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Monday May 23, 2005

Delta tells us that their delivery service reports that we have our luggage. Alas, we do not. We last saw it Thursday night at Customs in Atlanta where we walked it through Customs and handed it over to Delta agents. It has not been seen by us since, although Delta keeps telling us that it has been located and will be delivered Real Soon Now. They have told us that at intervals since Friday morning. They now tell us it has been delivered. It has not been.

Flash. Yes it was. In the middle of the night they put the luggage in the side yard, leaving no clue that they had been here. We discovered it later. So we have our luggage.


I'll try to do a report on some aspects of Rome, but I won't get to it today.


There is lots of news: Apple will use Intel chips, or that's the rumor.  The ori0les are nesting across the street and raiding my hummingbird feeders. Beautiful birds. And I must go buy dogfood...

Well actually there's a lot more high tech news, and I'll get to some of it later.



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Tuesday,  May 24, 2005  


Think of this as my first real day home. I'm still getting used to the time zones.

Lots of interesting headlines in the papers yesterday. ONe was a column about Adobe and Macromedia (Adobe bought Macromedia for $3.4 billion in stock): is this largely to get capabilities in tiny screen formats, such as telephones. I need to think through the idea of FLASH on Cell Phones and iPAQ's; comments welcome.

Today's Wall Street Journal has an article on "the search wars" particularly Google vs. Microsoft; but exactly what the "war" is hasn't been made clear. In particular there's satellite images, which MapQuest used to offer but gave up because so few used them. Of course there's a lot more high-speed connectivity now, although the Journal author doesn't mention that. MapQuest is contemplating coming back with satellite images.

And Gates is after some of the iPod business, hoping that cell phones will be the key, according to yesterday's Wall Street Journal. I gather the digital music business is huge: it certainly carried Apple a long way. I'm not well qualified to comment on that since I find most popular music dull, irritating, infuriating, banal, imbecilic, or all of the above, and the kind of music I do like doesn't come across too well in earphones from tiny hand helds; so anything I know on this will be intellectual knowledge. I have never bought a song off the Internet.

    Incidentally, at Henry Vanderbilt's space development conference I buttonholed Jardin Kare about getting some more of his wonderful space filk songs out where we can all get them; he said he would. We can hope.

Anyway, the Journal says that Gates told German newspapers that Apple's days of dominance in the music field are numbered. We'll see. Certainly iPod and Apple did one thing, establish $1.00 a song as the established price. That's the base the others have to start from.

But how much per aria, or per act of an opera? Or per movement of a symphony? So far I haven't seen too many offered. And I would love to buy some of Jordin's songs in MP3 at a buck each...

Also yesterday's Wall Street Journal had a lot about scientific journals, profits to publishers, costs of peer review, and the whole business of scientific journals and information publishing in the Internet age. It was enough that I will probably address the question in the column next month. I wrote on all this back in the mid 80's when it was clear that CDROM would change the world by making it very cheap to publish scientific information complete with illustrations, photographs, diagrams, equations, and the like: in those days most journals were done by letterpress and the production costs were enormous. Now the production and publication costs are trivial: the cost is in the editorial process. SCIENCE magazine gets, according to the Journal, 12,000 submissions and publishes 800 articles a year, consuming $10 million in editorial costs. SCIENCE is put out by AAAS and gets the support of the membership (including me; I'm a Fellow of the AAAS). The magazine is printed and has production costs as well. Publication there is high prestige.

The problems come with the privately printed scholarly journals. The University of California spends tens of millions on some of these, and access to them isn't cheap -- yet the journals publish the results of publicly funded studies, and it's an easy argument that if the public paid for the research, the public ought to have access to it. So: who pays the editorial costs? And by editorial I mean selection, managing the peer review process (herding cats is a lot easier) and forcing editorial changes in the material (most scientists can't write for beans: one reason my column got established at BYTE in the glory days is that it needed little editing (but, I will admit freely, it profited greatly from both technical editing by Pam Clarke and Phil Lemons and others, and by line/style editing by Warren Williamson, and I haven't thanked them enough)) -- anyway, one reason my column caught on was that the BYTE editors didn't have to spend a lot of time and money pounding my prose into shape. And of course the "peer review" process was the BYTE editorial staff, which was the best collection of people I have ever worked with. Our COMDEX meetings to select the Best of COMDEX were awesome and I don't use that word lightly. I used to present the "best technology" and "best of COMDEX" award and make short speeches about the importance of the products, but in doing those I had had the benefit of the discussions among the technical editors.

Scholarly journal editorial committees seldom meet, and they have to farm out much of the peer review process; and that can be sticky. If someone has a result contrary to established theory, that's important -- but those whose grants depend on the established theory being correct don't want to know that, and particularly don't want the granting agencies to know that the theory is all wrong and they have been haring down the wrong path. If this seems absurd for scientific debates, think about Global Warming.

In a word, the costs of scholarly journals, and access to information, is important, and how one manages to cope with the problem isn't instantly clear. If the people spent a million bucks on a study, aren't we all entitled to the results? We paid for them. But if a peer review committee thinks the results unimportant or not properly established or --

Well you get the idea. Comments welcome. How do we assure some kind of scientific validity without paying millions to Elsevier and other publishers? And if we have a free for all, how do we know that the experiments reported were even performed? That the institution exists, and the grants acknowledged were ever made, much less that the article accurately describes real results?

And once in a while a paper is pure theory. Think of Einstein's papers, on the Edison Effect, and Special Relativity.

And sometime what looks like scholarship is nonsense. Think Velikovsky. But in his case he found a commercial publisher, whereupon Harlow Shapley and others, not content with denying Velikovsky access to the scholarly journals (as was their right and one might say duty) decided to blackmail MacMillan into dumping the book which wasn't being published as an academic work at all. So Worlds in Collision went to Doubleday, the controversy make people pay attention to Velikovsky who otherwise would probably have never heard of him, and it went on and on. (This isn't an essay about Velikovsky; those with an interest in my thoughts on that subject will find them elsewhere on this web site.)

Scholarly journals have the dilemma, then: how much do you filter? What do you let through? Global Warming, AIDS research; billions of dollars at stake in grants; and some very smart people with what they think is good evidence that the conventional beliefs are dead wrong and much of the money is going to the wrong places and people. NOW WHAT?

As I said, I will probably have more on this in the column. Your thoughts welcome.


I found on the trip that my tiny little portable USB connected DVD reader for my TabletPC no longer works. I am not sure why. I would appreciate recommendations on an external DVD/CDROM reader for a notebook computer. Battery powered might be interesting.

I also found that Delta does not offer laptop power on either overseas or domestic flights, not in first class and not anywhere.


Subject: News Flash: WSJ Confirms WinInfo Report About Apple on Intel


On April 26, 2005, I set off tremors in the PC industry with a short and simple post from my WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Conference) 2005 blog: Apple, I wrote, was "unhappy with the PowerPC production at IBM and will be switching to Intel

Related... <http://services.newsgator.com/subscriber/Related.aspx?relurl



And if you run out if things to think about:

Anthropology: Neanderthals and the Colonization of Europe
Subject: ANTHROPOLOGY: NEANDERTHALS AND THE COLONIZATION OF EUROPE http://scienceweek.com/2004/sc041231-1.htm


Public Health: Class and National Health http://scienceweek.com/2004/sb041015-6.htm 

The following points are made by S.L. Isaacs and S.A. Schroeder (New Engl. J. Med. 2004 351:1137): 1) The health of the American public has never been better. Infectious diseases that caused terror in families less than 100 years ago are now largely under control. With the important exception of AIDS and occasional outbreaks of new diseases such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or of old ones such as tuberculosis, infectious diseases no longer constitute much of a public health threat. Mortality rates from heart disease and stroke -- two of the nation's three major killers --have plummeted.(1)

2) But any celebration of these victories must be tempered by the realization that these gains are not shared fairly by all members of our society. People in upper classes -- those who have a good education, hold high-paying jobs, and live in comfortable neighborhoods -- live longer and healthier lives than do people in lower classes, many of whom are black or members of ethnic minorities. And the gap is widening.

Of course the gap is widening. When the schools are more concerned with self esteem and leaving no child behind than with the germ theory of disease and its implications; when you can't tell kids that "traditional morality" has some pretty sound bases in public health; when you can't be concerned with sanitation and hookworm and other public health issues without having to play games and not talk about the real target populations and where the diseases appear -- then you will expect these outcomes, no? Isn't it shocking?




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Wednesday,  May 25, 2005

Still digging out from trip. Plenty here from yesterday...





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Thursday, May 26, 2005

The papers this morning carry the story of an FBI raid on a Bit Torrent information web site.

It may be that I don't understand Bit Torrent. As I understand it, the actual files to be shared, including copyrighted movies and music files, are stored all over the place, with thousands to tens of thousands providing small chunks of the forbidden fruit. List sites have no files at all, but merely tell others where to find what they want.

If so, I do wonder about the legalities here: is Google guilty if I use Google to find copyrighted material I then download?

I'm going to think about all this on my morning walk, but I invite INFORMATION and comments, particularly information from people who know something about the Bit Torrent situation.  Thanks.

(See Mail for a good introduction to Bit Torrent.)


Well, it seems that I, Orson Scott Card, Vernor Vinge, Allan Steele, David Brin, and some others will be speaking at this conference:

Monday 27 June - Friday 1 July 2005

Visit http://www.wiltonpark.org.uk/  for news and information about Wilton Park conferences and events

They have me down for "Science and Technology in 2050" which is a large order indeed. Doubtless something will occur to me...


I feel a major Global Warming essay coming on. The evidence is pretty clear now: Yes, Virginia, the Earth is warming. It has been since the end of the Maunder Minimum and the Little Ice Age -- and most of the warming happened before 1913 when Henry Ford invented the assembly line and mass manufacturing.

In other words we have a warming trend, and CO2 probably contributes to it, but it doesn't contribute much compared to whatever triggered the warming after about 1800 when the glaciers began to retreat after advancing for a couple of centuries.

I have yet to see the pro-Kyoto people address this issue even though the evidence seems irrefutable.





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Friday, May 27, 2005

A Turkish Muslim offers his thoughts on Intelligent Design: http://www.techcentralstation.com/052605E.html in an essay I found worth the time investment to read it. He write in refutation of the  "Intelligent Decline" article http://www.techcentralstation.com/051905A.html by Britannica editor Robert McHenry.

My own view is a bit different: either the universe has a purpose, or it does not. If it does not, debates on the "meaning of life" aren't very interesting, and it's pretty hard to conceive of a reason to obey any kind of moral law other than fear of getting caught. It's the Karamazov dilemma: "If God exists, all things are possible; if He does not exist, all things are lawful." But that is going well beyond the evidence, as does McHenry; in my judgment Mustafa Akyol does not. There is also a letter and my reply on this subject in mail.

Global Warming and other matters when I get back from my walk.

There is considerable mail on Bit Torrent.

On Global Warming:

There are several issues here, all twisted together. Those whose funding depends on the "consensus" that leads to the Kyoto conventions find it expedient to wrap them all together into one issue -- Do You Care About Preserving The Earth or Are You a Monster -- but that isn't a very useful thing to do.

First issue: is Earth warming?  Yes, of course it is; this is supported by all the evidence. Moreover, it has been warming since about 1800, and we all know it: measure growing seasons everywhere (look in old Almanacs if you like for planting dates and harvesting dates), thickness of the ice in North America (we all know that cannon were dragged across frozen rivers in 1776 in places where the ice no longer gets thick enough to walk on, or never forms at all now), retreat of glaciers all across the world and in both hemispheres. Yes. Earth is warming.

Second issue: is this due to human causes?  Not very likely. The very trends that show warming since 1800 also show that the warming has been pretty uniform over that time, and modern industrialization didn't put enough CO2 into the atmosphere to matter until well into the 20th Century. Indeed, early coal burning probably put enough particulates into the upper atmosphere to have a cooling effect. Certainly the 1815 eruption of Tambura had a distinctly cooling effect (causing the notorious "year without a summer" which was so gloomy that Mary Shelley wrote the gothic novel Frankenstein because the Shelley's and Byron's weren't having any fun on Lake Geneva due to lousy weather). But despite a glitch in the trend during 1815 the warming has been pretty well linearly constant from around 1800 to 1960, at which point the warming continued but perhaps less rapidly. This is hard to determine because this was when we began better instrumentation, but that itself can cause ambiguities since we can measure temperature effect undoubtedly caused by humans -- cities for example -- which are highly local.

Third Issue: is CO2 increasing?  Yes.  Is it having an effect on Global Warming?  Probably, but it's hard to see because the trend in warming from 1800 is so strong that a small addition from CO2 isn't easily seen (if at all; there's some controversy on whether the effect has been observed, but no one seriously contends that it is large yet). There is serious debate on the future effects of CO2 on global warming, and people with good credentials take all sides of the issue.

Effects of CO2: the best paper I have seen is http://www.oism.org/pproject/s33p36.htm and I have yet to have one of the environmentalists give me a serious refutation of what that paper says.

Fourth Issue: is Global Warming likely to continue?  Surprisingly, we don't know. If there is a serious possibility of serious global warming we ought to be looking into ways of doing something about it. Alas, the climate trends are such that it's as likely we are in for another period of global cooling as warming, and I can remember when climatology predictions at AAAS meetings were about the possibility of new Ice Ages; Stephen Schneider who now mostly talks about Global Warming wrote The Genesis Strategy http://www.wilmonie.com/cgi-bin/wmb455/105317.html about preparations for global cooling not all that long ago. I took the photograph of him and Margaret Mead that was used for promoting the book. It's not a bad book although like much of Stephen's work it tends to get polemical; which is to say he feels strongly about what he concludes.

Fifth Issue: what should we do? Note that this is policy, not science. My recommendation is that we spend as much as we must to obtain an understanding of what's going on and what we face: should we be preparing for Global Warming or a New Ice Age? Or nothing at all? Clearly the different courses of action are mutually exclusive, and except for the "do nothing" alternative are likely to be expensive.

Why Do Nothing?  Doing nothing seems wrong, but in fact might be proper: certainly we should Do Nothing until we know what it is we are Doing Something about. As to why "Nothing" may be the right answer, recall that the Vikings settled Greenland, and prior to about 1325 there was a long period of warm climates, long growing seasons, and generally mild weather: Good Weather. It may be that we are warming back up to that point. Those concerned about CO2 are right to point out that if we have a warming trend to an optimum the CO2 warming may take us well past that point to something we don't like. However, there's little evidence that will happen, and there's even less that it will happen suddenly: the Earth is big and the oceans are large, and warming up the whole mess takes lots of time because there are so many thermal sinks. We have no historical evidence of sudden onset warming.

We do have considerable evidence of sudden onset cooling: England went from deciduous trees to snow and ice in under 100 years in the last Ice Age, and the Little Ice Age came on very quickly. If we're warming up, preparations will be needed but there should be time -- and things will get better for quite a while before they get worse, so there will be more money to spend on Doing Something. If however it's ICE that's coming, things get worse before they get awful, there will be less money, and less time. Schneider's Genesis Strategy is a start on what we might do.

And that, it seems to me, is about where we are.

So: since this seems so reasonable (at least to me) why is there such bitter controversy and so many really horrible charges thrown about, with people denounced, and attempts made to get people thrown out of academic positions and professional societies for having contrary views?

Well, there's a LOT of money at stake. The "environmentalists" generally charge anyone who challenges their conclusions and policy recommendations with being in the pay of the evil oil companies -- and also work very very hard to see that every nickel of funding from other sources goes to people with a big stake in the "consensus" position who won't disrupt the gravy train. When we feared an Ice Age there wasn't a lot of money for some reason; but Global Warming caught on, and there's lots and lots of money for studies and academic positions and travel to conferences in Rio and Kyoto, and if that dries up -- who will support the "consensus" people?  I admit that's a pretty harsh view, and it probably doesn't apply to more than a small percentage of the "consensus" defenders: but it emphatically does apply to many of the more vociferous, and particularly to those who go about denouncing those who oppose them.

It may be possible to have rational debates on climatology, but my experience has been that if the opening arguments don't convince you to join the "consensus" then either you will be denounced, or communications will simply cease. That happened in the discussions with NASA's  Gavin Schmidt [gschmidt@giss.nasa.gov] here on this web site, and that was neither the first nor the last time.

But the facts remain: the warming trend was going on well before the CO2 levels began escalating. The Earth has been both warmer and cooler in historical times. Computer models produce predictions, but none of those models can duplicate the past (start with 1900 and run a 100 year projection that "predicts" the realities of the Year 2000; or start with 1950 and predict 2000 with the model; or heck, just give us a good picture of what is going to happen next year, or this summer). Observation scientists tend to be less enthusiastic about the "consensus" and many reject it entirely. And there are counter-trends: We don't know if we are headed for an Ice Age or Global Warming, but for a while at least Warming produces a more benign world with more resources to spend. And the return of the Ice Ages would be very bad.

And many of the environmentalist protagonists use tactics that they would (and do) deplore if used by anyone else.

We have some additions and corrections.

Hi Jerry,

This graph: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Instrumental_Temperature_Record.png  only goes back to 1850 but I'm having trouble matching it to your analysis, and this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:1000_Year_Temperature_Comparison.png  goes back 1000 years and it doesn't seem to jibe too well either.

Both are well sourced although it's still hard to judge bias; perhaps you could disclose your sources?

I doubt that you remember me, the last time we talked it was about relative trade volumes between the US and each of the two Chinas.

Best regards, Mark A Haney

To which I replied :
>Oerlemans Science 308 pp 675-677 "Extracting a Climate Signal from 169
>Glacier Records"
>As to the linear nature of warming since 1800 almost everything we know
>including ice thickness, growing season -- look at almanacs for example...

And received the response:

Ahh, thanks, Jerry. Oerlemans' analysis was included in the graph at the second link I sent you, although it's admittedly difficult to see in the midst of nine other squiggly lines.

If I may take the liberty of paraphrasing you as saying: "Almost everything shows a nearly linear warming from 1800 to 1960, with some slowing in the trend after that point", it strikes me that that phrasing would be about as inaccurate as "Nearly everything shows the hockey stick."

If instead one stated: "Most analyses show a roughly linear warming from 1800 to the present", it would be hard to quibble with that.

Take care, Mark

And on reflection I must agree. I will defend my original formulation as being more accurate than what has been said about the "hockey stick", but Haney's more nuanced phrasing is more accurate: in either case the conclusion seems obvious, and the environmentalist movement does not seem to have answered it; and there is no hockey stick in there.

We have comments from Gavin Schmidt as well but I am still studying the references he sent, particularly the observation data; more shortly.

And there is commentary mail.

I have copied this to the "Global Warming Debates" page, which I am updating.





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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Went to see Star Wars, Episode III, The Revenge of the Sith last night. I have few comments. The original Star Wars had a fresh new approach and Goshwow special effects that, in their day, were startling and unusual; and while the plot had some problems and the dialogue was stilted, the first Star Wars was a real advance in science fiction adventure movies. This latest one is enjoyable if you can get in the right mood, and if you're going to see it, I urge you to do so without reading a lot of negative reviews.

Further remarks below, but don't read them until you have seen the film.


The Education Crisis

In my judgment the failure of education in the US has reached a crisis stage: one could almost say that compulsory education in the public schools comes very close to child abuse. High school graduates are, so far as I can tell, about two years behind the levels that were customary in the schools in the 1950's. I understand there those who dispute this: after all, my experiences were with the "college prep" track in high school. The entire class at Christian Brothers was expected to go to college, and most of the kids I knew in public schools in those days were at Central High in Memphis which was a college prep public school. In those days Tennessee law automatically admitted college prep high school graduates to the University of Tennessee, and of course a smaller proportion of children went to college. Still, my classmates at the University of Iowa seemed to have a great deal better education than the entering freshmen I see now.

Defenders of the public school system tend to fall back on averages, and point out that we send a lot more kids to college now than we did back in those days.

This is true enough, but my concern is and always has been for the IQ 120 and above group: my readers and most of the people I know are in this group. And they are certainly being harmed by the public school system. Whatever modern education has done for the averages, the effect of No Child Left Behind is that No Child Gets Ahead -- which is in fact the only way to assure the No Child Left Behind result.

Next week I will start a new page (or pages) dedicated to what can be done. One section will be devoted to homeschooling: materials available, recommended reading, and the like. I know there are home schooling networks, and it may be that those are Good Enough, so that all that's really needed is to link into them. I will also look into supplementary reading and supplementary education materials for those who can't do home schooling.

And of course we'll have a discussion on whether this is really necessary. In my judgment it is: there are pockets of excellence left in the public school system but increasingly No Child Left Behind==No Child Gets Ahead is destroying those in the name of equality and diversity. I'm open to refutation of that hypothesis also.

Continued below


I am thinking of reorganizing the Home Page here. There are a number of items of permanent interest that ought to be more prominent or at least easier to find, and the page doesn't tell newcomers much about why they ought to be here. I'm open to suggestions on this: what ought first time viewers to see, and what needs to remain for the 150,000 or so regulars we have?










This latest one, while financially successful, had the same plot and dialogue problems, only now everyone expects Goshwow special effects and even the minor science fiction movies can employ them. Absent big stars and something special in the way of special effects, you need a story to carry a great movie: and this has wooden dialogue, long face-acting scenes that don't work well, and a story line that makes no sense at all. The Jedi have great powers, but somehow can't see obvious traps; great mental perception but can't detect betrayals that are obvious to everyone in the audience; and were unable to determine just who was the arch villain despite being in close proximity to him for years.


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Sunday, May 29, 2005

I am updating the Global Warming Page to include the material from this week. I also have an exchange of mail with Dr. Gavin Schmidt in response to this week's material, and I will include that next week along when I have had time to digest it.

When The American Conservative magazine http://www.amconmag.com/ first came out, I was interested, but for the first few issues there was a virulent anti-war tone that I did not care for, particularly when they had Norman Mailer, not noticeably conservative in any of his views and not terribly consistent either, on the cover with a softball interview. I have always been opposed to the Iraqi War but once our troops are committed the world changes, and one's reservations need to be tempered by the reality that we sent our soldiers in the name of the republic. It may have been the wrong thing to do, but the debates need to be tempered. But that's another discussion.

I did subscribe, and I have found many of the articles in The American Conservative well worth reading (and Steve Sailer's movie reviews delightful); but the current issue is itself worth the price of several years' subscription for the single article "Fathers into Felons" by Stephen Baskerville, an author I confess I was unaware of until this publication. A Google search on his name reveals a number of other publications on the same subject, but I haven't had time to look them up. Baskerville describes exactly what is wrong with current thinking on marriage and marriage laws, and everyone with any concern for the future of the Republic ought to read that article.

 In the same issue of The America Conservative Greg Cochran has an article expanding on views he has given me in personal correspondence: there is no education crisis, and students today are just as well educated as they have ever been, the difference being that there are so many more graduates now.

His argument can be summarized in his own words: "In a typical example, the comparison is between the performance of a high school graduate in 1900 and today. Back in 1900, 6.4 percent of kids graduated from high school, while today around 70 percent do. The top 6 percent are going to score higher than the top 70 percent, all else equal, just as the tallest men of 1900 were taller than the average man today. But that hardly proves that the average man has gotten shorter, of that the average 18-year-old today knows less than the average 18-year-old did in 1900. A high school degree doesn't mean what it used to -- but that doesn't indicate that education has declined." [Emphasis added]

Note the assumptions in that paragraph.

First, that the 6.4% who graduated in 1900 were the "top 6%". We have no evidence of that. It's reasonable to suppose that high school graduates in 1900 tended to be drawn from the upper socio-economic classes, and thus probably were a bit smarter and from more educated families than the dropouts, but that wasn't entirely true:  the purpose of public schools was to allow kids  from the lower economic classes to attend school. Moreover, the structure of education was different in those times, and many college-bound children from the affluent classes went to prep schools. While it's likely that the 6% who graduated from high school in 1900 were in the right hand half of the bell curve, it's increasingly difficult to prove much more as you move up that curve, and to state unequivocally that they were in the top 6% (IE IQ 116 or above) is beyond the evidence.

And supposing all that to be true, the agriculturally dominated United States of 1900 doesn't resemble the US of even 20 years later, much less the industrializing United States of 1940.

Second, note that last sentence: A high school degree doesn't mean what it used to. Indeed, that is the problem most of us who are critical of the system point to. We think the average high school graduate knows far less than he or she needs to know, in large part because the kids haven't even been exposed to what they ought to know. Moreover, I don't know what the average graduate learned in 8th grade in 1944, but I know what I learned at Capleville unified from listening to the 8th grade being taught in the classroom where I was taking 7th grade -- we had two grades to a room all the way up to 8th grade -- and I guarantee you it was a lot more than what is being taught in 8th grade in Los Angeles.

Cochran's article is entitled "What Education Crisis?" with subtitle "Johnny still can't read--but that's nothing new." And in fact it is something new; in particular it's new that Johnny gets a credential certifying that he knows things he doesn't know; and it's fairly new that the top students in Johnny's class were not even exposed to the kinds of things routinely taught in rural Tennessee consolidated 2-grades-to-a-classroom schools in 1944, where we learned to read, write, do arithmetic, US and Tennessee history, and a smattering of world history and geography (as well as how to recycle: there was a war on. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.") Bubba Jones was a farmer's son and the wealthiest boy in the classroom, but hardly an intellectual, and certainly not in the top 20% even of our school where I was the school nerd having been in the Quiz Kids competition; but Bubba  managed to read The Lady of the Lake and learn how Congress works and the difference between a Bill and a Law just like the rest of us.

I would love to accept Cochran's analysis: the schools aren't any good but they never have been, and we muddled through in the past and we can continue to do so; but I don't believe it.

Bill Gates thinks the schools are failing us because they don't offer a world class education to every high school student; he wants to upgrade the whole process, using modern technology to help.

I think that might be a good thing to do, but it doesn't address my main concern, which is that in the public schools the top 6% -- IQ 116 and above -- isn't getting a world class education, isn't being exposed to what they need to know, isn't being encouraged to learn more, and has to sit in classes where most of the time and attention is being given to the lowest performers in the hopes that no child will be left behind.  And I don't see how Greg's analysis changes that concern at all.

And I have this letter:

Dr. Pournelle,

I have been a constant visitor to your “Blog” for many years and before that your column in Byte. I wanted to comment on, and applaud you, for your efforts to address the education crisis in the US. As a college professor and department chair I have seen first hand the poor preparation of high school graduates that you write about in today’s current view. I concur with your assessment that they are at least two years behind in preparation from the 1950’s and even those in the 1970’s. This lack of preparation is not only a lack of basic skills but also a lack of work ethic. Many students see any expectation for study or outside work as an unfair and unrealistic expectation (in fact based on their work ethic it is unrealistic). One student actually wrote on a student evaluation for one of my courses, “He is an idiot! He expects us to learn outside class.” This of course illustrates the problem with the concept of student evaluations of teachers and professors. Student evaluations have far too much influence on faculty evaluations and therefore may influence faculty to teach to get good evaluations and not to insure quality education.

My observation is that students are not prepared to critically think or communicate. They are unable to take even simple ideas (forget anything complex) and evaluate their meaning and significance. There are many things we can blame this on (TV, Video Games, an instant “microwave” or convenient society) but the real problem is that too many of our educators, thinkers and leaders have chosen to ignore the issue or find simple ineffective solutions like more technology in the classroom, internet (online courses), honors colleges, general studies degrees etc. What we need to focus on (in my opinion) is good quality delivery in the classroom with expectations for quality performance. If you visit any of our colleges of education, what you find is future teachers taught things that have little to do with or are about good teaching. If you look at most of the research on education, I think you will find that it focuses on ancillary issues and even when attempts are made to evaluate what makes good teaching, it is often done qualitatively (described as descriptive studies). All one needs to do is read some of the titles for Ed.D dissertations and I think the picture is clear.

What is disturbing to me is that this lack or preparation reflects the apathy in our society about the value of education. I have had student’s tell me that their parents did not understand why they were wasting their time and money going to college. This is more common for those that choose to pursue graduate degrees, but I have heard it from some undergraduates. For many students education is obtaining a license or ticket to find a job and has nothing to do with becoming educated.

The problem with the argument cited by defenders of the public school system is that the underlying reason we send more students to college is that high schools pass more students and colleges accept more students. The driving factor in funding for higher education is the number of students in the classroom. A problem with sending more students to college is that the mean IQ (or any other measure of intelligence or educational success you want to use) shifts down. Because students and parents will complain to administrators about grades lower than a B, many teachers and professors will not assign grades lower then B and thus we now have grade inflation. The easy way to achieve grade inflation is to lower expectations. It is a very lonely place if you refuse to compromise on insisting that students learn and therefore earn their grade. I unfortunately spend far too much time defending the faculty in my department that have high standards and are viewed by students as unfair because they are expected to study and complete their assignments to earn good grades.

I agree that we have reached a crisis in education; I only hope it has not gone so far that we cannot fix the problem.





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