Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Apocalypse redux…

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Redux = brought back, revived. We’re talking about the apocalypse again. Apocalypse is the event. While a dystopian society can cause it or be its aftermath, post-apocalyptic is reserved for the aftermath. There is a resurgence in these themes now. Everyone knows the reason: what’s happening in the U.S. right now as well as across the world has frightening parallels with 1930’s Germany, Italy, and Spain as well as with the darkest days of the Cold War. There’s nothing religious about this apocalypse.

Most dystopian, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic tales in the past were associated with the two world wars or the Communist threat. Brave New World was dystopian; Ape and Essence was post-apocalyptic. Even The Time Machine was post-apocalyptic. 1984 and Animal Farm were dystopian. Later sci-fi novels like Not This August were post-apocalyptic. Many classics can be found in these subgenres. Many soon-to-be classics like Wool are too. They all are warnings about what could happen. It’s common that interest in books and movies in these subgenres reflect troubled times in the world.

The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the world. As that hand on the Doomsday Clock inches toward midnight, these sci-fi subgenres become more popular. Some readers ignore them, burying their heads in the sand by reading schmaltzy romances and fluffy adventures that avoid most serious themes of any type. Which group is right? Beats me. I just tell stories. If one of them comes out apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic, so be it. Almost all my stories have serious themes, though, but not all of them are in the aforementioned subgenres.


Does Trump have a human side?

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Or his cronies and supporters, for that matter? Compassion and human kindness seem to be absent as the ogres lash out at all their perceived enemies. During the long campaign, I guessed he and like-minded individuals were lacking in these qualities, but I never guessed it could be so bad, and there’s every indication that it will become worse as parallels with 1930’s Germany continue to increase. One Facebook friend likened his takeover of the government to this generation’s Pearl Harbor. That attack was about war, so maybe my friend has a point: we’re in a social war as we fight to save the soul of America. Right now he’s taking us straight to a hell of his own creation. Let’s consider the evidence for answering the question of the title in the negative.

A pig farmer in a town hall meeting with Sen. Charles Grassley, who like many has been in the Senate far too long, pointed out that old Chuck had spoken of death panels in his criticism of Obamacare. The farmer went on to say that the GOP was going to create death panels AKA Congress and insurance VIPs denying coverage to millions, all across the entire country, and not just for the elderly, if Trump gets his way and kills Obamacare. Indictment number one: Trump, Grassley, and others of their ilk don’t care who dies, as long as the healthcare industry is a money maker for insurance companies and Big Pharma. Although at times Trump almost sounds like a fan of Medicare for all—hence his lies to Florida retirees about preserving Medicare and Social Security in order to gain their votes—all evidence indicates that he’d just as soon not waste money on sick people. Maybe he wouldn’t pull the plug on his own family members, but I suspect that complete strangers who are sick are just hunks of rotting meat to him.


Is the internet making us hermits?

Thursday, August 25th, 2016

Writers tend to be introverted, so I have no problem working mostly online. (As you get older, it’s harder to be social in the conventional sense—many of your friends and colleagues have passed on, after all. The crowds in the pubs are younger; if you go to church, you only see irascible oldsters like yourself worrying about their mortality; and so forth) But three news items from the business world caught my attention recently. First, venerable Macy’s is closing a slew of stores. Second, bookstore-barn-giant B&N just fired their CEO. And third, the Trump casino in Atlantic City will file for bankruptcy. What do these news items have in common? Their cause, the internet. At least partially. Let me explain.

People are spending more time online, whether via smartphones or computers (their distinction is only semantical now), and whether buying, playing, or socializing.  All department stores from Macy’s to Wal-Mart have been affected by online buying. People don’t go out and buy as much anymore.  And if people get out to shop in these hectic times when you might not be sure you have a job next week, they often don’t buy; they just look (window-shopping is the old descriptor), assess their options, and go home and order the goods online. Some pundits call this the Amazon effect, usually in a pejorative sense, but that gives that retail giant way too much credit.

B&N bookstores’ problems are just bigger ones that every bookstore shares and are comparable to the department stores’—online buying is preferred by many customers. The B&N bookstores are big barns for books; the department stores are big barns for clothing, home furnishings, and other goods. The merchandise is different, but the effects of the internet are the same. There are other effects, of course. B&N has been in a downspin since they spun off the Nook business. Macy’s has been hurt from the top and the bottom—your elite stores like Nordstrom’s and Lord and Taylor’s pretend to have better quality merchandise and your Targets and Wal-marts the same products at better prices. And then there’s Amazon.


Reasonable people thinking unreasonably…

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

If you think the world is going mad, it is. That’s another way of saying people are crazy. The recent Pokemon Go craze is just the tip of the iceberg. Like that minions game on the iPhone, I thought Pokemon Go was harmless until people started walking in front of trucks, getting robbed by thieves or molested by perverts, and in general looking like actors auditioning for The Walking Dead. Not so harmless are some of the other things occurring as reasonable people think unreasonably or believe things not based on fact.

Nancy Reagan believed in astrology; many people do. They believe the zodiac signs determine their personal fates; Nancy Reagan used them to advise Ronnie about global affairs! People hold similar beliefs about Tarot cards, séances, and palm readings. Some people would never own a black cat or walk under a ladder. All these superstitious beliefs have zero science behind them. It is amazing that our science and technology have come this far with all these nuts around. Even so-called scientists can believe really stupid things. It’s embarrassing. Despite the pics from ISS and imaging satellites, there are still people who think that the Earth is flat and the center of the Universe. And I’m talking about otherwise sensible people, not primitive tribe members in Africa, Australia, or South America.


When will the world become colorblind?

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

I’m a child of the sixties, and I shared MLK’s dream. I believe he saw racism and tribalism as a more generic and endemic problem in human society, though. At least I interpreted him that way, and I still worry about America and the world not being colorblind. That concept is more generic too. Race and ethnicity go far beyond the color of our skins. Differences in religious beliefs and sexual orientation creep in too. After all, colorblindness is seeing the world in a neutral, non-judgmental fashion, considering every human being as a unique person who we judge on their merits, not by their race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender, and sexual orientation. If this were ever to happen, hatred and bigotry would be thing of the past.

Sometimes discrimination and prejudice are hidden. When I was in Colombia, I saw them hiding among white members of the political, powerful elites in the center of the country; darker skinned “immigrants” from the poor, coastal regions (both Atalantic and Pacific), called by the neutral term Costeños but rarely treated in a neutral fashion, were often victims. I’m sure Colombians thought they were a colorblind society, but, as a child of the sixties observing their country, I recognized their problem if only because America’s is so much worse. Even before the sixties, my father often spoke about the lack of a more generic form of colorblindness I speak of—Armenians talking about their holocaust during World War One; Japanese grocers referring to their internment during World War Two; Jewish deli owners talking about friends and relatives murdered in the Nazi’s death camps, the worst holocaust in world history.

The huge waves of immigration in the 19th century created a ghetto mentality in America that can be seen as an extension of Reconstruction after the Civil War leading to bigotry and hatred unleashed against blacks that still remains. Tribalism is part of our evolutionary heritage—in pre-history tribes protected their members from other tribes. In modern history, they still do. A ghetto foments racial identity through tribalism. Blacks might say that they’re beyond that. I’m not sure. Everything from TV sitcoms like Blackish (why is tribalism funny?) to Kwanza (do we need an all-black religious observance?) to all-black frat and sorority houses to all-black churches—all this screams tribalism to me, a scientific observation with nothing pejorative intended. The same phenomenon occurs for Hispanic and Asian culture. If there’s a Puerto Rican Day parade in NYC, why not a Black History parade or Southeast Asian parade? If Univision and black TV channels exist, why not Jewish channels? If a campus has a Black Culture Center, why not an Irish Culture Center? These manifestations of ghetto mentality show the absurdity of tribalism in America. Pride in and celebrating one’s cultural heritage, or lamenting it, should never stand in the way of constructing a colorblind America and world.

I have no problem celebrating America’s diversity. I certainly do so in my books; they represent my public face to the world now. But I’m serious about my belief that we will not solve the problems of this nation and the world until they are colorblind in the more general sense. Progress has to be made from the top down as well as from the bottom up. Discrimination and bigotry of any kind cannot and should not be institutionalized by governments or corporations. And persons in their individual family and work lives should eschew any ghetto attitudes that can lead to discrimination and bigotry. We’ve all seen photos from the International Space Station. It’s one world, folks, we’re all in this together, and we’re all human beings desiring the same thing—food, fresh water, good-paying jobs, decent housing, education for our kids, and other basic human rights.


Trump “University”?

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

I’m a bit tired of proselytes creating some institution to further their own agendas. The religious institutions—your BYU, Catholic, Liberty, Oscar Roberts, SMU colleges and universities, and so forth—are bad enough. Next thing you know, cults like the Scientologists and Hare Krishnas will start one up. Others push a different religion—capitalistic exploitation. They’re a “notch up” from all those scumbags who write books and give speeches telling gullible people, “If you just do what I did, you’ll be a success—just follow what I outline here and read the details in my book, which is only $30.” While many book PR and marketing gurus are good examples of this, the “notch up” means someone has thrown the cloak of respectability around them by creating a “university.”

Trump University was one egregious example. In fact, it was more like those motivational events and seminars and hardly a university. Mind you, all these efforts are legit, except maybe in name. The packaging invariably comes with some type of warning like “Results might vary in particular cases.” In other words, they are like those book PR and marketing promises in that they at least pretend to offer necessary conditions for your success, which are different than sufficient conditions—there are no guarantees. In fact, the only thing that might be going for the flimflam is that possibly it worked for someone. If you think it will work for you, don’t blame me when it doesn’t.

“Students” of Trump University express a multitude of opinions on how “good” their experience was. Trump’s experience was huge—he made lots of money. In fact, the seminars had a package cost of $35K! And if anyone can play the role of the old-fashioned snake-oil salesman, he’s the one. And anyone who dares to contradict him—reporters especially—is insulted. He doesn’t speak softly and he always carries a big stick. A critic receives it back five-fold. “Students” of the “university” who dared criticize their experience were lambasted by the famous talking hairdo. And, by the way, the NY state DA said those famous surveys were filled out in a controlled environment by Trump U personnel.


Educating the world…

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

Last Friday I reviewed the film The Man Who Knew Infinity about English mathematician Hardy’s “discovery” of the great Indian number theory genius Ramanujan.  The movie is based on the book with the same title by Robert Kanigel.  I read Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology decades ago, so the release of the film stirred some old memories, including some about importing scientists.  The U.S. does it all the time; so do more industrialized countries in the E.U.; the U.K. does it to all the Commonwealth countries.  And industrialized nations steal scientists from all over the world, especially the Third World.  There are often more ads for physics positions in China than in the U.S. in Physics Today.  Mr. Obama spoke to the “brain drain” while in Vietnam.

It’s not clear that Britain received any great benefit from Ramanujan’s country-hopping.  Trinity College benefitted in prestige, I suppose, but no great jump in industrial or technological advantage occurred.  His work isn’t exactly esoteric, though.  Number theory is tightly coupled with modern day encryption techniques, and Ramanujan loved his prime numbers.  And a written epilogue at the end of the film mentions the relationship of some unusual Ramanujan-discovered functions to the theory of black holes (see the review).  Other “stolen scientists” make more of a difference in producing society’s paradigm shifts.  In the U.S., our space effort received a kick in the butt from von Braun and other Nazi rocket scientists we stole.  Italian physicist Fermi was a key person in the Manhattan project.


Educational reform: pipe dream or necessity?

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

Educational reform is like immigration law reform—many people can agree something must be done but few can agree on how to do it.  Everyone has an agenda, many agendas are contradictory, and no one has the big picture.  Of course, the big picture is illusive because waves of noble goals crash up against the ragged and rocky cliffs of ignorance and reality.  I’ve offered my ideas on the subject many times in this blog.  Why yet another post?  Simply because it’s in the news again, and I find the rhetoric far too limited in scope.

“Education for all” is about as silly as “all human beings are created equal.”  Unfortunately, most starry-eyed reformers consider the first a corollary of the second.  Both certainly sound good until you consider the implications.  I’d have to be arrogant and narcissistic to consider my intellect equal to Einstein’s; I’d have to be naïve or delusional to consider myself Beyoncé’s or Andrea Bocelli’s equal.  We should edit those statements to read “all human beings deserve equal opportunity” and “everyone should have the educational opportunity to fulfill their potential.”  That at least takes us from the poetic to the practical.

When offered, opportunity can be pursued or ignored.  People’s motivations cover a wide spectrum, from the highly motivated overachievers who often rise above their personal limitations, to the lazy SOBs who have low expectations and only want to see what they can manage with little or no energy expended.  It’s insane to think with that motivational diversity everyone will take equal advantage of the educational opportunities handed to them.  On the other hand, the opportunity should be there, a carrot held up to allow everyone the chance to be the best they can be.

And that’s precisely where the reform is needed.  Opportunity is lacking.  For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that a college degree is like the high school degree of fifty years ago, a college diploma being the necessary condition for finding and holding a decent job in our society.  (I’ll return to that assumption later.)  Continuing that logic, isn’t it necessary to offer that opportunity to everyone for free, just like we offer K-12 for free in our public schools now?  Maybe.  But let’s consider the consequences.


Contrary opinions…

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

[I have many of them.  Some people are afraid of having them.  Political correctness often trumps logic and reason (will “trump” become a politically incorrect word?).  I always follow Vonnegut’s curmudgeonly style in my op-ed posts—I say what I think.  You might not like it.  You have a few options: call me out in a comment—no foul language please—or go somewhere else, and/or write your own blog!]

Where’s the big picture?  Einstein supposedly said that only two things are possibly infinite, the Universe and human stupidity, and he wasn’t certain about the Universe.  His statement isn’t as generally applicable as Sturgeon’s Law, though.  The modern formulation of Theodore’s statistical observation for the here-and-now (the future might be worse) is that 90% of everything is crap.  Seems to apply well to human beings and subgroups of the same species (the NRA’s percentage is even higher).  Small minds focus on one or two issues.  Pro-life v. pro-choice, guns (or not guns), black lives matter, Wall Street is bad (or good), immigrants are bad (or good), privacy trumps public safety (or vice versa), Putin is a danger, GMOs are bad (or vice versa)—pick any issue and you will find millions focused on that one issue.  What about the big picture?  I’ll consider all that were just named.  They fit in my big picture.  Do you have one?

Reproductive rights.  I can’t see why it isn’t a general principle that people can’t decide what to do with their bodies.  Certainly no man should be able to tell a woman what to do with hers.  Yet old SOBs get off on controlling women’s reproductive decisions.  The scriptures say the woman should be the faithful servant to the man, don’t you know?  The scriptures say life is a sacred gift from God, don’t you know?  Never mind that the scriptures were written by old men in the days when women were just considered property like cows and sheep.  Never mind that those same old men would wage war on other old men and then victoriously kill off all their enemies’ women and children or enslave them like warring tribes of chimps.  Anyone who uses scriptures or God to back up their argument is highly suspect.

An incorrect view of creativity…

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

In his op-ed article on creativity in the NY Times, Prof. Adam Grant, management and psych professor at the Wharton School of UPenn, says step one to creativity is to procrastinate.  “Creativity takes time.  So I’m trying not to make progress toward my goal.”  I think that’s BS, and I’m hoping I’m not alone.  The first part depends on your definition of creativity, of course.  Presumably, this prof, who’s trying to sell his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, is using a business definition.  I don’t see much creativity in the business world.  I see it in the author/composer of Hamilton; I’ve seen it in the works of Alejandro Obregon and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; and I’ve seen it in scientists and engineers, from researchers to smart phone and car designers.  Grant confuses creativity with business acumen.  Trump has the latter, but he isn’t creative (come to think of it, Trump and his progeny went to Wharton).

So, let’s get past that first statement in the quote and move on to the second.  Procrastination is the opposite of creativity!  If one procrastinates, s/he’s doing absolutely nothing.  Now Alan Watts might say doing nothing is accomplishing something—that’s part of Buddhist teaching (make your mind blank to achieve enlightenment)—but it sure as hell isn’t being creative.  I’d generally call it wasting time!  At a conference once some Austrian physicists told me that they were in the process of thinking about getting some dinner.  Maybe that’s typically Austrian—I seem to remember Vienna as pretty laid back (but probably not during WWII)—but dinner just isn’t that complicated, and time spent in the process of thinking about it would be better spent doing physics in this case, where a physicist can and should be creative.  Leave the dinner creativity to chefs—culinary art is creative, but only when you do it, not in the process of thinking about it.