Tag Archives: The Economist

Bang, Bang

I was reading The Economist a few days ago (this is actually a longer process than it takes for the next issue to arrive, so I’m always behind, and usually end up not making it all the way to the latest doings in Zimbabwe), and saw an interesting juxtaposition of articles. The first was (of course) bemoaning the cowboy mentality of Americans who will simply insist on owning guns.

The second was how awful and dire things are in Syria these days. The second article did not mention the first, and the first took no notice of the second. It is, of course, possible that the writers are so busy penning their missives that they don’t have the time to check out all of the other submissions each week, but come on, now, really. Proofreading really ought to be something more than checking for misspelled words. Ideas put out by the editors of a publication ought to have some sense of cohesiveness, as well.

At least the author of the anti-NRA article has finally gotten past the conceit that it is hunters with lousy aim who greatly desire the ability to bring down Bambi with their AK-47 wanna-be’s. At least, the current supposed rationale for owning weapons is now self-defense against the bad guys roaming the streets and occasionally investing in a random home invasion or two.

But the citizenry arming themselves against their government? That is still as outré as it gets. (Flip forward 15 pages to the rebels in Syria, who everyone agrees should be armed to the teeth). So far, since no one has even deigned to address the issue, no one has satisfactorily explained to me why Americans need never fear that their government may one day become too overbearing (after all, isn’t that how we were born in the first place?) When the issue is raised by some gun-totin,’ lip-smackin’ gob-stopper of a redneck, the inevitable response is derisive laughter.

I’m all for a good laugh myself, but derision does not, in the end analysis, a cogent argument make. I’m all ears, here. Would someone please explain to me, in plain English of three or fewer syllables, why it is that Americans, of all people on the planet, need not fear that their government will ever get too big for its britches? Because it sure seems headed in that general direction already, what with the “We must do something” mentality that is so prevalent today.

Those people advocating for background checks are side-stepping the fact that background checks would have had no effect on the latest round of shootings that this country has had to endure. All that background checks do is keep criminals out of gun shops—and I’ll just bet that most criminals don’t get their weapons by going through proper channels, anyway. Hence the appellation. If you’re going to use a weapon to commit a crime, why in the world would you go out of your way to make sure that the purchase of that weapon has been properly documented? And if you think that background checks keep weapons out of the hands of criminals, just what, exactly, is your take on the latest statistics on illegal drug use?

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Mississippi Mud

Much as the liberals amuse themselves with the conservatives’ lack of belief in global warming, the conservatives have a field day with the liberals’ Panglossian notion that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that we ought to keep the planet exactly the way it was when we, the generations currently alive, chanced to embark upon our lives. As if.

I can almost always find the wellsprings for a rant or two in the pages of The Economist, and of course, TED Talks. (If that sounds too snooty, you should see me snort into my beer at some of the comments that Daniel Tosh makes.) I am not picky about the source of my ramblings—generally I want to be amused, entertained, or educated, and preferably all at once. I mention this because, with all of the evidence that surrounds us, at all levels of erudition, I can’t understand how anyone can believe that this world is not all about change. Back to The Economist.

Awhile back, there was an article on the Mississippi River, and how its flow has changed over the centuries. The illustration accompanying the article makes the flood plain painfully clear, and yet our government encourages people to build, and rebuild, in an area that can’t help but be inundated in the future. When will the madness stop? Who will be the first to say, yup, it’s a bad idea to try to drag this planet to a halt, right where it is. It’s the height of hubris to think that a) we can mold this big old earth into our version of heaven, and b) that we are the be-all and end-all of everything.

It’s interesting that conservatives tend to be more religious, but that liberals act as though humans are the teleological result of evolution. Change is the only constant, and evolution is a non-thinking phenomenon, regardless of the way it is portrayed in schools and on science shows. No creature thinks, wow, I got to get me a longer proboscis, so’s I can get the nectar buried deeper in the flower. It’s the poor fella who happens to be stuck with the longer proboscis that finds, or doesn’t find, the flower that happens to allow for that particular trait. Then he either dies off, or passes that mutation on to later generations, who find, or don’t find, flowers that work for them. Evolution is not a forward-thinking process. It’s only after it happens, and we see the current state of things versus what worked in the past, that we can figure out which random mutations are working right now. Even that won’t tell us what mutation will become necessary in the next five minutes as a result of ongoing changes.

Yet daily we are inundated with examples of the pervasive thinking that, because we exist at this point in the lifespan of our planet, this is the way things ought to be forever and ever. We can’t manage to find a source of power that can be made readily available to all, without causing harm to some part of the planet, but we have the right, and the ability, to keep the next ice age from occurring?

How about we get the religion out of the government—the religion that says that we are the all-powerful, all-knowing gods of this planet, and that if we merely tithe enough to Caesar, he will render paradise.How about we make adaptation a conscious process, conforming ourselves to the world we happen to find ourselves in, instead of acting as though throwing more money at the coastline will make the tide stop washing away the beach. Or plunking a house down will hem in the Mississippi River.

Somewhere, we glommed onto the notion that we’ve got all the answers, even in the face of the planet constantly demonstrating that we do not. Maybe this is the time we can step back and think things through, before rushing to an expensive, short-term solution that only ends up aggravating the whole situation. Or, I guess, we can just throw more money into the river.

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Awake and Arise!

Image courtesy of Suvro Datta/freedigitalphoto.net

Image courtesy of Suvro Datta/freedigitalphoto.net

Since I was dissing The Economist the other day, I want to give them some props this morning. They recently came out with their Technology Quarterly section, a review of upcoming and in-works items that make this TEDtalks follower swoon. Everything from the latest robotics to a cardboard and rubber bicycle to medical apps was profiled. Seeing the innovation that is still occurring on a daily basis heartens me.

The sad thing is that most media are so focused on the latest doings of Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and Lady Gaga, that they don’t have time to relate the newest strides of the human mind. Our education system is intent on instilling in us how difficult science is, and how hard math is. It’s so much easier to simply relate gossip than it is to teach creativity.

What’s astounding is that we are all born creative. It takes a great deal of effort to pound that out of us. The shame is that the current method of schooling is somehow doing a good job of that. We are taught that great thinkers are rare, different, and not to be emulated. We are told that we don’t not have what it takes to succeed in the hard sciences: those are reserved to the few who don’t otherwise have a life.

And yet, the overwhelming call is for more of the same, except with more money. Why we would wish the deadening of intellect for our children just so some people can keep their jobs today, I cannot fathom. In order to maintain the status quo, we have had to elevate teaching to a mystical status. We are not allowed to question teachers’ authority or critique their methods.

Any criticism of the current system, or calls for change, sound the death knell for our children, according to teachers. Other professionals feel the sting of dissatisfaction without the entire system crumbling. Lawyers are routinely bashed, not for not doing their jobs, but for doing their jobs too well. Only teachers are allowed to churn out uneducated louts year after year, while maintaining their hallowed position.

When will we call a halt to this tremendous waste of resources? Not only our tax dollars, but our children? The push for students to be great occurs few and far between, while the herd mentality is touted as sufficient. Just shove the students through the halls, shuffling them from classroom to classroom until they reach the age of majority (if they can stand the tedium for that long), then pronounce them fit to join the workplace, and wash your hands of them, moving on to the next bunch.

Whether those graduated students succeed does not seem to concern the educators. The fact that many students who attend college—many because they are not qualified for any jobs, despite years of education—must immediately be placed in remedial classes does not inspire any mea culpas. There is always some other reason that the children who were supposed to be prepared for the adult world end up not so, none of which is a reflection on the educational system which did not serve them well.

Fortunately for me, I am a great believer in cycles and pendulums. The world swings way off-balance one way, then self-corrects. I don’t think that the way it is is the way it is going to be forever. We just have to wait a short while longer, as more and more people realize that they were sold a bill of goods along with their diplomas, as more options become available on the internet, as more skilled workers are needed and the increase in pay and prestige leads to innovations in teaching.

That’s not a death knell we’re hearing when the unions take to the streets. It is the alarm that is waking us to a new day. Too bad for those students who were fed the worst of the lot. They’ve got a lot of ground to make up. But the ground swell is rising, and the celebrity culture may soon be swept away in a sea of individual creativity.

Or we’ll all go the way of those poor sods in Nightfall.

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Money as Motivator (We Haven’t Learned Yet)

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/freedigitalphotos. net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/freedigitalphotos. net

I don’t think that I am the most well-informed of people (I’m lucky if I have an idea of what the weather looks to be like on any given day). I certainly don’t have a staff to keep me up to date on the latest intel on any given subject (though my son will obligingly point out my lack of knowledge in any particular field where I come up short). So it distresses me when I find out that I seem to be better informed than those who have been chosen to dispense our money in what I had hoped would be the most efficacious ways.

Case in point: a little less than a week ago, I discussed how to motivate and demotivate people, in the aptly named Motivation vs. Demotivation. This was not something that I came up with out of my own warped idea of how things work; this was based on research. Research that is not merely published in some arcane journal, no, this research is readily available to anyone who has access to the internet and YouTube. This research strongly suggested that money as motivator only works if the task is tedious. That same money is actually counter-productive to creative insight.

In the November 24 – 30, 2012, issue of The Economist, a publication that I (had) thought was filled with well-researched, up-to-date information, I see the following article:

Bonus Time

On November 14 members of the Newark Teachers’ union approved…a new agreement…It introduces, for the first time in New Jersey, bonus pay. Teachers can now earn up to $12,000 in annual bonuses: $5,000 for achieving good results, $up to $5,000 for working in poorly performing schools, and up to $2,500 for teaching a hard-to-staff subject….Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, and Joseph Del Grosso, the head of Newark’s teacher’s union, both agree that Newark’s contract could serve as a model for other school districts.

I certainly hope not. There is a bright spot, here, but not for the right reasons. The article goes on to say,

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest union, which is not affiliated with Newark’s, is adamantly opposed to bonus pay…[because] not every district has the funds Newark has.

I guess the right result, even for the wrong reasons, has some merit. And let’s not learn anything from past experience:

[Newark is not] the only district to introduce merit pay. New York experimented for a few years with schoolwide, rather than individual, performance bonuses, but abandoned the idea in 2011…Bonus pay began in 2010 in Washington, DC…but…the District has yet to improve its worryingly high teacher-turnover rate.

Another ray of hope, quickly dashed:

Performance-based pay is still controversial…Branden Rippey, a history teacher in Newark, worries that the idea…will ultimately undermine the union.

Oh, well. We’ll see where this takes us:

Mr. Christie…declared that the day when the union ratified merit pay…was “by far…the most gratifying day of my governorship.”

The reason that Newark is able to incentivize this way is that:

Two years ago, thanks to Cory Booker, Newark’s impressive mayor,  Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s billionaire founder, donated $100m to help improve Newark’s schools.

Washington, D.C. also “gets useful extra money from private donors”. I think that the interesting experiment would be to allow the private donors to attach strings to their donations. Let the funders perform the experiment. Grant them the power to make the rules. I’d like to see how the schools perform under the strictures normally only imposed on private industry.

There are those who are horrified at the thought of running a government institution like a private business-for-profit, but I can’t see that the results could be any worse. After all, why are the schools under-performing in the first place? Why is there such high teacher turnover? Why are there schools and subjects that are hard to staff?

The government does not seem to be doing a very good job of allocating resources, for whatever reason. If Mark Zuckerberg has a few extra hundred million lying around fallow, (and somehow he had the wherewithal to achieve what the entire government of Newark has been unable to accomplish) and he wants to give school improvement a go, where’s the harm in allowing him to set the goals, and setting the means for achieving those goals?

After all, it is the Mark Zuckerbergs who are the end users of the products of the school system. Shouldn’t they have a say in how their future employees are educated? Aren’t they the ones with the intimate knowledge of what skills and knowledge will be most useful in the workplace? Don’t they have some idea of the best way to incentivize their workers to get the best product out of them?

We need to decide that, either the school system is the place to prepare the next generations to meet the challenges they will face as they progress through their years of earning a living and providing for themselves and their families, or that schools are merely way-stations, providing not much more than babysitting services, and that the real education takes places outside their hallowed halls. We can’t have it both ways, and it’s a shame that people like Mark Zuckerberg get suckered into funding the status quo.

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