Educational Strangeness

This has been a week for mulling college. First, Alexa Harrington, “Educated Nation” had one of her superb blots on the costs of college. [Link] I am not sure what effect this will have on high shul students or their parents but it definitely put me into an analytical frame. The message seemed to be that if you are one of those students whose parents have “chosen poorly” in how many children to have vis a vis their monetary capacity to educate (?) them, and you don’t have a lock on a full scholarship, then you need to stay away from private colleges. And if you don’t want to be a wage serf for years and extend the period to retirement past your life expectancy, not only don’t think about going out of state to college, but attend a college within commuting range so you can live at home. Or, of course, join the Yankee army and serve for tuition money.

Of course money is just part of the matter. You have to be intelligent enough to have decent grades but not so brainy you have brain problems and can’t get scores on standardized tests, and not so nerdish that you haven’t done meaningless public service things to pad your vita. Although in terms of the latter I have always though bathing felines was an underappreciated activity. But increasingly to get accepted to college you have to not be very distant from the mode.

Which in turn explains the root of the recent furor at the campus of the Boneyard over greased acceptances. This has resulted in a pogrom of the board of governors and the chief executive. Much lamentation of biblical proportions has occurred and all that has been missing from the circus has been any effective effort to blame the whole thing on the previous governor.

This strangeness has somehow crept into being general. Earlier this week I noted that the shul had instituted a minor in “LGBT/Queer Studies”. [Link] Now while this discipline (?) is one that emerged after my residence on campus, and despite the fact that I reside in Nawth Alibam (or Alibam itself) I have some idea of what the discipline is about. My question however, is what does one do with an education in this discipline? Are there positions in large organizations for coordinators/facilitators/counselors? Or is this one of those disciplines that one studies either for personal fulfillment, and then goes off after graduation to work for daddy or become a phone sales person, or to teach that discipline?  Closer to home, does the college now also have a department of nerd and/or geek studies?

Even more strange is that the college has started participation in the “Collegiate Readership Program”, [Link] which is a program whereby students are charged a fee to receive access to college selected newspapers. Given the excellence of the student newspaper, one has to question the need? And do the students not get enough unreliable information via television and radio, if not lectures? I know when I was a student there the liberal arts courses promulgated some really unrealistic ideas. Or is this some effort by the college to shore up the failing journalism industry? But it definite;y makes us wonde about the quality of education these days.

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Cookies All Around!

It is amazing sometimes what gladdens a physicist. I came across an article [Link] in one of my subscribed feeds describing how some Spanish researchers put a bead with fluorescent properties in a chamber. They then conducted an experiment of measuring the beads motion whenever a fluorescent photon was emitted. And they measured recoil!

With so many experiments focusing on making quantum effects large, like the one last week about entangling a virus, it is refreshing and invigorating to read of an experiment that is essentially quantum in nature having classical effect. Yes, it is very comforting to have a demonstration even at what amounts to the quantum level that momentum is conserved!

Early Birthday Anniversary present for Isaac. Fig cookies for everyone. And mayhap a splash of whisky?

More Write

Since I have started the morning on the subject of writing, although the previous really was about composition, I may as well continue. I have commented before on my love affair/addiction to good writing instruments and good paper, the latter being defined largely in terms of how well the former operate with the latter. So to paraphrase what is to come, the pen wags the paper.

I have some colleagues who are of a similar mind as myself, and, of course, quite a larger number who are not and do their ‘writing” with ball point pens, or something equally dysfunctional, on pretty paper of close similarity to waxed toilet tissue. My intent is not to bash the latter, as they seem oblivious to the depravity, leading to the hypothesis that apathy to pen usage is a human mutation?, but rather to note that the former have been sending me links to article on the demise of penmanship.

Most of these articles, such as this one, [Link] tend to support the hypothesis as their tenor is that (a) cursive is disappearing/has disappeared from shul curricula, (b) the vast majority of primary and secondary shul students have atrocious hands (in the vernacular), and (c) who gives a lusty defecation anyway? The only saving grace of the piece is that it happily refrains from the irrelevant quotation of statistics of how well today’s children are at keyboarding.

Sadly, the actuality is that today’s children are abysmal at both. The measure of how good a keyboarder – typist in my shul days – is is how many mistakes they make in spelling and syntax. Compared to someone with one semester of ‘typing” back in the ’60’s, much less a secretarial graduate of an actual business shul, today’s children make two orders of magnitude more spelling mistakes and even more syntax mistakes. This despite all of them using keyboards since the age of five (or younger) and formal classroom instruction for the same period.

Of course, they are fast. About half as fast as a really good typist back in the ’60’s, and their mean speed, in e.g., characters per minute, is orders of magnitude greater than the same in those days when only 0.05 of the shul population ‘keyed”. That improvement is specious since when 0.95 have a speed of zero the speed of the 0.05 is not going to mean much. But as we know, one of the reasons they are fast is that they don’t know when they make mistakes, so abysmal is their knowledge and education, and they make many of them.

So given that they can’t compose or edit well, it should come as no surprise given all the other things they can’t do, like read a book or make change. That they can’t write either. That is, they can’t compose – we’ve already demonstrated that with their keyboarding ‘skills’ – and they can’t make letters, words, sentences, or paragraphs in cursive either. But then neither could the kids back in the ’60’s.

Oh, there were people with lovely handwriting back then. Most were very well brought up young ladies who knew how to compose and pen – write for short – little notes or even love letters. But a lot of them flunked out of college or made the steady slide from majoring in English or something liberal artsy to Education to Home Economics because while they had wonderfully graceful, elegant, beautiful penmanship they couldn’t write fast enough, in some cases think fast enough, to take notes.

Note taking is an art form that builds on the writing art form or skill. Generally those who do very well at penning, or very poorly, are not good at note taking. To be a good note taker you have to be able to listen, think on what you hear, and put that down on paper in a form that can be read later. If you pen too prettily, you pen too slowly and lose too much unwritten; if you pen too poorly you cold notes are indecipherable. Note taking trims the tails of the distribution. Survival of the fittest, or something.

This is why I was quite happy when a colleague sent me this article. [Link] It’s from the English media – scant surprise that it isn’t from the American media – and is written by the Italian academic and author Umberto Ecco. Professor Ecco is unknown or hated by today’s children because he writes books of such complex composition, at least in American translation, as to challenge even those who like to read. So for todays young they are as dense as Russian nineteenth century novels were to my age cohort. Scant wonder then that so many of us embraced nerd disciplines during the Containment era.

But what is refreshing about the good professor’s article is that it actually balances the discussion by noting what is useful and valuable about penning and how today’s children are less for the absence. Not that it will do any good. Serfs seldom appreciate how close to clavery they actually are.

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Well and Alive?

Our profound kudos have to be extended to the Marshall Medical Center North Therapy Plus Fitness, aka the Scant City Gym, for their new signage.

The signs are gray with white letters and are a Sloan quality case study in how to “write wrong”. The bureaucratic passivity loving cup goes to “Please avoid usage of cell phones….”, although the “Please” is a nice bit of irony given this is a medical facility – its attitude towards service demonstrates that resoundingly.

One more anecdotal datum of the absence of education in Amerika. Especially in the old Confederacy.

Good Government

Back when I was a bairn, but old enough to have discovered science fiction, I recall that stories about aliens visiting Tellus in the future and trying to figure out how humanity had met its extinction. In some cases the cause was patent, in others a matter of mystery, but only in one or two, a vanishing fraction of the subgenre population, did the cause the the extinction spring from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Hence it was with some interest that I noted in the local newspaper of Greater Metropolitan Arab that the city conscript fathers had met in counsel with the intention of discontinuing recycling in this fair municipality. [Link] Seems that only about 0.28 of the households in the recycle, and despite the fact that this is as good as or better than the national average, the conscript fathers consider this a waste of something, presumably taxpayer money, and wanted to discontinue the service. They were only dissuaded by the declaration by the garbage contractor that the increase in garbage would prompt rate adjustments far in excess of the recycling savings.

I have to admit to great feeling of pride in the town’s conscript fathers, of how they are doing such a good job on the town’s behalf for the extinction of humanity. But then I considered that this is nothing to distance them from much of the rest of Amerika and in particular of its politicians, of people who are more concerned with their consumption and comfort than with the question of whether this or the next or the next generation is the last.

No, i can’t just be proud of Greater Metropolitan Arab’s conscript fathers. I have to be proud of all Amerikans who think that taking effort to propagate the species, other than by rutting reproduction, is unnecessary. I just hope that those future alien explorers and archaeologists can make some use of our money.

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English failings

Yesterday, my crawler came across an article [Link] that declaimed the following discipline major changes between 1970 and 2004:

  • English: from 7.6 percent of the majors to 3.9 percent
  • Foreign languages and literatures: from 2.5 percent to 1.3 percent
  • Philosophy and religious studies: from 0.9 percent to 0.7 percent
  • History: from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent
  • Business: from 13.7 percent to 21.9 percent.

Should I mention that the article is about the ‘demise’ of English (the language as in literature?) as a viable field of study. The article then goes on to say that the cause of this ‘demise’

at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.

I find myself in sad disagreement with this, but in the interest of some objectivity read further misrepresentation of the article to the reader. After all, I have provided you with a link to it, and if you did not have internet access you would not be reading now.

While I feel that at least some of the causation here is perceived relevancy, I shall defer that argument a bit. Instead I would like to do a bit of historical comparison, after all, 1970 is the tag end of my own undergraduate days. When I was an undergraduate at the campus of the Black Warrior there were a goodly number of English majors and I was able to observe some features of the population. It was overwhelmingly female, Greek, and relatively smart, or at least gradeworthy. By the latter I mean that those young sorority women who were majoring in English had not been forced by flunking to migrate to the less difficult halls of the Home Economics college.

All of these young women were from middle or upper class families. All intended to wed, and be wives and mothers as their primary avocation. They might work for a few years while they found Mr. Right but they would do so by teaching English in the secondary schools – that was before the teacher taliban had a union lock on them – or some other socially conscious (this was the ’60’s after all) but not hippie unskilled but glamorous activity. None, statistically at least, had any intent of going to graduate school or becoming an academic.

In the interests of being genderistically blatant, I should comment that there were a few male English majors but in very small numbers, effectively statistically insignificant. All were of great courage because men did not major in English in those days at a football party shul. All planned to teach English and most planned to go on to graduate shul and become academics. More than a proportionate number did not come home from Vietnam.

Notwithstanding, I hope it is fairly evident that the primary azimuth of propagation of English majors in 1970 is, in the graceful words of Margaret Mitchell, “gone with the wind.” Young women of middle class do not major in English as preparation for reproduction and rearing. They have the same aspirations of work as men and hence are drawn to disciplines that offer some promise in that work.

In effect, English as a discipline of study has ceased to be relevant. The teaching of English below the college level is the province of the teacher taliban, a component of the realm of certification, it is no longed a province of independence or creative thought or reflection. Sadly, it is not even a province any more of syntax, as demonstrated by the syntactic ignorance of the young.[1]

I will advance that the paltry statistics cited in the article – nerd disciplines are conspicuously absent – support this thesis that college students have migrated to what they think is relevant. There are two components to this. One is the oft decried mercenary cancer of the young, caring more for what they might be able to earn rather than what satisfaction or fun they might have in what they do. That component has been tempered adequately previously and I shall not belabor it.

But I shall enunciate that the second component is related to the pace of change. In 1970, half of the population were readers, now only half that. Notably the disciplines placing a premium on the consideration of material read reflect that trend. Perhaps more significantly, in a social environment where change is accelerating, understanding of that society is equally transient and the disciplines that sold themselves at least in part on the understanding of society’s ‘timeless verities’ are suffering from a perception of lack of both stationarity and veracity. Fundamentally, if a college ‘education’, for few get more than training these days, is no longer for life, but only a few years, then its value must be optimized and hence those disciplines that are not part and cause of the accelerated change are being discarded, or, at least, avoided.

But as much as I found my courses in English to be little more than ticket punches for a diploma, I fear we are all impoverished by the steady seepage of such intellectual aspects from our society. As one of my colleagues once expressed, slightly paraphrased in my own terms, ‘the only people more boring in a social setting than engineers and scientists are business people.’ There are many aspects to the rightness of this observation, not the least being that at least the engineers and scientists have fervor in their technical discussions, all business people have is desperation.

[1]  I should comment that my required – and completed – courses in “English” at college consisted of two semesters of syntax and literature – Freshman English – and two semesters of English Literature. Both were void, tedious, and uneducational. They added nothing to what I had learned in secondary shul, and did nothing to improve my communications or perception skills. If anything my lab courses taught me more about writing and the army’s bone head syntax course I had to take after I went to work was superior to all of the syntax courses cumulatively in shul, secondary and college.

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Fall and fall

Apparently fall is here. Whoever has taken the authority to do so has pronounced that calendrically we are in fall. At a more individualistic level, Melvynn, Lord Bragg has restarted his program “In Our Time” for the BBCs Radio Four. (Shouldn’t that be Wireless Four? Or is all that wireless-radio dissembling been some pile of rot and propaganda?) This indicates the completion of what is claimed to be a holiday but is more extreme and lengthy than any I have ever had occasion to experience. Is this some perk of being European? Or just evidence of the decrepitude of the English, or, more likely, those who perform immeasurable endeavor?

On which note, the subject of this morning’s IOT podcast was Thomas Aquinas, the medieval religious philosopher who supposedly christianized Aristotle and brought rationality to religion. An entertaining claim, but somehow failing on both counts, although we probably should consider the corrupting influence of the protestants, especially Luther, on that rationality. After all, what can be more rational than capitalist simony?

But aside from the lesson that the ability, or inability, of any religious organization to deal with Aristotle constructively is a measure of its potency and endurance, as evidence by both medieval Islam and contemporary evangelism, the chief nugget to be obtained are from Aquinas’ five proofs of the existence of the deity. [Link] As such proofs go, these are excellent, especially in that they all demonstrate that they are not proofs. What they seem to prove is that the deity cannot be proved.

This is not to say that there is no deity, as some of the more extreme claim. Rather, all that may be said of proofs of the existence of the deity is that they are not valid proofs inasmuch as they require some suspension to effect the proof.

Which, in turn, tells us of the value of the independence of humans. Imposition of belief is a form of tyranny, and few organizations have done that so brutally, so completely, as religious organizations. Fundamentally, freedom from organization is more important than freedom of organization.

Even if we have to be reminded of it by an agent of organizational tyranny.

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Monkey Trial

The eWeek folks have a bit of a review of MegaHard’s webOffice in this morning’s eNews. [Link] The feature that riveted my attention was the claim that it works with (a) Firefox, and (b) Linux.

This, of course, raises the question of whether MegaHard Office, or, as some of my more direct colleagues call it, MegaHard Orifice, actually works or not. [1] WORD obviously does not, even with the addition of a functional, nontoy equation editor like MATHTYPE, POWERPOINT is, at best, barely operant, and EXCEL is the best of a rotten bunch if one takes the time to spay (neuter?) its internal macro security properly to permit VB code to be written.  If one discounts doing anything word processing wise other than memoranda, and abstains from VB crunching, then Open Office is at least 100 dB the superior product, cost withstanding.

So is webOffice functional? The eWeek reviewer seems to have done a reasonable job albeit ducking the basic question of why one wants office suite functionality on the web where security is at least -10 dB of client?  The claim that it works with Firefox is thrilling given the ongoing pretension that the MegaHard browser is not one with the ages. The claim of operating with Linux seems  the same kind of blatant prevarication that we might except from Joseph Goebbels about Auschwitz.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect is that this definitely puts MegaHard into the catagory of religious evangelist – lots of yelling and claims but no proofs or civility.

[1]  I shall refrain from being explicit about which orifice inasmuch as it seems unnecessary.

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Ich bin ein automobil

A PEW survey [Link] indicates that the American love affair with the automobile has peaked. The fraction of the sample population that considers their automobile “something special” has declined from 0.43 to 0.23 between 1991 and 2006. That indicates a half life of about seventeen years.

The good news of this is that if this continues the wonder of the automobile will go to zero about the same time as the (natural) petroleum supply. The bad news is that something on order of 0.5 of the economy is connected to the automobile instrumentality.

I can understand the disillusion. My first automobile, back when television was still monochrome and the ancestors of chickens still walked the planet was a poky little Chevrolet Corvair with a two speed automatic transmission. My second was a newer Corvair that I drove during my undergraduate days, followed by a Dodge Charger that dripped citric acid and was soon exchanged for a Triumph TR-6 once I had a job paying more than a teaching assistantship. I went on from there to own two more Corvairs and a plethora of lesser vehicles. Today I have a Honda Element and a Honda CRV, the latter 12 years old.

Now while the cars I have now are acceptable; I treasure the reliability and the assurance of competent design, manufacturing, and maintenance, something I gave up on American manufacturers providing back in the early ’80’s, neither of these automobiles is particularly enjoyable to drive. The CRV has much more personality than the Element, some of which is to be expected from its extreme age, but that personality is still banal and vanishing compared to those earlier vehicles. For example, I had to carry an oil can loaded with ten weight oil in my TR-6 to top off the dash pots of the Zenith-Stromberg carbureators and I had to be careful driving the Corvairs when it rained (or iced) because of the combination of rear engine and drive was prone to precession of the entire vehicle. That latter had no small impact on my competence as a physicist.

Those early cars with personality were something special. None had power windows or door locks. To open or close the window you turned a crank. To lock or unlock a door you used a key. And in winter, up Nawth, you also carried a lighter to warm the key. And when you wanted air to flow in the car you pulled a lever to open a vent. And all those cars, the TR-6, Corvairs three and four, and several after that that had personality, all had manual transmissions. The TR-6 actually had seven forward gears, so you drove those cars; you didn’t just sit and manipulated the controls.

And you had to work on those cars. I spent big pieces of saturday and sunday doing maintenance on that TR-6, less so on the others, but they went to shop, either your own work on someone you trusted, every three thousand miles.

Today we ‘drive’ until a silly idiot light comes on and we take the vehicle to the shop where we sit in a banal, intellectual wasteland of a lounge sipping institutional coffee and being blared at by vapid, asentient, aintelligent television talk show hosts, never once having consultation with a sweaty, begrimed priest of the automotive deity. Our automobiles are equally banal with the only variations those sold by the manufacturer. The J. C. Whitney catalog is as disappeared as the Sears Wish Book and Willis and Geiger. Only the socially disenfranchised even attempt to work on their own vehicles, proud dissidents who brave the disdain of the effete workaholics and the brave devotion of spouse and children who question their sanity. But in the real actual meaning of the term, only these folks drive; the rest just shift from home theater to automobile theater to listen and eat and even primp.

When life is void of any substance, then that void also excludes meaning.

Honesty in Office?

I have to admit to being conflicted. I see [Link] that the Yankee government is going to take steps to implement network neutrality. But they are evidently doing this by fiat, so it is unclear whether this is just some act of social engineering autarky, of a form that has come in many ways  emblematic of the current (modern) democrat (?) administration, or a smoke screen of enriching large corporate organizations preferentially and to the detriment of the citizenry, the secondary theme of the administration.

This should be a matter of great concern for the nation but instead it is hidden in the footnotes and clauses of petty regulation. How are be better off now than under English governors?

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