Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Automatic Professor Machine -- Parts 1 & 2

After many years of taking part in discussions about technology in education, I decided to offer my views in a satirical lecture, "Introducing the Automatic Professor Machine."  It first appeared at a conference on the future of educational technologies at Pennsylvania State University in the late 1990s.  Among those in the audience were Ivan Illich and Neal Postman. When I announced that, "I've recently had a change of heart about these matters," an audible "gasp!" went up from the crowd.  Then I introduced my alter ego, Mr. L.C. Winner, CEO of the Educational Smart Hardware Alma Mater corporation, who proceeded to roll out his version of the fashionable arguments, brands and slogans of the period, flimflam still very much in vogue today.  Later I made a somewhat shortened video version of the lecture, but its "RM" encoding made it difficult to distribute.  Newly reformatted, it's now available in two parts on YouTube.  Enjoy!


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Automatic Professor Machine Captures China's Online Education Market

While traveling in China recently, I happened upon my old buddy and alter ego, L.C. Winner, CEO of EDUSHAM -- Educational Smart Hardware Alma Mater, Inc.  There he was in the middle of Pudong Airport, fresh from a trade show in Shanghai,  admiring  the new, improved model of his innovative APM – the Automatic Professor Machine.  

“How wonderful to see you, L.C.!” I said as we wandered off to the nearby food court.  “How’s the online education business going?”

“Well, the market’s really jumping over here,” he replied.  “We’ve installed the APM in thousands of locations all over China.  This is an education hungry country with a young, booming consumer economy.  Eager students and anxious parents are snapping up our lectures, courses, pre-written papers, and digital cram sessions faster than we can crank them out at our Foxconn Chengdu factory.   We estimate that EDUSHAM will grow 1,000% this year alone.”

“Wow!,” I exclaimed. “Does this mean you’ve left the U.S.A. completely, that you’re outsourcing your whole product line to the Far East?’

“Not completely,” he mused.  “There is still a big market for digital knowledge goods and services in America.  And we’re heartened by signs that some old obnoxious barriers to profitability –  teachers unions, public school systems, committed career teachers, and outmoded notions of ‘quality education’ – are under attack by concerned Republicans throughout the nation, in Wisconsin for example.  But you have to recognize that, for now at least, the distinctive blend of centralized political control and market frenzy that you find in China right now offers the most lucrative horizons.  I expect that the U.S. will get there eventually as old fashion educational institutions are foreclosed and their bankrupt tenants evicted.  But for now, this is the place to be.”

At that point I noticed that the “Departures” board had flashed the gate for my flight back home.   “Nice talking with you, L.C.  Keep in touch.”  

“I will.  Have a nice trip!” he shouted as he walked back to his brightly lit knowledge robot. “Hey, you know EDUSHAM has a great new slogan.   Want to hear it?”

“Sure,” I replied, moving toward the security check. 

“Virtual Students of the Future: There’s One Born Every Minute!”

"Do you like it?" 

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Update:  My irreverent satire from 2001, "Introducing The Automatic Professor Machine," unavailable for many years, has been remastered and is now available in two parts on YouTube.  I'll post direct links before too long. 

Election 2012 Campaign Song for Tea Party Republicans

Perfect song for the spirit and mentality of Tea Party Republicans: "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield," Randy Newman, accompanied by Ry Cooder.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The death of "The Career" in today's America?

As someone who works in "higher education," I'm increasingly struck by the ways in which the myths that have long surrounded our enterprise are being shattered.  Not that I celebrate these developments, mind you, but the evidence mounts that Toto has pulled away the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Oz frantically pulling levers connected to a vast smoke and mirror machine.  The chart above comes from a web site, Shareable: Life and Art, that covers this story closely.

One especially vivid description of the world that awaits those who have invested years of their young lives and assumed mountains of debt in the process is Sarah Idzik's article, "Unprepared: From Elite College to The Job Market."  A close friend, himself a denizen of this bizarre world, sent the piece to me and it's enough to make you cry, even if you're not a member of the education BIZ directly threatened as stories like this enter the stream of public awareness.  Ms Idzik writes:

"I was naïve about the real world much in the same way that I was naïve about academic life. I searched for jobs primarily on Craigslist. I didn’t know what to do with my resume. I only had enough money from my graduation gifts to last a couple of months unemployed in Chicago; after that, it would be back to suburban Pennsylvania. Looking at job postings, I realized I had no idea what I was even looking for. Jobs were scarce, let alone appealing gigs. Furthermore, I was totally unqualified, based on the advertised requirements, for anything but clerical administrative work. All that I had learned, all that I had overcome and accomplished, and here I was scanning dozens upon dozens of ads looking for the rare few with the words “administrative assistant” in them.
Not knowing what else to do, not having any clue or any direction, feeling the hot breath of unemployment breathing down my neck, I applied to all of them.

I managed to get lucky – and despite my degree, it does feel like luck. I had a job by July, one of the applications for which I had, by this point tired and getting lazy, attached my resume to an email and just dashed off a paragraph in the body about how great and bright I was. This is the same job I still have now, almost three years later—a gig at a small travel company typing and printing travel documents for unbelievably wealthy, entitled globetrotters who won’t read any of them. This was about as far from the highbrow literature of my undergraduate years as construction work. I was terrified to start an actual 9 to 5 job; it seemed like a myth, something surreal, something that couldn’t touch my life.

After starting, the disbelief soon gave way to misery. The day-to-day experience left me feeling utterly crushed. I wasn’t creating anything, I wasn’t even really doing anything of any consequence at all. I got on the bus every morning, exhausted, with all the other people who worked in offices downtown. I walked into the office every day, sat at the same desk, in the same chair, did the same things. I adopted the same bubbly, pleasant attitude as my coworkers, with whom I felt no connection at all. It made no sense to see them as real people I might connect with, since after all, I felt like this was not where I belonged: an office in an industry that had nothing to do with my life, in a job in which I had no real interest. I had nothing invested in my job or my employer, I did what I had to do: hammer out the work, play nice. But I felt all day long that I was inhabiting a strange bubble, separate from where I really lived my life, removed from anything that affected me or that I cared about."

  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
A close friend (who will remain nameless) who works at a very fine law school (that will also remain nameless), told me about some law school graduates who found that none of the great jobs they'd been promised were waiting for them at the end of the legal assembly line.  In response, they started a  blog or two to discuss the embarrassing situation, postings that angered university officials.  Especially worrisome for university brass was the fact that that the law school admissions pitch still sells the "Great Job Just Ahead!" idea to entice young debtors waiting in the cue.  When administrators from their alma mater approached, the students -- skilled negotiators, after all  --  offered a neat deal: We'll stop publishing these stories if you'll forgive our our law school debts.  

To my way of thinking, important, widespread realization in America right now is that the promise of a "career" made possible an education at an "elite university" is rapidly fading.  As news seeps out, what will happen?  What will happen to sky high tuitions along with the lavish salaries of university presidents and over-paid academic managers who never set foot in the classroom?

A booming voice proclaims: "PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!!!"

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Unlike US leaders, China sees future for clean tech

The useful web site, One Block Off the Grid, has an interesting article in graphic form: "Why China is Kicking Our Ass in Clean Tech."

The figures on bombs and rocket as compared to renewable energy are especially bleak.  The U.S. spends $41 for "defense" for each $1 spent on renewables.   In contrast, China budgets a mere $3 on "defense" for each dollar on renewables.  [Feeling more secure, folks?]

One category in which the U.S. makes a pretty good showing is in solar capacity.  The nation is up 3,100 megawatts to China's 800 magawatts.  Alas, the evidence shows that the flow of solar jobs is headed east.

[Thanks to sure fire energy analyst Brooks Winner for this link.]

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

China and the U.S. -- different time horizons

After a brief visit to China last week I’m again struck by the contrasts between that emerging powerhouse and the increasingly beleaguered U.S.A.  The mood in China is that of building – building offices, apartments, roads, high speed trains, tech parks, energy systems, universities, new industries, and a flourishing domestic consumer economy.  About many of these developments, coal fired and nuclear plants and non-stop shopping, for example, I have very grave misgivings.  While “green” technologies are prominently featured in the mix, the overall thrust of the building boom has “unsustainable” written all over it.  In its own terms, however, the project of rebuilding China is certainly impressive, a striking contrast to the economic, social and political torpor that infuses American life at present.
A good part of the difference lies in the time frame in which Chinese political and industrial leaders view their choices.  It is said that Hu Jintao’s focus for the success of policies and projects is a sixty year horizon focused upon the greater national good.  Thus, the energetic flurry of activity assumes the long view and leaves room for a good deal trial and error.   Indeed, the frantic building boom has already brought a number of catastrophic accidents, including last week’s high-speed rail crash on a line south of Shanghai.
Compare that to the horizons of U.S. firms in which the key emphasis rests on quarterly profit statements and how much the C.E.O. takes home in salary and stock options in the short term.  Far from building anything for the decades ahead, “leaders” in Washington and America’s heartland are fully in tear down rather than build-up mode, resembling liquidators at  going-out-of-business sale at an old, hardware store: “Prices slashed!  Everything Must Go!”  This is a remarkable departure from the country of my youth in California where massive building of institutions and infrastructures for the “Golden State” was an object of pride, an atmosphere kicked into an even higher gear by the shock posed by the launch of tiny Sputnik by the USSR.  In contrast, today’s mood echoes one of those old UK comedy routines -- “No Sex, please, we’re British.” – with our punch line, “No bold ambition please, we’re Americans!”  
In a visit to China in May 2009, I gave a lecture at the University of the National Academy of Sciences, commenting upon Barack Obama’s science and technology policy, noting its emphasis upon new initiatives and the need to revitalize the nation’s efforts in education, research, development, and “innovation.”  Recently re-branded as WTF—Win the Future -- what a risible fantasy all that seems now, a short two years later,  as far right republicans have seized the steering wheel and Obama has retreated into mumbling and stumbling on the nation’s newly discovered, most urgent challenges – debt, deficits, spending cuts, and the great new era -- Austerity.  So the road forward evidently involves slashing forward-looking programs, shredding the social safety net, dismantling public education, removing subsidies for renewable energy and conservation, de-funding research, continuing failed military adventures, maintaining Bush’s futile war on terror (under new rubrics), and, in general, moving rapidly away from any public projects that seek to realize a better future.  WTF appears to mean: What The F*@#!
The organization Van Jones established recently certainly has an appropriate name:  Rebuilding the America Dream.  So far it’s attracted a lot of spirited interest.  But one has to wonder from abundant evidence on all sides, whether the idea matches our historical moment. 
 * * * * * * * * * 

Update:  The possibility that China is headed for a real estate crash bears watching.  Mike Davis' essay, "Crash Club: What Happens When Three Sputtering Economies Collide?", surveys the clouds on the horizon.  Actually, the skyline of enormous cranes busily at work in Shenyang at present, transforming an old industrial city into a modern technopolis, reminds  me of Madrid six or seven years ago, a real estate market that has now collapsed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Statistics on record breaking heat the U.S.A.

Records published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's  National Climatic Data Center indicate that July 2001 is one of the hottest in history.  So far, there have been record-setting  "highest minimum temperature" levels in an astonishing number of towns and cities around the country:"Out of a possible 68,672 records: 708 (Broken) + 544 (Tied) = 1,252 Total." 

A nicely prepared table with overall totals as well as state-by-state temperatures is worth a look. Data like these (which can only distress a worried populace) are another example of what conservatives like to call "interference of Big Government in our lives."  Of course, all true believers know that global warming is a hoax and will not be distracted by annoying evidence to the contrary.  Hence, a good way to relieve fears about climate change would be to cut the National Climatic Data Center in the budget Obama and Congress are negotiating.  That would cool things down.

Battle of the Giants: Facebook blocks Google+

While I'm undecided about which massive force to side with (if any) it's clear that Facebook sees Google+ as a threat to its "social networking" empire of several hundred million users.  The excerpt below from the International Business Times offers a  mundane example of a political artifact at work in the realm of corporate power.

"...for some incomprehensible reason Facebook simply wants to shut all doors and develop the network inside its own boundaries. In a matter of days, Facebook slammed the door for Open-Xchange's OX.IO export tool - A service which merge data from all your networks and address books to create your "magic" address book. This is the second time in a week Facebook has shut the exit door for data that users upload. In an act that can be called the height of desperation, Facebook had earlier blocked a Google Chrome extension developed for exporting Facebook Friends' lists to Google's hot social networking venture Google+."

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"
  -- from the old radio program, The Shadow

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Fusion Reactor: an energy source that burns money

     The JET, Joint European Torus, nuclear fusion research plant in Culham, Oxfordshire UK 

The New York Times has a wonderfully nostalgic op-ed piece that echoes fantasies of technological omnipotence of the 1950s.  Stewart C. Prager, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, argues that "an abundant, safe and clean energy source once thought to be the stuff of science fiction is closer than many realize: nuclear fusion."

I've been reading articles of this sort for decades.  I place them in a file of colorful materials labeled: "Science funding promotional hype."  To his credit, Prof. Prager delivers the pitch as eloquently as any of the fusion boosters of past six decades.

"It is essentially inexhaustible and it can be created using hydrogen isotopes — chemical cousins of hydrogen, like deuterium — that can readily be extracted from seawater.

Fusion energy is created by fusing two atomic nuclei, in the process converting mass to energy, which appears as heat. The heat, as in conventional nuclear fission reactors, turns water into steam, which drives turbines to generate electricity, or is used to produce fuels for transportation or other uses.
Fusion energy generates zero greenhouse gases. It offers no chance of a catastrophic accident. It can be available to all nations, relying only on the Earth’s oceans. When commercialized, it will transform the world’s energy supply"

It's no surprise that an essay of this kind appears soon after the ongoing calamity at the Fukushima reactors has tarnished, perhaps once and for all, the reputation of nuclear fusion reactors and the industry's lovely refrain: "Clean, safe, too cheap to meter!"  And perhaps it's no coincidence that a puff piece of this kind comes at a time when the budget cutters in Washington, D.C. are looking for items items to trim from Obama's WFT (Win the Future) wish list.  To his credit, Prager notes that costs for research and development will be quite high.

"We need serious public investment to develop materials that can withstand the harsh fusion environment, sustain hot plasma indefinitely and integrate all these features in an experimental facility to produce continuous fusion power. This won’t be cheap. A rough estimate is that it would take $30 billion and 20 years to go from the current state of research to the first working fusion reactor."

Ah, yes...with just little more money and little more time we can save the world....

Evidently, nobody has the gumption to ask an obvious question:  Wasn't it twenty years back, forty years back, and even earlier that members of your tribe made the same projections and promises?  

The Age of Austerity: Obama asks America to put its house in order

 Daily Kos pretty much sums up the mood of liberals and progressives about the extent to which Obama has adopted not only the language, but also the vision of Herbert Hoover and other opponents of the New Deal.

"In the past week, we witnessed the truly astonishing spectacle of a wide array of Democratic Congressional leaders feeling it necessary to stand up to a Democratic President in order to defend the programs and values that have defined the Democratic Party since the Great Depression. Just think about that. And now some consider it a victory that there probably won't be any immediate cuts to Social Security, even though there will be a trillion or more in overall budget cuts, without any major increases in revenue. And cutting Social Security is now safe to discuss on both sides of the aisle. To use digby's own comparison, only Nixon could go to China; and while Reagan and the Bushes did not even seriously try, a Democratic president may be opening the door to the dismantling of the New Deal."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Inside the debt reduction talks


There seem to be few if any photos from the inner chambers where deliberations about the looming calamity of an Obama/Congress debt "deal" are taking place.

To fill the gap, this painting, Francisco Goya's "Duelo a garrotazos" (duel with cudgels), 1819-1823, with two young men, legs stuck in the mud, perpetually flailing away at each other, captures the spirit of what passes for "serious" economic and policy thinking in Washington, D.C. these days.  It's one of the works in Goya's series of "Black Paintings" produced after he'd withdrawn from his career as artist for the Spanish crown.

I wonder, which of today's artists and works adequately convey the deranged, rudderless trajectories of American social, economic and political life as the new century unfolds?  One nominee would certainly be David Simon and his masterful series of Goyaesque video black paintings, "The Wire."

Friday, July 08, 2011

When the rich stop paying their share -- empires collapse

Writing in the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris imagines that America's plutocrats may well be repeating a familiar historical pattern: "the willingness of the rich to defend their wealth from taxation to the point of national ruin". 

"The Han dynasty in China fell in the third century AD after aristocratic families with government connections became increasingly able to shield their ever-larger land holdings from taxation, which helped precipitate the bloody Yellow Turban peasant revolt. Nearly a millennium and a half later, the great Ming dynasty went into protracted decline in part for similar reasons: unable or unwilling to raise taxes on the landed gentry, the government couldn’t pay its soldiers and was overrun by Manchu invaders. In the fifteenth century, the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus persuaded his reluctant nobles to accept higher taxes, with which he built a professional military that beat back the invading Ottomans. But after his death the resentful barons placed a weak foreign prince on the throne and got their taxes cut 70 to 80 percent. When their undisciplined army lost to Suleiman the Magnificent, Hungary lost its independence.
Similarly, the cash-strapped sixteenth-century Spanish monarchy sold municipal and state offices off to wealthy elites rather than raise their taxes—giving them the right to collect public revenues. The elites, in turn, raised taxes on commerce, immiserating peasants and artisans and putting Spain on a path of long-term economic decline. This same practice of exempting the wealthy from taxation and selling them government offices while transferring the tax burden onto the poor reached its apogee in ancien regime France and ended with the guillotine."

Glastris' source for these examples is Francis Fukuyama's book The Origins of Political Order.
So, folks, keep your popcorn ready and TV set on for the next several weeks; you may be able to watch our national march of folly carry us right over the cliff, the rich leading the parade!

New hope for high tech gadgets

Somewhere on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, scientists have discovered vast amounts of rare earth minerals -- gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, and others -- used in the production of electronic equipment including such popular items as the iPad.  Thus, he longevity of high tech gadgets seems bright, although the population of their users is still on the "endangered" species list.