Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Reading v. understanding…

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

Those who are accustomed to my blog posts—minimally, an op-ed comment on current events on Tuesdays and something on reading, writing, or the publishing business on Thursdays—might find it strange that I’m placing this post here on a Tuesday. There’s a simple explanation: reading and understanding what we read are building blocks in the democratic foundation of our country.

A dear friend and I were talking over the holiday about reading “popular science” articles. These are supposedly designed so that an “intelligent layperson” can develop some understanding about an esoteric bit of science or technology. I complained about Scientific American’s overly detailed articles in fields I’d like to learn more about for my sci-fi writing. “Don’t worry about it,” said my friend. “They’ve dumbed down the articles now.”

Some translations are in order. First, there’s no such thing as “popular science” anymore. Science isn’t popular, from outright attacks on it by religious fanatics and politicians who are sycophants for Corporate America, unwilling or otherwise, to teachers telling students that they should study something else because science is too hard (especially egregious when a male teacher adds “…for girls”). In all age groups, many consider science and technology to be the root of all the problems society faces, and there are many others who encourage such an opinion.

Second, “intelligent layperson” is all too often another oxymoron nowadays. I’m not speaking to the obvious cases where someone believes dinosaurs and human beings coexisted and the world with all its wonderful diversity of flora and fauna was all created six thousand years ago. I’m talking about the average Joan or Joe who reads something but can’t understand what they’ve just read. Call it what you will, it’s an indictment against popular culture. At the critical lower levels in our educational systems, teachers over-emphasize getting through the words—understanding is secondary. Certain content is emphasized; there’s not much practice analyzing and digesting new content. Too many people read something that’s devoid of facts but don’t have the background or even common sense to know better.

Third, “dumbed down” is a nice way of saying that essay and book writers know all about the problems mentioned above and bend over backwards to compensate in order to get their message across. The latter is a struggle that’s becoming increasingly difficult, even for fiction writers, where “dumbed down” has destroyed serious literature.

Even if we get people to read with all the other distractions they have—streaming video, social media, video games, and so forth—getting them to understand what they are reading is a high hurdle to jump over. I’ve often read a review of a “popular science” book and asked myself, “Did the reviewer read the same book I did?” That would probably happen with fiction too, but I don’t bother to read those reviews unless I’m making excerpts for the PR and marketing of my own books.


Age discrimination…

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

A popular adage says “60 is the new 40.” Try telling that to companies and other hiring institutions. Most companies don’t like to hire anyone over fifty—they view older workers at best as a drain on their benefits programs, and at worst they’ll fire older workers because they figure they can hire two or three younger employees for the same salary. Experience has no value anymore.

Colleges and universities can even be worse than companies. There’s a wealth of experience among retirees from industry that these institutions ignore. Maybe they’re worried about benefits and salaries too, preferring to pay pittances to these people as adjuncts, but I believe it’s often academic jealousy. Industry’s retirees have actually done something with their knowledge instead of teaching and writing arcane papers no one reads besides other academics. The ivory towers of academia are so lofty that those invaders from the outside can’t scale them and aren’t welcome even if they could, so those inside become incestuous and their towers dungeons instead.

What’s going on? It’s not all about salaries and benefits. You’ll hear one ubiquitous reason from HR offices across the land. “You have too much experience for this job.” Those are code words meaning “we can hire two or three people for what we’d have to pay you.” For academia, they prefer to hire experienced people as adjuncts so their great academics don’t have to compete with persons who actually know how to do worthwhile research, and young people without tenure, squeeze them dry, and then fire them so they don’t get tenure. I don’t know what the percentages are for making tenure in the various disciplines, but it’s probably embarrassing. Also embarrassing are the taxi-profs, the adjuncts who have to hold down three or four positions when they’re laid off by a major corporation. And in those same companies, the average employees’ ages, most less than fifty, are embarrassing too, so they treat those numbers as Top Secret.

Never mind that experience often implies that the older worker knows what s/he’s doing and goes about doing it efficiently. Never mind that older workers are often problem solvers while younger workers are often lost without a cookbook solution because of the failures of our current educational system at all levels, even at the college and university levels. Never mind that those younger workers could often use some good mentoring and a bit of corporate knowledge so that they aren’t wasting time reinventing the wheel, which they often do out of their ignorance.



Thursday, July 20th, 2017

When you get to be my age—old but young-at-heart—you start wondering if you had to do it all over again, what different choices would you make. Life is about choices, of course—choices covering an entire spectrum, from small to big. You might have some regrets too. That’s only human.

I don’t regret the choices I’ve made in my personal life. Given the same circumstances, I’d make the same ones. I wouldn’t have minded if some of them had turned out differently—I’d like to decrease the bad experiences and amplify the good ones—but I generally wouldn’t change the choices I made that led to these experiences.

I started publishing my fiction 10+ years ago (the first edition of my second novel, Full Medical, was published in 2006). At an early age, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I’m a practical person, though, so I made the choice to become a scientist, figuring that being a successful writer was too much like winning the lottery. It is, no matter what some authors or writing gurus say. Don’t give up on your day-job just yet. I think Dean Koontz’s wife gave him a year or so to achieve success. That’s unheard of nowadays, unless you win the lottery like Hugh Howey, J. K. Rowling, or Mark Weir. Writing good fiction is a necessary condition; there are no sufficient ones.

Science might not seem like a career that forms a basis for writing success (except maybe for sci-fi—many successful sci-fi writers are ex-scientists). One can wonder what careers are best for that. A love of languages has always accompanied my love for writing. I have a modest ability with languages. Given other circumstances, I might have become a linguist. That seems to be a fulfilling career for putting food on the table while you write stories and wait for some modicum of success. Probably not as lucrative as hard science and technology, though, which everyone calls STEM nowadays. While a journalism degree is probably better than an MFA (the former produces more understanding of and exposure to the human condition), the study of languages is undeniably related to what a writer does all the time: putting ideas into words and choosing the right words and logic to do so.

Of course, any writing career does this, even writing verses for Hallmark. But the study of languages goes far beyond writing skills. Understanding the linguistic history and structure of languages, especially one as dynamic as English, offers the future and present writer an incredible base for the logical choices s/he must make in her or his writing.

I don’t own many print books now. Although I have enough to keep bookshelves sagging, I generally find ebooks more practical—they’re easy to read, very accessible, and don’t take up any physical space beyond my Kindle. But there’s one print book on my reference shelf that I greatly value, David Crystal’s The Stories of English. Even if you ignore current dialects and regional variations, English is a complicated amalgam of many bits and pieces that has seen a dynamic and rapid development. The Spanish reader can still read Cervantes; we struggle with Shakespeare. And these men were almost contemporaries (Shakespeare died one day after Cervantes).


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.