A Philosopher's Blog

Race, Gender & IQ Tests

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 30, 2009

A standard component of both racism and sexism is that the other sex and other races are inferior in IQ (whatever that means) to one’s own race and gender. Througout history, various scientific and pseudoscientific theories have been advanced in order to defend such alleged differences. Because of this, the study of IQ in the context of race and gender has often been subject to harsh criticism. After all, it might be suspected that anyone intested in such matters intends to employ their results in the service of racism or sexism.

While this concern does have some merit, it would be unfortunate and unscientific to simply close off these branches of research because they might be considered racist or sexist.

Interestingly, such research might actually help to undercut racism and sexism. For example, the usual line is that a gender or race is somehow inherently (often genetically) inferior to another and hence this explains the disparity in IQ testing. If this were true, then the scores on IQ tests should remain more or less constant-unless, of course, the gender or race in question happened to be genetically altered.

Recent research in IQ tests has shown that the test results have changed over the years. For example, the gap between whites and blacks on IQ tests has narrow by 25% over thirty years. Obviously, if IQ disparity was based on race, then this sort of change should not occur. If IQ disparity is based on other factors (like access to education), then such a change is easy to explain.

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Hearts, Health and Race

Posted in Medicine/Health, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 29, 2009

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that blacks under the age of 50 suffer heart failure at twenty times the rate of whites. The main culprit that is pointed to is hypertension, which leads to the question of why blacks are more likely to suffer from hypertension than whites.

Some reasons are biological. One such factor is genetics-blacks seem to have a genetic predisposition towards hypertension (or greater vulnerability to it or its causes). Also, it has been claimed that blacks are more likely to have hypertension in response to salty diets than whites (although the role of salt in hypertension has been debated by some).  Aside from genetic engineering, these biological factors cannot be altered.

Some reasons are environmental, psychological and social. One factor is that men in general and black men in particular tend to avoid going to the doctor. As such, black men are less likely to be diagnosed with and treated for hypertension. Since hypertension is generally quite manageable, it is hardly surprising that the rate of heart failure among black males would be higher.

Another factor is that black males are less likely to have medical insurance than white males. Someone who does not have insurance is far less likely to go to the doctor to be checked for hypertension and hence more likely to have any hypertension left undiagnosed and untreated. Further, even if a person is diagnosed with hypertension, then there is still the challenge of paying for the treatment and follow up appointments. Since black males tend to be less well off than white males, it is hardly surprising that such a disparity exists.

There is also the concern that racism might play a factor-that white doctors might be more concerned about white patients than black patients. Also, black neighborhoods will tend to be poorer neighborhoods and hence black males will have less access to health care providers.

Fortunately, there are various community organizations that are making testing for hypertension readily available, often at the neighborhood barbershops. While such efforts are both laudable and essential, this situation is yet one more example of how health care in America needs to be improved.

Part of the problem is that while people are willing to pour billions into a socialistic defense program to protect us from terrorists and other human enemies, the same willingness is not there to protect Americans from the greater threat posed by health issues.

If the state is obligated to protect its citizens, then it should do so against all threats-be that threat  hypertension or Hezbollah, Al Qaeda or Alzheimer’s.

These need not be done using “socialized medicine“, but just as each citizen is entitled to the protection of the police and armed forces, so too should each citizen be entitled to protection against disease and illness. After all, a person is just as dead whether they are blown up by Al Qaeda or die of a heart attack arising from untreated hypertension.

Of course, it might be argued that people should be left to fend on their own when it comes to health care. The challenge is, of course, to argue that this is the case while at the same time holding that the military and police should protect all of us. Of course, a person can be consistent and argue that people should be on their own for everything-let the market decide who dies of hypertension and who gets protected from Al Qaeda.

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Swine Flu Pandemic?

Posted in Medicine/Health by Michael LaBossiere on April 28, 2009

Although there are relatively few cases of swine flu, there is already talk of a pandemic. While the news media continues to hype up the situation (fear motivates people to watch the news) various governments are taking action to prepare for the worst. Naturally, this situation raises a multitude of questions.

As this is being written, the situation is mostly one of terrible potential rather than terrible actuality. Except, of course, for the people who have already died of swine flu. As the news agencies point out, the “normal” flu kills about 36,000 Americans a year and this strain has yet to kill anyone in the United States. Sadly, the same is not true in Mexico. Of course, we do not know how deadly this strain is-there are not yet enough cases to determine this.

While the current swine flu (a previous strain made the news back in the 1970s) is an exotic flu that combines elements from swine, avian and human flus, this need not entail that the flu will be especially deadly. It is, of course, natural to be afraid that such a seemingly exotic strain will be some sort of superbug, but this need not be the case. As experts in disease always point out, super deadly strains generally do not spread that well (a host that dies quickly does not spread the disease as far). Milder strains tend to spread quite well because the hosts live and are not incapacitated. With any luck, this strain is fairly mild: while this means that more people will be sick, hopefully this will mean fewer deaths.

Of course, modern travel technology means that rather dangerous strains can spread fairly far. To be a bit scary, imagine a disease that kills in 8 hours. That would be enough time for an infected person to get across the United States or into other countries. The plague that devastated Europe was spread, in part, by the high tech transport of the day: ships. Today we have far faster means of transport and this enables a disease that appears in Mexico to be transported to New York in a matter of hours. This is, of course, very bad.

There are, of course, good reasons to be worried. As noted above, the “normal” flu kills 36,000 Americans a year (at least according to CNN). A new strain of flu, like the swine flu, might be deadlier. At the very least, being a new strain means that our immune systems might be ill prepared to deal with it.

Fortunately, governments seem to be taking the right steps to deal with the situation. Of course, some might wonder why there is such concern when other diseases have been ravaging the world without comparable concern. The cynical might note that swine flu is something that threatens Western countries as well, rather than merely being a problem for the third world.

So far, there is no reason to panic. The smart thing to do is follow the sensible advice given by medical professionals: avoid known areas of infection, wash your hands often, minimize your contact with other people, avoid touching your mouth or eyes, and seek medical help if you start exhibiting symptoms.  As noted above, those who have received treatment for swine flu in the United States have recovered quickly and completely. So far, at least.

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Race & Unemployment

Posted in Business, Politics, Race, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 27, 2009

The exact unemployment rate is a rather difficult number to determine. After all, there are various standards for what counts as being unemployed and the methods used to gather data are subject to numerous problems.  However, it it obvious enough that the economic downturn has increased unemployment in the United States.

As I write this, the estimated unemployment rate is about 8.5%. This is the national average and like all averages, it tends to conceal more than it reveals. So, to get a clearer picture of what is really going on, it is necessary to get beyond the average and see what is happening in the specifics.

One specific is location. Different parts of the country have different unemployment rates.  For example, Detroit probably has more unemployment that Tallahassee, Florida.

Another specific is gender: the unemployment rate is higher among men than women. This is due, in large part, to the distinction between the sort of jobs that are dominated by men and those that are dominated by women. For example, construction jobs tend to be male dominated and the construction industry has taken a severe hit.

A third specific is education. The unemployment rate of those who have a college degree is only 4.3% compared to 13.3% for those who lack even a high school education. This is hardly surprising: jobs that require college degrees tend to be more secure and those who are college educated have a broader range of opportunities. For example, a person with a college degree can get jobs that require less than a college degree (although they can face the challenge of being over-educated for the position). In contrast, someone who lacks a high school degree will be very limited in his employment opportunities.

As has  long been the case, getting a college degree is your best bet in terms of getting and keeping a job. Unfortunately, colleges and universities are suffering budget woes and hence tuition will increase as aid decreases. However, there is still a considerable amount of money out there, especially for female and minority students-you just have to look harder for it these days.

As an aside, some people have asked me if my students have become more serious about their studies. After all, the consequences of not getting a college degree have become even more serious and there will be greater competition among those seeking jobs. Interestingly, students have voiced some concerns about the economy, but the level of effort seems to be unchanged. Statistically, the grades are on par with the grades of previous years. This might change if the economic downturn continues. Also, more people might decide to return to college and returning students are generally much more serious than “traditional” students.

Race is also a factor in unemployment. For example, only about 2.3% of white college graduates were unemployed in the final days of 2008.  In contrast, 13.3% of African-Americans were unemployed as were 11.4% of Hispanics.

While it might be tempting to immediately and simply blame racism for the disparity, it is worth undertaking an analysis of the difference in terms of other factors as well.

One factor is the difference in the nature of the employment. For example, Hispanics are commonly employed in the construction field and that field is doing relatively poorly these days. Hence, there would tend to be more unemployed Hispanics than there would be unemployed white college graduates.

Naturally, it can be contended that the distinction in employment is  at least partially the result of racism or factors that involve race. For example, it could be argued that Hispanics and blacks are in job that are more vulnerable because most of the more secure jobs are taken by whites. It could also be argued that race is a factor in who gets let go first-perhaps it is the case that blacks and Hispanics would be more likely to be fired first when a company starts getting into trouble. It would, of course, take further investigation to see if racism is a significant factor in the differences in unemployment figures. After all, a distinction between ethnic groups need not automatically entail that racism is a factor.

Another factor is education. The percentage of whites with college degrees is higher than the percentage of blacks and Hispanics with college degrees. Given that people with college degrees are less likely to be unemployed, this would contribute to the disparity.

This does, of course, raise the question as to why there is a disparity in education and one possible explanation is racism. As such, this specific disparity would be indirectly explained by racism: racism leads to a disparity in education which leads to a disparity in employment.

Of course, there is the fact that the unemployment rate for the college educated is 4.3% while that for white folks with a college degree is 2.3%. In this case, having a college degree cannot be the factor that explains the difference-there would need to be some other factor or factors (including chance, of course).

One possible factor is race. Perhaps white college graduates are able to acquire more secure jobs or are less likely to be let go because of their race. Or there may be other factors that are connected to race.

It is, of course, important to not simply assume that race or racism are the sole factors. There might well be other factors that help explain some of the disparity. For example, there might be a freely chosen employment preferences that are a factor. Perhaps whites are somewhat more inclined to seek employment in fields that have been, by a matter of luck, hit less hard by the economic downturn. Or perhaps location is a factor-perhaps the areas that have been hit hardest have fewer white folks than areas that were hit less hard.

Overall, it does seems reasonable to believe that race and racism are contributing factors to the disparity. However, it should not be assumed that these are the only factors. After all, in order to fix the economic problems we need to have a clear picture of what is causing the problem and getting such a picture requires considering all reasonable possibilities.

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Wmiprvse.exe False Positive

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 27, 2009

Recently my anti-virus software had a false positive reaction to wmiprvse.exe. The result was that the software quarantined the  file. After that, I started having trouble with my Internet connection and Windows update. To be specific, my Internet connection would slow down and eventually fail fairly often. When I would run netsh winsock reset, the DOS window would pop up and just stick there for a while (rather than the usual quick open and close. Windows update would run every time I turned on my computer and would try to install the software. When I shut down, the message that I had updates to install would appear in the shut down/restart dialog box.

These problems might have been caused by other Windows problems, but a connection between the false positive quarantine seems likely.

If you have had similar problems, here is a possible fix:

Step 1: Go to the main window for your anti-virus software and go to the quarantine control.  For my software, ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite, this is reached by clicking on the “Anti-Virus/Anti-Spyware” button and then clicking on the “Quarantine” link. Once you are at the quarantine controls. you should be able to simple select wmiprsve.exe and restore it.
Step 2: Download the update from Microsoft.
Step 3: Restart your computer.

In my case, doing this solved my problems (well, at least for now). Of course, you should do some research regarding your specific anti-virus software and computer situation before doing anything. After all, messing around with quarantined files can be disastrous.

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Debating Water Boarding

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on April 25, 2009

The debate over whether water boarding is torture or not continues. I will be considering two arguments that are commonly used to argue that it is not torture.

The first is that some intelligence and military personal are subject to water boarding as part of their training. From this it is somehow supposed to follow that water boarding is not torture.

This is, obviously enough, a clear non sequiter: the conclusion does not follow from the premise. Suppose that these people were also put on the rack and burned with hot irons as part of their training. It would be absurd to thus conclude that burning people with hot irons is not torture.

In contrast, it would be much more reasonable to conclude that water boarding is torture. After all, these people are presumably exposed to water boarding in order to train them to stand up to enhanced interrogation (that is, torture).

Of course, someone might reply that their point is that water boarding cannot be “that bad.” After all, if it were that bad, then it would not be used in training. The obvious reply is that rather bad things are often used in training. Further, water boarding does seem to be rather bad indeed. True, I rather be water boarded than branded with hot irons, but just because there are worse things it does not follow that it is not bad.

The second is that some people voluntarily endure more suffering and pain than water boarding inflicts, therefore it is not torture. While defining the limits of pain and suffering are critical to understanding torture, this argument does not succeed. The flaw in the reasoning can be shown in the following analogy:

Some people voluntarily suffer severe beatings. For example, professional boxers and football players are subject to attacks that can wound and even kill them. Therefore, tackling somebody or punching them repeatedly in the face should not be considered assault and battery. However, this is clearly absurd. Just imagine, if you will, someone trying that defense in court: “Your honor, I plead not guilty. Yes, I punched the person in the face over and over. But boxers take that kind of abuse all the time. So clearly, what I did cannot be assault.”

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Prosecute the Torturers?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2009

Torture and the torture memos are once again in the news. As Jon Stewart of the Daily Show has often pointed out, after WWII the United States executed Japanese soldiers for water boarding American soldiers. Currently it seems unlikely that the Americans involved in torture will even be prosecuted for crimes.

The individuals who actually inflicted the torture cannot, obviously enough, rely on the defense that they were just following orders. While I am not a legal scholar, I think that the precedent set by the Nuremberg trials should close off that option.

The most viable defense for the torturers is that they were informed by their superiors that their actions were legal and acceptable. While this might seem to be on par with the claim that they were just following orders, there is an important distinction to be made.

When a person asserts that he is not responsible because he was just obeying orders, he is denying his own agency as a person. Put less formally, he is saying that he was obligated to set aside his own conscience and will in favor of that of his superior. Obviously, saying “I did it because I was told to do it” does not get a person off the hook. Unless, of course, he is incapable of making decisions on his own or there are extenuating circumstances.

When a person asserts that he is not responsible because he was told that his action was legal and right, the implication is that he intended to do what was legal and right but was misinformed by those who were supposed to know. In this case, the defense has some plausibility. Matters of law can be rather arcane and it is not unreasonable to expect that people would need to rely on experts to tell them what is legal and illegal. Morality can also be rather difficult and hence there can be a need to rely on the (alleged) experts to distinguish between right and wrong. As such, the torturers could claim that they should not be held accountable for their misdeeds because those responsible for informing them about the permissibility of torture misled them.  As such, the lion’s share of the responsibility for the misdeeds belongs to the people who told the torturers that it was okay to torture (or that the torture was not torture).

This defense does have a degree of plausibility. Consider, if you will, the following analogy. Suppose that you are driving and you come to an intersection blocked by a police car. You stop, but then the officer motions for you to drive by him. However, shortly after you drive past him, you are arrested because you just entered an area that has been put off limits because Obama’s motorcade is driving through. In this case you would hardly be responsible-the officer was responsible for telling you that you should not drive past him. As such, he is in the wrong rather than you. After all, how could you possibly know that Obama was driving through just then? Of course, if the information about Obama’s visit was readily available and you could reasonably be expected to know, then you would bear some responsibility for your decision to drive past the officer.

As the analogy shows, this defense hinges on the person being able to claim justifiable ignorance. In other words, it has to be unreasonable to expect the person to know the legal or moral status of the action on their own and they need to  justifiably dependent on the knowledge of another. As such, those who were involved in torture would need to show that they did not have the knowledge needed to sort out matters for themselves, that they could not reasonably be expected to have such knowledge and that those responsible for imparting such information misled them. If these conditions can be met, then it would be unreasonable to prosecute these people. If these conditions cannot be met and torture is illegal, then these people should be prosecuted. If these conditions cannot be met and torture is evil (which it certainly seems to be) then these people would be guilty of evil deeds.

Naturally, the next question is what to do about the people who might have misled the torturers. But, that is a topic for another time.

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A Little Flexion

Posted in Medicine/Health by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2009

I had the surgical staples removed from my knee and leg yesterday, which was nice. Although they did not hurt, something about having metal bits stuck in my skin is just a bit disconcerting. The immobilizer I had been wearing previously had scraped my knee a bit, so for the next week I have to change the dressing on that to make sure that my knee doesn”t get infected. That would be bad.

I did get 30 degrees of flexion (that is, I can bend my knee 30 degrees now) on my adjustable brace. Since my leg had been locked in place for three weeks, when I tried to get off the table, I learned the hard way how much strength I had lost-I tried to lift my leg straight up and off the table and found that did not work very well. It also hurt a bit. So, I switched to lifting my leg up sidewise (so that the side of my knee is pointing up, like in doing a leg lift). I’m trying to avoid my usual way of dealing with pain and injury (just toughing it out and trying to get back to running as soon as possbible) so I have been cautious and gradually working on getting the knee to bend the full 30 degrees.

The doctor said that I could take the brace off to shower; but he also warned me that I could slip and bend the knee too far, thus tearing the tendon again. I think I’ll just stick with bathing with a wash cloth for now. While a shower would be great, I’d rather not go through surgery again.

I can sort of walk a bit now-that is, my knee bends rather than just swinging like a log. I’ll get more allowed range of motion as time goes by-something I am really looking forward to.  Trying to cope with the world on crutches is annoying and being slow really wastes my time. For example, it used to take me 5 minutes to get from class to class and now it takes me 20 minutes. I also cannot drive-I cannot bend my knee enough to fit into the front seat of any normal sized car or truck.

Fortunately, I can ride my exercise bike with one leg and do most of the workouts on my Bowflex. That is really helping keep me sane. It isn’t the same as running, but at least it burns calories.

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Pakistan & the Taliban

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 23, 2009

Taliban forces now occupy parts of Pakistan and seem intent on both expanding and challenging the current government of the state. The government seems intent on trying to appease the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Pakistan military is threatening to take action against the Taliban.

Obviously, the situation is rather serious. One obvious concern is that Pakistan is a nuclear power and should it fall under the control of the Taliban, then they will have access to nuclear weapons. Needless to say, this would most likely be catastrophic. Even in the Taliban is not able to take full control of Pakistan, their presence creates a serious instability and this situation might soon involve neighboring states as well. Of particular concern is Pakistan’s traditional enemy, the nuclear armed state of India. While India is not doubt considering the advantages of a weakened and partially occupied Pakistan, they are also no doubt concerned about what having the Taliban on their border. As such, it is reasonable to be concerned that India might decide to step in and take action.

In some ways Pakistan has helped to bring the situation on itself. Apparently, Pakistan has encouraged and supported various groups in the hopes of using them to its advantage. However, they seem to have forgotten a very important rule: never raise up what you cannot put down. While Pakistan has an impressive military, they might be hard pressed to deal with the sort of war/insurgency waged by the Taliban. Things could go very badly for Pakistan-very badly indeed.

The United States also has to accept some responsibility for the current situation. When we were focused on Afghanistan, it seemed that we had effectively broken the Taliban. However, when Bush and Cheney took us on an adventure into Iraq, this focus was lost. While we were sorting out the quagmire that we created in Iraq, the Taliban was able to rebuild and emerge as a serious threat once more. While it is not possible to conclusively prove what might have been, it is almost certain that things would be much different now if the United States had remained focused on Afghanistan. While Obama has shown that he intends to refocus American attention there, precious time and opportunity has already been badly wasted. Further, many of our resources are tied up in Iraq. As such, if Pakistan falls to the Taliban, it would be fair to say that Bush and Cheney helped hand the state to them.

Now the question is this: what should the United States do? It seems unlikely that a diplomatic solution will work in this situation, though perhaps it is worth trying. Dealing with the Taliban via military means will also be challenging. First, many of our forces are tied up elsewhere. Second, Pakistan is (for now) a sovereign state and hence our intrusion could very well lead to conflict with Pakistan. Third, there are the usual challenges with dealing with a force such as the Taliban. Fourth, there is the concern that other states in the area (such as Iran and India) might react poorly to yet another American adventure in the area.

Obviously the United States cannot allow Pakistan to fall to the Taliban and we certainly cannot allow them to gain access to nuclear weapons. How we are to prevent this will be  a major challenge to Obama. We shall see soon enough if the candidate of hope is now the president of action.

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The Email Gambit

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 22, 2009

Because of my surgery, I had to conduct my classes online for two weeks. Thanks to email, I was able to stay in constant contact with my students. Naturally, a few students have tried to use email related excuses in order to gain some advantage. Fortunately, I have already had experience with coping with the email gambits.

One common gambit is for a student to say that they have sent email after email requesting information, asking for a date to make up a test, or in attempts to turn in a paper. Naturally, it is claimed that the professor never replied.  Because of the professors cruel and malicious behavior, the student claims they are entitled to some special treatment. For example, to be allowed to turn in a paper two weeks after the deadline or to be granted a special make up for a missed test.

While email problems can arise, one interesting fact I have learned is that email problems correlate closely with the student’s grade in the class. To be specific, the lower the student’s grade, the more likely it is that there will be such mysterious email problems. Interesting, the last time a student with a passing grade said that I did not reply to an email was in the days when spam filters were first being developed-my ISP had rather overzealous ones for  a while. I’m compulsive about replying-partially because it is my job and partially because a reply now often prevents problems later.As such, I am generally skeptical when someone says that I have not replied.

In some cases, the email gambit is combined with another classic gambit-the claim that a paper was slid under my door (despite the fact that I never find the paper).  For example, a student might claim that I never replied to her emails and that she also turned in her paper by sliding it under my office door. To avoid that gambit, I have a obvious and rather visible large drop envelope beside my office door. Also, papers that have actually been slid under the door (perhaps the envelope is not as visible as I think…) have always turned up. I counter this claim by having the policy that a paper is considered turned in when I actually receive it. Yes, I do look around my office and behind the door when papers are due.

In some cases students make the claim that I never replied to them without realizing that I can check my email outbox and actually show them the reply I sent. This is why it is always good to know the technology before trying to use it as an excuse. True, it is possible that the email shows as being sent and it did not make it, but that is very rare. Further, it is interesting (as noted above) that email only seems to fail in cases involving students who are themselves failing or doing very poorly. Perhaps there is some connection there.

So, how does one counter the gambit?

One way is to reply regularly to emails and thus establish the fact that you are a responsible in replying to student emails. If a student then claims that you are irresponsible about emails, then their claim will not have much credibility. I think that some students might assume that professors do not reply to emails and hence they can simply play the gambit without actually checking to see if you reply or not. Since I always reply, this gambit does not work on me.

Another way is to provide two emails-your college email and another backup email. The odds that both emails would fail over and over for the same student would be rather astronomical. If they actually did, the odds are that the problem would be on the student’s end and hence not your responsibility at all. When I had my surgery, I sent out information to my students using my university email and I also have a backup email that is listed on the syllabus as well. So, for me to never get the email, two completely different email servers would have had to have failed over and over again. That seems unlikely.

The email gambit is similar to the “you are never in your office” gambit. I’ve had students try that one, too. As with the email gambit, the claim is that they made many attempts to find me, but could not.  Because of their efforts and my failure, they think they are entitled to special treatment. Fortunately, I’m compulsive about office hours and always post a sign if I have to cut them short due to a meeting or something. So, this excuse never works with me.

As this discussion indicates, being a responsible professor goes a long way in countering such problems. Students will still claim that you are not responsible, but these claims will have no traction. In contrast, professors who are known for being irresponsible will find that such claims will have more bite.

Fortunately, most of my students are quite good. This is why I love teaching despite the problems I have to face.