Education, measurements, asymmetric war, proscription lists, and other matters


Mail 761 Thursday, February 07, 2013

You might want to look at today’s VIEW before reading this mail bag. Due to the way this web site creation engine works, you will find that below this entry.  I used to have separate View and Mail pages and I got used to that. Ah well.

However,  I have this from the web master:

Regarding your comment about ‘I used to have separate view and mail pages’…..actually, you do.

It’s just that the default page (home page) combines the two so that views and mails appear in reverse chronological order.

The menu bar has choices to just get the Views, or just get the Mails.

I suspect most visitors come to your site often enough that they like to see the latest item on top of the home page, whether it is a View or Mail.



Subj: Firing teachers to improve schools

Maybe firing the lowest-performing ten percent of teachers will improve a *bad* school. I doubt it will improve a *good* school.

W. Edwards Deming pointed out the problem: *someone* always has to be in the bottom ten percent of the distribution for any performance measure.

If the system is in a stable state of statistical control, i.e. all the teachers perform according to the same probability distribution, then firing the lowest-performing ten percent amounts to firing by lottery.

Aside from being unjust, that will demoralize the survivors.

As I understand it, even the Romans only decimated (i.e. killed ten percent of) *badly-performing* Legions, as punishment. They did not routinely decimate every Legion on a schedule.

Linda Darling-Hammond: “We can’t fire our way to Finland.”


It is likely to be true that some schools have no bad teachers. There may not be many. And there are certainly schools in which the worst teacher is better than the best in some other schools. Having said that, it seems pretty well established that in a great number of schools the simplest and most cost effective improvement is simply to remove the worst 10% and not replace them: simply allocate their pupils to the other classrooms. Performance and morale improve instantly.

I doubt there is a single policy that would work every time and in every place. It is also clear that the current tenure system has produced a disaster, and it is now worse than it was in 1983 when Nobel winner Glenn T. Seaborg declared that “If a foreign power had imposed this system of education on the United States we would rightly consider it an act of war.”

If we are ever to recover we have to do something drastic and soon. My preference would be to return real control to the local boards where the taxes are paid and the kids go to school and get the unions, state departments of education, and the federal DOE completely out of the picture, preferably by letting them go try to find teaching jobs. I would also take a very sharp look at our state colleges of education which do not seem to be producing as good a grade of teachers as the old 2-year Normal schools did.

Look at the number of children who reach 8th grade functionally illiterate and shudder. Now look at the number of bright kids who have not been exposed to as much education as we had in Capleville (2 grades to the room, 4 teachers in the whole school, about 20 pupils to the grade) where we had real reading books with real literature not grade appropriate pabulum. That was in 1942.


Dear Dr. Pournelle:

Count me as agreeing with you about the imperial nature of drone-strike prescription lists. This is not a left-right dispute: Rachel Maddow agrees with you, in fact her show broke the story.

People such as you and I are against it, but Republican senators stand with a Democratic president for it. It’s not a left-right issue; it’s a top-bottom issue.


Nathaniel Hellerstein

Newt Gingrich gave a talk about this subject on O’Reilly’s show this evening. I might have written it for him. Let me hasten to say I did not. Newt is perfectly capable of writing his own talks and generally does, but this was so far as I could see a spontaneous answer off the top of his head, and yes, he’s that good.

What he said was that we can’t give up this weapon of war in these asymmetric wars; but we must not allow American citizens to be put on execution lists without procedures. “I believe in rule of law,” he said. Just so. We have a new weapon to use in modern war; but it must not be used without rules that neither unduly hamper those who wield it for us, nor trample on constitutional rights. Framing workable rules is not something to be done off the top of one’s head. I do believe we have no business assassinating an American citizen whom we do not have enough evidence to indict for making war against the United States.


Measurement, optimization, etc.

Dr. Pournelle,

The two endpoints of the measurement debate can best be summed up in two of my favorite quotes, one from Lord Kelvin and the other from John von Neumannn

If you can not measure it, you can not improve it. – Kelvin

There’s no sense in being precise when you don’t even know what you’re talking about. – von Neumann

The task is to steer a course between these two – leaning too far towards fanatical measurement or fanatical refusal to measure means ignoring either the strengths or weaknesses of measurement. In my field, software engineering, the 80s and early 90s saw an (over?) emphasis on measurement, not all of which was wrong, but much of which was misplaced. It got to the point where measurement was the goal, not turning out quality products, and the undesireable consequences of treating software developers as cogs in a neo-Taylorist assembly line.

Perhaps the best rueful reflection on this mess was Tom DeMarco’s mea culpa in the July/August issue of IEEE Software: "Software Engineering: An Idea Whose Time Has Come and Gone?" His essential point was that much software measurement is in the (metaphorical) interest of sinking subs, not protecting convoys.

I fear that a premature focus on measurement, before we clearly know what the problem is, will cause us to founder on the von Neumann shoal of ignorance. Certainly No Child Left Behind suffers from this in the realm of K-12 education.

Mike Lutz

All true, and No Child Left Behind is like a bad parody of an education policy.


A small civil war

The fired police officer who is shooting up LA is pro gun control and has nothing but nice things to say about Obama.

Carl Taylor

True but possibly not relevant.

You wrote:


Los Angeles is under a state of siege but it may end soon. We are learning on a very small scale and over a brief period of time something of what the people of Iraq learned during the US occupation. The LA Police are under threat from a terrorist – a former LAPD officer with a grievance – who has already killed the daughter of one former LAPD captain and her fiancé, and has shot three other police officers. He has fired at others. He is a trained sniper.


Los Angeles is not under siege; LAPD is under siege.  It’s not a city problem; it’s a problem within the police departmentd that LAPD has made into a city problem by shooting at a truck that looks like a truck they are interested in.  And this problem gets even worse when they draw their weapons like paranoiacs whenever a vehicle resembles the one they are looking for.

Yes, it is hard to be a cop and I sympathize.  But, that does not give them the right to open fire on vehicles simply because the slow down and look like a vehicle they are looking for.  It does not give them the right to pull out weapons anytime they pull over a vehicle that looks like the one they are looking for.  I also find it hard to believe that nobody bothered to figure out what plate numbers are printed on the back the vehicle the suspect is believed to own.  They have NCIC access and they should be able to get this information through the NCIC or through the DMV. 

Getting shot is a risk of taking the job.  I understood that when I was in the army and, since LAPD seems to think they are a "paramilitary organization" in a "war zone", they need to realize that this is part of the job.  And, that "paramilitary" and "warzone" nonsense came from the mouths of LAPD officers trying to recruit me at an Army post and at a job fair and the mentions came 11 years apart!  And, yes, isn’t it interesting how they can’t respond on time to a 911 call or provide a proper response to riots, but when their people are in danger they pull out all the stops. 

On another note, the mountains were probably the only choice this clown could make.  The city is a death trap.  In the mountains he might have a chance to take out a few more of the people he declared war on and, if nothing else, he’s made them all cold and miserable while they look for him and they’ll certainly be tired.  Trudging around in the mountains for hours on end is not fun.  It’s worse when you’re wet, it’s worse when you’re cold, and it’s hideous when you’re wet, cold, and tired.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this guy shoots himself when he thinks they’re going to get him.  I don’t think he really believes he’ll escape unless he’s gone insane. 


Most Respectfully,

Joshua Jordan, KSC

Percussa Resurgo

Actually in asymmetric warfare cities are often a good place to be, depending of course on how many friends and contacts you have. In Mao’s view the people are the sea that guerilla warriors swim in. I do not think this chap has that kind of popular support. As of now it is known he was in the mountains, but it is not known if he is still there. Morning may find him frozen to death, or he may have long since left the mountains. His manifesto makes it clear that he does not expect to survive but I do not think he believes in suicide.

[Morning: we have no new information but there is a rumor that he has been seen in a new vehicle. The mountain search continues. All LAPD officers are on tactical alert. The Mayor of Big Bear says there is reason to believe he is no longer in the area. The San Bernardino Sheriff confirms that. There are 200 unoccupied cabins in the area and each one is being checked. The Sheriff says there is no information to suggest that he is any threat to the ski resorts. Stay tuned.]

cop killer, more to the story


I have not watched that video. Apologies. The story continues to break. I doubt anyone has much real information.


Subject: Staffing Obamacare

Here is just one of many posts and news stories recently that discuss how many jobs must be funded to implement Obamacare. California alone will have to hire 21,000 people to help the presently uninsured decide on their coming health care insurance. No one has an estimate on how much all these helper jobs will cost us.

Dwayne Phillips


‘Our current American problems are attributable to the overnationalization of Madison’s 18th Century theory combined with the cross-fertilization of 19th Century theory: redistributive Marxism.’


Roland Dobbins


A terror bird on a coin

I thought this was cool and that you might enjoy it. Made me think of the Burning Tower–and-it-glows-in-the-dark

New Canadian coin features the incredibly badass Quetzalcoatlus — and it glows in the dark

As part of its ‘Prehistoric Creatures’ series, the Royal Canadian Mint is releasing a super neat new quarter featuring the awkwardly majestic Quetzalcoatlus — a pterosaur that lived during the Late Cretaceous of North America about 65 million years ago. A particularly cool feature of the coin is that it glows in the dark; when the lights are out, the intricate skeletal outline of the winged beast can be seen.

Mike Plaster

Thanks. We had fun with that book. I consider Burning Tower one of our best novels.


Especially for the young

Not just the young. This should be printed on 2 x 4’s and distributed therapeutically in the appropriate manner to (almost) every unionized teacher.

Fwd: Founder’s Quote Daily

"Without wishing to damp the ardor of curiosity or influence the freedom of inquiry, I will hazard a prediction that, after the most industrious and impartial researchers, the longest liver of you all will find no principles, institutions or systems of education more fit in general to be transmitted to your posterity than those you have received from your ancestors." –John Adams, letter to the young men of Philadelphia, 1798


do you remember the language of FORTH?

i’ve been wondering if you ever dabbled in the forth language? if you have, how was it, and, do you still?



FORTH was once a major contender and I presume there are still FORTH Interest Groups. It is a language that was once used a lot to control astronomical equipment. One builds programs in a series of subroutines and the final master program often is very short. It is very efficient but does no type checking and is often difficult to debug. I haven’t thought about FORTH in a decade.


“ICE immigration agents have been instructed to accept the illegal alien’s claim as to whether he or she graduated or is attending high school or college or otherwise qualifies for DACA.”


Roland Dobbins


: Flying Southwest?


Hope to get this guy for your next Southwest flight:


He’s good all right.


The IRS Sent Back My 2012 Tax Return

I just received my tax return for 2012 back from the IRS. It puzzles me! They are questioning how many dependents I claimed. I guess it was because of my response to: "List all dependents." I listed 12 million illegal immigrants; 3 million crack heads; 42 million unemployed people on food stamps, 2 million people in over 243 prisons; half of Mexico; and 535 persons in the U.S. House and Senate. Evidently, this was NOT an acceptable answer.

I keep asking myself, "Who the hell did I miss?"





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