Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Educating Rita

In one of our regular bar room debates, my friend stated that at the 4th grade level, students in the US rank near the top when compared with other countries. By the time these same children reach their Sr. year in high school, they have fallen badly behind their international peers.

Now, assuming this is correct (although I've had trouble fact checking it, it does appear we spend more per student than any other country but one, and we do fall - and continue to fall - in relation to other countries in terms of high school and college grads - link)...

What are we doing wrong?

Of course, being a good conservative, my friend blamed it all on the educator unions and the politically correct, self-esteem based precepts that took hold in the education degree programs. And while I'm sure there is some validity to these arguments, that can't be all of it.

Sidetrack - Why do I give these arguments any credence at all? How about take tenure as an example. Tenure was a concept that developed to protect from termination university researchers who have demonstrated their ability to do good work, to allow them to pursue research that may go against common wisdom, politically incorrect research, the kind that hopefully overthrows crufty old paradigms and replaces them with newer paradigms that suck slightly less.

So explain to me why a primary school educator needs tenure? To protect all that research he or she is doing? No - tenure has been adopted by the unions as a euphemism for seniority based preference. Systems based primarily on seniority tend to not be as adaptable, flexible, and responsive to change. And the only constant in life is change. If these institutions were faced with an outside competitive threat, they would die the dinosaur death that most companies that don't adapt do.

But wait! you say. There are competitive, market based institutions of learning. They range from religious based private schools to the more modern "privatized" programs like Edison. Why haven't these alternatives taken off? Do they indeed provide a better education?

Getting unbiased information on the relative success of these programs in educating students is very difficult. This usually indicates a lot of vested interests with lots to lose in any change to the status quo, or alternatively high potential of financial gain with any change (in the "right" direction). While the Edison site lists a number of stats indicating improvement in comparison to peer schools, the gains are incremental, not overwhelming. And they've been at it for 10 years now, supposedly with the most researched curriculum and programs in the country.

Is there no valid scientific basis for learning? And if there is, then why haven't we refined it and used it?

Perhaps increasing advancements in brain science, particularly the combination with objective data from brain scanning technologies combined with more "qualitative" cognitive science will make some progress here. But only if we (society) want it to. Do we?

I can come up with a dozen whacked out conspiracy theories as to why we don't, the simplest being that those in charge usually prefer that they control the information and that the populous stay ignorant and therefore more easily manipulated by emotional arguments that create fear and uncertainty and trigger the pack animal instinct to seek out and kowtow to an alpha personality. "Tell us what to dooooo!" Most organized religions and world governments adopt this attitude in general.

But I don't think that's it. I think we just don't care. We have food. We have shelter. We have sex. Only a small percentage of a population is driven to achieve more. What good is knowledge and the ability to reason? If too many people were too smart, then too many of the world's problems would just get solved, and then there wouldn't be anything to friggin' do every day.

Except eat, sleep, and fuck.

(Hmmm. Maybe that's not such a bad plan after all...)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Who Makes The Rules?

Ok, I was able to muddle my way through The Diverse Administration Positions On The Profligate Spending Of Human Capital (ie, WMD and the 911 terrorists who used Iraq as their headquarters, both still supported today as reasons to sacrifice American lives to invade Iraq in the defense of Freedom and the American Way Of Life).

But I'm having a tougher time figuring out the Republican Party Position On 'Do As I Say An Not As I Do' (ie, who gets to make the rules of law).

We have the Bush Administration in support of Judge Roberts making the case that it is the legislative branch, not the judicial, who should make the laws.
And this may sound elementary, but it's a very, very important concept, that a judge come to the bench with an understanding that his job, his or her job, is not to make the laws. That's for the Congress.
A reasonable position, really. At it's heart is a debate regarding the line at which interpretation of the law crosses into creating law, wherein "activist judges", who are bad, (as opposed to "somnambulic judges"?) take the liberty of their position too far. (Wait, aren't we in Iraq defending liberty? Never mind).

I happen to agree with the separation of powers. It has served us reasonably well for the past couple hundred years (although in the Broad Sweep Of History this is a still a pretty short time when compared with some prior forms of government, like the Roman Republic of over 400 years, or the Roman Empire of same).

But I also happen to agree that much of the time the legislation that passes into law is vague to the point of passing for fog, and it is up to the judiciary in this case to help clarify specifics. I am also quite happy that our country's history saw a court like that of the 60's who determined that blatant racism was not in line with this countries better principles, even though there were in fact very clear and specific laws in some states saying the opposite.

So I'm about to declare my usual degree of success (slight) in understanding the relative positions in the debate, when I get thrown for an even bigger loop. This came from Republican Governator Schwarzenegger of California.

You see, the California Legislature (yes, the branch that the other Republicans say should be making the laws, and not the courts) recently passed a law through both houses which clearly stated a lawful acceptance of marriage between two humans of the same gender.

But the Governator vetoed this law, stating "it's an issue that should be decided by voters or the courts." (???)

I guess the correct answer in politics is that it is "Us" who should make the laws, whether "Them" agree with us or not, and as long as the outcome is in agreement with Our position, great. If not, then we need to Change the rules on how to Make the rules until Our rules prevail.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Why Can't We Be Friends?

I've recently been pondering the meaning of the word "friend". Unsurprisingly, this is yet another term that has so many different meanings to so many people.

Due to recent miscellaneous events in my personal life, I have had the occasion to meet some new friends, as well as sorely try the patience of some old friends. And I have lost some friends as well. And the range of fun, fondness, respect, reliance, and support I feel for these friends varies wildly, yet they all fall into this category of "friend."

Eskimos have a large number of words for "snow", right? But we have really one word for Friend. (Yes, there are lots of synonyms fore "friend", but they don't really translate to different kinds of friends.)

For supposedly such a social animal, our language is remarkably blunt when it comes to terms describing this kind of relationship. Or is it just the English language? Do other languages have a broader range of more nuanced terms for the various sort of friendships that we in the U.S. just lump together? (If you have examples, please tell me.)

Friends can be lost and found. Friends can be leaned upon, frowned upon, put upon, and put on. They can also be supported, assisted, guided, advised. With a friend we can party, hang out, laugh, cry. Through friends we can make new friends. Friends can also lose you friends.

Is there any common basis for calling someone a friend? Let's start with the definition(s):


1. A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts.
2. A person whom one knows; an acquaintance.

Word History: A friend is a lover, literally. The relationship between Latin amcus “friend” and am “I love” is clear, as is the relationship between Greek philos “friend” and phile “I love.” In English, though, we have to go back a millennium before we see the verb related to friend. At that time, frond, the Old English word for “friend,” was simply the present participle of the verb fron, “to love.” The Germanic root behind this verb is *fr-, which meant “to like, love, be friendly to.” Closely linked to these concepts is that of “peace,” and in fact Germanic made a noun from this root, *frithu-, meaning exactly that.

Is a friend always someone we know? To an extent, this is true. Although the range here is extremely broad. We may not have even met the person for them to be our friend (take friends known only via correspondance, for example). Yet we call everyone from the person we met last night at a bar to ex-lovers "friends".

Is a friend always someone we like? I suppose usually, although there are definitely times when I truly don't like, even actively dislike, some of my friends. And I *know* that some of my friends despise me at times. But I suppose if you didn't like the person *most* of the time, you wouldn't call them your friend.

Is a friend always someone we trust? Once again, the range is huge. There are friends I trust to pay me back for lunch, there are friends I trust with my car, there are friends I trust with my inner most secrets - and these are not always (in fact, not even usually) the same friends.

So...a friend is a person whom one knows (from briefly to intimately), likes (at least the majority of the time), and trusts (to at least not to spit in my eye when I say hi). But when you call someone a friend, I have absolutely no idea what degree of any of these apply.

In fact, when you call me your friend, I truly don't have a clue what you really mean by that. Now, this may just be attributable to my borderline Asperger's, but I think it also has a lot to do with how poorly we communicate key concepts in language.

And people seem to prefer to remain ambiguous, for some reason.

Any ideas why?

Saturday, September 03, 2005


“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” – Robert A. Heinlein

The concepts of investment, delayed gratification (no, not that kind of gratification, you perv), and building for the future seem to have gone by the wayside in recent years.

“Tax cuts” have been the mantra for some time in a growing portion of the U.S. population. The theory behind this philosophy (assuming those that take this view actually attempt rational justification for this belief in any sort of intelligent way) is that any money provided “the guv’mint” is money down the tubes. Since government bureaucracies cannot manage the efficient use of money as well as the “invisible hand” of the market, it should not be given the opportunity of money to waste. Indeed, it would be a crime for the government to levy said money when it could be so much better leveraged by private industry.

Unfortunately, there is a rather large, gaping hole in the levy – one that directly leads to gaping holes in the levees that we see today in New Orleans. That hole is the failure to recognize that government doesn’t just “happen” – it is formed for a reason by its citizens. And that reason is to provide for the common good of it’s people.

The debate waxes and wanes regarding the size of the sphere of this 'common good'. At a minimum, most accept that government must protect and defend its citizens against threats, foreign and domestic. Both parties practically trip over each other to demonstrate who is more supportive of defense these days, given the clear and present danger of fundamentalist extremists practicing terrorism.

But what about protection and defense against economic harm? Investment in transportation, risk minimization, and maintenance of existing investments all play a key role in ensuring a strong economic system. While it may be private enterprise that executes the development, it can only be a collective entity representing the population – government – that can take the initiative to identify and invest in these enterprises. From the hard - roads, airports, electricity, sewers – to the soft - the rule of law, currency, disaster prevention relief and prevention – all are necessarily the purview of government, for it was for these very services that governments were formed.

One would think that all could agree that the provision of infrastructure that allows the vital fluid of commerce to flow freely and securely in turn benefits all who participate. In fact, one would think that even those who believe that economic good does not flow evenly and is instead concentrated in an inverse power curve, with a few having the most, that it would be these few, who would be the strongest supporters of infrastructure investment.

The perversity is that it is many of these very same oligarch’s who most benefit from a well greased economic engine that fund the campaigns against government spending on said infrastructure.

Could it have been forseen that someday a city built largely under the local water level would be at high risk of a disaster? A city who is at the center of commerce in so many ways, from shipping, to oil, to the fact that it is a major population. Could a tradeoff of the investment to minimize and mitigate this risk against the economic impact of a disaster been made?

Yes, of course it could, and was.
Ron Fournier of The Associated Press reported that the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $105 million for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans last year. The White House carved it to about $40 million. - Maureen Dowd, NY Times
But why pay for today what you may never get the benefit of? Why build complex water control structures like the Netherlands? Why invest in schools, or upgrade sewer and road infrastructure, or disease management and preventive medicine? Why do any of these things that may not pay off for years (and particularly if any ill effects from a lack of investment also wouldn’t be felt for years)?

Ask the half million people with no home, no job, who are living worse than Palestinian refugees. Ask the other couple hundred million who will be feeling the effect of the Katrina disaster in their gas, insurance, retail goods, and government debt for years to come.

Ask yourself.