in a single year,” he says. “Well, I’m enough of a scientist to want to say, ‘What is it about a great teacher? Is it their ability to calm down the classroom or to make the subject interesting? Do they give good problems and understand confusion? Are they good with kids who are behind? Are they good with kids who are ahead?’ (from The Wall Street Journal)

Americans Elect – A viable third party?

It’s unusual to see Thomas Friedman to throw his weight this thoroughly behind an outside organization:

“The goal of Americans Elect is to take a presidential nominating process now monopolized by the Republican and Democratic parties, which are beholden to their special interests, and blow it wide open — guaranteeing that a credible third choice, nominated independently, will not only be on the ballot in every state but be able to take part in every presidential debate and challenge both parties from the middle with the best ideas on how deal with the debt, education and jobs.” (from The New York TImes)

I am not sure this is for real, but it sure sounds interesting. I am signing up.

David Brooks: The Mother of All No-Brainers

Another on the mark article by David Brooks: the mother of all no brainers.

I can’t help it but I am riveted by this debt ceiling debacle. Like many I want them to stop bickering and reach and agreement. I know there will be parts of it that I hate, but I know that overall I will be thrilled that this particular soap opera/drama/crisis is over, and that our leaders have stopped acting like children:

The struggles of the next few weeks are about what sort of party the G.O.P. is — a normal conservative party or an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation.


If the debt ceiling talks fail, independent voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

And they will be right.


[GEEKY] JavaScript – Universal Language of the Future

JavaScript is the language of the future. Why do I say this?

I love Ruby, I respect Java, and I am jealous of Python. And of course I have a warm spot in my heart for C++. Think about it. JavaScript is unique among all those languages:

  • Any computer you can get your hands on nowadays has a working, and probably very fast JavaScript compiler/interpreter. Laptops, Desktops, Servers, Mac, Pc, Linux, Phone, Tablet. ALL OF THEM.  You can’t say that of any of the other languages.
  • Because of the browser wars, and probably spurred on by Google and Chrome, there has been enormous investment in JavaScript performance so that it is now respected as a viable high performance language for server side apps.
  • As a language, it’s not shabby. Most people don’t think about JavaScript as a full fledged programming language, but it does have some great characteristics.

If you don’t believe me, here’s another person who comes to the same conclusion by a slightly different route:

“Web servers, rich web client libraries, HTML5, databases, even JavaScript-based languages: I see JavaScript everywhere. If you have avoided JavaScript, this is the year to learn it. There’s no excuse — and if you don’t, you risk being left behind.” (from “Why a JavaScript Hater thinks everyone needs to learn JavaScript in the next year.”)

So, go learn JavaScript. You will need it for your next job.