Archive for April, 2018

The Most Basic Technology?

Most people, when they think of technology, immediately think of advanced forms of tools, and certainly the Greek roots of the word “technology” mean “systematic treatment of art or craft,” which tends to suggest tools or some sort.

But those tools and that systematic system would never have occurred without another innovation, one that we don’t think of in terms of technology, but one that’s absolutely vital – and that innovation is simple and obvious… and invariably overlooked. It’s called the group, or group cooperation, and it’s far more important than most people want to believe.

From what remains and skeletons that archaeologists have so far discovered, it appears that not only were Neanderthals stronger than homo sapiens, but they also had larger brains, yet they died out, and we didn’t. One very likely reason for this is grouping patterns. From all the evidence we have, it appears that Neanderthals never formed large groups. Humans did. Recent evidence also suggests that Neanderthals had most of the same tools as did humans at the time Neanderthals died out. So… if they were as smart and stronger, why didn’t they make it? There’s a strong indication that their small groups couldn’t compete with the larger human groups.

Despite the myth of the “lone genius,” that doesn’t happen often, and even when a lone genius does discover something, it takes a group to implement it and make it work. As I’ve noted before, technology is a multiplier, and because groups multiply individual achievements and discoveries, the society/culture with the most effective groups tends to be the most successful.

Unhappily, like technology, group dynamics can multiply not only the good, but the bad, and there’s one area where groups are especially effective at multiplying evil – by “demonizing the other.” Social scientists have known for a long time that one of the most effective ways of unifying a social group is to identify a common simple belief and a common enemy that opposes that belief and then to blame all the evils facing the group on that enemy. Demagogues have done this successfully throughout history, and it’s continuing today.

Like at least some of the Founding Fathers, I’m tired of groups with absolutist agendas, whether the group is a political party, a religion, a gender, a lack of gender, the in-boys, the in-girls, a culture, an ethnic group… I’m sick and tired of all of them, because all of the absolutist groups, for all of their protests to the contrary, attempt ostracize and marginalize “the other” with simplistic charges.

The environmentalists/liberals are destroying the coal industry. Civil rights for minorities is reverse discrimination. Any form of gun control will lead to taking away your guns. Balancing the budget will destroy social programs. Immigrants take away your jobs. The list of these sorts of simplistic and hate-mongering slogans is seemingly endless.

We live in a complex world, one that’s not amenable to simple solutions, but the problem is that simple solutions have great appeal, and that great appeal makes them ideal for demagogues to use the technology of group dynamics to demonize those who either oppose them or can’t accept simplistic solutions, and, currently, the only technology seemingly able to fight back is the other side using the same techniques… and people wonder why we’re getting more and more polarized?

Gratitude and Appreciation

Most of the teachers, professors, and others from whom I learned the most and whom I appreciated the most are dead. That wouldn’t seem surprising, given my age, but several of them died far too young. Even when I was much, much younger, I did contact them to let them know of my gratitude and appreciation – with one exception, a professor who died while I was deployed as a pilot. I’d meant to write him, but I procrastinated and then I was in a place [long before the internet] where I couldn’t get his address, and by the time I could, he was dead of a fast-moving cancer I never knew he had. There were some I only contacted occasionally, largely because they never responded, but I still made those occasional contacts. Those who did respond I kept in touch with until they died. But I still regret the one letter I didn’t write.

Oh… I’ve dedicated books in his memory, and I’ve told many of how much he meant, but I wish I’d told him that what he taught me literally formed one of the pillars of my literary success, but then, when he died, I was a barely published poet, and certainly no great success, and I think that I wanted to be able to tell him more… and instead I told him nothing.

Because I’ve taught, and because I’m married to a professor who’s spent fifty years singing and teaching, and because I have grown children who teach, and have acquaintances who’ve taught most of their professional lives, I’ve seen hundreds of students come and go, and know of hundreds more, and the vast, vast majority of them seldom express any appreciation beyond a quick verbal thank-you, if that, even to teachers and professors who’ve gone out of their way for them, far beyond any call of duty.

Some will say that this is just the present generation, but I have my doubts, perhaps because of a story my mother told me. She was the salutatorian of her high school class, and she felt she owed a thank you to the teacher who helped her prepare her speech. So she wrote him a note expressing her appreciation. A year later, when she came home from college at Christmas, her mother told her that she’d run into the teacher at the grocery store, and that he was so grateful for that note, since it was the first one he’d received in all his years of teaching. That was in 1937.

At this time of year, with graduations approaching, I wonder how many students, whether graduating from high school college, or graduate school, will even think about those teachers who went out of their way for them… or will they merely think that they deserved all that extra time and effort?

Ideals, Ideologues, Politics, and Corruption

Sometimes, when discussing highly volatile subjects, such as politics, it’s best to begin with definitions. So here are four.

Ideal – a standard of perfection; a principle to be aimed at.

Idealist – a person who is guided more by ideals than by practical considerations.

Ideology – a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

Ideologue – an uncompromising and dogmatic adherent of an ideology.

The Founding Fathers were essentially pragmatists who attempted to create a form of government that provided a flexible framework based on ideals. For the most part, they weren’t ideologues attempting to create an inflexible legalistic system with absolutely rigid boundaries, but one where law was a tool used by imperfect men aiming toward a set of ideals.

People being people, most of us believe that our beliefs/ideals are the best ones, and that’s not a problem until politicians decide to rigidly codify the details of beliefs into hard and fast laws, with few or no exceptions, with punishments for those who don’t comply.

There’s a reason why “murder” has a number of legal definitions, and why there are trials for those charged with committing a murder. Was it self-defense? An accident? Were there extenuating or mitigating circumstances?

Yet today we have battles between ideologues on one side or the other over the issues of gun control, abortion, immigration, drugs, border controls, among others, and these ideologues insist that there is only one correct and absolute legal answer. Abortion should be always legal or always totally illegal. The United States should embrace all illegal immigrants or deport them all. Every American should have the right to any and all personally-carried weapons of choice or no civilian should have any right to deadly weapons.

This sort of absolutism is not only insane, but totally illogical, because absolute government control is tyranny and absolute lack of control is anarchy. Yet, at present, more and more individuals seem to be adopting one form of absolutism or another, and any politician who tries to take a moderate position tends to be crucified, at present only figuratively, but what lies ahead?

In 1874, Lord Acton made the observation that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but I personally hold to what David Brin said much later – that “power attracts the corruptible.” I’d take it even further and contend that as power tends to be more and more concentrated in the United States, whether in government and politics, business and finance, and even in non-governmental organizations, corrupt individuals are more and more attracted, and less corrupt and most likely more able individuals shy away from such fields – or find themselves forced out because they won’t stoop to do absolutely anything in order to gain power.

Today, what we have in Donald Trump is an ethically corrupt individual who is posing as an ideologue of the far right, much in the way that Lenin, and later Stalin, appealed to the ideology of the Russian working class, or that Hitler appealed to the working class of 1930s Germany, corrupt individuals cloaking themselves in a popular ideology in order to obtain power.

And, historically, whether in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, any number of Chinese empires and other absolute monarchies or dictatorships, corrupt individuals cloaking themselves in popular ideologies have wreaked havoc upon their lands. Why do so many people think we’re any different?

Free Market “Environmentalism”

This weekend, an interesting story appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune about how Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has proposed rolling back emissions regulations on producing oil and natural gas wells located on federal lands in western states. The reason for the regulations imposed by the Obama Administration was because significant amounts of methane were either leaking or being flared from these wells, 9.5 billion cubic feet of methane from wells in Utah over the past several years. The regulations required less gas to be flared and for leaking drilling, production, and transmission systems to be tightened up. One of the reasons for this was that those emissions have contributed to high levels of air pollution, particularly in winter, along Utah’s densely populated Wasatch Front, where, due to geographic features, inversions are frequent.

Secretary Zinke announced the proposed roll-back because the “costs of compliance” were too heavy on many operators of these wells, particularly wells classified as stripper wells producing small amounts of oil and gas daily, and would cause many of these wells to be shut down. As someone who has some experience in this area, I was flabbergasted at this proposal, one that’s not only environmentally unsound, but economically stupid.

At this point, air pollution along the Wasatch Front is a far greater problem than high natural gas prices for heating. Currently, the price of natural gas is near all-time lows and output is at or near record levels. And that doesn’t even include the downside of massive methane leaks contributing not only to air pollution, but to global warming.

The Republicans are always talking about free markets and excessive regulation, but I have a problem with them declaring that stopping massive natural gas leaks from facilities on leased federal lands is excessive regulation.

We need more methane emissions so that we can create an even greater oversupply of natural gas? An additional supply of natural gas that will keep prices down and make marginal wells even less profitable, if not drive them out of business anyway? And make breathing harder for everyone living in Salt Lake City and along the Wasatch Front?

Politics, not Solutions

President Trump doesn’t understand either economics or foreign trade. Neither, unsurprisingly, do most of his supporters. As a businessman and a college graduate, Trump ought to understand comparative advantage. He clearly doesn’t. He also should understand that, under current world economic conditions, a trade war based on increasing tariffs will hurt the U.S. more than China and will push up the U.S. cost-of-living without creating significantly more, if any, jobs in the United States. His actions are entirely “political,” to demonstrate his toughness on China to his political supporters.

Sending National Guard troops to our southern border won’t do much to deal with the immigration problem, because the majority of the current immigration problems don’t lie there, and the number of additional troops will have little effect. They won’t deal with resolving the problems of undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as small children who’ve known no other country and who are able, willing, and ready to work and pay taxes. But they will make Trump’s supporters think he’s doing something meaningful.

He’s also pared back wilderness and national monument acreage on the grounds that it will increase coal production. That’s anti-environmental action that will have no economic benefit whatsoever, given that there are only 50,000 coal jobs at present and that coal usage is declining as natural gas, wind, and solar power increase, as evidenced by the almost a quarter of a million jobs in various aspects of solar power.

Where are the infrastructure programs that will rebuilt the thousands of decaying highways and bridges? Or a program to upgrade our hodge-podge and overstrained electrical grid? Or the improvements to our air traffic control system, also largely outdated and overstrained?

Where are the proposals to deal with overpriced prescription drugs and the most-expensive and least efficient health system in the industrialized world?

Where are the economic proposals to reduce wasteful spending and to balance the federal budget? So far the only legislation dealing with this has been a tax cut that has increased the deficit and largely benefitted the wealthiest of Americans.

Where is the realization that Vladimir Putin is an intelligent thug who is playing Trump for a sucker? Or any understanding that Russia is already conducting cyberwar against the United States?

Of course, I can point all this out, as others are doing as well, but it’s not likely to change much, because too many people want to believe what isn’t so, and modern communications technology has ensured that they can all get together and reassure each other that our “beloved” President is standing up for America, even as almost every action he takes weakens it.

Motivating the “Latest Generation”

I’m fed up with the all the education and policy bullshit that declares that the U.S. – and sometimes even the world – needs to revamp education totally in order to motivate students of the present generation.

Exactly why is it the responsibility of educators to provide motivation for students who have none? Recently, more and more students insist that they know what they need to learn… and how they should be taught. And the more educators follow those demands, the less the students learn.

I’m sorry. Eighteen to twenty year olds, for the most part, don’t know what they need to know. Many of them know, or think they know, what they want to be and where they want to go in life, but the majority have no idea of the intellectual and nuts-and-bolts skills that they’ll need.

And, frankly, some educators don’t, either. I ran into some of those when I was in college studying political science and politics. I had my doubts then, but kept my mouth shut. Looking back after a career in politics, I now know that several had no real inkling of what politics was like. But I also have to admit that most of them did know what they were talking about, and several had real-time, real-life political experience.

I happen to be married to a professor of voice and opera who was also a professional singer, and in the course of that professional career, she’s sung and been paid to sing everything from opera to musical theatre and even on one occasion, a country and western demo record. She didn’t graduate from a big name university or conservatory and had to work her way up. After fifty years in the field, and more than thirty as an artist in residence or a professor, she knows what’s required to be successful. Students who took her seriously have been successful; those who haven’t have never gotten anywhere, simply because they never did the work to develop not only their voices but the necessary ancillary skills, such as the ability to learn music both accurately and quickly, or the keyboard skills necessary to work out music and memorization – because you can’t use sheet music onstage to sing opera.

But more and more of the younger generation are looking for short-cuts, and they want to be inspired. They don’t want to go to concerts, or even to listen to recordings of outstanding singers. They want to be the center of attention – now. Otherwise, they’re not interested.

I also find it interesting that thousands upon thousands of young people in the U.S. suddenly became highly motivated to address the issue of school shootings – because, all of a sudden, it struck them that they and others like them were getting killed. In a way, the same thing happened in the late 1960s when it dawned on the then-younger generation that they were the ones being sent to Vietnam and getting killed in what they perceived as a useless war.

The problem with this sort of interest is that it only centers on the immediate. And once the immediate passes, or society doesn’t react to the protests, the interest fades. The same is true of students in higher education. But what they need is the ability to work, not only at what interests them, but at the facets of whatever area they’re studying that don’t interest them, because there’s not a single profession anywhere or anytime that doesn’t have drudgery and mundane and routine work involved.

Nor are there that many high-paid professions that don’t require reading and writing. The need to master both isn’t about to go away for one simple reason. We live in an information culture, and reading is by far the fastest way to assimilate information. Yet college students are protesting more and more about too much reading, when today’s students are required to read only a fraction of what previous generations did.

Memorizing music is hard and repetitive work, especially in the classical field, because the singer can’t rely very often on simplistic repetitive musical phrases. Economists have to peruse and analyze a great deal of very boring data, and so far, computers can’t find the less obvious patterns… or figure out what those patterns mean. As for writing… almost all writers go through multiple drafts, followed by editorial corrections, followed by proofing galleys, etc., and those are the successful ones.

And in these and most other professions, there’s no one cheering you on, either note by note, or data-point by data-point, or word by word. That’s life, and college is where students should be learning that the only inspiration that matters is their own, not where professors cater to every whim, or where students must have their grades on a daily or weekly basis because they can’t be bothered to calculate them on their own.

University professors should be engaged, encouraging, knowledgeable, accessible, current in their fields, and willing and able to impart knowledge and skills to those willing to work and learn. They should not be required to be cheerleaders and motivators, not in college. Classroom motivation is a large and necessary part of elementary school, but along the way, students need to learn self-motivation, and how to work and succeed on their own by the time they leave high school.

The Rise of Snowflakes and Teacups

Over the past several months, I took an informal survey of professors at roughly a dozen colleges and universities across the United States, asking about students who entered their respective schools in the last year or so… and what might be their most outstanding characteristic.

So far, the overwhelming majority reported that the incoming class had the highest percentage of what I term “snowflakes” and “teacups” that they’d ever encountered before in their teaching careers. “Snowflakes” are students who melt into a puddle under the heat of academic pressure, while “teacups” are those who shatter under the slightest pressure. They also reported that they’d never heard so many students say, “I’m so stressed out.”

Yet in terms of academic rigor and pressure, today’s colleges don’t come close to requiring what was required academically of students a generation ago, and definitely not close to what was required fifty years ago. In addition, the classwork, homework, and grading are easier at state institutions, and even at prestigious and supposedly more rigorous elite institutions grading has been documented as far easier than in the past.

So why are so many students so “stressed” and so fragile? Fifty years ago, stress made more sense. A student who flunked out might find himself drafted and on his way to fight in Southeast Asia. Not so today. Uncertainty about life? Well… it seems to me that students in the WWII era, the Korean War era, the Cold War era, and the Vietnam era faced far more uncertainty than students today.

The one area that I can see that could be more stressful is that of financial pressure. Higher education costs more, both absolutely and relatively, than it ever has. But that can’t explain it, not by itself, not when many of these “stressed-out” students are on full-tuition scholarships.

Part of the problem, from what I’ve seen, is that an enormous percentage of these students, well over half, cannot write a series of coherent paragraphs, cannot synthesize and summarize information, and cannot draw a conclusion from a body of information. Critical thinking used to be one of the requirements for students in higher education, and all too many of this generation’s students have multiple-choice and Google-it-up mindsets and have never learned true critical thinking or analytical presentation of information.

No wonder so many are stressed out. They’ve never been truly prepared for higher education.

They’ve also been encouraged to think of themselves as “wonderful.” For most, life has come easily, especially compared to past generations, and those others, for which life has not come easily, are often angry and believe that life should come easily… and that they deserve an easier path.

I’m not saying that all students are like this, because there some that are not, but those who are not, who can think, who can and do work hard, and who don’t expect anything to be given to them – they’re becoming rarer and rarer, while the snowflakes and teacups proliferate. And that doesn’t bode well for the United States.

Coaches and Professors

For some time now, I’ve observed a certain strange difference between the way both individuals and the media differentiate between collegiate coaches and college voice professors.

Both professions prepare students, at least in theory, for a professional career involving both brains and athletic ability. And don’t tell me that’s not true. Professional athletics require more than physical skill these days, and no classical singer can succeed without being an athlete, although I certainly grant that the proportions required in each field differ, as well as differ within each profession.

One obvious difference is that coaches are paid much, much, more than are voice professors. In fact, the top collegiate coaches are not only paid more than the top voice professors; they’re also paid more than the top classical singers.

But it’s more than money. I see news story after news story about coaches, about how they influence and shape young men and women, about how important they are in the lives of those would-be professionals. There’s virtually no coverage of voice professors, even though they also shape and produce professionals on a one-on-one basis, just like athletic coaches do.

It’s almost unknown to the general public that the best of collegiate singers are not only athletes, but competitive athletes, yet the results of those competitions are seldom reported even in collegiate newspapers or websites, let alone in larger media outlets, even when those competitive singers have a better record than an institution’s sports teams.

Classical singers have to memorize an enormous amount of music, sing it professionally with no teammates to help them while performing all alone on a stage. Even in singing opera, each singer is largely performing solo with all eyes on whoever is singing. Singing classical music requires considerable physical stamina… and singers don’t get oxygen between songs.

It’s been said that no one considers singing teachers important in developing singers because anyone can sing, but the majority of people can play some sport, yet sports coaches are paid and heeded.

Of course, the simplest reason why no one pays any attention to voice professors is that classical singing isn’t a big money activity for universities. In fact, developing good singers is one of the most expensive college majors, because it requires even more one-on-one instruction.

All the same…the distinction suggests that both collegiate alumni and the general public have far less interest and understanding of real higher education than they profess, and that both understanding and interest have continued to wane over the years since, over a century ago, there were few collegiate sports, and all were low budget.

And that reflects, in my view, a more than disturbing trend.