Tag Archives: Education

Why Atheism Should Be Taught In Religious Studies

This week we had news that secular views being left out of GSCE Religious Studies was a mistake. Of course this has got some conservative commentators backs up. Why should we teach non-religion in classes about religion? To answer that first we should ask why we are teaching children about religions in the first place. Clearly, or at least hopefully we don’t teach Religious Studies in order that children can decide which is the right one, or be told what to believe. We do it to encourage harmony and understanding. So we don’t remain ignorant and all become massive Islamophobes (although I’m not sure that is working out so well).

In light of this, it is very important to educate people about those who have no religion at all. To complete our set of understanding. No one is advocating that Religious Studies classes teach kids that God is imaginary, just that people are made aware of what atheists are all about and why. To neglect this is to leave people open to all sorts of nonsense that gets said about atheists by the religious. That atheists have no morals for example, or that atheists believe in nothing. The only way to counter such misinformation is to educate people. If Religious Studies has a purpose at all, it is to nurture understanding between faiths and beyond to the irreligious. Otherwise there is really no use in teaching it.

I also think that it should not be called Religious Studies, but rather Philosophy and Ethics or some more inclusive title. Again not to marginalize religion, but to encourage an understanding of world views that extend beyond religion and the broader context in which religions and philosophies interplay and relate to each other. Just teaching kids what each different religion believes is not truly insightful. It would serve us all well to learn about the cultural context in which these beliefs evolved. It doesn’t undermine belief in Christianity to learn about Jewish Messianism and the Roman occupation of Judea (and subsequent corruption or perceived corruption of the Jewish temple authorities), but it surely teaches us something about humanity, our history and how we cope with change. We would all do better if we were educated on all different kinds of Philosophies and their cultural and historical heritage, a vital part of that is those who have rejected religious belief in favour of a rational and empirical world view.

This is not a case of sneering liberals wanting to turn your children into God-hating communists. Its about giving the next generation the best possible understanding of what it is to be human, our struggles, and cultural heritage in the hope that it will iron out any prejudice and tribalism. Really, including atheism in Religious Studies should be the first in a step towards teaching a broader humanities subject. Not because we want to remove religion from your children’s lives, but because religion doesn’t have the monopoly on things humans believe and should therefore only comprise a part of their education on the subject.

UPDATE 04/12/2015 – It has been pointed out to me that I was perhaps unclear about my usage of the term atheism. To be clear I do refer to the wider definition that is probably better defined as Secular Humanism that simply atheism—which could apply to religions such as Buddhism. So whenever I use the term atheism in the context of it being taught as part of a Religious Studies syllabus, I mean Secular Humanist views, not just lack of belief in God.

School reality in Austria

I’ve been meaning to write this for quite some time now but I never got around to it. I wanted to continue my politics series, but atm Austrian politics really sucks and I’d rather not talk about it.

In my last post on education, I briefly brushed on one astounding fact: Education is hereditary. I stated that “between 60-80% of learning achievement can be predicted by looking at the background of children”.

I won’t delve into why that is too much, but I want to explain how that creates problems for teachers.

I am currently teaching at a school in Vienna. It’s not a bad school at all, in fact I’m quite happy about the school’s infrastructure, the colleagues there, the children and of course the parents. All in all, I’m satisfied.

Could things be better? Of course they could. Our computers and printers are slow and old, our projectors hardly work at all and we’ve barely got enough space to work on. (About the size of an average computer screen, 1.5 if you’re lucky.)
Compared to Nordic countries, that’s nothing! In Sweden, I had my own desk and two cupboards. That’s about as much as our head mistress gets!

All that aside, there’s a much deeper problem with our education, one that can’t easily be fixed.


Let’s back up a little. A few decades ago, kids were still beaten. Kids were scared to go to school, but they went anyway. Kids had suffered through a damn lot.

And yet, they got good grades, learned a lot and essentially built what we have today: A (more or less) functional society with (more or less) good morals and a (more or less) slowly closing gender gap, with (more or less) little discrimination against people due to whatever reason… All in all it’s a good society, though of course there are still things we can improve.

However, kids were more polite, though that is of course not due to any innate quality of generations past, but rather because they feared the rod. In any case, teachers in those days had it much easier but used inadequate methods to teach.

Nowadays, we have the exact opposite. Teachers have the benefit of smartboards, neuroscience, excellent teacher training, readily available teaching materials and so on and so forth.

And yet, teaching is more difficult than ever. You have to make your subject not only more interesting than the other subjects, but you actually have to compete with video games, movies, taking drugs, drinking and even sex. Try doing that, making your subject more interesting than sex: Good fucking luck.


If that were the only problem, we’d be in trouble, but we would be able to fix it: Appeal to the parents, make them work a bit.

Here’s the real problem: Many parents, at least in Austria, think they know better than the teachers. I’ll give you an example. Last week, we talked about “animals” in class: Basic vocabulary, talking about them, etc. Possibly the easiest animal for a German kid to remember is “rat”. So I was surprised to see that a boy had written “ret”. While my colleague was teaching, I went up to him and asked him about that. Here’s the short discussion that ensued:

Kid: “My mom told me you spell it like that.”

Me: “Well that’s a problem then because that’s not the way it’s spelled. I studied English for a reason, did your mom? Look, here’s the book spelling it “rat”, here’s the dictionary, here’s…”

Kid: “I don’t care. My mom told me you guys suck anyway, so I don’t have to listen to you.”

Now this might be an isolated incident, but it’s still representative of the mentality many parents hold: Teachers are lazy, get paid too much and they know absolutely nothing. Here’s another example. We’re currently re-structuring the curricula at my teachers university college (PH Wien) and I volunteered to help. Needless to say we have no power to do anything at all, but we still meet regularly. During the first meeting, one of the participants (parents association representative) asked, and I paraphrase his long question: “How come, after all this training, there are still bad teachers?”

Now this, of course, betrays a wild ignorance of Gaussian distribution: Some people are very good, a lot are medium and some are very bad. Teachers training doesn’t get rid of the bottom percent, it just moves the whole curve a bit to the right, aka. towards the “better” part of the curve. However, there is a deeper message: Teachers need to be controlled, they need to be supervised, they need to be watched over.

On the whole, of course, I agree: Teachers should do their absolute best, just as doctors and firefighters and … should do their absolute best. No questions asked. However, that’s not possible without public support (aka money) and public support (aka supporting parents and society).


The third problem, and I’ll be sure to confuse you with this sentence, is migration.

“Wahhh, right wing scum.”

No, don’t get me wrong. The problem isn’t with migrants, it’s with how we accept migrants. This may be different in other countries, but migrants in generally aren’t welcomed in Austria: There’s a strong anti-immigration strain-of-thought, especially in large cities. If the only thing you tell migrants is that they’re lazy and that their language isn’t worth a damn, then we’ll have a society of people who think just that. If we tell people that only our language is important, then not only will migrant children lose their identity, but we’ll lose the ability (or willingness) to adapt to new cultures.

This may have something to do with our history: We’ve had a long-standing feud with the Ottoman Empire (aka the Turks) and we’ve been invaded more often than possibly any country on earth. (This may or may not be a slight exaggeration) We were once a mighty empire with loads of cultures where we didn’t have to fear diversity, now we’re a tiny country with no say in any matter. However, fear of diversity will kill this small country: Only through increased diversity and increased acceptance of it will we be able to hold our place.

Finally, it is exactly the wrong approach to tell children that their language isn’t worth anything: We must encourage them to learn their mother tongue, if only because mastery of one language will make mastery of a second language more probable. The earlier, the better; the more, the better. In short: If, as a foreigner, you want your kid to learn English, teach it your mother tongue first.


Jumping back to the beginning, I think I’ve identified a few problems with schools as they’re currently run:

1) School needs to be exciting, but schools nowadays are boring.

2) Society neither trusts teachers, nor are they seen as authority figures. Where respect and mutual aid used to be the norm, distrust and low-profile conflict are now much more common. Parents tell their kids not to trust their teachers because “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”. Parents think they’re experts in education, simply because they have a kid and have read a few books on the subject.

3) Education isn’t as “interesting” a political topic any more. Screw what they said in “House of Cards”: Education isn’t anything that will capture votes. Or maybe it will, but after that we won’t do anything useful. I’ll have an entire post about that soon. *

4) Cultural identity and the benefits from it aren’t recognised as worth protecting, instead we want people to assimilate in a way that’s comfortable for us. Never mind what’s best for the kid, let’s think about what’s best for me.

These are just a few of the problems teachers in Austria (and probably also in other countries) face. I’m not saying that teachers are saints, of course not. Neither am I saying that they’re purely victims. I’m saying that we should be realistic about the challenges of teaching, that parents should support a child’s learning and that schools can’t work miracles. When in doubt, talk to your child’s teacher once in a while and formulate a plan how you can best support your child.

*There are many things I could talk about, but I think this will be the most interesting. I’ll be talking about current problems in schools (due to the system), current scientific investigations into the topics including possible solutions, and I’ll talk about how the state is trying to fix it: By doing the opposite of what experts are telling them, I might add.

If you have any questions regarding schools, school reforms, teaching practices, etc. I’ll be happy to answer.

Global Warming – Is there a solution?

I spend way too much on my newspaper. 200€ a year, just to get a weekly paper. Granted, it’s about 10m² just on one page and it’s as thick as your average Bible, but still… For those of you who don’t know it, I’m talking about the German newspaper “Zeit”. It really is excellent, I just don’t have the time to read it every week. Not even close. So mostly, I just pluck out the articles that really interest me and go through those.

I won’t bore you with the article in “Zeit”, instead I’ll link to the article it references:

Rollin Stones: Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

Short version: We’re pumping out much more CO² than we should. In fact, if we keep going at this rate then we’ll reach the red line (about 565 Gigatons until 2050, counting from today) in just over 18 years. (Today’s output ~31Gt/y, and 565/31=18.2) The problem: We’ve got about 2700Gt of CO² sleeping under ground in the form of coal, gas and oil.

So what are our choices? Depending on which side you listen to, there’s different solutions and different non-solutions. If you listen to the deniers then obviously there’s no need for a solution, the greens (note: NO capital G) say that solar/wind/bio-fuel and cutting carbon emissions (either through fuel economy or reducing the economy) are solutions but that nuclear power is a big no-no. The nuclear industry says that nuclear energy is the only solution.

If you’re reading this, you’re interested in what I think and say. Only to thrash it in the comments.

I will try to base my arguments on as much science as I can, though I warn you up-front: Not all here is hard science, some of it is soft science aka. humanities. In those cases, I present arguments and hope that they’re good enough.

A paper in 2004 (Pacala and Socolow, 2004) offers 15 solutions. (page 3 in the PDF, page 970 on paper) They can be categorized into two (or three) sections:

1) Improve efficiency

2) Use renewable energy sources or those of low CO² output

2.1) Use carbon sinks for fossil fuels

All of these 15 solutions are good and I can think of a few others, though they would be costly and possibly not as effective. So let’s focus on these 15. We’ll agree that 1 and 2.1 are all good, skip forestry (I’m very happy to see that on the list and it’s something that will take a lot of effort, sadly) and we’ll move to #2. Here we have five possible solutions: Biofuels, Photovoltaic, Hydrogen, Wind and Nuclear. I’ll try to very briefly deal with all of them, but I will completely skip Hydrogen because I know exactly nothing about its use as a fuel. If anyone could enlighten me in the comments, that would be much appreciated. It’s also noteworthy that both Hydro-electric power and tidal power have been skipped. The solution: There’s just so damn few of them, they make no global impact whatsoever. (Combined, they could potentially make up 1/4th of the power needed today, but that’s potential (i.e. sometimes not accessible and/or in natural reserves) and there’s huge costs involved.)

Potential energy available

So let’s quickly look at those four remaining sources of fuel. I’ll start with Wind.

There are two ways of harnessing the power of the wind: Offshore wind farms and Onshore wind farms. Theoretically, wind power could give us more than enough energy. (see graphic 1) For the following figures, I will rely on this 2010 UK report as shown over at Wikipedia.
We can easily see that there is a huge difference in cost between onshore and offshore wind power: Offshore costs nearly twice as much. That’s also the reason why many companies are reducing their offshore wind power spending and are focusing on other means. For example, to achieve Britain’s goal of 15GW, this article suggests that you’ll need about 60$ billion. I don’t have that kind of money and neither do they, it seems.
The second way, onshore wind power, suffers problems of its own. Turbines don’t look good, they kill birds (though not nearly as many as people might want you to think), they’re unsafe… None of these are real problems, so we’ll skip those and get onto real ones. For this, I have absolutely no concrete number and must rely on what I was told by a high-ranking member in the Austrian ministry for agriculture. (includes renewable energy) If his numbers are correct, then onshore wind installations are pretty much used up. Austria produces about 1400MW from Wind Energy, or about 4% of our national consumption. Most countries produce between 1-7% of their energy from wind energy, in fact the EU average is 7%. Only countries with access to the ocean or with huge parts of unused land produce more than that. If I am to trust said person above, the EU average can rise to 10%, maybe 12%. It’s doubtful if more can be produced, simply because the turbines take so much space.
In short, Wind power can only do so much to curb carbon emissions. We must look further.
Having dismissed wind power as a viable alternative, we move on to biofuels. Contrary to common belief, not all of biofuels are generated by sugar cane or maize. This pop-sci article discusses the worth of forestry-related biofuels. Other researchers are looking into algae, fungi and other alternative biofuel sources.
Apart from the obvious problems with biofuels, like “food vs. fuel”, soil erosion, deforestation, impact on water, etc., there’s another huge problem: ERO(E)I or Energy Return On (Energy) Investment. Basically it means that you put in X amounts of energy and you get Y back. If Y>X, then you have a net gain. An EROEI of 1 means that you just break even: You get back what you put in, so there’s no gain. An EROEI of anything lower than 1 means you lose energy. Fusion, to take but one example, has an EROEI lower than 1.
OK, I see what you’re getting at. What’s the EROEI of bio-fuels? Murphy and Hall (2010) calculated three different EROEI’s:
1) Biodiesel with 1.3
2) Corn-based Ethanol with 0.8-1.6
3) Ethanol (Sugarcane) with 0.8-10
Most biofuels are simply too inefficient to make a big impact. We’d have to use vast swathes of land to achieve this. As Pacala and Socolow (2004) state:

Option 13: Biofuels. Fossil-carbon fuels can also be replaced by biofuels such as ethanol. A wedge of biofuel would be achieved by the production of about 34 million barrels per day of ethanol in 2054 that could displace gasoline, provided the ethanol itself were fossil-carbon free. This ethanol production rate would be about 50 times larger than today’s global pro- duction rate, almost all of which can be attrib- uted to Brazilian sugarcane and United States corn. An ethanol wedge would require 250 million hectares committed to high-yield (15 dry tons/hectare) plantations by 2054, an area equal to about one-sixth of the world’s crop- land. An even larger area would be required to the extent that the biofuels require fossil-carbon inputs. Because land suitable for annually harvested biofuels crops is also often suitable for conventional agriculture, biofuels production could compromise agricultural productivity.

Now I suggest, and you may or may not agree with that assessment, that this is simply unacceptable. We can not, nor should we, use biofuels to replace fossil-carbon fuels. Our greatest hope lies in electric motors. Biofuels can substitute a small sliver of current use, but if I were to make decisions I’d ban them outright.

This leaves us with the photovoltaic and nuclear options. To achieve 1/15th of today’s energy consumption, we’d need an area the size of Israel. (2mio ha = 20,000km² ~Israel or Slovenia) This wouldn’t be a problem if we could just plant them wherever we want, but we have to factor in watts per m² (Graphic 2), distance to destination, etc.

Watts per m²

There is the added problem that photovoltaic costs quite a bit (see UK 2010) and again uses up large tracts of land. However, some people suggest it could make up 3-4 wedges (of 14-16 wedges needed) in this battle. I’m not so optimistic, at least not with the current state of technology. I’m all for using photovoltaic, don’t get me wrong. We’ve got some panels installed ourselves, as much as we could fit on the roof. However, they’re still not at a point where they’re effective enough to really take over. Currently, the most effective (and expensive?) cells have an efficiency of 44%. The average is far below that.
My conclusion: Solar power is by far the most promising of the above four mentioned, but we shouldn’t slack off on innovating them.

Last but not least, I want to turn  to nuclear power. I have previously already talked about how nuclear power is actually an incredibly safe alternative, the problem is just that people don’t know about that. I won’t go into that here. The above mentioned UK estimate (2010) calculates nuclear cost as being lower than tidal, offshore wind and solar power, and as being in the vicinity of other forms of energy. (onshore, coal, gas, biomass, etc.) By “in the vicinity” I mean that they overlap a huge amount, because of course there is some error margin. Nuclear’s EROEI is, depending on what kind of reactor you run, either lower than wind’s (10 vs 18) or much higher than wind (50 vs 18), but no matter what it’s far higher than either biofuels or photovoltaic (1.3 and 6.8 respectively).
There is then, only one real problem: Nuclear energy is a good way of battling CO² output, but on its own it’s not sufficient.

Nuclear alone may just not suffice

I will reserve a political discussion of these issues for a later time. I hope that I’ve made a few points clear:

  • Some suggested solutions (biofuels, wind) may just be far less viable than advertised. These “solutions” should be avoided if at all possible or at least only implemented to a certain degree.
  • Other solutions are difficult to talk about due to a lack of information (wind) or due to public opposition (nuclear), though that wasn’t mentioned now.
  • Various solutions are needed to solve this problem. No one solution can fix this problem on its own. (Well, returning to our hunter/gatherer days might…) Greens are harming the cause (of reducing CO²) by not allowing nuclear energy to be part of the solution.
  • I personally would go further and postulate that avoiding the oncoming crisis is ONLY possible if we use nuclear energy. I’d suggest going for 3-4 wedges instead of the 1 wedge suggested, if only to have a safety net. As soon as solar energy comes to the point where it can actively take over, we can turn off the reactors and lean back in contentment. But until then, nuclear energy is a vital part of the solution.

Non-violent communication

Non-violent communication (NVC) is based on the acknowledgement that there are some people who like committing violence while there are others who enjoy contributing to well being through compassionate giving. Many of the structures in our societies contribute to the violent aspect by educating people to be obedient and submissive to authority. In the same way that our culture foists a life philosophy of enlightened hedonism onto us, it also sets us up in domination structures where superiors are expected to tell others what’s best for them and inferiors are simply supposed to obey. The goal of NVC is liberation from decades of cultural education steeped in domination structures and replace it with compassionate systems of communication, thinking, and influencing.

Part of the education problem is the widespread use of a “static” language that focuses on what people are rather than how they are feeling. They, their behaviour, or their appearance are constantly judged as good or bad, right or wrong, normal or abnormal. Our approach of retributive justice also plays a role. When someone is judged as “bad” by the authorities we come to believe they now deserve to receive punishment. All that it takes to make violence enjoyable is to believe there are bad people and they need to be punished. This approach to justice goes to the heart of violence on the planet. Finally, there is danger in a language that denies choice. Words like “ought”, “must”, and “have to” are commonplace but they deny individual responsibility and lead us to be slaves of authority. We may not like all the things we do but it is important to recognise that we don’t so anything that we don’t choose to. NVC is a system primary of communication but also of thinking and influence which helps us to overcome the domination structures which lead to excess violence.

If the alternative to domination and violence is compassion and giving then the question NVC answers is “what skills are needed to live compassionately?” It is about how we ensure that what ever we do is done willingly and comes solely out of the joy that comes from giving. In order to do this, NVC puts the focus back on human needs. If human needs are unfulfilled we take action. Once the needs are fulfilled we can celebrate. The basis of this process is to figure out “what is alive in us” and “what would make life more wonderful” How to go about communicating the answers to these questions to others is the process of NVC. 


The Process
1. Observe without judgement
The process of NVC begins with clear observations that are delivered without judgement. Clear observations tell other people whether or not they are fulfilling our needs. However, judgement and evaluation, especially when it is received as negative, often provokes defensiveness and shuts down the possibility of listening in the other person. Observations, on the other hand, are objective and can be agreed upon by both parties without the presence of guilt or blame. Blame and criticism make it difficult for others to enjoy contributing to our well-being which is the whole point of NVC. If done successfully, this initial agreement over the facts of the situation is a great way to begin a productive conversation.

2. Feel and empathise
Both positive and negative feelings are a manifestation of fulfilled (positive) or unfulfilled (negative) needs. NVC is all about putting people in touch with feelings, either their own or others. After making observations, the next step is to attach a feeling to those facts. Again it’s important to stick to only naming feeling in this step and not move into judgement or evaluation. Saying “I feel disappointed” is the right type of response. Saying “I feel you aren’t trying to the best of your ability” is making a judgement while masking it with the language of ‘feeling’.  In this stage empathy is very important. You may need to check with the other person that they really heard and understood your feeling and are empathising correctly.

3. Communicate the need
Needs have a specific meaning in NVC. They are broad categories of shared desires present in all people. Some examples of these types of needs are respect, self-determination, companionship, etc. The idea here is to link the need with a feeling from the previous stage, again no judgement should be taking place. “I’m feeling scared because my need for safety isn’t being met” or “I’m disappointed that my need for honesty isn’t being met” are good instances of this. The need should be communicated in a clear and open way to reduce the chance that it is misinterpreted. Again, checking that the other person heard you by having them repeat back your need is a useful way to confirm communication is taking place correctly.

4. Make a request
The last step is to make a request of the other person that would help you to get your need met. Because this is a request and not a demand we have to be open to the other person proposing a less-than-ideal alternative or even saying “no”. If the other person hears a demand, it makes it difficult for them to enjoy contributing to us, and they may comply out of shame and guilt. This is not the way we want other people to help us! This is why, in NVC, we only request and never demand. Requests made between two freely-acting individuals in order to fulfill each other’s needs is the entire goal of NVC. If the other person doesn’t agree to your request, that’s okay! You can use NVC to find out what feeling or need is holding them back and propose an alternative that gets both your needs met or you can simply accept their choice not to fulfill your need today. In NVC, each person is responsible for finding ways to get their own needs fulfilled and not responsible for trying to fulfill the needs of others.


Although it has been around for decades, NVC is a system of communication that I came across only recently. I think the idea is pretty powerful and putting it into practice, although difficult, has been extremely rewarding for me so far. It’s hard to believe I wasn’t introduced to NVC sooner and I hope introducing it to you will improve your relationships with those around you and make your own life better too. I think NVC is especially useful for people in imbalanced power dynamics (e.g., teachers, parents, and managers should definitely pay attention) but it is still a great system for use in any type of relationship.

Science writing: Tools

I’ve not given up on my other posts, I’m just not in the mood for them at the moment. Politics is generally pissing me off because we have such a shitty government and I don’t want to write about schools at the moment, just because. 😉

OK, now on to what’s currently happening. I’m in the middle of writing a paper for a journal, I’m writing a mock-paper for a seminar and I’m writing my Bachelor’s Thesis. Naturally, my mind is preoccupied with academic writing.

I’ve found a few wonderful papers on how to read a paper (Inception, isn’t it?) and I will try to put a list together soon. (So anywhere between 6 and 12 years.) For the moment however, I want to focus on a few tools I use to organize my papers, find sources, put everything together and just generally make my academic life easier.


First up, my computer. I own a crappy, 4-year old laptop. It’s loud, it’s slow and dang, does it heat up. So for those times I want to read/write in my bed, I bought a cooling pad. You can have them for 5$ a piece, I bought mine in Sweden and it’s of slightly superior quality so I had to put down 30$.

The laptop itself has 4Gig Ram, 2.1GH and a Radeon HD 5145. That means I can use most graphics programs out there, including Adobe Photoshop and Video programs. I don’t need those, but I do occasionally put together pictures/graphics, for that I use photoshop.

Another thing you absolutely need is an external hard drive. I got my 500GB (more than enough for working purposes) for a little under 80$ and that was ages ago. You can now get 1TB for the same price. (Don’t forget the 1. If you just get TB, that’s money badly spent!) On that HDD, you want to store your papers and make backups of your computer. I’ve had a colleague in who lost his BA’s Thesis and damn, was he fucked.

Also essential: A few (2-3 minimum) USB-drives. I’ve got one with 2GB, 4GB and 8GB each, plus a few others. One of them is a second backup for my library, the others I use for current writing. Also essential: Create a dropbox or mediafire account and upload your work. My complete library of papers, books and University-related stuff currently runs at just over 2GB, plus another 1GB of video-lectures. Mediafire gives you 50GB, Dropbox 5GB, so that’ll easily fit.


Now that you’ve got the potential of storing your files, you need some stuff to organize them, find files and write them.

Most importantly: A browser.
I personally use Chrome, but have used Firefox before. Both are good, depending on what you need. I prefer Chrome because of the layout and usability, but again I wouldn’t mind using Firefox. I haven’t used Mobile, I would discourage you from using Safari and IE and I’d probably not use Opera, though I have in the past.


So assuming you’re running Chrome, I’ll run you through my extensions. Because I’m a cruel computer user and leave about 10-15 tabs open at any given time, I use Xmarks to synchronize my tabs and bookmarks. If ever I lose them or my browser crashes and Chrome’s inbuilt safe-system fails, I just click on Xmarks and re-open my tabs. Handy, but not essential.

Next up, Lazarus Form Recovery. Have you ever written a perfect post, your browser died and your post was gone? Well, Lazarus has (so far) saved me from re-writing about 10k words. That’s quite a bit.

I’ve already written about Unsourced and Rebutr before, so I’m not going to repeat myself. Problematic: I’m not using them any more, they’re just not updated quickly enough.

Now for the jewels in my collection. First up, I own a Kindle as of last week. It’s not only 40$ and it really makes your life easier, so don’t be a snob, buy one. Install sendtoKindle and it will give you an excellent little extension on your browser. You see a document you might want to read, you click on the extension and send it to your Kindle. The size is adapted so you can easily read it and the format is great. With this extension, I’ve already sent about 20 science-y articles to my Kindle, so now I can ride the metro and catch up on my reading. (My only problem: PDFs are huge! My Kindle should be able to fit 1400 books, but after about 50 PDFs it’s about halfway full.)

The second extension may be even better: Evernote Web Clipper, in addition to the Desktop-version of Evernote. With it, you can save articles (or pictures) from the web. Just search them in your browser, click the extension and save the article, save it as a PDF, take a screenshot… etc. In the desktop-version, they synchronize automatically, you can then organize them using folders or tags, depending on what you like. It saves the URL, you can read the complete article (depending on how you saved it without comments (eg. blogs) and without ads) and you can write in the article. Holy shit this thing is awesome! You can also export them as PDFs (for use on your Kindle) and you can sync it with your smartphone.
Obviously you can also use it the way it was intended to: As a digital scrap book.
Additionally, you can network with people. I’m currently exchanging information with my Professors at University. Any article they deem worthy of my interest, they send me with one click. And vice versa. Networking bitches, it’s fun!


Furthermore, I run a few programs on my computer that are not attached to my browser. I’ve got the usual anti-spyware/anti-virus software (AVG in my case), I’ve got some pc-performance programs (DLL-Files Fixer at 15$ and TuneUp Utilities 2014 for 25$) and a few programs for keeping in touch. (E-Mail organizers for my 3 different E-Mail accounts, Skype, Teamspeak, etc.)

One of the programs I use is Light Image Resizer. Sometimes I need to send in a JPG in a different format, make it smaller, make it bigger, etc. I’m sure there are better programs out there but this one does the trick for me.

I use Audacity to analyse any interviews I did and I use Pamela to record Skype calls.


And now come the great heroes of my desktop. I am now going to reward you for reading through this post.

One of my most important and most used tools: Clipmate. Anything you Ctrl+C, you can find again in Clipmate. You can also take screenshots of exactly the area you want, no fudging around with Windows screenshot and then manipulating it in paint.

My newest addition and already one of my most important ones: Mendeley. It has three main uses:

1) Organizing a library of any papers you have digitally stored. I download masses of papers as PDF files and they all get weird names when you DL them. For example, I downloaded an article from the journal “Advances in Teacher Education” and got a PDF called “01626620%2E2013%2E846148”. That’s not really helpful if you’re trying to find it on your PC. You could of course rename it to “Author (Year) Paper Name” but let’s be honest, you’re not. With the roughly 600 papers I have on my PC, it’d take me a month just to get through them.

So what do you do? You drag them into Mendeley and hey, presto! all your articles (well, most, some bugs apply) are organized by Author/Year/Paper name/etc. All relevant info is extracted and now you can easily browse them.

2) Finding papers. On the Mendeley website, you’re able to browse citations, take a look at what your colleagues are browsing and so on. Searching for the most popular article in earth science? Click! Searching for most viewed article last month? Click. Really easy.

3) Networking. There are loads of groups, thousands of people are using Mendeley, most of them researchers. Add contacts, add groups, share documents.

Finally, my two smaller programs. I use PDF Architect and PDF Creator in tandem. Both have their down- and upsides. You just need some kind of PDF manipulating program.

Also, I don’t present on PPT any more, I only use Prezi. Interestingly, not many people know about it so they’ll be totally freaked by your rotating presentations. Just make sure you don’t make it too flashy, otherwise content gets lost.


So there, those are my programs and extensions. I use a few other programs for my teacher-related work (like HotPotatoes to create worksheets), but those are my main working programs. If you’ve got any other splendid programs/extensions for making life easier, do share them. Also, I’m getting my first smartphone in the summer (yes, I still have a phone that doesn’t have a camera), so I’d also be glad if people shared apps. I know of only two: Macmillan’s phonetic transcription app and dict.cc’s downloadable dictionary. (Satisfactory for classroom work, but not for anything else.)

Education: Some facts

Education has been around since before written history. In one form or another, people have taught other people about stuff they know, and sometimes even about stuff they don’t or can’t know.

Real “education for the masses” has been around for only a relatively short time, since the enlightenment. I’ll talk about the enlightenment specifically in a future post, so I won’t lose time here on the why’s and how’s. In Austria, we owe our first real school reform to Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, in 1775. She made education compulsory for all 6 to 12 year olds, which was really revolutionary in these days. She caught a lot of flack for that.

Today in the world, we have a total literacy rate of roughly 85%. That number is slightly higher for men (88.5% in 2011) and lower for women (79.8% in 2011). I won’t talk about this here, though I will remark that this imbalance is atrocious.

Global Literacy Rates in 2011

One will note that the highest one gets in this graph is “>97%” literacy. That might strike some as odd, but remember that there are a fair number of people who can’t go to school, for one reason or another, and there is a surprisingly big number of functional illiterates. (That is to say, people can’t read and write well enough “to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level.”)

Functional illiterates are often thought to make up anywhere between 3% and 99% of the population. In less economically developed countries (LEDC’s), to give them their proper term, the numbers of literacy in itself is low (26.2% for Mali in 2009, see page 174) and the percentage of those 26% being functional illiterates may also be high. More economically developed countries (MEDC’s) tend to have higher literacy rates (usually calculated as 99% for the HDI), but may have huge rates of functional illiterates. Wikipedia claims nearly 50% for Italy in 2003, to name but one example.

These estimates are almost certainly too high. Official figures estimate about 200,000 to 400,000 functional illiterates (plus about 80,000 illiterates) in Austria, so anywhere between 2.5% and 5%.

How many people enrol in school? The numbers are a tad more difficult here. We would need to differentiate between different ethnic groups in the US to do this topic justice, but I don’t have time for that. The general trend is: Whites enrol more than Blacks than Hispanics. (Note: I am using the language from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).)

At most 40% of the population are enrolled in preschool, generally over 90% are enrolled from ages 7 to 17. Then, the numbers drop rapidly. About 30% of the population continue some kind of tertiary education, though half of these are 2-3 year courses. Only 16% of adults are still enrolled between the ages of 22 and 24 (generally the time needed for a Masters or equivalent), compared to about 25% of the population in Finland.

Another thing is worth mentioning in this post: PISA. Arguably the most important assessment of secondary education today is the PISA study. Done every three years, it sets out to test students in three areas (Reading literacy, Mathematics and Science) in a standardized manner. Among the top five countries (well, regions really) in the last few years were almost always Finland, Shanghai, Hong Kong and South Korea.

Now I don’t have data on South Korea’s system of education, nor on Hong Kong or Shanghai, but I think it’s fairly safe to expect that these countries are strongly influenced by at least one socialist trend: Long compulsory education for everybody. It’s certainly true for Finland.

If you want to learn more about various education systems in the EU, I suggest Eurypedia.

I want to end on a slightly depressing note. Research shows (unsourced, I think I read it in Hattie 2007) that between 60-80% of learning achievement can be predicted by looking at the background of children. (Note: Pasi Sahlberg claims about 2/3rds, so my figure is fairly accurate.) Are they from a rich family? Does the family care about education? Do the parents hold at least one degree?

This is a travesty in two ways: It means that, no matter what teachers and the education system of today are doing, we will almost certainly lose a large portion of the children. I hope that we will find ways to make this better.

Second, it means that economic inequality has lasting consequences on your descendants. That’s unacceptable, or should be. Society should work towards making society more equal. All working toward a common goal… wouldn’t that be nice?

In future posts, I will be talking about teaching strategies, effectiveness of teaching, the Hattie study, the politics of education and different systems of education. I want to use this post as a starting point for these later discussions.

Have some vision!

As I might have said already, I’m training to become a teacher. In my studies, I’m often confronted with interesting kids (both negative and positive) and equally interesting colleagues (also both negative and positive).

The funny part? With kids, the positive outweigh the negative about 10:1 or 20:1. But teachers? It’s the other way around, 1:10 or 1:20. The amount of stupid, unmotivated, socially incompetent, bored and vision-less teachers I’ve met is appalling. I recounted the one event where a teacher declared us to be “different from other animals because we evolved”. That’s fairly stupid, but it can easily be corrected by a somewhat competent biology teacher.

But what happens if you get teachers who are unwilling to teach a certain concept simply because it’s “hard to teach”? No kidding, that’s what a teacher said on Thursday, March 7th. Note that this took place one day before International Woman’s Day. Here’s the conversation from a seminar. The teacher (~30 years of experience) was in the audience:

Teacher: So basically, I don’t teach students from other countries that it’s important to treat women in the same way as men because their parents will come to school and complain. Plus, the parents don’t even want to shake hands with me because I’m a woman so why should I bother?

* Nods of approval from the audience*

Me: I don’t want to sound offensive, but what you’re doing is actually against the law. The Austrian curriculum says, among other things, very specifically that we have to teach “tolerance towards others, minorities and other cultures”. I’d suggest that “others” includes women. A different law (which I’m unable to recall at this moment) also states that we have to raise kids to be “mündige Bürger”, which I’d translate as mature/responsible citizens. Part of that is adhering to the basic norms we’ve got in our culture, in this case treating women equally well as men.

The teacher wasn’t able to respond, obviously, so that was that.

Now I put it to you that this is not exclusive to teaching. You’ll have idiots in every job, people who’ll stall progress. But I’d also argue that teaching is so incredibly important that we have to single it out. We raise the next generation, we are responsible for the future. If we fuck up badly, everything is potentially fucked.

End rant.
My message? Have some vision! Don’t let other people wear you down, don’t forget the ideals you had when you were young. Stick to them, no matter how hard it is.

The politics of misinformation

Having just written my 1337th post on the LoR forum, I thought I’d write up my first blog post.

A very short background on me: I studied “History and Political science” as well as “Geography and Economics” for 2.5 years at the University of Vienna, without obtaining a degree. I am now almost finished with my “Geography and Economics” and “English as a foreign language” degree, BSc.

So much for that. Now with the U.S. elections just behind us and many upcoming European elections, I wanted to look at one question that’s always baffled me: Why is there so much misinformation in trivial politics? Is there a huge conspiracy, do politicians want to keep us dumb? And why do politicians implement so many bad and unnecessary laws? Why don’t they listen to good advice?

I’ll start with an example from the U.S., as seen in PZ Myers talk “A despairing perspective on American education“. At 14:29 in that video, he talks about the I35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis collapsing in 2007. The bridge was constantly classified as “structurally deficient”, but apart from a plan to retrofit the bridge, nothing was done. In 2007, it collapsed and a new bridge was built in 2008. This could have been avoided if the bridge had been replaced 17 years prior to the incident, in the year of my birth, 1990.

There’s one obvious question: Why didn’t politicians react to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDoT)? In the end, the replacement bridge cost them 234$ million, plus the cost from people not being able to commute (400,000$-1$ million per day), plus the rescue operations and finally the lawsuits. Bad decisions, based on sufficient information, cost the state at least twice as much as a completely new bridge would have cost.

Now I can’t give an answer as to why the politicians in charge did nothing, but this is, after all, just an example to highlight my point: Politicians make bad decisions even though there is enough data to come to the (obviously?) correct conclusion.
Closer to home, politicians have just tried to revamp the education system in Austria. The idea was a good one: Competency-based learning. It’s basically learning how to think instead of learning only facts. With that came a centralized baccalaureate, similar to the SAT’s in the U.S. That’s not a bad idea, because people want (and sometimes need) to be compared more or less objectively. (I’ll go into that in a later blog post.) That sounds excellent!

So why am I ranting? Well, obviously something didn’t go as planned. Do you want to venture a guess as to what went wrong? Yep, that’s right! Politicians (centre left party) made the wrong call, even though the answer should have been obvious. The whole scheme was set in motion in 2004, but back in 2008, when I was still at the other Uni, my Geography Professor always had one day where she would go to schools all around the country and teach teachers about… competency-based learning. Basically, the teachers didn’t even know what or how they were supposed to be teaching! That’s a shocker, to say the least. How can you expect a school child, even an 18-year-old, to pass a standardized test when they’ve been taught something completely different during their years at school?

I’ll offer a possible solution for this example, and then move back to the U.S. Being the centre left party, the SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) is in favour of giving the same education to all children, if possible for free. However, their political goals, admirable as they might be, conflicted with reality and with science. (One of their aims was a comprehensive school, which is no better than elite schools. That’s what people though, for various reasons, but it’s not true.) Anyway…

Now let’s get back to the U.S. There are similar problems in education, with not enough money being spent on Schools and so on. There are many avenues I could explore, but I’ll take the most obvious one: Why do Republicans push educational laws that are demonstrably stupid and impeding the education of the next generation?

We already know that women mostly voted for Obama (55% to 45%), that young people mostly voted for Obama (60% to 36%), that higher-income people tend to vote for Romney and so on. We also know that of the top 10 states in education (percentage with a degree), 10/10 voted for Obama. Of the ten worst educated states, nine voted for Romney. Now I dare you to tell me that’s a coincidence.

Top 10 best vs Top 10 worst educated states, and how they voted

This goes back to what PZ said in his talk: Republicans tend to favour bad education policies because they would be voted out of office if not for the uneducated.

Avid readers might now howl in protest and say something like: “That’s a generalization! I’m educated/uneducated and I voted for Romney/Obama!”

Yes, of course. I have to make some generalizations, otherwise this post isn’t going anywhere. To analyse this phenomenon in depth and to do it proper justice, I’d have to write at least a book about it. I’m still confident that the overall message would remain the same. The next few paragraphs contain generalizations so sweeping that even I cringe, but like I said… text length and time and all…

So the (very short) answer to the questions I posed is this: Extremist (both left and right wing) parties as well as moderately right wing/conservative parties tend to have bad education policies because their ideas are not compatible with reality, their voters would stop voting for them if they were educated.

Now some might think of me as a left-wing hippy, so let me take the wind out of your sails right away: Left wing parties have an equally bad reason to favour bad politics. In my Austrian example, bad policies were implemented because of ideological reasons, even though they were contrary to what science said and even though they could not be implemented in the time span allotted. I think that’s true for most parties: Decisions are made to get re-elected, which includes staying true to your ideology, however wrong it may be.

Even more avid readers than the above might now raise their hands and say: “But that doesn’t answer your question at all. Why don’t they simply drop their idiotic policies in exchange for some good ones? Why don’t people change their votes after a party has done them a disservice?”

And this, dear reader, is where my (partially rational) mind can’t quite follow any more. Why don’t they? It should be so simple. Is it possible that it’s got something to do with what I alluded in the topic “How to debate/argue – tips and tricks” as well as what is stated outright in the “Psychology of Belief” series, namely that people are so set in their ways that we can’t change them? At least, we can’t change them without a lot of effort involved.

There’s a positive and a negative message to all this.
The negative: If we don’t turn this around, our grandchildren might end up in a world run down by the likes of our current-day Republicans.
The positive: Change is on the way. The number of Skeptics (people who need evidence to be swayed, who possibly even think scientifically), not pseudo-skeptics like the Euro-Skeptic movement, is growing. Maybe if the next few Presidents all over the world could be Skeptics… Ah, I can dream, can’t I?

So what’s the conclusion to this post? Be skeptical, in all areas of life. Be it politics, science, medicine, the supernatural… Skepticism is a good thing and there’s too little of it in the world today. I’ll end with a quote and something to think about:

“Trying to figure out how something works on that deep level, the first ninety-nine explanations you come up with are wrong. The hundredth is right. So you have to learn how to admit you’re wrong, over and over and over again. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s so hard that most people can’t do science. Always questioning yourself, always taking another look at things you’ve always taken for granted, […] and every time you change your mind, you change yourself.” –Sauce

My guess is, that’s why politicians don’t change their views: Because they’d have to admit that they’re wrong. And that’s one thing they can’t admit, under pain of expulsion. If a politician ever admits (s)he’s wrong, they’ll soon be kicked from the party. So the next time you vote, look out for two things:
1) If a politician says that they know the answer, vote for the other party.
2) If a politician can admit they’re wrong, vote for that one.

Or don’t, that’s up to you.

Religion and support for torture

An interesting paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin details the conflicting influences of religion on support for torture. The researchers tested several possible relationships between these two factors including the influence of other variables such as education level and political conservatism. I found the results fairly surprising, let me know what you think.

The data collected was from two surveys taken in 2004 and 2008 asking 983 and 1,893 people respectively. The first effect looked at was the direct relationship between religion and support for torure. The researchers found a negative correlation on this point. That is, a religious person was less likely – on average – to support torture. This was described as an organic influence, something about the precepts of religion and opposition to torture were simultaneously appealing to the survey respondents.

However, the authors had also expected a discursive influence of religion and torture because of the popular view that religion and conservative politics ‘go together’ in the US and conservative politics lead to support for torture. When they separated out the progressive and conservative respondents, the moderating impact of religion was overwhelmed and a strong positive relationship between religion and support for torture was observed. A discursive relationship is one that arises through common perception, such as an ideological framework. Compare this to an organic relationship caused by innate features which people may not be consciously aware of. To show the three part relationship between religiosity, conservatism, and torture the researchers looked at one final factor: education level.

The authors of this study reasoned that conservatives with higher education levels would hold more consistent political views. Those with less education would be more likely to follow the common, organic, threads even if they were inconsistent with their stated political position. The data were consistent with this hypothesis showing conservative religious people who were highly educated were even more likely to support torture. So there we are, being religious is negatively correlated with supporting torture but being educated and politically engaged is positively correlated with it, at least if you are a conservative.


Malka and Soto (2011) The Conflicting Influences of Religiosity on Attitude Toward Torture. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.