Archive for December, 2009

A New Hope for Interstellar Travel?

For more than a decade, at least some of the more “realistic” or “mundane” among the science fiction crowd — including various proportions of readers, writers, and critics — have been suggesting that the idea of interstellar travel is somewhere between unlikely and totally impossible in a practical sense. So I happened to be very pleased when I read in the November 26th edition of New Scientist that two new approaches to interstellar travel had been trotted out — one of which essentially revisits the idea of the Bussard interstellar ramjet… except the propellant would be dark matter, which is far more plentiful in interstellar space than the comparatively few atoms of hydrogen that made the original Bussard concept unlikely to be successful in significantly reducing travel time to even nearby stars. The other involves the creation of an artificial black hole that radiates Hawking radiation for propulsion.

Coming up with a theoretical model for either approach is, of course, a far cry from even an engineering design, let alone a prototype, especially when the composition of dark matter has not even been determined and when we don’t yet have the engineering know-how to create anything close to a black hole, but these theoretical approaches do bring some hope to the idea that we humans may yet escape the confines of a single solar system in some fashion other than massive asteroid-sized generation ships that no government or corporate entity will ever commit the resources to build.

One of the aspects of interstellar travel that fascinates me, and more than a few others, is the hope that it might at least give a jolt to the political and cultural emphasis on limitations and upon the glorification of the small — from ever-smaller and ever more necessary electronic gadgets that tie people into self-selected and socially and culturally limited peer groups to a lack of understanding about just how immense, wide, wonderful — and awful — the universe is… and how unlikely what lies out there can be conveniently catalogued into neat and small packages designed just for human use and understanding.

Will we ever understand it all?

Who knows? But we certainly won’t if we don’t keep looking outward and striving for more than a way to use science and new knowledge for a quick buck in the next fiscal year… or quarter.

I’d certainly rather have either a black hole starship or a dark-matter-ramjet than the new and improved pocket iPhone and its sure-to-be innumerable successors.

More Bookstore Stupidity

In the last few days, several stories have popped up in various newspapers about the Barnes & Noble decision to close its B. Dalton outlet in Laredo, Texas, leaving the small city [population 220,000] with no bookstore at all, neither a chain store, nor an independent. That will make Laredo the largest town or city in the United States without a full-service bookstore, an absolutely “wonderful” Christmas present for the book-lovers of Laredo.

In past blogs I’ve pointed out the rather numerous short-comings of Borders. Now it’s the turn of Barnes & Noble. The B&N decision comes as part of its strategy to close all the remaining B. Dalton outlets in 2010, a decision from on corporate high to close high-cost, low-profit small mall outlet stores. Frankly, in the case of B&N, it makes far more sense than it did for Borders to downsize the number of Waldenbooks outlets, since from my industry sources, the word has always been that Waldenbooks was profitable until Borders started fiddling with their operations, while the Dalton outlets were, as a whole, marginal.

Even so, the B&N decision in the case of Laredo, and perhaps in other individual cases as well, is stupid. They have a local monopoly that is in the black, if not necessarily highly profitable, and B&N has been quoted as saying that Laredo will support a small but full-sized B&N — but that B&N won’t be able to open such a store for at least 18 months. Generally speaking, a city with a population of over 100,000 is profitable for the chain bookstores, and even with Laredo’s high level of Spanish-speakers, a store there should be profitable, especially with no competition.

Let’s get this straight. For bookkeeping and corporate decision-making reasons, B&N will close a profitable local outlet well before a successor B&N can be opened. In other words, they’ll destroy or at least erode their customer base…and then have to rebuild it, if they can, a year later.

All right, they have to close all the B. Daltons for whatever reasons. Then why not simply re-label the Dalton store in Laredo as a B&N Express or some such with signs saying that there will be a full-sized B&N coming before long, and add the Laredo store to the B&N supply system. Surely, it can’t be that hard. Then B&N can still claim it’s closed down all the Daltons in order to keep the stockholders or creditors or whoever happy and not anger an entire reading community.

Unfortunately, this is just another example of where pre-determined decisions are trading short-term profit considerations for longer-term profitability — and undermining the future customer base by literally chasing away readers. Exactly how much sense does this make in terms of future operations? Not to mention that it makes little sense at all from a societal point of view when reading levels among younger Americans are dropping.

For the Good of…

We’ve all met them, the seemingly well-intentioned people who raise questions about this and that in the workplace. “Why is George doing it that way?” “Why do you think Suzanne changed the production schedule without telling accounting… or advertising?”

And if you’ve noticed, or watched carefully, you’ll have discovered that each of these seemingly innocent questions is asked in a public forum from which George or Suzanne is absent. Further, if you just happen to ask the questioner why they raised the question, the answer is almost invariably a variant of “I was just thinking of the good of… [fill in the blank with the appropriate word, such as "the staff," "the customers," "the students"].

Just as Lenin and Stalin, Hitler. Mussolini, and all-too-many tyrants in modern times have justified their actions on the basis of being for “the good of the people,” so too are these work-place questioners not at all interested in the good of whomever they cite. They seldom bring up their questions in any situation where the “accused” has a chance to explain; they almost never go to the accused and ask for an explanation. And the bottom line is that they’re not really interesting in solving the “problem.” They’re interested in causing trouble for another individual, preferably without leaving too obvious a set of fingerprints and without ever confronting the individual in question, always looking innocent and professing their altruism in raising such questions.

So… when you hear one of these kinds of questions, and especially if you get an explanation that the questioner is “only looking out for everyone’s good,” start asking exactly what the questioner really has in mind. Does he or she want to discredit the subject of the questions, or covet their job, or get back at the other person?

History and experience suggest that people who are interested in doing good do just that. They do; they accomplish; they work at make things better. Trouble-makers ask questions that stir everyone up without ever pointing toward a solution. There’s a very fine line between an honest question and one designed to incite trouble, but asking who benefits personally from a question and who is harmed is a good start to sorting out one from the other.

Even so… be on your guard when anyone cites “for the good of…”

Blaming the Messenger — Again

Last Friday, students at the University of California staged a protest and pelted the house of the university chancellor with rocks and other projectiles, breaking windows and causing not-insignificant damage. According to various reports, the students were protesting teacher layoffs and furloughs, canceled classes, and high tuition and fees. The latest protest followed earlier occupations of halls on the Berkeley campus designed to call attention to the student grievances.

While I happen to agree with the anger and concern about the cutbacks in higher education, these protests, as with so many student protests over the years, are aimed at the wrong people. No state college or university administration has that much control over the rising costs of education. Nationally, over the past three decades, the percentage of college costs at state institutions of higher education paid for by state governments has dropped, often precipitously, from a national average of around 40% to far, far, less — in some states dropping below ten percent. During the same period, various additional requirements and mandates have been imposed on state institutions by both federal and state governments, and governments at all levels have pressed for more and more students to attend college. In general, the increased costs do not come from significantly higher faculty and staff salaries. While the salaries of football coaches have soared, so have administration salaries and costs, largely in response to all the mandates and administrative paperwork and “accountability.” On the other hand, faculty and staff salaries, in general, have not kept pace. Over the last 15 years, for example, faculty salaries at my wife’s university have been frozen four times, and the average raise in the years when they were not frozen has been around three percent. Similar figures apply to other state universities in the region. With the contribution from state governments dropping yearly, and legislative mandates to “do more,” the only way state institutions can meet their budgets is by increasing tuition and fees — or by cutting faculty and part-time or student instructors.

Blaming the administration, whatever the faults of those administrators may be, doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. Those students would be better served by asking their parents and their friends’ parents, “Why don’t you support more state taxes to fund higher education?” Or… they could accept the fact that, if they don’t want to pay for education through taxes, they’ll have to pay higher tuition and fees… or allow the universities and colleges to raise the bar for admission and reduce the number of students.

Destructive rioting in front of a chancellor’s house isn’t going to do anything except make already intransigent legislators even less willing to grant funds to a state university… and all too many of them don’t like finding higher education anyway.

The Dimming of America

The other day, I went to the store to buy some hundred watt light-bulbs. Guess what? I found I had a choice of either 90 watt standard soft-whites, or reduced “natural” illumination 100 watt bulbs. I’d been hearing about the future phase-out of incandescent light bulbs, but this isn’t “future.” It’s now, and there’s clearly a great push to replace the once-standard 100 watt bulb with compact fluorescents or, apparently, with lower wattage bulbs.

It doesn’t stop there, either. I have track lights in my kitchen. We installed the track lighting some ten years ago to replace the fluorescent lights that always seemed dim, and never directed enough light to specific areas. The track lights solved the problems. Except now… I can’t find the 75 watt halogen bulbs the track lighting was designed for. All I can find are 70 watt bulbs that seem to produce less light than 60 watt bulbs, and the kitchen is getting noticeably dimmer as the 75 watt halogen bulbs expire. Some people may find cooking and eating in dimness romantic, but we’d prefer that it be a choice and not a requirement.

Then, too, we have ceiling lights in several hallways and rooms, and the fixtures were designed to provide adequate light based on incandescent bulb sizes, and they don’t take compact fluorescents. Oh… and by the way, the “natural light” incandescents burn out in a couple of days in ceiling fixtures.

I’m presuming that all of these dimming down light bulb initiatives are in the service of energy efficiency and designed to “replace” the inefficiency of the incandescent light bulb. I don’t have a problem with replacing less efficient lights with more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly lights, but I have a huge problem with a forced reduction in light levels. Frankly, even with glasses that correct my once-perfect vision back to theoretically perfect vision, I have trouble reading fine print in dim light. So do millions of other Americans, most of us past 50.

I have a lower level office [i.e., walkout basement] which has overhead fluorescents. With them alone, the office light level is that of a medieval monastery in midwinter. So I have a desk lamp that has a three way bulb, and it does make everything light enough in the work area — but it’s getting harder and harder to find the three-ways with the 250 watt bulbs.

Now… I suppose I could install more lighting with lower wattage compact fluorescents and modified incandescent bulbs… and the way things are going I may have to… but why should I have to? If compact fluorescents are so good, and so efficient, why can’t someone manufacture one that delivers the lumen levels I need? So far as I can see, all these initiatives and changes are merely semi-mandatory light-reduction measures, not a replacement of current light levels attained with inefficient technology with the same lighting levels obtained more efficiently.

Or am I missing something? Is this another part of the sinister plot to do away with reading? Is it a way to make seniors stumble and fall and increase their mortality to reduce Medicare outlays? Or is it another form of age-discrimination against those of us who don’t operate by the light of blackberries or palm pilots or the like? Perhaps it’s a way to keep light from shining into the way government operates? Or is it a hidden subsidy to the lighting manufacturers as we all have to buy new and redesigned lighting in order to be able to see in our own homes?

Whatever it is… it’s not efficiency.

Is There A "Tools" Fallacy?

Just last week, one reader made the observation that, in the case of “instant communications,” people were the ones who decided the use of tools in the fashion I decried, and that it wasn’t the question of the tools, but that the problem lay with people, “as usual.” I have to say that, while I’ve always been a supporter of “not blaming the tools,” something about this view bothered me, and I think the issue boils down to a question.

Are there “tools” or institutions that influence people toward “bad” or “uncivil” or “unethical” or even “unproductive” behavior, by their superficial attractiveness or other attributes?

Moreover, do we tend to minimize the negative impacts of these tools because their other attributes overshadow in our minds –or emotions — their true costs to both individuals and society?

I’d certainly submit that this may well be the case with modern communications technology. Psychologists have already determined that computer/games/cellphone type equipment is highly addictive to certain personalities, and, as I noted earlier, instant communications seem to foster a rather wide range of behaviors that are either impolite, unethical, counter-productive, or just plain illegal. Obviously, the technology, as that reader noted, is not at fault, but, nonetheless, with the wide-spread use of that technology, we’re seeing problems we didn’t see before, or at least not on the wide-scale scope and severity as at present.

Another tool that has engendered incivility and an extremely high number of fatalities is the automobile. Because of its convenience, its utility, and its versatility, we don’t want to do without them, and certainly there’s nothing inherently “evil” about cars, except perhaps in the eyes of greenhouse extremists. Yet… what is there about a car that provokes human behavior that ranges from merely stupid to downright lethal? Vehicle deaths in the United States are something like three times homicides, and for the last 60 years have totaled two and half times the wartime combat deaths of U.S. service members. What persuades theoretically rational adults to drive a car when they’re so intoxicated or high that they can barely walk, or to cruise the highways at speeds more suited to the Indianapolis 500? Why do normally sane individuals become maniacs when cut off by another vehicle in rush-hour or other traffic? Why, when studies show that cellphone use, and especially texting, while driving impairs drivers more than drinking, do so many people persist in combining these lethal behaviors? Certainly, the car didn’t beg them to do it.

Firearms are another case in point. Like it or not, they’re implicated in nearly 30,000 deaths a year, roughly 47% being suicides and 48% being homicides. While guns don’t pull their own triggers, a prevalence of firearms does result in higher death rates. This may be simply because they’re more effective than other weapons, but that effectiveness combines with human nature to result in a rather high body count… particularly in the U.S.

Another area is electronic music. While seldom fatal, the ability of amplified music to penetrate thick walls and sealed vehicles is resulting in increasing hearing losses among listeners, usually younger people. And, of course, hearing losses must be compensated for by higher volume levels… causing greater hearing loss… and none of them ever seem to consider turning down the volume.

Likewise, the institution of ubiquitous fast food and other forms of “instant nourishment” has resulted in an epidemic of obesity in the United States. Again… the food didn’t drag people into McDonald’s or whatever instant cuisine establishment might be an individual’s choice, but the prevalence of such establishments clearly biases people toward eating habits that mitigate against good health.

So… while such tools and institutions do not in themselves require unfortunate results, does their presence and ease of utilization result in an influence that is biased toward less than optimal human behavior? If so, can and should we ignore that influence by arguing that such less than optimal human behaviors are solely personal decisions?

No… it’s not the tools, not exactly, but… I have to wonder whether the tools are somehow stronger than some people’s common sense and willpower…or whether an awful lot of people are “intelligence impaired.”

The"Instant Society" Presumptions

The other day, my wife had a local singing engagement for a community event, one of those things she and other members of the university community do gratis. Before she started teaching for the day, she checked her email and saw nothing urgent. Because she teaches straight through for eight hours on Tuesdays, as she does on most days, she did not have a chance to check her email again until after five o’clock. At that point, she discovered that the community event organizer had now asked her to sing an additional song — one not even mentioned previously — that was printed in the program… and she was singing that evening. Fortunately, my wife knew the song, but she never had a chance even to rehearse the song with her accompanist. Needless to say, she wasn’t pleased about the situation, because it’s hard to perform as well as one can without some advance preparation, and refusing to sing doesn’t set well with the audience or the local organizers. She said nothing, sang well, and everyone seemed pleased… but it still bothered her… and me.

The day before, she had a senior student email her a request for a faculty recommendation for a graduate school application — less than a day before the application and recommendation deadline. Routinely, incoming freshmen think nothing of putting off doing assignments until hours, if not minutes, before they are due — and many keep doing this for weeks and months. While this has historically always been an academic problem for some students, it’s now endemic with the vast, vast majority of incoming college students. Some never learn, and usually flunk out, despite test scores and grades that indicate that they have the intellectual ability to do the work. Every year, students applying for jobs or graduate schools wait longer and longer before they contact faculty, clearly never thinking that, first, the faculty member may have other commitments, even other recommendations to write, or, second, that it does take time to write a decent recommendation.

More than infrequently — and with distressingly increasing frequency over the past year — I’ve had people request information, wanting it “now,” for deadlines, etc., even when they’ve known of the need for weeks or months. I’ve checked with offspring who are in various positions in business, and they report the same phenomenon. Almost no one seems able to: (1) plan ahead and (2) realize that accurate information and/or work products can’t be reliably produced “instantly.”

Yet with “instant” communications, from email to Twitter to cellphones, more and more people are equating instant access to instant results. There seems to be a subconscious process whereby people think, “If I can get to you instantly, why can’t you get back to me instantly, and with what I want/need?” The additional problem with all the instant access is that if you don’t reply, you get more emails and messages wanting to know why you haven’t replied to the point that less and less real work tends to get done, or people have to work longer to get the same amount of work done, because they have to keep responding. Now… it’s easy for someone like me to say, “Just ignore them until you have time to get to them.” The problem is that too many of the instant communications come from superiors, and ignoring insistent superiors is a quick way to end up where you don’t have to respond because you no longer have a job. Even if you can quickly delete the non-important messages, that takes additional time. In my wife’s case, despite a spam filter, she routinely receives two hundred plus emails daily. Most are junk, but she still has to wade through them and delete them, or her system starts rejecting all email because her inbox is too full, and then she misses the important ones.

More telling is that this instant access mindset ignores the fact that most requests or orders or requirements that are conveyed can’t be addressed instantly — and especially not accurately. This pressure for providing things now is already leading to inaccuracies in everything from news reports to the information on which business and political decisions are being made. It also ends up delaying production and creating unnecessary stress from education to the work-place.

Then, to top it all off, electronic media are perfect for exhibiting passive-aggressive tendencies. When you really need information, especially from someone who doesn’t report to you, the failure to reply, even after days, or weeks, can be incredibly irritating… and non-productive.

Now… tell me again why instant communications are so wonderful.

The Accountability Problem

A number of pundits have talked about the need for accountability in our society, but in practice most of this talk has led nowhere.

Despite years of rhetoric, testing, and all sorts of initiatives in education, all the way from primary schooling through universities, the actual outcomes of American education have declined. I’m not talking test scores. I’m talking about the ability of American students to read, write logical and coherent paragraphs and papers without coaching, and to be able to think and make and understand logical arguments. Initiative after initiative has demanded greater accountability on the part of teachers. I’m not against teacher accountability, but it’s only half the accountability problem in education. Like it or not, students have to be held accountable for their learning — and they’re not. Instead, teachers must spoon feed, must inspire, must somehow get the students to learn. Why doesn’t anyone want to admit that, until students are also held accountable, the “education situation” won’t ever be improved?

Our financial system offers other cases in point. Little more than a year after the melt-down of the financial system and the near-collapse of the stock market, the investment banks and hedge funds and all-too-many of the other high fliers are at it again, paying enormous bonuses to executives, generally for those who can multiply profits to an obscene degree. Simply put, there is a risk-reward trade-off. The riskier the venture, the higher the reward, but the greater the probability of failure. The problem here is that the individual trader, hedge fund manager, etc., doesn’t face personally the magnitude of the downside. I have great doubts if many of them would be quite so interested in such jobs if they — and their CEOs and superiors — had to repay the money and then spend the rest of their life either in jail or working at a minimum wage job to repay what they’d already spent because they lost billions for other people. While the corporate structure was initially designed to limit liability, so that corporate failures didn’t destroy individuals, what everyone who designed the structure failed to foresee was that the structure effectively destroys accountability, and the larger the corporation, the greater the destruction of personal accountability. When a trader can walk away with hundreds of millions, does it really matter that much if he or she will never work in the field again?

The banks have jacked up consumer credit card rates, on average, to over 20%, partly because the federal government is trying to take away some of their least ethical and most profitable “charges,” such as $35 fees for $3 dollar ATM overdrafts. A major reason for the higher interest rates is because, first, the banks never priced their ATM/credit card services at their cost level and were using fees to cover costs and profits, and, second, because far too many consumers were less than accountable for paying when they ran up huge credit card bills — prompted by media advertising that further undermined accountability by encouraging people to buy, buy, buy…

Politics offers another lesson in accountability, if from the other side. Because of the intense media scrutiny of politicians, virtually all officials elected on a federal level are indeed held accountable — but they’re held accountable for what their constituents want… not for wise decisions. That was one of the reasons why the founding fathers designed a different system with various checks and balances that we’ve destroyed in the name of greater democracy… and that has led to less real accountability.

Our electronic communications and purchasing systems further undermine accountability. A thug who mugs someone for $50 has a far greater chance of being arrested and imprisoned than does a scammer or a phisher who uses the internet to con hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars — and we’ve set up the system in such a way that it’s effectively impossible to find such con artists, let alone to hold them accountable.

Given the way in which we’ve undermined accountability, the real wonder is not that the instances I’ve mentioned have occurred, but that there haven’t been far, far more than what we’ve experienced.