Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A new old currency

I was just thinking about all the problems we now face due to the rogue economics in play. Then I realised that there is in fact a currency that do not obey the same rules as yen, dollars, or euro.

  • It is a currency used in all countries.
  • The interests of the currency increase the worse the economy is.
  • The more of the currency you have, the more you want to save.
  • The more of the currency you have the less distractions affect you from accumulating more.
  • The more of the currency you save the more likely you are to get meaningful long term employment. 
  • The more of the currency you save the more excellence appear in the work you produce. The more excellence in your work the more valuable a product you produce. 
  • The exchange rate depends on how much the person you exchange also possess of the currency. The more he/she has, the cheaper it is.
  • It has a security feature built into it that makes it more difficult to steal. I consist of something you possess, something you know, and to a large extent something that is uniquely you.
  • Some say the currency is the formula for real success. 
  • It is contagious.

The currency is integrity.

Own it!

Also read:
Challenging the integrity of research

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Teaching the Traumatised

Everybody has felt how a headache affects the ability to think straight. Perhaps you have even felt how much energy and mental effort a bad injury or long term illness demand of you. If you have had the unpleasant experience of being bullied you know it will be on your mind months and years. If you had a death in the family, sudden or otherwise, you may have experienced how this can consume your waking and sleeping hours. I think most can relate to these different events as different levels of life's unpleasant surprises that are acknowledged to impact on our ability to get though the day and not least – to learn.  
Image: demotivationalposters

But what if you are a student and you grew up with an alcoholic parent? What if the your partner beats and threatens you regularly? What if you are a survivor of rape or systematic abuse? What if the thought of suicide is crossing your mind regularly?

If we are not accepting that these kinds of trauma are sure to affect the long term ability to learn, we are ignoring what may be the single most important reason why some students cannot function (Chen et al. 2006, Knox 2010, Basch 2011a, Basch 2011b, Coohey et al. 2011, Karande and Kuril 2011, Krishnakumar et al. 2011, Makrill and Hesse 2011, Afifi et al. 2012, Snyder et al. 2013, Swanston et al. 2013)! Failing to respond when being exposed to individuals caught in such abuse would not only be to fail as teachers, but also as human beings.

In January 2013 I participated in the international conference “Higher Education – Higher Level Learning?” in Tallinn with national and internationally renowned experts in educational development. There was not one word on the importance of social issues in affecting learning outcomes. So, not being an expert, I raised the question myself – several times. In all forums, it was considered important – and that it should be addressed. 

At least I was confirmed that my wonder was justified. But the silence on the matter was deafening.  

In other institutions, like the military, a stable person is recognized as being of importance for the success of the mission, unit, and the function of the organ as a whole. I was once told that the elite forces in Denmark, and elsewhere, are expected to “clean up” at home before going on a mission. This means that you go home and solve your private problems: settle arguments, say your goodbyes, get issues out in the open, discussed, and closed. A person on a military mission with issues at home is considered unable to function optimally and may be a serious liability to the whole group.

Young persons entering the military and academia are about the same age – but it is not my impression the young adults are helped in academia to address these imperative skills for success.

I currently teach veterinary students in Estonia. So, if I look at my classroom of 100 apparently normal students as a statistical representation of Estonia the group would roughly contain the following:
- around 17 of the females would have been physically attacked by the person they have chosen as partner within the last year (Laanpere et al. 2012). The numbers for males being attacked are unavailable, but likely similar.
- around 4 of the females would have been exposed to sexual violence (rape or attempt of rape) within the last year (Laanpere et al. 2012). The numbers for males are unavailable.
- as the European country with most alcohol-related deaths, many of the students would either have experience with alcoholism themselves or in their network (EUROSTAT, 2013).
- One would have HIV/AIDS (Laisaar et al. 2012)
- With the second highest age adjusted suicide rate in Europe, at least one is likely to have considered suicide or know a person in their network that did commit suicide (Schneider et al. 2009, EUROSTAT 2013). 
- Currently ranking third place in homicides in Europe, there is also a chance of a person having lost somebody to violence (EUROSTAT, 2013).

Or in other words, several of my students are likely to carry some kind of severe trauma that no human should have to endure. Should I as a teacher be aware of that when evaluating my student’s performance or just chase the thought out of my head as somebody else's problem?

The problems is, that if it is somebody else’s problem in Estonia, finding that person who will actually do something is very hard; at least to my personal intensive experience on the subject. And those persons I have been in contact with have a very high acceptance towards violence (“that is just how it is”), and a much looser view on upholding the country’s laws that I used to think were instated to protect people from harm.  

There is a strong rhetoric from many governments that we need to educate skilled young people with our educational system. My point is: is that possible without addressing the crushing social issues openly and actively in an effort to reshape the culture from its current status of silently accepting abuse? How fragile is your country if you build it on ignoring broken people and only pay lip service to your laws?

I am sick and saddened to my core every time I hear about a child witnessing their parent beat or kill the other, or themselves getting beaten or tortured! I hear some teachers and social service workers almost casually play it down to a “the child also have problems at home and have good days and bad days in school”. It has appeared to be impossible to make psychiatrists, psychotherapists or social services even blink when repeatedly asking if they have considered domestic violence in such a case (I have personal experience of this).   

I was presented with an interesting viewpoint when writing this article. Perhaps education is also a welcome escape to persons who carry a trauma! Schools and university may be a place where they get a feeling of worth to counter a feeling of less-worth that may be imposed by abusive peers or self-inflicted. Or, education may be a physical escape option in life from a secret treadmill of violence. These points may very likely be the case for some individuals. On the flip-side, then are very tough educations, like the veterinary education I am involved with. The pressure of high expectations could amount to an enormous personal stress from both personal and educational life.

TED: Pearl Arredondo: My story, from gangland daughter to star teacher

Improving on the situation will take decades, perhaps generations – certainly longer if we do not address this problem openly.

I can accept that there are finite resources to address the many problems of a country and specifically education. What I personally cannot accept is the silence that allows the problems to continue generation after generation and impair personal development and the society as a whole.

TED: Ken Robinson: How to escape education's death valley

Various traumatic experiences are a natural part of life whether inflicted or naturally occurring. Being silent about the life-long trauma students may experience, such as violence, is also stigmatizing them – even if they are far from alone with their problems. In such an environment, the survivors have to endure two types of attackers: the actual person attacking them and those who cover for the attacker with the silence. In my personal experience, the latter is the one that I find the hardest to accept.

If you are a teacher I urge you to be brave enough to talk about the importance of a stable and violence-free social environment as a perquisite for successful learning. I hope this can be done without falling into the rhetoric’s of only accepting conservative family concepts (a good background can be many things) or accept labeling people as non-fitting as self-explanatory for learning difficulties - which may cause more damage than good if placing these above the need of the persons in question.

Good luck working on your morals and your courage!

More food for thoughts:

Monday, March 25, 2013

Is livestock production prepared for an electrically paralysed world?

Last Thursday I had the pleasure to stand in front of the elite of agricultural sciences and say “We are all going to die!”
After a short pause I continued with “... what we do with the time before we die does matter!”

This was my introduction to the invited talk at Tervise loom ja tervislik toit 2013 [Healthy animals and healthy food 2013] on how livestock production might prepare for an electrical paralysed period. 
August last year I published an opinion on the subject in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture that seemed to create quite a lot of publicity nationally and internationally. To my surprise I had suddenly become an "expert" on something I had meant to be a concerned comment for those wiser than me. Apparently few others had given this topic a thought - what happens to our food production in an all out power shortage.

I was very moved by the massive positive feedback following the talk I gave, from students to professors. It was a feeling of actually moving a thought or two, perhaps even moving a single opinion even.

I decided to put up the article and the presentation here on the blog for those who could not attend or people interested in the subject. And to those that listened - thank you!

Presentation [English] [Estonian]

LassenB. 2012 Is livestock production prepared for an electrically paralysedworld? J Sci Food Agric. Oct 19. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.5939. [Epub ahead of print]

Other sources (not given in the article above)
Grigas, A. 2012. Legacies, Coercion and Soft Power: Russian Influence in the Baltic States. Chatham House, London, UK, 16 pp.
Solar storms on National Geographic Magazine.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mindset of an martial artist in academic teaching

Students teaching each other
Learning is not just a skill, but also an attitude. 

The mindset of a teacher in an evolving martial art is that of a relationship where both student and instructor are venturing in a common effort to excel. The training place, the dojo, is a safe place to make mistakes and the instructor-student relationship is based on creating independence by learning how to learn. The Asian-influenced philosophy that is nourishing mindfullness in learning, with the aim to improve skills, can seem somewhat reversed compared to Western thinking that dominates in academia.

A typical class room or dojo
In academia, a lot of time is spent on adsorbing a lot of information with a presumption that students know how to process this raw information. This stands in contrast to the thinking in martial arts, where possessing a text with an important technique would be considered useless or misleading without a moral understanding. The written information of a technique in martial arts cannot be grasped unless one is able, with assistance of a teacher, to contextualize and animate it and appreciate its synergy with one’s present moral and intellectual understanding. With age and experience, the understanding continues to grow. Though the Asian-inspired thinking in teaching is hundreds of yeas old it is only now beginning to gain popularity in Western academia. Alvin Toffler and Roy Leighton are among a few who strongly speak in favour of replacing the overall understanding of education in a modern society from an obsolete form based on memorization, were information is available to anyone anywhere, with the ability of applying the knowledge available.
Wonderful teacher-student interaction when teaching in Japan
As an university teacher with a background in martial arts, the academic education seems incomplete by allowing students to pass a higher education by displaying a mere ability to answer written or oral tests as expected, without simultaneously educating the person how to apply the knowledge for something good.
To become a good instructor in martial arts, the teacher needs to be a leader among equals: respecting the students while destroying his or hers own ego. Developing skills in academia to a higher level (as it is the goal in martial arts) is possible if the teacher embodies the passion for the subject and insists on communication with students. This contact is based on a mutual respect and striving for excellence by example. 
A thought example. Imagine attending a martial art class where you for 45 minutes listened to a power point presentation of a teacher explaining how you should move and behave. Would you come back for the next lesson? Now imagine a university lecturer who takes the students somewhere relevant and interesting for the subject, shows and explains about the subject as examples appear or in response to questions, insist student explore and use their senses. Would you come back for that next lesson? Perhaps even go home and read about questions that appeared in the discussion?
Today's class is under water
Promoting passion and healthy self-criticism above long-term purely academic aims, such as degrees, might also result in overall better-doing students. In addition, constant self-reflecting empowers students to adapt to inevitable changes in life and constantly reflect on their roles in collaborations. One aim of higher education should be that the students would find they have an excess of passion and begin teaching back on their own initiative - thus showing they have developed a heart for learning. 

Students teaching and learning, and smiling!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Irresistible pro's of synthetic meat and finding the con's?

In January 2011 I wrote an article "In vitro meat - is it progress or optimization?" I made careful prediction that if there continues to be a desire to optimize meat production then synthetic meat is inevitably land on our table!

In vitro meat is closer than you think.

The 16th August 2012, the Wired Science wrote about an American firm, Modern Meadows, being backed by the Thiel Foundation in their plans to print meat and sell it.
Image: Viewzone

Synthetic meat for human consumption is coming! Assuming it will be as good quality as the one cut from animals that have had a farm life, for better and worse, what are the arguments for taking on this new technology?

Modern Meadows own sales pitch is saying a lot and hard to argue against. Yes, meat production is very wasteful and unsustainable today! Yes, there is a lot of pollution and logistics involved! Yes, there are diseases that can transmit from animals to humans without proper monitoring! Yes, there are very severe animal health and welfare issues that should continuously be reviewed and improved on. Yes, many will certainly give in to the compelling argument: "no animal was harmed in this process!"

In addition to that, presenting it as 3D printing, makes it much more digestible for us already. Printing organs, tools, toys, and candy is an old futuristic dream coming true. We can already experience the benefit of having a custom tool printing for our needs. Who not meat then?

I am sure there will be problems with eating synthetic meat that we have not yet thought of. New diseases, or absence of  exposure to diseases may produce new modern diseases. Patent wars on cell lines and technology. Monopoly of production and markets as seen for corn, etc. But I believe this technology will be received with open arms by many. Some sceptics (possibly rightly so) will insist on eating "real meat" for different reasons, but if somebody will buy the new food product - it will be sold. As it is sold, with years, we will get used to the thought and more will give in. Especially when the price is becoming competitive.

This means agriculture as we know it today may become a technology of the past.

My suggestion: prepare your questions now for synthetic meat and ask how this will change how we live.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Modern Sisyphus - are scientist's smart to publish in academic journals today?

The publishing of academic work is a tightly controlled process, with critical review taking months and sometimes years of work that needs to stand the test of "experts" believing in your work for it to reach print. This is to ensure quality to avoid that bad, or even misleading work, do not get the quality stamp "scientific" and "peer reviewed". The idea is good, but is it fair under current day standards and is it even abused?

Testing your experiments against the criticism of your equals is an old concept that dates back before the time of natural scientists. In the age of alchemists and early time of the natural scientists it was simply to dangerous to openly speak of your ideas and theories without putting your life and limbs at stake in Europe. So, the ideas and results was coded or secretly sent between trusted individuals within the same field for commenting or simply sharing the progresses. One such network that included historical figures such as Sir Cheney Culpeper, Benjamin Worsley, and Rober Boyle that were possibly members of the Invisible College.
When the work of national philosophers were vindicated by people in power in the 17th century discussing theories and results became more public accepted. Actually, in the early days of science the researcher had to perform the experiment in front of a live audience, trying to convince them – the predecessor of today's scientific presentation. Eventually the written form went public and commonly the universities provided the press.
Up into our time the published articles has been taken on by a large and increasing number of publishers. Some mastodons almost monopolizing whole sectors and others grass roots and independent publishers. Today publishing is associated with costs for the journal due to staff and printing costs, but it may have gone a bit out of hand.

Exploitation of researchers in publishing
A scientist today can rarely avoid frequent invitations to review articles, publishing in new journals (often for a fee), share their knowledge in book chapters (often for a fee), not to mention a horde of new conferences inviting your to give a presentation (but often for the fee of attending). It is hard to see this as short of exploitation.
This is probably a “natural” development of how we build our academic sector today. Scientists work for free, or pays, to share the most recent advances to the world. The more people you want to reach with the new knowledge – the more expensive it is (such as making your article Open Access in most journals).
For comparison, consider a journalist. Journalists are seen by many scientists as counter productive to progress since the information they provide to the public often is distorted and misleading making the increasing of knowledge so much harder. The journalist has a much wider audience and the journalist get paid to publish! This puts the voice of scientists at a clear disadvantage since damage control within their field is work that is pro bono.

Just, to highlight the main differences, consider the following generalized financial differences...
General perspective on costs and salary in publishing

Writer is measured on how much is published and by the popularity of the published paper?
Writer is paid to write?
Writer is paid to review?
Costs can be associated with publishing for writer?
If made available for free the writer pays for it?
If made available for free or published in larger quantities the writer is paid more due to extended use of creative material?

... in short the researcher can suck waxed fruit!

In addition there is a long row of similar things about content, such as integrity, thoroughness of background research, spelling and language, speculation on material presented etc. that are very different depending on whether a scientist or journalist is to publish their material (sadly enough).

Looking at this kind of set-up it is difficult to publish an article without getting a bitter taste in the mouth. One do not feel very clever doing so unless you have a huge sense of Utopia (like me). Actually, it is scary how easy it is to earn fair money for your efforts by taking on a journalist-hat and write a science-sounding article (qualified or not) for a pet magazine or the like.

Good journals do exist
One of my favourite journals is Vet Med Zoot. It is free to publish in. It is journal controlled by an university. It has an impact factor (important to bosses of researchers). It has a good editorial board. It is Open Access. Down side is that MedLine has not listed it yet and it is thus not searchable by researchers only using this tool. But, the journal is close to what the original idea of a publication was supposed to be. More of that please!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Doctor of Philosophy - Wanted: Philosophical King

After listening to the Danish radio program Agenda's questioning Europa's democracy and transformation into technocracies I felt there was cause for reflection on one of the institutions most eagerly morphing to become reflections of the government - the university.

Or, as the Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves would put it (for the Estonian readers):
Vaid optimaalsus ja efektiivsus ei saa olla eesmärgiks. Olemise mõte ja ideed pole aga arvepidamises. Ma tõesti soovin, et dialoog Eesti Ühiskonnas ei algaks ega lõpeks maksejõulisuse argumentidega. Palju olulisem on meie elujõulisus.

Philosopher king wanted
The radio program starts wisely with Plato's "The State" - the philosophical work on what an ideal government should be. According to Plato governing should not fall in the hands of democracy (which he found the least suited form) and not to be governed by soldiers or craftsmen. His reason was that these rulers would be to narrow minded. Or in other words too technocratic and too obsessed on fitting everything into the narrow field of world view they had mastered. Thus being incapable of the most important skills a ruler needs: reason and wisdom. The ruler should have a learned and flexible mind and with an Utopian vision (an ideal). Or in other words: a philosopher king.

Plato put it in these words:
Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophise, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils,... nor, I think, will the human race. (Republic 473c-d)
Technocracy and the strangulation of innovation
The philosophers interviewed in the radio program Agenda were highlighting that we currently stand at a tipping point where democracy is turning into a paper shuffling technocracy. In some countries, such as Italy, this is currently a last resort to a dire crisis.
The victory march of the technocratic approach is inevitably resulting in the strangulation of innovative thoughts, the rejection of responsibility, and a system that is turning on itself. This is shown very well in the bewilderment of governments that puzzled and desperately are trying to give adrenalin boosts to the national innovation (assuming this is their life boat) and getting nowhere fast.

Though Plato's ideas probably are not applicable today where the systems currently are so complex that no one man can get the full overview, there are many good points to pull out from his early warning and the cards we have been dealt today.

The philosophy void of present day
Today philosophy is something most would think of as a specialization choice - even by most who have a degree saying "Doctor of Philosophy" like myself. But from the time of Plato up to present time, philosophers keep repeating that everybody should be capable of philosophy. Our kids should be spoon fed this skill in kinder garden!

For those who think philosophy ranks lower than mathematics, reading, and music skills, here is a reminder:
Philosophy is the study of problems connected with our foundation as human beings such as: existence, knowledge, mind, language, and values.
How can you choose what is a good research project, the direction of a university, or how to explain what is right to your children if the skill (philosophy) is never taught, or at best considered a past time curiosity?

When the degree of Ph.D. came into existence the existing possible curriculum at that time still allowed a student to know a broad range of subjects - including philosophy. Today the title remains, but if the vision extend past the listed target keywords of funding even the best innovative ideas may not be understood. Such researchers may have to look for a different job.

I miss the visibility of philosophy and vision in leadership today. Everybody should be able to define "what is value?" or "what is knowledge?" before they get a position in a university - not least a Ph.D! And at the same time the leaders could re-evaluate the real cost-benefit of educating people to become highly independent and abstract thinkers in the pursuit of breaking the bonds of the possible and then force them to spend the majority of the the time filling forms correctly.