Archive for February, 2005

Laughing off the end of the world

February 27, 2005 5 comments

Instead of watching the Oscars (boring speeches) I went to the Historic Normal Theater and watched Kubrik’s classic, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, James Earl Jones, et. al.

What a roar that movie is.  And full of Kubrik’s trademark detail and perfection.  You can’t help but admire the competence and sheer heroism of the bomber crew, and you root for them even though you know that if they reach their target, the whole world will be destroyed. 

Sellers, Hayden, Scott and Pickens are absolute genius.  How can I recommend this movie enough?  OK, it isn’t as cheerful as My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins which both came out the same year, but I like dark humor.

Note to self: rent The Mouse That Roared from 1959.  I barely remember it but I do recall that it was very funny and starred Peter Sellers.  A small country declares war on the US hoping to surrender and then reap a Marshall Plan-style rebuilding.  (Except… one of their scientists spoils their plan by inventing a superweapon, hilariously named the “Q-bomb” and shaped like a football…)

Categories: Reviews

Bill Gates gives educators a clue

February 27, 2005 4 comments

“America’s high schools are obsolete.  By ‘obsolete,’ I don’t just mean that they’re broken, flawed, or underfunded, though a case could be made for every one of those points.  By obsolete, I mean our high schools – even when they’re working as designed – cannot teach all our students what they need to know today.”
- Bill Gates at the National Education Summit in Washington D.C. Feb ‘05

I wish the newspaper would have included the complete text of Gates’ comments, which I could not find.  What is it kids need to know?  Quadratic equations?  The capital city of Pakistan?  What?

I’m convinced kids need to know how to fail…

… and what it takes to succeed.  Check this from UTI:

We already have some pretty sad stats in science and math in this country. Students from India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, are coming here in droves and kicking American student’s asses in math and science. I know, I used to teach calculus. The foreign students from those nations just walk all over our students. (Those foriegn devils employ a dastardly and unfair set of tactics to blow the grading curve for American students using any or all of “Going to class regularly, taking good notes, doing all homework, availing themselves of instructor office hours and asking for help when they’re stuck, and studying”. American students have been unable to crack this code in large numbers)
- DarkSyd

What do kids in high school need to know?  Charles J. Sykes, author of Dumbing Down Our Kids has a good list, often erroneously attributed to Bill Gates himself:

Rules for Life

Rule 1: Life is not fair. Get used to it.

Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will NOT make $40,000 a year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice-president with a car phone, until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss. He doesn’t have tenure.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping; they called it opportunity.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault. Don’t whine about your mistakes—learn from them.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how “cool” you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parents’ generation, try “delousing” the closet in your own room.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades; they’ll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.

Here’s a couple more:
(I’ve linked to both of these before but bring them up again because they’re so good)

Paul Graham’s essay, Things I wish I had known

Steven Yates’ essay, How I Survived Government Schools

So what will come out of that conference in Washington?  I have a sick feeling it will be some 800-page document for everyone to ignore, and maybe eventually an “Office of” something-or-other.

Categories: Education

More self-esteem

February 26, 2005 Comments off

Something else I found while looking for something else was this article on Self-Esteem in schools on Photon Courier… which I now add to the links because he has some pretty nifty articles. 

Categories: Education

Bowl ‘o chips for the weekend

February 26, 2005 2 comments

Bowl ‘O Chips for the weekend – betcha can’t eat just one…

  1. Science for… dummies

  2. “Science” scaring the hell out of the Public Interest
  3. How things change
  4. Evils of technology

A stream-of-consciousness collection of topics just for fun.  Click the “read more” link to munch away…

1) Darksyd over at UTI has a great article on the economic and military importance of science:  Science for right-wing dummies.  Is it ironic that I’d post the link right after Clint Eastwood’s comment in the previous post?  Not really.  Dark is referring to people who want to promote ignorance in the name of a religious agenda.

2) On organization with the weighty name of “Center for Science in the Public Interest” is out to convince you that “salt is a forgotten killer” and companies should be hit with regulations to limit salt content.  I just loved this quote:

“The key to lowering sodium is not so much admonishing consumers as requiring manufacturers and restaurants to use less salt.”
- Michael Jacobson, CSPI director

Got that?  People can’t be trusted to make their own choices even when informed of the risks.  We have to make it impossible to choose!  (Trust me, if there’s enough demand, food producers will do anything to sell food.  Witness the whole loony “carb” scare.) 

The problem is not salt, it’s that we’re eating more salt than our bodies can release.  We don’t exercise, so we don’t sweat much.  Spend a few hours a week on a stairmaster and watch that killer high blood pressure come down (and your general sense of well-being go up!) 

Not to say we couldn’t use salt more sparingly.  There’s a whole world of spices out there!

How does CSPI get so much publicity and traction?  Precisely because people avoid science in school and in daily life.  So they don’t spot the nonsense in press releases from an organization with “Science” in its name.

3) I went to the coffee shop this afternoon, driving my ‘67 VW Beetle.  At the gas station, a tough-looking guy in a black leather jacket smiled at me and said:

“Hey, buddy, nice car!”
“Thanks!” (I wave back)

Funny, but when it was built, it was a cheap car with no luxury features at all – just basic transportation.  37 years later, so few cars on the road have any recognizable style at all that it’s considered “cool” to drive one.  VW even makes a parody of it on the VW Golf chassis.

It’s also considered somewhat insane to drive one.  Todays’ cars get better gas mileage, pollute less, are much safer, quieter… but I enjoy the old Beetle.

4)  Finally, this post over on Mostly Cajun, “What are you gonna live on?” pretty much sums up how I feel about the evils of technology.

Our use of technology does need to be a bit smarter (Why do we let all that wind power just go to waste? And who needs a 350 hp SUV to buy groceries?  Stuff like that.) but the “Good Old Days” sucked.

Categories: Geeky, observations

And now an important message from Dirty Harry…

February 26, 2005 1 comment

“Maybe I’m getting to the age when I’m starting to be senile or nostalgic or both, but people are so angry now.  You used to be able to disagree with people and still be friends.  Now you hear these talk shows, and everyone who believes differently from you is a moron and an idiot – both on the right and the left.”
- Clint Eastwood, responding to the ruckus over his movie, Million Dollar Baby.

I don’t know if Eastwood reads blogs, but the blogosphere is full of the same kind of rhetoric – even some of my favorite blogs on both the right and the left.  The battlefield is obscured by smoke.  It really is important for radicals on both ends of the spectrum to listen to each other and try to understand.  Then at least:

  • We could talk more about ideas, and less about personalities,

  • try to agree on what the issue is,
  • seek out commonly agreed-upon facts, and
  • try to find the third way

Soon as you do that, you discover a surprising thing: your opponents are more complex than the cartoons you imagined them to be.  You also find out that you share a lot of affections but approach them differently.  The knowledge makes good construction material for building bridges. 

Or ramparts,  when that is necessary.  At least you can attack your opponent for their actual ideas and actions and not for motives you imagine them to have.  (Or even those of their political affiliates.)

See also:  an excellent editorial by San Diego columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr., who says:

“Complexity is a good thing.  And it’s a shame you don’t see and hear more of it in our political debates.”

Categories: Blogging, Geeky

Nukes on

February 24, 2005 5 comments

Over at Compfused… The Power of Nukes, showing some really clear footage of nukes going off and their ground-level effects.  Lots I’d never seen before.

But how geeky is this?  Onscreen there are superweapons going off and I keep thinking about how the movie cameras were built that could accurately record the expansion of a nuclear explosion when it’s the size of a house and moving at maybe 0.1c. If I remember correctly they used rotating prisms instead of mechanical shutters to achieve rates of 10,000 frames per second or so – just barely high enough.

On a related note, check out this exhaustive list of nuclear accidents from the 1940’s through today.  If it’s true that we learn from our mistakes, the nuclear industry should be just about perfect by now. ;-)   Of course, if you tote up the fatalities and areas rendered unfit for human habitation, the nuclear industry is hardly unique.  All industry has risks, like the rather nontrivial risk to our global climate from the carbon-fuels industry. 

The nuclear industry may have a solution to the carbon-fuels problem, though it’s kind of funny that this article in Wired magazine treats the Three Mile Island accident as if it were the only one that ever happened.  Thoughts, anyone?

Categories: Geeky, observations

Culture clash in the sky

February 23, 2005 1 comment

Chicago Tribune reports in “Battle for the skies” that Boeing (which just moved its corporate HQ to the windy city) is reinventing itself as a systems integrator instead of an aircraft builder. They’re decentralizing, spreading risk and manufacturing capability all over the world.  The article is about how Boeing culture is being forcibly reinvented to counter Airbus competition. 

Especially compelling is an account of a meeting where Japanese consensus-based meeting style collided with American-style brainstorming.  Some excerpts:…

…“Boeing has given all its major partners a vote on matters that affect them. Engineers from Japan, Italy and elsewhere are stationed in Seattle and participate in top-level decision-making. Others routinely hook up via teleconference from around the world. A robust, computerized design system enables engineers around the globe to meet and propose changes on the spot.

“In my Dad’s time, you’d all be standing around the same drafting table,” Guirl said. “Now, there’s one drawing, a single model, but it is being made by a group of companies around the world.”…

Boeing’s biggest challenge has been working across cultural barriers. This came to light last summer when Boeing flew a team of design engineers to Nagoya, Japan, to focus on a seemingly mundane task: working together to eliminate parts from inside the 787’s wing. The idea was to mix groups of wing specialists from Seattle and Japan, so they could come up with a solution neither would develop on its own.

But as a moderator tried to jump-start creativity, he struggled against the tide. Engineers from Boeing sat on one side of the U-shaped table. Japanese engineers sat on the other. The space between them looked as forbidding as an empty dance floor.

Ideas bubbled from the Americans. Middle-aged men in polo shirts, they scribbled thoughts on Post-It notes, then bustled to press them onto the front wall. The notions sprouted like leaves on a canary-hued tree.

The Japanese barely spoke. A pair of jumpsuit-clad Mitsubishi engineers sat with eyes closed, either concentrating deeply or sleeping lightly.

The more the Americans prattled on, the less the Japanese had to say. If this was brainstorming, the Japanese didn’t get it.

“This is new culture for us,” said Masnori Yamaguchi, a Mitsubishi engineer, wrestling a bit with his second language. “At this time, I’m always shocking. It’s very culture shock.”

Boeing’s Mark Jenks, a former space-station designer in charge of developing the 787’s wing, explained that the American style is to dive into problems and attack them almost helter-skelter. That creates wasted effort, but it also leads to innovative solutions.

The Japanese, on the other hand, are more deliberate. They prefer to plan carefully and create a targeted series of tests to arrive at a high-quality solution…”

That must have been a tense meeting.  It will be interesting to see what the art of project management will learn from the 7E7 Dreamliner experiment. I have a hunch that whole business courses will be taught about it. (Registration required to view article) 

The courses may be taught about a company that used to exist.  This statement from a Boeing engineer explaining why no new competitors will enter the marketplace sounds especially foolhardy to me:

“It requires the wealth of nations anymore, over several decades, to establish yourself to the point where you can be competitive. Besides, the world only needs two providers,” said Walt Gillette, the chief engineer on the 787 program.

Categories: business, News

Muons against terrorism

February 23, 2005 Comments off

There’s an old joke that goes…

Boss:  “Nancy, get Kenner in here;  I’m going to fire him. All he ever does is sit back in his chair and look out the window!”
Nancy: “But boss, Kenner came up with all four of our most successful campaigns last year!”
Boss: (not skipping a beat)  “Well then, what are you waiting for?  Get someone up there to clean Kenner’s window for him!”

The curious scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory seem to be earning their keep.  It seems they’ve come up with a way to look right through trucks and shipping containers to detect nuclear bombs or radiation shielding.  They perform this important little trick using muons,  which are high-energy particles that constantly fall to Earth from outer space.  They pass right through most things but are deflected just a little by very dense materials like uranium, lead, or plutonium. 

You never know in advance when pure science will wind up turning into a useful technology.  The first time anyone detected “muons,” it must have seemed pretty esoteric and useless.  “What are those crazy scientists spending our money on, anyway?”  Now, it just might save entire cities by detecting a terrorist weapon.

Let’s get somebody out there to clean those scientists’ windows!

Categories: News, Science & Technology

With the right marketing…

February 22, 2005 2 comments

Do we need any more proof that there’s a whole class of pretentious people with lots of money but no taste?  Ok, here’s some:  a 4-year-old girl named Marla Olmstead does abstract paintings, which sell for $15,000.

Her mother is an artist, so naturally the child wanted to play with brushes.  Take a look at her gallery and see what you think. 

It’s pretty obvious who’s the driving force here… BBC News Online reports that her family says they see “elements of Jackson Pollack in her work.”  Do they, now?  Hey, I think my kids are pretty great, too. 

But to tell the truth, I never got Pollack, and I can’t believe a 4-year old named her paintings, “Fire Already,” “Ode to Pollack,” “Triptonic,” or “Asian Sun.”  More believable are the ones named “dinosaur,” “Face,” and “Monster.”

I actually like some of her paintings.  If one of my kids had done them, I’d be pretty happy about it, too.  But I don’t know the right people (or have sufficiently exploitive instincts) to push my 4-year-old kid onto the international stage just because I could.

“Despite prompting from her father, a giggling Marla refused to talk to BBC News Online about her work.”

Categories: Art, News

Random thoughts

February 21, 2005 6 comments

A few thoughts that flew into my head today:

  • Cats are mystified by all the moving we do.  All that activity, and so little cat food results from it!

  • Note to drivers:  judicious use of steering, brakes, throttle, and turn signals are far more effective than the horn for preventing collisions
  • We tell children, “Learning is fun!  Let’s stop lying to them.  Learning is work; and as entertainment, work is overrated.  But knowing is fun.
  • Political correctness is the new McCarthyism.  When the president of Harvard can’t express one unpopular thought during a long speech without his career being in jeopardy, what else would you call it?
  • Corrollary to previous point:  the woman who actually got “short of breath” and walked out at the offending sentence didn’t do the cause of equal rights any favors
  • Corrollary to previous corrollary:  philosophically speaking, if masculinism is garbage, what is feminism?
  • I’m kind of fond of humanism, myself

Shame on me…

Categories: Issues, News