Archive for March, 2014

Anything Will Work at Harvard – Or Similar Institutions

Decades ago, I read a study that compared the abilities and success of teachers in public secondary schools to those of teachers in elite private schools.  The conclusion back then was that the overall teaching capabilities of teachers in public schools were actually better than those of teachers in private schools, but that the students in private schools, on average, learned more.

From what I’ve seen over the years, as a student, as a parent, and as a university lecturer, I suspect that conclusion remains largely accurate.  That’s why I’m extraordinarily suspicious of any “new” idea or concept in education that comes from institutions such as Harvard or Yale, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Smith, Ripon, and any other number of “elite” colleges or universities.  Why?  Because when you have both top level students and professors, almost anything will work in educating those students… and that’s something that all too many educators, particularly the administrations at state colleges and universities, don’t seem to grasp.

Now… if that “new” idea works at an inner city charter school, or public school, where most of the students are well below grade level, then… then I get interested.  Or if it works at a mid-level state university or college. But after teaching at a state university and being married to a professor who’s taught at that level for over thirty years, I’ve seen more “new” ideas floated and fail that I can even begin to count, and almost none of them worked as well as the old-fashioned methods of maintaining standards and accountability and simply requiring students to learn the material.

The same principle also applies to “inspirational” teachers. Certain individuals have the capability to inspire.  From what I’ve observed, the ability can be refined and better directed, but not all teachers have that capability, nor do all CEOs, nor all professionals in any given field.  Yet  I don’t see anyone claiming that the only good CEOs. lawyers, doctors, or dentists are the inspirational ones.  But in education, I’ve seen all too many books and articles based on what inspirational teachers do that claim that inspiration is the only way, and I’ve seen those methods succeed in making students feel better, but fail in improving their learning.

The techniques used by successful professionals [the ones who have been successful for decades, not those who are “flavour du jour”] in any field vary considerably, but the one thing those successful professionals all have in common is subject matter mastery, combined with self-discipline… and both of those are exactly what it takes for students to be successful.  And, just as in the rest of life, not all students have the ability, for whatever reason, to master certain subjects, and of those who do, not all have the self-discipline to keep at it steadily enough to attain that mastery.

What’s overlooked all too often in all the educational fads is that the desired end result is a student with a mastery of the subject, with the ability to think and apply that knowledge with skill, and the self-discipline to do so.  Fads come and go;   those basic requirements don’t.


Over the past several centuries, all manner of ethical and practical questions have been raised about the necessity of economic profit, its role in a society, and even whether it is necessary. Most truly thinking individuals [yes, a value judgment on my part] believe that, because there has never been a long-standing civilization that did not incorporate a market-based economic system in some form, some form of profit is also necessary.  Beyond that, I have some doubts that any majority consensus exists.

From my own experience and research, however, I will make two observations:  (1) Absolute maximization of profits results in a minimization of freedom.  (2) Absolute minimization of profits does the same.

The second point is more obvious to most people because a market-based economy, for a practical purposes, ceases to exist if there is no profit at all, and even the egalitarian Scandinavian countries had to pull back from taxation levels that were so high that they effectively destroyed profits.

The first point is continually ignored or disputed by extreme free-market types, despite the plethora of evidence to the contrary. What isn’t obvious to most people, particularly politicians, regulators, and ultra-price conscious consumers is that maximization of both revenue and profits requires keeping wages and costs low, keeping inventory to those items in the highest demand, and eliminating competition.  Politicians and regulators, at least at present, only look at low prices.  The Amazon lawsuit against Apple and the Big Five publishers was a perfect example.  The Department of Justice effectively stated that it didn’t care if Amazon’s practices gave it a ninety percent market share.  All DOJ cared about was that short-term prices were lower.  Well…now that Amazon won, just what happened to all those low prices?  I certainly don’t see much difference to the consumer.  Another example is the cable/satellite television market.  Now that the major communications content providers have largely consolidated and are maximizing their profits, the diversity of content has dropped drastically… and prices have increased. Walmart is yet another example.

Or put in another context, freedom in any area isn’t free.  Just as there’s a cost to political freedom, there’s also a cost to economic freedom of choice, and when low prices completely trump freedom of choice, not only does quality suffer for the goods most people can afford, but only the ultra-rich can afford truly high quality goods and services… and some goods and services aren’t available at any price… and in the long run, prices aren’t even lower.



In the early to mid-1970s, a Jesuit priest began a quiet, indeed almost unknown [at the time] effort, to help political refugees, liberals, and reformers, escape incarceration or liquidation by militarily-dominated South American governments.  During this period, the priest never spoke out against these governments, although one Catholic bishop – Jeronimo Podesta – did so and had been promptly suspended as a priest, never to return to the clergy.  At the same time, this Jesuit priest continued to help many of those persecuted by the government, and various reports put the number of those he helped or saved in excess of a hundred, possibly more, at a time when literally thousands of people vanished, never to be seen again. Much later, in 2000, he was the first prominent Catholic to declare that the Argentine Catholic Church needed to put on “garments of public penance” for its failures during the “Dirty War” of the 1970s. That Jesuit priest, of course, was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

Some of his detractors fault him for not speaking out and taking a public position during the Dirty War.  Others, particularly those he did save, praise him for what he did, noting that he even saved people and made efforts for those with whose political beliefs he did not agree.

Was he a hero, as some say, or did he betray his duty as a priest by not taking a public stance? While likely everyone will have an answer, I’d like to pose the question differently – when is taking a public position useful, even heroic, and when is it a futile and meaningless gesture, one that essentially keeps the individual from doing any good at all?

In a way, to my thinking, what happened in Nazi Germany before WWII offers a useful analogy.  In 1930, speaking out against Hitler and the Nazis might have done some good, especially if more powerful and noteworthy individuals had done so.  By 1940, doing so was suicide, and a suicide that accomplished absolutely nothing.

Father Bergoglio had been ordained as a priest in December 1969, and did not even become a Jesuit until 1973.  He was not that well-known, if known at all outside of a limited circle, and, as a man from a humble background, who had been a janitor and a low-level laboratory technician, he certainly didn’t have powerful friends or influential contacts at that point in his life.  When those few in the church who had position and power, such as Podesta, did speak out, they were silenced, in one way or another.  It would appear that Father Bergoglio did what he could do and did his best to save those that he could.

Was it heroism?  Probably not grand and glorious heroism, but it took great courage and strength of will, because, if he had been discovered, he would likely have vanished as so many others did during that time. And is it heroism, truly, to speak out when it is vain, when by being less obvious, one could save more?  Yet…how does one tell?  And without being in Father Bergoglio’s cassock at the time, how can those who would judge him tell, either?

NOTE:  As one whose beliefs approximate Anglican/Episcopalian agnosticism, I’m trying to offer an open question.


Moby Dick Is Missing

Moby Dick is indeed missing, but it’s the asteroid, not the Herman Melville book, which, I have to confess, I could never get around to finishing, one of the handful of novels I chose not to struggle through… and considering how many bad novels I’ve had to read over my career, I think that says something.  The asteroid Moby Dick [asteroid 2000 EM26], a chunk of rock some 270 meters long, was supposed to show up sometime last month roughly 2 million miles from Earth… and didn’t.

The fact that telescopes couldn’t find it doesn’t mean that aliens exploded it or that it disintegrated, but that either astronomers didn’t calculate its orbit correctly when it was discovered in 2002 or that various gravitational forces nudged it into a different orbit.  What’s troubling about this is that the “failure to appear” is indicative of our vulnerability to large objects colliding with Earth.  A piece of rock roughly the size of a WWII cruiser falling to Earth doesn’t sound that catastrophic to most people, but most people don’t understand the results produced when even comparatively small chunks of rock slam into the planet.

The Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded over Russia a little over a year ago with a force of 500 kilotons [some 30 times more powerful than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima] was much smaller than Moby Dick, only some 20 meters across, but it injured some 1,500 people seriously enough to require medical treatment and damaged over 7,000 buildings – all from the effects of a shock wave that began more than 20 kilometers away high in the atmosphere. That’s what a comparatively small chunk of rock did after hitting the Earth’s atmosphere at more than 40,000 miles per hour.

In 1908, another object, either a comet or a small asteroid, exploded above the Tunguska River in Siberia, flattening some 80 million trees over an area of 800 square miles, and, of course, there is also the Chicxulub Crater at the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula – a crater 110 miles in diameter formed 65 million years ago when a bolide six miles in diameter struck the earth at 40,000 miles per hour.  Scientists have calculated that the impact would have released two million times more energy than the most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated, broiling the earth’s surface, igniting wildfires worldwide and plunging Earth into darkness as debris filled clouded the atmosphere. Some suggest this was the event that led to the end of the dinosaurs.  Whether it did or not, such an impact today would effectively destroy pretty much all human societies and their infrastructure.

But for all the suggestions and warnings, what have we done?  Not nearly enough.  Not anywhere close to all the near-Earth asteroids and other objects capable of impacting Earth have been discovered and followed, and we certainly haven’t developed the capability to deflect even moderate sized rocks.  In the meantime, the financial industry spends tens of millions of dollars to execute securities trades in nanoseconds in order to make billions through sheer speculation.


Religion and Civilization

From reading some of my posts, readers might get the impression that I’m not extremely fond of religion.  In some ways, I’m not.  I’m especially skeptical of organized religions that, in their attempts to grow and perpetuate their doctrines and “way of life,” succeed in creating a mental state where those who practice the faith become essentially blind to the shortcomings and huge inconsistencies inherent in that faith… and often reject literal physical realities because they conflict with their beliefs.

On the other hand, given human nature, I’m not so sure that human societies without any religion at all, at least today, might not be far crueler, less ordered, and less desirable places in which to live, but then, ultra-theocratic societies tend to be religiously ordered to the point of denying human freedoms, as well as also being crueler and less desirable places to live, especially for women.

As I’ve noted before, the only codes of behavior the majority of human beings have accepted, at least for most of human history, have been those with strong roots in religion.  I suspect that’s because most of us really don’t think another human being has the “right” to declare what rules our conduct should follow, but that “God” does.  Yet, paradoxically, “God” doesn’t tell us that.  Other human beings tell us what God told them is correct behavior, and for most people throughout history, such theologically derived codes of law and behavior have been accepted. I suspect part of the reason for this is not necessarily great unanimity, but a combination of religious belief and simple pragmatism, and it may be that the key to a “good” society is indeed the combination of a theological concern and a secular pragmatism.  Certainly, those few societies without a significant religious “tie,” such as Nazism and Communism, have been anything but “good” places to live, yet the same is true for ultra-religious societies.  Oh… the “true believers” in those societies did well, but not many others.

History does show that societies dominated by religion tend to be short on human freedoms, creativity, and progress.  Societies where religion plays no role in setting cultural values also tend to be short on human freedom and restrict creativity, but often achieve progress for a time by stealing from others in various ways.

So, as much as I may complain or point out the notable shortcomings of religion, and organized religion in particular, it appears that healthy societies require some theological basis, at least at the current level of human ethical development.  The question then becomes to what degree religion should influence government, law, and behavior. Personally, I think the Founding Fathers got it right, but I mean it in the way they wrote the Constitution, and not in the activist way in which too many true believers seem to think that freedom of religion means the freedom to compel others to behave according to their religious beliefs or the freedom to enact laws that in some fashion or another effectively institutionalize those beliefs.


Standards and Freedom

Last Friday, my wife and I went to a modern dance concert and then, on an airplane enroute to Denver, I read through a poetry magazine that I had received as a thank you for a speaking engagement.

The modern dance concert was actually a fiftieth year retrospective by an established and respected mountain states company that presented a cross-section of dances previously offered over the years and concluded with a new piece that presented a “prospective” dance  just choreographed by the company’s new director/choreographer.  After the concert, we compared notes, and we both agreed – the older the work, in general, the better we liked it, and since my wife the opera singer and director has worked with music and dancers for more than forty years, she does have some expertise.  The newest “piece,” while theoretically presenting windows into life, seemed almost aimless, themeless, and without much truly musical accompaniment, not to mention the fact that much of the “dancing” seemed to occur with the entire body either on the floor, or extremely close to it.

The poetry magazine, from my professional viewpoint, was even worse, although it was a slick, well-designed, and well laid out effort, bound like a small trade paperback. The magazine has been published semi-annually for over five years.  The issue I read included 82 poems by 49 authors.  The first thing that struck me was that there didn’t seem to be any poetry in the “poems.”  Further scrutiny supported that impression, as I could discover neither end-rhymes, internal rhyme, alliteration, nor any discernable meter, merely an attempt at innovative typography… and that was true for every single “verse.”  After reading the short biographies of the contributors, I was even more astounded. Most had published widely, and several had won prizes for their work.

Now… I will admit to having been skeptical of most “modern” verse for years, and I have wondered, not infrequently, whether the verse [I hesitate to call it poetry] I have read in the pages of publications such as The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker was really representative of the state of American poetry today.  It appears so, unfortunately.  Well over a half-century ago, and perhaps longer, one of the last great American poets – Robert Frost – made a statement to the effect that writing free verse was akin to playing tennis with the net down.  From what I’ve seen, all too many would-be poets not only don’t know the rules of the game, they don’t even know that there are rules as to what poetry is., or at least, what the rules historically have been.  And, well, if the lack of rules constitutes the “new rules,” then it ought to be called prosedy or something similar.

In both the instances I’ve mentioned here, the “creators” don’t seem to have the faintest idea that greatness or excellence doesn’t come from ignoring the rules, but from knowing them, using them, and transcending them [which occasionally means breaking them, but doing so effectively requires knowing what the rules are, how they should be broken and why… and what the exact effect one is attempting to achieve by doing so].  The point underlying both these examples is that excellence in anything requires structure, not just scaffolding.  Yet this loss of structure seems to occurring everywhere in the U.S., from the decline in courtesy to our crumbling infrastructure, and  everywhere rules are being broken, “just because.”

There’s a line from an old Janis Joplin song that says, “Freedom’s just another word for having nothing left to lose.”  And when structure goes, you don’t indeed have much left.


Ideals and Reality

One of the great advantages of writing science fiction is that I can create a society from relatively whole cloth and try to make it real to my readers, but there are certainly dangers in making that effort.  If you don’t understand some of the basics of societies – such as economics, trade, politics, the role of beliefs, etc. – you may still have a wonderful story, but one that many readers will not finish, or if they do,  they’ll being saying that the society or culture really wouldn’t work.  Most professional writers understand that, but a number of those fail to ask another question:  How did the society/culture get that way? This was a point brought up by another writer at a recent conference I attended [LTUE], who made the comment about a well-known best-selling book, “The society would work, once it reached this point, but I can’t see how it ever got there, given human nature.”

The reason I bring this up is two-fold.  The first is to point out a few things to aspiring writers: (1) gross errors in world-building can hurt, and (2) given the example, so long as it seems to work, even if there’s no way to have gotten there, it probably won’t hurt your sales. The second is to suggest that, even in our world, political ideologues don’t seem to understand that, no matter how good an idea or principle is, you have to have a way, technically and politically, to get there.

I often get comments on various blogs suggesting idealistic solutions to various problems or difficulties we face today.  Many of these comments suggest “whole-cloth” solutions, whether it be a total free-market system or the replacement of the entire income tax system with a value-added tax, or…  There’s been a substantial number of these idealistic solutions over the years, but the difficulty all of them have is… there’s no practical way to get there from where we are now, except via catastrophe.  History suggests, rather strongly, that civilizations either make gradual changes or ossify and collapse… or sometimes, just implode into revolution or chaos.

What that means is, for example, that short of a civil war, a takeover by a dictator, or the complete and total meltdown of the banking and economic system, we are not going to see the total abolition of the welfare system as now practiced in the United States and its replacement by a totally new system.  Why not?  Because there’s no way to get there from where we are now, because too many people will oppose such radical change – unless our system collapses totally.  Even the threat of total collapse won’t do it.

The same thing appears to be true of dealing with global warming.  Until a few island chains cease to exist, until Miami and New Orleans are drowned, until New York City suffers such a storm-surge and hurricane or Nor’easter that all the subways are flooded and inoperative and the east coast is blacked out for weeks, there won’t be the economic or political support for meaningful measures… and by the time that there is, the problem will be so big that no amount resources will be able to save large sections of the planet where literally hundreds of millions of people live… and given who lives where, it appears likely that a great number of those who oppose gradual but meaningful change are going to be hit the hardest – along with a lot of those who would like change, but don’t have the power to effect it.

In the end, while ideals can prevail, they have to change  underlying political or social conditions first, but when ideals conflict with physical reality, reality wins.


The Cost of Principles – To Others

At the moment, there are a number of court cases dealing with the conflict between “religious freedom” and statutory law. The core issue in many of them is whether various corporations or organizations should be required under law to provide medical services, primarily those involving contraception and abortion, to employees when those services are against the deeply held beliefs of the corporate/organization owners.

As I see it, there are three fundamental problems with the assertion that withholding such services from health care plans is an exercise of religious freedom, and that compelling the provision of those services is a violation of that freedom.  The first problem is the definition of “freedom of religion.”  The provision of coverage to pay for such services neither obligates the provider to endorse that service nor to require anyone to use it.  Employees are free to exercise their “religious” rights either to use or not use those services.  On the other hand, failure to provide such services requires employees who wish or need those services to pay for them or do without.  Therefore, allowing an exemption to such employers is effectively allowing the employing organization to impose its beliefs on all employees… and imposes an additional burden on the employees if they wish not to follow those beliefs.  This part of the issue has been raised and will doubtless be decided by the courts in some fashion or another, sooner or later.

The second aspect of the problem, however, doesn’t seem to have received much attention, and that’s the full scope of the economic discrimination the exercise of such “religious freedom” can have.  If Corporation A does not provide certain medical services, for whatever reason, the likelihood is that its healthcare costs will be lower than those of Corporation B, which does. In addition, the costs of those services, when used, must be absorbed by the employees of Corporation A.  Thus, Corporation A gains a competitive advantage while its employees are at a disadvantage. Given the fact that jobs remain hard to get, it’s also unlikely that many, if any, of the employees from Corporation A will depart over the additional costs they will incur.  Thus, the exercise of “religious freedom” also results in corporate economic gain while reducing the available income to employees who need the uncovered medical services.

The third aspect of the problem is that, at least in the United States, we don’t allow religious laws or practices to supersede basic laws.  You can’t break speed limits under the cloak of “religious freedom.”  Nor can you pay employees below the minimum wage on the basis of their religion or the lack of it.  You cannot base differentials in pay on religious practices or preferences – and yet, in effect, that is what an exemption from health coverage requirements would allow.

My bottom line is simple.  You have the right to your expression of your religious beliefs, but only so long as what you practice doesn’t harm others or pick their pockets, especially under the guise of religious freedom.  Whether what the courts will decide, and when, comes close to this position is still an open question.