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PHOTON COURIER
 
Thursday, July 31, 2003  
CONFORMITY KILLS

What does a space shuttle disaster have to do with the current troubling situation in the teaching of the humanities? Strange as it may seem, I believe that there is a connection.

Most observers believe that the Columbia disaster was caused, to a substantial degree, by the unwillingness of key individuals to speak up forcefully enough about their safety concerns. This is often phrased as a "culture issue" or a "climate issue"--but, however you phrase it, it seems that a significant number of people didn't raise their concerns--or at least didn't raise them forcefully enough--because of worries about the implications for their own careers. (This also seems to have been a key factor in the earlier Challenger disaster.)

And in today's university humanities departments, there are many senior professors who understand that much of what is now being taught is nonsense, and who are heartsick about the "posturing and lies." But, as Erin O'Connor says: "...an older generation of "dinosaurs" looks on, seeing it all, and saying nothing. They do this to minimize the open displays of contempt for their traditional ways that they have learned to expect as their due."

Now, here is an interesting point. There are very few people in American who have more job security than a civil servant or a university tenured professor. But this security seems to have little payoff when it's time to speak up about something important and truly controversial. Perhaps jobs that offer high security tend to attract people who are not risk-takers. Or perhaps concerns about being liked by one's peers trump job-security issues per se. In any event, it does not seem that systems with a high degree of employee protection really yield the expected benefits in terms of outspoken employee behavior.

I'm sure there are some NASA employees who had and have the courage to speak out, just as I am sure that such courage exists among some senior professors of the humanities. But it seems that such people are too few in number, at both institutions, to make a real difference.

No set of organizational policies, however well-designed, can substitute for human character. It takes many virtues, including the virtue of courage, to make an organization perform effectively. That's true whether the organization is a university, a corporation, or a government agency.

2:02 PM

Tuesday, July 29, 2003  
ZEBRA KEEPS OLD STRIPES

Despite the welcome news in the post below, some things remain the same at The New York Times. Writer Jonathan Reynolds managed to work a slap at George Bush into an article on food. (hat tip: OpinionJournal.com)


10:24 AM

 
WELL, IT'S NOT APRIL 1st

I recently reported on the truce between the railroad and trucking industries. Here's something even stranger.

David Brooks, of The Weekly Standard, has been appointed an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.

As someone once said: Cats and dogs should live together. It broadens their minds.

Amazing.


8:22 AM

Monday, July 28, 2003  
INEFFICIENCY STANDARDS

DOE efficiency proposals penalize appliances that operate on natural gas, even though in most cases these appliances are--considered from a total system viewpoint--significantly more efficient than their electrical counterparts. According to Chuck Warrington, chairman of the American Public Gas Association, the DOE standards measure efficiency from the standpoint of "energy at the outlet." This ignores the losses in the generation and distribution system, which are very significant for electricity.

When natural gas is burned at a power plant to generate the electricity to run your water heater, most of the energy in the gas never makes it to your home. Some is lost as a result of thermodynamic factors in the generation process, some is lost due to mechanical friction, and some is lost in transmission. Typically, only 30-40% of the energy in the fuel is deliverable in the form of electricity at the main switchboard of your house. So, it would seem that the DOE standards are giving gas appliances an unjustified penalty of more than 2:1. The result will be to discourage their manufacture and use, even though in actuality they would reduce the overall consumption of energy, and would specifically aid in conserving natural gas.

Why the flawed standards proposal? Surely people in DOE are familiar with electrical generation and transmission efficiencies. I would suspect that part of the reason is that the "pre-outlet" energy efficiency is a variable; it may be 30% at one home and 40% at another, depending on the characteristics of the central station and the distance of that station from the home. So any adjustment factor would have to be based on an average of some kind, and thus might be hard for DOE to defend.

But it's better to be approximately correct than perfectly wrong.

3:23 PM

Sunday, July 27, 2003  
SWISS DELAY JDAM PARTS

According to the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, a Swiss company refused to provide critical parts for the Joint Direct Attack Munition--a critical weapon system--during the Iraq war. According to Rep. Duncan Hunter, Swatch Group AG, and its Micro Crystal division refused to send key components used in the bomb guidance equipment used on the JDAM. The Washington Times reports that the Swiss company's president blocked the parts to Honeywell, a subcontractor for Boeing on the JDAM project. It's not clear to me whether he was acting on his own initiative or at the behest of the Swiss government.

In this particular case, the parts were sourced from an alternative manufacturer, albeit at a considerably higher cost. In general, however, it's not always possible to get a particular part in large quantities with short leadtime. If this situation is permitted to persist, there could some day be severe consequences.

It's probably not always possible to "buy American," though more U.S.-based military procurement may well be a good thing. Contract and treaty provisions may be part of the solution, as may disbarment of offending companies and countries from future military contracts or subcontracts.

11:40 AM

Monday, July 21, 2003  
HOT EPISTEMOLOGIES! GET 'EM HERE!

This from Daniel Dennett:

When I was a young untenured professor of philosophy, I once received a visit from a colleague from the Comparative Literature Department, an eminent and fashionable literary theorist, who wanted some help from me. I was flattered to be asked, and did my best to oblige, but the drift of his questions about various philosophical topics was strangely perplexing to me. For quite a while we were getting nowhere, until finally he managed to make clear to me what he had come for. He wanted "an epistemology," he said. An epistemology. Every self-respecting literary theorist had to sport an epistemology that season, it seems, and without one he felt naked, so he had come to me for an epistemology to wear--it was the very next fashion, he was sure, and he wanted the dernier cri in epistemologies. It didn't matter to him that it be sound, or defensible, or (as one might as well say) true; it just had to be new and different and stylish. Accessorize, my good fellow, or be overlooked at the party.

I was going to write a rant about this, but realized I was looking at it all wrong. There's a business opportunity here! We can set up a consulting firm to provide customized philosophies--epistemology, ethics, the whole ball of wax--to suit. Just send us some information on your profession and the social circles you travel in, and your philosophy of life will be sent by return e-mail. Guaranteed to be edgy, even outrageous--but carefully crafted not to offend the beliefs of the circle of people you really care about.

There's money to be made here! Anybody in? Invisible Adjunct and friends, maybe?

(I'm kidding, folks. I'd rather start a coal power plant in a scenic area with no filtration system. The pollution would be less damaging.)


7:22 AM

Friday, July 18, 2003  
THE SUPPRESSION OF SHOP

Many high schools are eliminating their traditional shop programs. This, despite the fact that skilled craftsmen are in demand and that, for many students, shop programs could be a key to a better job and a better life. (An auto mechanic who rises to service manager may make over $100,000 per year.) And for those students who are interested in learning a craft, the ability to take shop in school would very likely have an positive effect on their overall attitude to school--including academic courses.

So why do school administrators eliminate shop programs? I think there are several reasons, none of which reflect very well on the administrators.

(1) Arrogance and snobbery. There is an attitude among many college-educated people (especially those with advanced degrees) that the only "good" job is one which involves the manipulation of symbols (especially verbal symbols). This reinforces the traditional disdain of snobs for people who work with their hands.

A well-developed human being has the ability to feel respect for skills that he himself does not possess. This trait seems rare among school administrators.

(2) Poor management skills and a lack of resourcefulness. School officials say that to teach someone to be an auto mechanic requires heavy capital investments because of the necessity for diagnostic computers and similar equipment. But a little creative thinking could go a long way toward mollifying this issue. The first year or two of an automotive shop program could consist of learning how internal combustion engines work, taking them apart, and putting them back together. This could be done in individual schools, with total capital equipment consisting of a few old engines and some basic tools. Students who want to proceed further could go, for a couple of days a week, to a consolidated location which contains the expensive equipment. Also, it's very likely that local auto dealerships would kick in money or equipment to support such a program, if asked.

One characteristic of weak managers is that they always demand "more resources," rather than thinking creatively about how resources can be used more effectively. Such people seem to exist in large numbers within the education establishment.

(3) Lack of leadership. School administrators are responding to pressure from parents, who want their children to follow a college path. But the parents are themselves responding to propaganda from the educational establishment, much of it highly misleading. If the administrators were leaders rather than followers, they would be proactive in providing honest information to parents--about the benefits of careers in crafts as well as the benefits of college.

Some have argued that craft education detracts from the common education required for citizenship. This is silly. There is plenty of time to learn basic craft skills and also to learn history and literature--if frills are avoided in the interests of substance. And, as mentioned above, letting students take at least one class that they are really interested in may help to energize their entire approach to school. From the San Diego article: (Students) hoisted cars on lifts, removed wheels and welded metal – heavy duties for teenagers at 7:40 a.m. Such dedication is the marvel of teachers who fight to keep students focused in their academic classes.

"When I come here, I know exactly what I'm doing," said Raymond Butcher, a 17-year-old junior. "This is what feeds my brain.
" It's hard to believe that some of this spirit wouldn't spill over into Raymond's academic classes as well.

And learning a craft has more than economic value. One learns self-discipline, deferred gratification, attention to detail, and ability to work with others. And one may also learn intellectual skills such as inductive and deductive reasoning. Diagnosing engine problems, for example, surely requires an internalization of cause-and-effect thinking.

The negative attitude of school administrators to shop courses demonstrates once again--as if further demonstration was needed--just how narrowminded are the people who run the public schools, and how little they really care about their students. Yes, there are exceptions--but they seem to be increasingly uncommon.

(hat tip: Joanne Jacobs)

UPDATE: I'm sure that another factor playing a role here is the fear of lawsuits. If kids are allowed to smart off in a shop class, it can be very dangerous. It's a lot easier to hurt yourself (or someone else) with a welding torch than with a computer or a piece of paper. And few school administrators seem to have the courage to insist on the right to remove troublemakers from class...so activities that could be hazardous are simply avoided.

I suspect that many of the factors discussed here are also relevant to the decline of laboratory science in the schools.

9:04 AM

Tuesday, July 15, 2003  
EVEN DUMBER THAN YOU THOUGHT

I've previously posted on Diane Ravitch's new book, "The Language Police," and on horrible examples of how textbooks are being warped to placate (actual or imagined) pressure groups. Bernard Chapin has an even more amazing example:

Last year I was previewing a textbook that I was about to use in a Human Development course I was teaching. The book was the usual flamboyant montage of facts, grids, and pictures, but then I suddenly ran across a most unusual sentence. It read, “As a folksinger once sang, how many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult.” I was stupefied.

No wonder he was stupified. It doesn't sound like any folk music I've ever heard, and it would be really hard to work into a rhyme scheme. What it had to be, Chapin realized, was an attempt to make the Bob Dylan song "Blowin' in the Wind" more "inclusive." (The original line is "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man.")

However bad you think the American public schools and their supporting industries are...evidently they are actually much worse.

(hat tip: Relapsed Catholic)

6:33 PM

Thursday, July 10, 2003  
THE MODERN MEDIA-JOURNALIST

You've probably heard the Gilbert & Sullivan song, "I am the very model of a modern major general" (from Pirates of Penzance). DoggerelPundit has updated it a bit...

I am the very model of a modern Media-Journalist,
I‘ve information biased, bogus, banal and paternalist,
I know the talking heads and every bureau puke and oracle
from A-B-C to C-N-N in order categorical;


Read the whole thing here. (The words to the original can be found here).

Thanks to Susanna Cornett for the link.

8:22 PM

Wednesday, July 09, 2003  
CUT OFF NOSE, SPITE FACE

If you look around the biotech industry, you will be impressed with how many companies are Israel-based--especially small, entrepreneurial ones. Just two examples:

*Given Imaging makes swallowable electronic devices which travel through the intestinal tract and transmit color images to external equipment. It appears to be a real breakthrough in diagnosis.

*MindGuard Limited makes implantable devices for patients who are at a high risk for stroke. The MindGuard Diverter(TM) system is designed to be deployed into the carotid arterial bifurcation where it serves to divert cardioemboli (plaque-like debris) in the arterial system away from the brain. Medtronic, a major US-based company, has recently made an equity investment in MindGuard and has also secured European distribution rights to their product.

Israel's biotech contributions are not limited to the corporate sector: universities and nonprofit institutions are making important progress as well.

Nevertheless, European leftists are attempting to instigate boycotts against Israeli researchers, and their efforts have encountered considerable sympathy and support. According to a doctor writing in today's New York Times, European scientists denied biological samples to an Israeli researcher. And just about everyone is familiar with the recent case of Oxford scientist Andrew Wilkie, who refused to hire an Israeli researcher based purely on her nationality. (His decision has been reversed by the university.)

In Britain, the Baroness Greenfield (an eminent neurobiologist and the director of the Royal Institution) has expressed concern about the impact of the British boycott of Israeli academics: "The obvious implication of the boycott is that if this is stopping medical research from being propagated, then the development of treatments and people's lives could be affected. If it continues it will harm people in every sphere, but in medical research lives are potentially at risk." And, of course, should Israel cease to exist as a viable society--an objective which is clearly desired by many on the European left--the implications for medical research would be even more negative.

It is quite possible that some of the European leftists who are so vehemently anti-Israel will themselves die of diseases that could have been treated, had Israeli science been left unmolested. Unfortunately, innocent people will die as well.

Hatred can be a stronger emotion than even the desire for self-preservation. So can stupidity.

UPDATE: Left-wing attacks on Israel are not limited to Europe, of course, even though they seem to be particularly virulent there. See this article for an account of the doings at Rutgers University...and notice that this travesty is being funded using public money.

1:11 PM

Monday, July 07, 2003  
MORE ABOUT READING

Several years ago, Bill Gates made the following comment:

"I make it a point to read at least one newsweekly from cover to cover, because it broadens my interests. If I only read what intrigues me, such as the science section and a subset of the business section, then I finish the magazine the same person I was before I started. So I read it all." (emphasis added)

It's a good insight. And it's particularly interesting in the light of Diane Ravitch's new book, The Language Police. Ravitch's book provides many horrible examples of the way in which PC thinking is bowdlerizing schoolbooks--I mentioned one one of her examples in an earlier post. Here's yet another one (taken from a publisher's guideline):

A story that is set in the mountains discriminates against students from flatlands.

This guideline, and others like it, will insure that students are never exposed to anything beyond their current experience and understanding--that, in Gates' language, they will finish the book the same person they were before they started. The transformative possibilities of education are being deliberately masked out.

Remember Emily Dickenson's poem about reading?

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.


In America's public schools, this may need to be changed to:

There's nothing boring as a book
That goes nowhere at all
You might as well sit in your chair
And just stare at the wall



2:00 PM

Sunday, July 06, 2003  
NYT GETS IT WRONG AGAIN

In an article on the release by Israel of Palestinian prisoners, the following words appear:

The release of Palestinian prisoners is just one of many demands placed on both sides under the Mideast peace plan, known as the road map.

This is wrong. No such requirement is stated in the "road map," whose complete text can be found here.

Wouldn't you think that--in view of recent events--The Times would be a little more careful about verifying the accuracy of the things that it publishes?

UPDATE: The NYT has corrected this; if you follow the link above, you will get the corrected version. No notification of the change appeared, at least in the on-line version: the old text just went away, and the new text appeared.

(hat tip: LGF)

1:51 PM

 
THE PAST OF THE FUTURE

Arts & Letters Daily has uncovered a 1950 article from Popular Mechanics--on what the year 2000 was going to be like. You can read it here.


1:43 PM

Saturday, July 05, 2003  
STATE OF THE SCHOOLS

Diane Ravich's new book "The Language Police," provides many examples of how textbooks are being warped due to fear of pressure groups and to general mindlessness. Many of her examples have been floating around the blogosphere. Here's a particularly egregious one:

A contributor to a major textbook series prepared a story comparing the great floods in 1889 in Johnstown, Pa., with those in 1993 in the Midwest, but was unable to find an acceptable photograph. The publisher insisted that everyone in the rowboats must be wearing a lifevest to demonstrate safety procedures.

The publisher, of course, didn't come up with this idea all on its own. It is doubtless reacting to policies established by its customers--major school systems.

America's public schools are being run by idiots. Sure, there are exceptions--but they are increasingly being overwhelmed by the tidal wave of stupidity, group-think, and sheer cowardice.


8:39 AM

Thursday, July 03, 2003  
SYNERGY, OR JUST SYN?

I was reading an analyst's report on a company. This particular company is in multiple, fairly distinct lines of business. The way the analyst valued the company was to value each business as if it were a separate corporation. He then added up the valuations and subtracted 10 percent. Called it a "conglomerate discount."

The funny part is, each business that the company entered was probably justified with glowing forecasts of "synergy." You can almost write the PowerPoint slides without even knowing who the company is ("leverage distribution channels"--"economies of scale in manufacturing"--"administrative costs allocated over a broader base"--etc)

Synergy does exist in some cases, but it's difficult to achieve in practice. It's probably just as common--or more common--for multiple businesses in a company to get in each other's way as to support each other.

8:02 PM

Wednesday, July 02, 2003  
MUSINGS ON LIBERAL EDUCATION

Ran across a NYT article from 1997, on the subject of University departments of philosophy. According to a 1994 survey, only 18% of colleges only required their students to take even one philosophy course. I don't have any more recent data, but the article also said that between 1992 and 1996, more than 400 standalone philosophy departments disappeared. Of course, students can take philosophy even if it isn't required, but I doubt that a huge number of them do. I think we can safely conclude that, at present, less than college graduate in five has taken a single course in philosophy.

How could anyone posssibly be said to have a liberal education if they haven't been exposed to philosophy? And remember--the creation of a broadly educated populace is supposedly one of the principal reasons why we are spending billions of dollars per year on higher education.

Studies have shown that college students aren't learning much history, and that there often are issues with their writing abilities. They certainly aren't learning much (outside of specialized programs) about science or technology or economics. And they often graduate with little exposure to serious literature. Apparently, they aren't learning much about philosophy, either.

What exactly is being learned by "liberal arts" or "general studies" majors at the majority of American colleges?

2:33 PM

 
ABBAS IN WASHINGTON

Condi Rice has invited to the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, to come to Washington DC for meetings. Eric Moll has a suggestion, which he has made in a letter to President Bush:

Bring Mr. Abbas to see the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The man wrote a doctoral thesis in which he not only denied that on the order of 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, calling the number nearer 1 million, he also claimed that the “Zionist Leadership” conspired with the Nazis to take these innocent lives. Please, sir, take this man to the Holocaust Museum, in person. Let him see the truth, face it with his own eyes.

If Abbas goes to the Holocaust Museum, perhaps he will learn something. And if he refuses to go, surely we will learn something.

If you agree that this invitation is a good idea, let President Bush know. His public e-mail address is president@whitehouse.gov. And if you blog, pass it along.

(hat tip: the anti-idiotarian rottweiler)

UPDATE: It's been suggested to me that this might not be a good idea--that Abbas might just use the Holocaust Museum visit as one more opportunity for propaganda (ie, by drawing a spurious parallel between Palestinians and death camp inmates.) My feeling is still that such an invitation would be on balance positive, but agree that it can be logically argued the other way.

8:22 AM

 
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