Sunday, December 16, 2007

Google's KNOL

As noted in Business Week on December 14, 2007, Google has invited a select group of 'authorities' to write authoritative articles, to be called knols, on a wide variety of topics. Google's driving idea is to create an on-line reference source that competes with wikipedia as a first go-to source for reference knowledge. Instead of a 'neutral' wiki, which can be endlessly modified by a community of readers, knols will have a single authorial slant, much like an entry in a standard encylcopedia.

Rumors are floating around that there will be opportunities to comment and initiate dialogues about knols. So maybe the knol will evolve as a genuinely new form of reference material that takes advantage of the best features of traditional published reference (authorial credibility) and the web, including next-to-no-cost space and storage, and community interaction.

Here is Google's post on knols, from VP of engineering Udi Manber, from December 13, 2007:

Earlier this week, we started inviting a selected group of people to try a new, free tool that we are calling "knol", which stands for a unit of knowledge. Our goal is to encourage people who know a particular subject to write an authoritative article about it. ...

The key idea behind the knol project is to highlight authors. Books have authors' names right on the cover, news articles have bylines, scientific articles always have authors -- but somehow the web evolved without a strong standard to keep authors names highlighted. We believe that knowing who wrote what will significantly help users make better use of web content.

The worry, as many commentators have already noted, is that Google the search engine may slide into ranking knols above other reference sources such as wikipedia, essentially driving web trafiic to itself!

Shitty Art

Santiago Sierra, an artist whose works make use of pollution and toxic materials, has a new show featuring megaliths of human excrement

Elena Crippa, the curator of the London gallery displaying the works, said Sierra’s intention is to confront audiences with the horror faced by scavengers, the so-called untouchables who traditionally clean private toilets and outhouses in India.

The Chicago Sun Times comments:

Art from excrement has a long pedigree. In 1961, Italian Piero Manzoni produced 90 cans of ‘‘Artist’s (Poo),’’ each labeled as containing one ounce of ‘‘freshly preserved’’ material. In 1999, British artist Chris Ofili’s rendition of the Virgin Mary on a canvas spattered with elephant dung brought protest when it went on display with other sensational works at The Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York.

Sierra’s work is on a different scale. His 21 dark, crackled (and odorless) monuments are lined up like headstones. Although their power seems muted in the gallery’s harsh white space, visitors interviewed still seemed impressed, if not exactly shocked, by his choice of material.

Portable Brain Scanner for Fun and Profit

Do you remember the Luscher Color test? The kit came with a set of 8 color cards and a book. You asked your 'subject' to place the 8 cards in order of preference, and then read a unique psychological diagnosis out of the book. VERY SCARY.
But now we have a wonderful portable brain scanner from Hitachi. No more cards, no more book: just an instant read-out that instantly lets you know who you are. VERY SCARY.

Self Exposure Grocery Bag

Here (pictured on the right, above) is a convenience for frequent flyers: a see-through tote for your see-through vials and bottles.

And here (left, above) is another new tote trend: Trend Hunter Magazine has seen Anya Hindmarch’s fashionable "I am Not a Plastic Bag" tote bag worn over the shoulders of celebrity fashionists who are simultaneously carrying loads of plastic bags in hand. Seeing that these celebrities don't "get it," Marissa V. has created a counter-tote with the words "I am not a Smug Twat".

Thursday, November 29, 2007

National Novel Writing Month Comes to an End

In April I spoke about the National Novel Writing Month and its manual, No Plot, No Problem. At that time I did not mention that I would be taking the Nanowrimo challenge and writing a novel in November 2007. The month is over and while my novel is not complete, I have passed the fifty thousand word minimum word limit. I am mostly through part 2 of a three part novel entitled Artemis Alexander.

The process has been liberating for me. I am a fan of Kenneth Atchity's approach to writing non-fiction as developed in A Writer's Time, in which the mantra is "Don't write the first word of the first draft until you know the last word of the last draft." This approach has saved me from many false starts and, despite all of the front loading in the writing process, has made my essay writing more efficient.

But I have wanted to try my hand at fiction, and when i have tried the same approach I haven't been able to get anything going.

So starting on November 1st I took the recommendation of Chris Baty in No Plot No Problem. I conjured up some characters, put them in some scenes, and watched them interact, writing as I watched. Things came together surprisingly smoothly.

I have no ambitions for my novel. But the experience was priceless, and I learned a lot about writing I never could have learned by writing philosophical essays -- or reading anything about writing.

Proof of Purchase

From Norman Oklahoma comes Proof of Purchase, a fascinating meditation on life in these commercial times. Zen like obervations in the here and now, written on daily receipts. As one reviewer on stumbledupon noted, the ordinariness of the reflections and the receipts from familiar places such as Starbucks and Panera create a sense of immediate recognition. Like a story by Raymond Carver, or a poem by William Carlos Williams or Basho.

Getting it On and Getting Down -- Automatically

From South Africa comes the latest in contraception, the pronto condom As the link explains, by the time the young gentleman gets the condom out of the foil and figures out which end is up, there may be little interest left in getting down. Hence the need for a condom that rolls itself on automatically, right out of the foil. There is a powerful demonstration for those with sufficient courage to watch it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Zen and Action: Take Two

I am a weakling for all of those little tricks of self-management that are supposed to help me live more intelligently. Some are supposed to make me more intuitive. Others are supposed to do just the oppostie -- make me more explicit and rational about what I'm doing. Some of these work, some don't. Some work too well in that they increase efficiency while distracting me from the larger picture. Although this area is full of snares and delusions it is probably unavoidable. We live, we fail, we take thought and seek guidance, we self-correct.

A new book, Zen To Done, by Leo Babauta (founder of the Zen Habits blog) offers to help us become more productive by simplfying our lives. Productivity and Zen hardly sound like happy bedfellows to me, but Zen is certainly about simplicity. Maybe the light at the end of the tunnel is the product appearing in itself without productivity. But until we are all there . . .

Todd at WE THE CHANGE prepared a review of Zen to Done and marveled at the simplicity of Leo's suggestions.

One so-called Zen habit is mastering “ubiquitous capture,” that is collecting what is valuable in the constant flow of information. Leo Babauta suggests using a small note pad and pen, not your laptop of PDA. Another is immersing yourself completely in the task at hand, rather than e.g. attending away to background music or checking email every ten minutes. A third is having frequent meetings with yourself to go over taks and rehearse solutions. I like this one because it enables me to do some thinking and anticipating prior to action, which facilitates being centered, relaxed and flexible in action. I always try to claim at least an hour of solitude every day, more if I can get it, to 'do nothing' except imagine. The rest of the day tends to disappear but on most days little remains undone.

Vegetables are the Next Thing

The blog You Grow Girl reports on the next big thing: vegetables. More specifically, growing your own vegetables?

Quoting an article from the Toronto Star

Quite simply, the Next Big Thing is going to be veggies. Lots and lots of veggies. Heirloom tomatoes, offbeat salad greens and stuff like that. All organically grown, of course. By us.

The article adds:

I’ve never been interested in announcing trends because my fear is that once you announce something as a fad its shelf-life decreases — I am much more interested in real, long-term change. However veggie gardening and urban agriculture aren’t just passing flavors-of-the-week but lifestyle choices many gardeners have been quietly going about their business with for a long time and I think I speak for many of us when I say that we are more than happy to see its popularity rise exponentially.

I wonder whether it is just a coincidence, but Dr. Veronica and her Mom, Zoya ('The Hammer') spent many hours this summer gardening in our community garden plot. Roughly 80% of our food from mid June through October 15 came out of that plot.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Free Hugs

Touching bottom and coming back up.
The Free Hugs Campaign started when the founder (identified as "Juan Mann", a pseudonym and a homonym of "one man"),like so many people in our ever-more-fragmented social world, found himself without friends or family even in his own home town.

He needed a hug. Badly.

He made a "free hugs" sign and stood on a busy street. First one, then several, and finally many people came to hug him, then one another.

How it all started:

I'd been living in London when my world turned upside down and I'd had to come home. By the time my plane landed back in Sydney, all I had left was a carry on bag full of clothes and a world of troubles. No one to welcome me back, no place to call home. I was a tourist in my hometown.

Standing there in the arrivals terminal, watching other passengers meeting their waiting friends and family, with open arms and smiling faces, hugging and laughing together, I wanted someone out there to be waiting for me. To be happy to see me. To smile at me. To hug me.

So I got some cardboard and a marker and made a sign. I found the busiest pedestrian intersection in the city and held that sign aloft, with the words "Free Hugs" on both sides.

And for 15 minutes, people just stared right through me. The first person who stopped, tapped me on the shoulder and told me how her dog had just died that morning. How that morning had been the one year anniversary of her only daughter dying in a car accident. How what she needed now, when she felt most alone in the world, was a hug. I got down on one knee, we put our arms around each other and when we parted, she was smiling.

Everyone has problems and for sure mine haven't compared. But to see someone who was once frowning, smile even for a moment, is worth it every time.

The police intervened. No free hugs around here, you weirdos.

The campaign to legalize free hugs acquired 10,000 signatures and the right to hug has been restored.

Inspiring Video.

See more about Free Hugs at Wikipedia

Social Foundations of Conflict

The Pentagon, according to Danger Room, an on-line feature of Wired Magazine, is providing seed money for a new interdisciplinary academic field, the Social Foundations of Conflict. Scholars in the Social Foundations of Education should have much to contribute.

Lockheed recently won a $1.3 million, 15-month contract from the Defense Department to help develop the "Integrated Crises Early Warning System, or ICEWS. The program is intended to "let military commanders anticipate and respond to worldwide political crises and predict events of interest and stability of countries of interest with greater than 80 percent accuracy," the company claims. "Rebellions, insurgencies, ethnic/religious violence, civil war, and major economic crises" will all be predictable. So will "combinations of strategies, tactics, and resources to mitigate [against those] instabilities."

David Honey, who heads DARPA's Strategic Technology Office, says that "increasingly it’s social, cultural, political and economic information, foreign language capabilities and other clues – that are proving essential."

The design for the project proposes a three step process:

Step one: dump everything we know about a country like Iraq, and “create [software] agents that mirror the actual communities.”

Step two: make these agents even more realistic, by “leverag[ing] the hundreds of social, cultural, and behavioral theories” about why people act the way they do.

Step three: let commanders run mock battle plans against these modeled Iraqis, to see how they might react.

The project aims at high levels of predictability, and has certainly drawn its share of skeptics.

“Wait a minute, you can’t tell me who’s going to a win a football game. And now you’re going to replicate free will?” Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, who helped write the Army's manual on defusing insurgencies, tells Danger Room.

“They are smoking something they shouldn't be," retired Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper recently quipped to Science Magazine.

Readers of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink may wonder whether commanders armed with ICEWS running mock battles against counterparts armed with nothing but years of relevant experience might not get their you-know-whats whipped very badly

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Zen of Attraction

From Graham English comes the Ten Zen Laws of Attraction

Ten Principles To The Zen Of Attraction

1.Promise Nothing
Just do what you most enjoy doing.
Hidden benefit: You will always over-deliver.

2. Offer Nothing
Just share what you have with those who express an interest in it.
Hidden benefit: Takes the pressure off of wanting other people to see you as valuable or important.

3. Expect Nothing
Just enjoy what you already have. It’s plenty.
Hidden benefit: You will realize how complete your life is already.

4. Need Nothing

Just build up your reserves and your needs will disappear.
Hidden benefit: You boundaries will be extended and filled with space.

5. Create Nothing
Just respond well to what comes to you.
Hidden benefit: Openness.

6. Hype Nothing

Just let quality sell by itself.
Hidden benefit: Trustability.

7. Plan Nothing
Just take the path of least resistance.
Hidden benefit: Achievement will become effortless.

8. Learn Nothing

Just let your body absorb it all on your behalf.
Hidden benefit: You will become more receptive to what you need to know in the moment.

9. Become No One

Just be more of yourself.
Hidden benefit: Authenticity.

10. Change Nothing
Just tell the truth and things will change by themselves.
Hidden benefit: Acceptance.

Warning: Road Music Ahead

Yesterday the blog Deputydog featured a musical highway. Thousands of very precise grooves cut into the road make the car vibrate at different pitches.

There is a link to a video where you can experience driving over the road and listening to the tune.

This is a poor man's answer to Sirius and XM.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Ultimate Crossover: James Brown and Luciano Pavorotti

Here is the ultimate crossover, the marriage of Bel Canto and Soul. And it works.

Grabbed from the spiky blog Troubling Information

But you can also catch it direct at You Tube

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Trendy Solar Homes Designed by University Students

David Pogue at The New York Times has an article on the "Solar Decathelon" where 20 award-winning solar homes designed by university students from around the world are on display. The Decathelon is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, which defrays the costs of transporting the winning entries to the show.

Pogue writes:

The point of the event is to illustrate that “solar” no longer means “hippy hangout,” “ugly box” or “Spartan shack.” The homes are gorgeous on the inside, and, usually, on the outside. (Rules limit the house to 800 square feet, not counting porches, patios, and gardens; that, and the necessity to get them to Washington on trucks, dictated a certain boxiness to some of the floor plans.)
There was nothing Spartan about these homes.

These houses are completely “off the grid”—they’re not connected to the utility companies. Yet the teams have to live like normal Americans. Using only power from the sun, they have to keep the TV on six hours a day, run the computer five hours a day, cook meals, wash dishes, do two loads of laundry a week, take four 15-minute hot showers a week, keep the temperature between 70 and 78 degrees, maintain 40 to 60 percent humidity, and recharge an electric two-seater car (that’s the “getting around” part).

In short, they have to prove that living on solar power does not involve sacrifice. Far from it. Some of these houses had hot tubs, outdoor hot showers, SubZero refrigerators, mood lighting and full-blown home-entertainment systems.

Plastic Eating Worms

Lug worms, a favorite of anglers and fish, are bottom feeders, eating the platics that break down on the ocean floor.

Since lugworms are sediment-feeders and low in the food chain, the contaminants will be concentrated when the worms are eaten by fish and crabs.

Emma Teuten at the University of Plymouth, UK, according to The New Scientist, has demonstrated in the lab that grains of plastic are much better than grains of sand or silt at adsorbing the common pollutant phenanthrene from water. Phenanthrene belongs to a family of hydrocarbons linked with cancers and respiratory problems, and plastic particles soak up 1000 times more of it than natural ones. "They kind of mop it up out of seawater like a sponge," says Teuten.

Larry Lessig on Supercapitalism

Larry Lessig's Blog has a rich review of Robert Reich's new book, Supercapitalism, and a very interesting string of comments.

Here is an excerpt:

Reich says we have entered a period of Supercapitalism -- a time when competition has grown dramatically, and when half of us (meaning half of each of us, or at least half) more effectively demand lower prices in the product and service market place and higher returns in the investment market place. This hyper competition is forcing extraordinary rationalization in both markets. Wal-Marts and an exploding stock market are the consequence. The half of us that lives in the product/service and investment markets have been rewarded by this competition. Supercapitalism is producing super-efficiency, at least here.

The problem, from Reich's (and my) perspective, is that the other half of us - the part that thinks not as an actor in a market, but as a citizen - has atrophied. That is, the half of us (again, of each of us - Reich's point is that each of us has these two parts) that demands that government set sensible and efficient limits on private action has atrophied. Deep skepticism about government has made most of us turn away from it as a tool of sensible policy making. We instead (and this is a truly brilliant part of the book) turn to corporations to make good policy in government's stead. We push for "corporate social responsibility" and praise corporations who agree to do the "good" thing, imagining that this means something other than the "money making" thing. This, Reich says, is "politics diverted" - trusting companies to do good policy rather than getting government to set good policy, imagining "corporate social responsibility" will produce something different from corporations maximizing profits.

Verbal Conversation Clock

From Information Aesthetics comes a fascinating instrument for visualizing the social dynamicas of groups.

The clock is a real-time data visualization displaying a representation of conversation to all people present. The graph shows turn-taking, domination, interruption & activity throughout a conversation.

Look at the image on the left.

The Conversation Clock makes tick marks along concentric rings; like the minute hand on a clock, each cycle contains a single minute of tick marks. The inner rings represent earlier times in the history of the conversation.

Note the changing colors. Each tick mark is colored according to the microphone from which input was received & sized to indicate the amplitude of the associated waveform, so activity & turn-taking become easy to observe, including people not speaking versus dominating the conversation, or aspects such as interruption, silences, and argument also make visual impressions on the table.

This tool would provide useful feedback to participants in group dialogues; people very rarely have accurate awareness about how they are behaving in groups.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

All Natural Cemeteries with Google Maps

The Forever Fernwood Cemetary in Mill Valley California features all natural burials.

No Embalming is permitted, and you have to use a biodegradable casket if you use one at all. To preserve the rainforests, no exotic woods, like teak or mahogany, can be used. Most of the dear departed are, in fact, buried without casket or shroud, after being shipped in on dry ice.

Land conservation is a major part of the pitch. One of the company's goals is to conserve land that might otherwise be developed. Few companies would try to develop a mini-mall over gravesites.

"Your last act of life," Boileau said, "becomes one of land preservation."

No Grave markers are permitted. "We issue the family a Google map with the GPS coordinates," said Jay Boileau, executive vice president of Forever Enterprises, owner of the 32-acre facility.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Man Texting While Driving Hits Train

Robert Gillespie, 38, was text messaging on his cell phone yesterday In Eugene Oregon when he drove into a frieght train. Amazingly, he was alert and talking when police arrived at the scene and found him trapped in his car.

''There are all kinds of ways to get distracted these days,'' said Eugene police spokeswoman Kerry Delf. ''We don't recommend any of them while you're driving.''

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Pod People

Schools are struggling with students who bring their iPods to school. But some schools are joining the iPod generation rather than fighting it.

These schools are employing iPods as tools to increase bi-lingual abilities and as adjuncts to lessons in just about all subjects. The schools purchase iPods in bulk and load them with video and audio lessons. Some buy the devices for all students; others buy enough to hand out in classes. Some are finally allowing or even encouraging students to bring their own iPods to school, so that the lesson files can be loaded.

In one recent class at Jose Marti school in New Jersey, Spanish speaking eighth-grade students mouthed the words to the English language rock song “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s as they played the tune on the iPods over and over again. The braver ones sang out loud.

“It speaks to me,” said Stephanie Rojas, 13, who moved here last year from Puerto Rico and now prefers to sing in English. “I take a long time in the shower because I’m singing, and my brothers are like, ‘Hurry up!’”

Grace Poli, a media specialist at Jose Marti, said her Spanish-speaking students — known around the school as Pod People — have been able to move out of bilingual classes after just a year of using the digital devices, compared with an average of four to six years for most bilingual students.

Read about it here

Monday, October 8, 2007

What's Next? -- Business 2.0 Closes Shop

Business 2.0 will close its print edition with the current issue, October 2007, Volume 8 #9.

Next Things has found inspiration in the magazine's "What's Next?" feature, in which ten new hi-tech ideas are explained. Readers of Next Things will find three items in the final issue interesting:

  • A Projector for Cell Phones: a small chip inserted in your cel phone that allows you to project images from the screen onto the wall. O.K., you store your power point presentation in the cell memory and you can give a quickie presentation to your elevator companions as soon as the door closes. Better than Musack!

  • A Table Touchscreen: an Intra-net built right into the nearest tabletop, to pipe web-content to those around the table. This would be great for those classrooms where the teacher says "turn to page 76" and nothing happens. Now she just hits a button and page 76 is right in front of everyone.

  • E-paper Screens for Reading e-newspapers and E-books: e-paper is a thin screen technology that is more natural than LCD screens, mimicking the look and feel of real ink on real paper. Looks like the folks in silicon valley have finally discovered the 'real' hi-tech device . . . paper. better luminosity, portability, disposability, and energy efficiency. If things keep going in this direction the wave of the future may be e-cuniform.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Plastic Ice Cream Cones Don't Leak

If you just can't stand it when your cake ice cream cone starts to leak all over your pants and your kids make fun of you, you are in luck.

Plastic ice cream cones, now available in several neon colors, are guaranteed not to leak, and can be washed and re-used for all eternity.

The bad news is that it is hard to get to the melted ice cream at the bottom of the cone.

TV Guide to Offer Fix for TV Addiction

Are you suffering? TV Guide has something for you!!

The Guide has introduced a new “We’ll get you through the week.” advertising campaign.

Read all about it at:

“The new TV Guide is about the fans, about the passionate viewers — it’s not about somebody who looks at railway timetables,” Ian Birch, the Editor in Cheif, said.

“If you have a favorite show, you really go through what we consider a withdrawal period,” said Alan Cohen, TV Guide International’s chief marketing officer. “This campaign is all about positioning TV Guide as the source for getting your fix and feeding your need during that six day and 23 hour period.”

The “We’ll get you through the week” campaign announces that the Guide’s print and on-line vehicles can give ardent fans get a therapeutic dose of their favorite programs during the anxious days between installments.

Richard Dorfman, of investment firm Richard Alan, noted that “the ads are saying ‘we’re going to give you your fix.’

To promote the changes, TV Guide International increased its marketing budget from under $1 million last year to $20 million this year!

Should someone call the police?

Friday, October 5, 2007

Speed Reading Slowing You Down? Try Photo Reading!

Personal development specialist Steve Pavlina recommends the reading course Photo Reading by Learning Strategies Inc.

The main benefits, according to both Pavlina and the company, are these:

Read books at least 3 times faster. Some books you'll be able to read 10 times faster -- or more.

Read more books. The faster you read, the more you can read.

Read faster online. PhotoReading adapts nicely to online articles and blog posts. You'll be amazed at how quickly you can blast through this site's 500+ free articles.

Extract ideas more efficiently. PhotoReading's nonlinear, multipass reading strategies allow you to extract the key ideas from a book without getting sidetracked by the fluff.

Avoid reading lousy books. In just a few minutes, you'll determine whether a book is worth reading... or discarding. You'll love using this technique the next time you visit a bookstore.

Improve your memory. Because you're focused on idea extraction instead of scanning every word, you'll retain more of what you read.

Enjoy reading more. PhotoReading keeps your mind fully engaged, so reading becomes much more stimulating.

Photo Reading may be a good bookstore or library practice. Pick a topic, go to the shelf, gather up all the books, and put them down in half an hour.

May also work for your blogroll. Go through that baby before breakfast and extract something useful.

Its a tad manic, but it can get the job done.

I prefer curling up with a good book, but what does that have to do with Photo Reading?

Monday, August 27, 2007

What Kind of Universal Health Insurance Plan

One new thing on the campaign trail is John Edward's advocacy for universal health insurance. To explore what kind of a program makes sense I want to start with an analogy.

I'm a homeowner like many of you. Even though my mortgage is paid up, I still purchase homeowners insurance. My policy covers fire, storm, and major theft, with a large deductable. These are the BIG RISKS. And that is what insurance is for, spreading the BIG RISKS so that no one has to face them alone without adequate resources.

If your house is like mine, it occasionally needs a new roof. If it has lovely cedar shingle siding, it has to be painted from time to time. These maintenance operations do not come cheap. So why wouldn't I insure my roof or shingles?

The answer is: these are issues of predictable maintenance. They are not RISKS to spread. I have to install a new roof every twenty years and paint my siding every ten years, and so does every other homeowner. There is no point in sharing the expenses through insurance, as we would all pay exactly the same as if we paid out of pocket, PLUS the markup and profit for the insurance company.

Now of course there are other unpredictable risks in home ownership. A neighbor's kid once hit a golf ball through my kitchen window. Lucky for me, his dad paid for the repair. But if he hadn't I would have paid for it myself -- about $100. So in this case I SELF INSURE for these risks because they are not BIG RISKS -- I don't have to get an insurance company involved and pay its fees and profits -- I can afford take care of the problem myself out of pocket and not spread the risk.


Now lets apply these to universal health insurance.

Any one of us can be hit by a rare brain cancer or heart irregularity, entailing hours of expensive specialist care, hospital visits, expensive drugs and operations. These are BIG RISKS. Because they can hit anyone but only hit a few, and because these few can rarely cover the expenses out of pocket, we use insurance to spread the risks. These are akin to a fire burning or a storm blowing my house down.

It might not be a bad idea to get a physical exam every year (or every decade). Actually, it may be a bad idea, but I don't want to consider that here. OK. That is ORDINARY MAINTENANCE. It is like painting your cedar shingles. The costs may be a tad high but can be handled by working and middle class families by starting a special budget line called "home maintainance" in their budget, and putting in a few dollars a week. It makes no sense to involve insurance in ordinary mainteninace as there are no risks to spread but many additional costs to add if an insurance product is used. The insurance is a cost without any benefit.

Finally, I might occasionally get a cold or the flu, or feel chest pains or feel dizzy. These things happen. All of us make our own judgments about whether and when to visit a doctor to get a prescription or a medical test. Here the initial risks are real but they are SMALL RISKS, like the chance of a kid hitting a golf ball through your window. The costs are real but manageable for middle class families, so, just as in the case of the golf ball in the window, we should SELF-INSURE. Suppose the doc, in his $100 visit which I fork out from cash in my pocket, discovers that what we took to be a cold was TB, or what we took to be gastric discomfort was stomach cancer? Well, then we are back to BIG RISKS, which should be spread. So you pay the first $100 through your deductable and your insurance covers the rest.

OK. Well, that leaves a few questions about kids, poor people, and seniors. This gets us deeper into the area of health policy.

The very young, the very old, and the very poor are all also very vulnerable. With children and seniors a little thing can become big unless handled swiftly. Society may want to have broad health insurance for its youngest and oldest members, without humiliating means-testing, so a worried MOM or the CHILD of an AGED PARENT can get her family member to the doc right away. It might be argued that from a narrowly economic point of view this is ORDINARY MAINTENANCE and hence should simply be handled in the family budget. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe the peace of mind that comes from being able to rush off to the doctor without concerning yourself about money makes it worth bearing a small extra-rational cost. This may be the basis for broad universal Medicare coverage even for those who can pay their own medical expenses.

Very poor families, however, simply cannot put the necessary money in a household budget line. Every penny has to be allocated to food and shelter and clothing. Clearly basic health care for those who are very young or very old, and also very poor, should be covered by social insurance. This is a matter of simple human dignity. This is why we have Medicaid and why so many are willing to opt for universal coverage of kids on analogy with Medicare's universal coverage of seniors.

On the other hand, those annual adut physicals and the like are ORDINARY HEALTH MAINTENANCE, and for working and middle class families this is simply not a sensible item for insurance, any more than roof replacements or home painting. Adding the insurance costs and profits -- PLUS all of the unnecessary doctors visits, prescriptions, and medical tests -- PLUS all of those excess employees in the doc's opffice doing the paper work, PLUS all the crazy insurance gate keeping --can drive the docs nuts and bankrupt the country, without adding anything socially useful. There are simply no risks to spread in such cases. If the society wants to encourage personal health responsibility, it can promote personal health accounts where families can contribute a modest sum tax free each year.

SMALL RISKS like colds and dizzy spells are appropriate matters for SELF-INSURANCE, just like the small risks of the golf ball sailing into the kitchen. Spend your own money (from a household budget line called "health and medicine") to go to the doctor. If she or he finds anything serious, that is, a BIG RISK, then as that is the sort of the risk that can sensibly be spread, insurance should kick in.

Turning to long term care for seniors, it is a basic fact of life that we grow old, decline, lose our ability to function individually, and die. Fortunately for those enjoying basic good health the period of severe decline and loss of function is brief. In the meanwhile Universal coverage PLUS medicare do the job. GETTING OLD, NEEDING CARE, and DYING, however, are not RISKS, any more than a roof getting old, needing care, and dying are RISKS. They are predictable, inevitable, elements of a life.

Working and middle class families will have to plan and budget for the care of seniors in their last months and days. Yes, this can be expensive, and again, the government has an interest in the dignity of its seniors and should provide tax-free vehicles for this kind of planning and saving, tax breaks for home care and hospice care. But put simply, getting old and dying are not RISKS to be shared: everyone faces similar predicaments. There is nothing unpredictable or risky to spread here -- just as there is nothing risky about ordinary home maintenance. It is a cost but not a RISK, and hence not a risk that can be SPREAD.

Society has a powerful interest in the dignity of its very old. But insurance, whether public or private, is not the appropriate tool to address it. SAVING and DISINTERMEDIATION are the tools of choice. The high operating costs and profits of Insurance companies and care-provider agencies make the price unmanageable. A rational market in independent care providers would be a big help. Ask anyone who has lost a loved parent after a period of decline whether they liked and trusted the care taker more or less than the associate at the agency that employed her and secured 60 or 70% of the price. Make it easier for care-takers to market their own services through co-ops or group and indivisusll web sites,

Finally, how about hospital based medical treatments for those in their passage to death? We now use public insurance, Medicare, for treatments having nothing to do with health preservation or restoration and I think everyoine knows this. The availability of insurance simply encourages irrational levels of medical expenditure for useless, dignity destroying treatments in the final months and days of life. This accounts for a huge proportion of the public health budget. It breaks the bank and provides nothing valuable in return. Any sensible person should write a legally binding living will. Any costly treatment of a fragile, very old person should require certification by at least three doctors and a patient advocate that it can restore reasonabe health and functionality. Otherwise it is medical assault and a waste of scarce health dollars.

We started by asking what sort of universal health care we might reasonably wish to establish. The answer is this:

1. BROAD COVERAGE for the very young and very old. For the very fragile old, this coverage should be restricted to treatments reasonably believed (and certified) to restore health and functionality. Death-defying ritual magic, like other forms of entertainment and self-delusion,, should be paid for out of pocket.

2. Catastrophic coverage for everyone in a single payer system to spread the BIG RISKS. A flexible single payer system, like a charter schools system, can make room for a number of equal cost options appealing to different individuals in different circumstances and communities of moral value.

3. Tax advantaged health saving accounts to ease the costs of both ORDINARY MAINTENANCE AND END OF LIFE SENIOR CARE and the self-insurance of SMALL RISKS.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Doc in a Box

Business 2.0 (June 2007, p. 42) provides the latest in outsourcing. American lawyers can outsource their forensic medicine research in real time. As they depose the doctors from the opposing side, the lawyers send an audio record, via skype, to a team of Indian medical specialists. These overseas docs confer (out of hearing range) and IM questions that the lawyers should ask. As they answer, the docs in India then provide follow up questions, getting the opposing docs to go on the record -- and frequently to qualify their testimony.

The American law firms pay an Indian firm 75 bucks an hour for the service. After taking its cut, the Indian firm pays the docs in the box $20 to $25 per hour, about twice their Indian rates.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Status Skill Marketing

Nick Wreden at Marketing Profs.Com introduces a neat new idea, status-skill marketing.

The idea is simple enough. People have always sought status symbols -- a Rolls Royce, a bottle of vintage wine, a suburban mansion -- to show off and impress others.

In our society of knowledge workers and creative and innovative idea shapers and instant millionaries, however, it is a lot cooler to know how to do something than just to own something. Hey, everyone can OWN something. But what can you DO with it, dude?

Japan airlines now includes Japanese lessons among its entertainment options on overseas flights. You no longer impress folks with that trip to Japan, but you sure might when you hop from the plane and start chatting away in Japanese?

Wine dealers are offering courses in wine tasting. Sports car dealers are giving away lessons in race driving. Art dealers are teaching buyers the fine points of building collections. They are not just selling the status symbols but tying their sales to the much more impressive sophistication in their use.

According to Wreden, "one study claimed that 20% of consumers who learn a skill based on a product will buy that product, 65% will buy that brand again, and a mouth-opening, eyebrow-raising 96% will tell a friend about the experience."

Now a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and nothing would be worse than a transparent veneer of sophistication. We all know what we thought about that little know-it-all in seventh grade. So in order for status skills to work they have to penetrate at least a bit below the surface.

This is where university-based "executive" programs might enter the market. You can only learn so much Japanese on that overnight trip to Tokyo, or so much art history from the dealer advising you about the current post-impressionist market. Most instant millionaires, however, would not be caught dead in typical university-based continuing education courses, which are either based on regular university courses for your teenage daughter or shaped for the elderhostel crowd.

So keep an eye out for upper-end executive "status skill" cohort programs coming soon to a campus near you.

Your Personalized Signs of the Times

According to Investors Business Daily, a new digital signage trend is emerging. Printed signs in hotels, stores, shopping malls and other public places are being replaced by digital alternatives that are sensitive to your own personal needs and interests.

Advertisers and marketers like digital signage because it is located where consumers are ready to buy.

"In the near future, digital signs will get personal," IBD predicts. The hotels and shopping areas will provide RFID, radio frequency identification, badges to customize content for guests who approach the signs.

Suppose you are with a conference. Well, the hotel may have three conferences running that day, and as soon as it picks up that you, the viewer, are from conference X, it shifts to information about when the next session starts, featured speakers, even directions to the meeting rooms.

Suppose, however, that the conference has many breakout sessions. At registration you can indicate your specific interests, along with your divisions or special interest groups. This can be entered on your RFID, and the sign can then personalize its content for you. The sign may also wish you a happy birthday, congratulate you on a recent publication, or remiond you to take your insulin.

A bright flashing banner may also tell you that you only have 10 minutes before the session to buy a convenient snack at a kiosk whose location is indicated on an animated map.

You can leave that big fat program guide in your hotel room.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Harvard Says it Will Focus on Teaching, Sort Of.

A Harvard Task Force, led by renowned social theorist and Dean Theda Skocpol, has called for a renewed focus on teaching. The report called for sweeping institutional change, including, "continuing evaluation and assessment of teaching and learning"

The report also proposes that teaching be weighed equally with research in annual salary adjustments. Skocpol says that outsiders are always surprised to learn that teaching doesn't count at all in judging faculty peformance.

But then there is the bit where you take it back.

"The aim of the report is not to de-emphasize research in any way, but to bring about a greater institutional focus on teaching," one of the task force members explained.

Let's see now: we're going to get a lot of "sweeping change" and "continuing evaluation and assessment" and a "greater institutional focus" -- but not to worry --we won't be de-emphasizing research in any way.

Could you run that by me one more time?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The New Second Tier

Second tier universities like Lehigh have seen their cachet climb because of the "astonishing competitive crush at the top" reports The New York Times.

"The logjam is the result of supply and demand. The number of students graduating from high school has been increasing, and the preoccupation with the top universities has become a more national obsession. . . Supply, however, has remained constant as sought-after universities have not expanded their freshman classes."

The top tiers are merging. The students struggling for admission to Harvard or Yale are now fighting just as hard to get into Lehigh. “It’s the same tier, basically,” a high school director of guidance counselor states.

The take away: higher education is fracturing in two.

Second tier schools like Bowdoin and Lehigh are rising to the top. Their diplomas, like those from the Ivies, will provide a mark of distinction for children from the most privileged groups.

Meanwhile diplomas from the new lower tier are deteriorating in value, simply replacing today's high school diplomas in providing a mark of perseverence.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Poverty Business

Everyone knows about the subprime mortgage breakdown.

What you may not know, because it is not on the front pages of the daily newspapers, is that the subprime mortgage industry is only a small part of the subprime lending business. An comprehensive article in Business Week examines this industry in detail.

The take-away:

Poor people are not suckers for credit risks they cannot afford. They are . . . well poor and hence vulnerable.

A single Mom who applies for a lousy eldercare job for $15K a year needs a car. No car, no interview. So she has to pay exorbitant interest rates in the subprime used car market.

Same for a disabled guy eking out a living working at home with a computer. The machine crashes and he needs another one right away. But he has no cash. He knows he will pay twice as much buying one on credit from a subprime electronics firm, but no one else will extend credit.

The poor don't necessarily need credit counseling. And laws demanding full disclosure of interest rates and total costs go only so far.

The poor need access to micro credit at fair rates. Otherwise the business of poverty, gouging the poor with usurious rates, will continue to flourish and the poor will get deeper and deeper into debt.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Your New Teacher, Mr. Claytron

The May issue of the trend-scanning magazine Business 2.0 (from Time, Inc) has an interesting section on "What's Next?" Some of the new ideas are fried chicken, but item #10, p. 33 "Forget Nanotech, Think Claytronics" caught my eye.

Claytronics is the new science of mainulating programmable clay that can "morph into a working 3-D replica of any person or object, based on information transmitted from anywhere."

Computer scientist Todd Mowry, Director of Intel Research in Pittsburgh, is the prime mover. Inspired by his hatred of video-conferencing ("Its like visiting someone in prison" Mowry says,) he had a brain storm -- why not just FAX your body-replica to the meeting, where it could mimick your bodily motions in real time and speak with your own voice. More real than real!

Business 2.0 admits that the idea seems "utterly nutty". The illustration is not merely nutty but terrifying: a conference table with a bunch of flesh and blood people chatting it up with Mr. Claytron, a dark looming presence.

Coming soon to a school or college near you?

Could we check out that video-conference set up one more time?

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The New 'A' Student: Excelling Through Intimidation

Tim Ferriss, in his book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich advises students to follow his work smarter, not harder advice:

“For all four years of school, I had a policy. If I received anything less than an A on the first paper or non-multiple-choice in a given class, I would bring 2-3 hours of questions to the grader’s office hours and not leave until the other had answered them all or stopped out of exhaustion. This served two important purposes:

1. I learned exactly how the grader evaluated work, including his or her prejudices and pet peeves

2. The grader would think long and hard about ever giving me less than an A. He or she would never consider giving me a bad grace without exceptional reasons for doing so, as he or she knew I’d come a’knocking for another three-hour visit.

Learn to be difficult when it counts. In school as in life, having a reputation for being assertive will help you receive preferential treatment without having to beg or fight for it every time."

Innovation, the Greater Good, and More Fried Chicken

Christopher Hire has a neat post on Technorati calling for creative thinkers and leaders to define "innovation" for themselves and not let technocrats and bureaucrats define it for them.

Hire offers this definition:

"Innovation is a change to benefit and advance mankind and civilization."

He adds, "We need a creative definition of innovation, and a cultural and arts focus to innovation."

Innovation is not about every new technological blip. A new kind of fried chicken is not innovation; its fried chicken.

Hire continues: "Innovation should be about good design, about inspiration, about art, about culture, about creativity, about nature and green."

And from his company's site:

"If it doesn't do good, if it doesn't excite and if it's not contagious, then it's not innovative. It's more fried chicken. And more unneeded change."

Hmmm. Let's see. All those new educational "innovations" -- national standards, standardized tests in every grade, closing "failing" schools. . .

Are they doing any good? Are they so exciting that you're panting and moaning? Are they so contagious that teachers are falling over themselves in their rush to get going?

No, I didn't think so. It's more fried chicken.

What is the Issue: Book Reviews or Access to Books?

The blogosphere is buzzing about the decline and in some cases disappearance of newspaper book review sections, after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution announced that it was discontinuing its review section.

Colleen Mondor, in her great blog Chasing Ray, broadened and clarified the discussion in her post of May 1. The issue is not fundamentally about newsprint reviews, but access to books.

She says,

"Is this (the decline of newspaper reviews) the big important battle we should be paying attention to?

No. Not by a long shot.

Why aren't we all up in arms about public libraries?

What about funding for emergency book mobiles?

What about increasing the hours in school libraries for the communities to use?

I don't know - what about coming up with ideas to help the community get more access to books? And what about the poor kids who spend time in the juvenile justice system in the city of New Orleans? Not a library to be found in those detention centers - except the ones that volunteers are putting together on their own.

Why aren't there letter writing campaigns in support of libraries across America? Shouldn't there be at least a bookmobile in every rural community and inner city neighborhood? Shouldn't we be striving to make sure every Headstart Program has a library, every Girls and Boys Club? Why is the literary community more concerned about reviewing books then making sure that books get to the people who have the lowest access to them? On NPR John Freeman made a point of saying that while lit blogs are a good thing, not everyone has a computer. He suggested that newspapers are the choice of the people who can't get to computers (can't afford them basically). So I guess newspaper book reviewers are apparently reviewing for the "masses". But if you can't get the damn books then what does the review matter?

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Congress, College, and Copyright

According to Inside Higher Education,
"A bipartisan group of House of Representatives lawmakers said Wednesday (May 2)that they had written the presidents of 19 colleges and universities asking their officials to complete an expansive survey on the use of their campus networks for illegal downloading of copyrighted music, video or other digital content. "

19 universities were asked to document the extent of the illegal downloading problem on their networks, what they were doing to curtail the "theft" of copyrighted materials, and interestingly, what they were doing to promote “legitimate services as alternative sources for copyrighted materials.”

That is, the higher education institutions are being pressed not only to stop file sharing but aggressively to market i-tunes and similar commercial services to their students.

File sharing may violate legitimate copyright protections. But the serious theft has been perpetrated not by college students but by the congress, paid off by media giants, and with a wink and a nod from the supreme court.

The purpose of copyright is to provide some monopoly protection for writers and artists, for a short time, in order to provide a monetary incentive to create works of interest and value to the public. The entire point is to create a steady stream of such goods that will soon enter the public domain.

But the current law puts creative products into the hands of media conglomerates more or less in perpetuity. No one living can expect these goods to enter the public domain in their life times. Hence it is quite reasonable for them to regard the current copyright law as illegitimate. It is a small step from that for them to justify downloading of recent creative products, in violation of what anyone on reflection would consider to be a legitimate legal constraint.

My question is whether the universities, which in the emerging academic capitalist paradigm are themselves beneficiaries of these distorted copyright provisions, will simply fall in line to this congressional pressure or stake out a sensible position on a copyright regime that their students are willing to respect and that they are willing to police?

Friday, May 4, 2007

Topless Car Wash (Bottomless Extra)

The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald announced today that a proposed X-rated car wash in Brisbane had been cleared for operation.

"The business offers a $55 car wash by a topless woman, and a $100 wash by a totally nude female attendant - which includes an X-rated show."

Due to a severe water shortage, Brisbane has tight water rationing. Car owners are not permitted to wash their own cars. The new car wash will use re-cycled water.

Acting Premier Anna Bligh said the government fleet would not be using the car wash. She added, "I don't think I'll be feeling the need to have my car washed at this particular service."

Thursday, May 3, 2007

History is Bunk

I repeatedly heard the same troubling message when I attended the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Chicago last month.

History teaching is disappearing. Memory is fading. The connections between generations of professionals are broken.

Historians of education complained that their courses are being eliminated, and senior scholars in the field are not being replaced when they retire.

Prof. Vincent Anfara, a nationally recognized expert on middle schools, told me that the founders and thought leaders of the middle school movement were now either dead or no longer active. The current generation of middle school leaders, moreover, hardly even knows about these founders or their ideas. The current crop of leaders have no clear idea why middle schools were created, and are falling prey to such "innovatons" as standardized curricula and testing that would nullify everything special about middle schools as places to explore and learn in developmentally appropriate ways.

Marilee Jones has a Degree

In an odd twist to an odd story, it turns out that Marilee Jones, the prominent, and now disgraced, Dean of Admissions at M.I.T., has a college degree after all. But it is not from RPI or Union college, as she had falsely claimed.

Acording to the New York Times,

"Ms. Jones earned a B.A. in biology at the College of Saint Rose, an independent college in Albany, where she grew up. Officials at the College of Saint Rose confirmed that they had awarded a bachelor’s degree to a Marilee Jones in 1973, when Ms. Jones would have been 21."

What is the take-away here?

Ms. Jones had earned a degree from Saint Rose, a college neither competitive nor prestigious. She nonetheless parlayed her unquestioned talents into a high-powered position in academia. She counseled talented students not to go nuts about admissions to prestigious colleges. Their talents, she reasoned, would eventually raise them to appropriate positions in society.

And she was right! Her degree from lowly Saint Rose would probably not have blocked her from her entry level position at MIT, while her rise was based solely upon her talents.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Westward Ho! (But the Kids Can't Go)

As demand grows for low wage service workers in Western Europe, desperate Roumanian parents are abandoning their children. Business week reports that upwards of 40,000 children have been left behind.

"Indeed, the children here - as in many other settlements in the county - grow up virtually alone, many waiting for their house-cleaning mothers to call from Italy or Spain on Christmas, hoping to see them for perhaps two weeks during the summer holiday. Some wait to finish carpentry or another trade school, then join their fathers on construction sites across Europe. Others end up in foster homes or even orphanages, though they have parents. And on occasion, a 10-year-old drops out of school, runs away from home, or even hangs himself in the closet with father's tie. . .

"We are devastated that 10- or 12-year-olds commit suicide because they cannot talk on the phone with their parents," says local UNICEF representative Pierre Poupard."

Public Infrastructure: A New Asset Class

Business week reports today that public toll roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects are being sold off or leased to private investors hungry for the steady, non-competitive income streams.

The advantages are clear: the public gets the money to pay off debt, and the investors and their private managers can make business decisions, from raising toll rates to implementing differential peak period tolls to outsourcing labor, free from fear of voter backlash.

The disadvantages are also clear: the private investors, free from ballot box pressures, can milk the infrastructure assets for all they are worth while letting them run down in the long run.

Keep an eye on this!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Undergraduate Admissions Leader Resigns in Disgrace

Marilee Jones, MIT's provocative dean of admissions, resigned this week after it was revealed that she had faked her own undergraduate degree 29 years ago in order to get an entry level position at the prestigious university, according to the New York Times.

Ms. Jones will be missed. She has offered a rare sane voice in the crazed race for college admissions. The recent New York Times article detailing this years' crop of candidates noted that Harvard, Princeton and Yale now reject students with perfect 2400 SAT scores. Perfect is no longer good enough.

Ms. Jones has been urging students to calm down and get off the rat race. She counsels that some will get into the best schools -- even MIT -- without driving themselves crazy, while others can get terrific educations at schools which are less hyped. Brave words from a dean of admission. Most of her peers just keep applying the pressure that drives the rat race -- increasing the flow of applications and raising those admirable rejection rates.

It was Ms. Jones' personal failure that she lied to get a job, and then didn't clear the record as she worked her way up the ladder based on her superlative performance and growing visibility.

On the other hand, she proved beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt that her lack of a college degree has been irrelevant to her enviable success.

Wouldn't we have been better off prohibiting employers from making diplomas necessary conditions for jobs?

Any curriculum is an imperfect means to a learning achievement that can be attained in other ways, e.g., through apprenticeship or self-determined, auto-didactic learning. A diploma is no proof of capability, and the lack of a diploma is no proof of incapability.

But the diploma system closes access to advantageous positions, blocking those who for whatever reasons can't complete college. To put a fine edge on it, the diploma system is mostly the means for the reproduction of class advantage.

Ms. Jones' downfall comdemns the diploma system more than it does Ms. Jones.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Self-Defeating Standardization

The New York Times today reports that Eli Broad and Bill Gates plan to devote $60 Million to push educational reform to the top of the 2008 political agenda.

The two philanthropists call for “stronger, more consistent curriculum standards nationwide; lengthening the school day and year; and improving teacher quality through merit pay and other measures”.

These ideas are self-defeating.

Nationwide curriculum standards stifle teachers and nullify our federal system as a “laboratory of democracy” where many innovations can be tested.

Lengthening the school day and the school year are entirely unnecessary if teachers could make curriculum choices that fully engaged students in learning. Students pay scant attention to the dreary materials served up to them now. Why prolong the agony?

Merit pay might attract brighter people to teaching, but not if we measure teacher quality by student achievement on standardized exams. No bright person wants a job as an operative. A superior approach is to free teachers from standardized curricula and tests so they can apply their full intelligence to reaching and teaching their students.

Monday, April 23, 2007

National Novel Writing Month

Last night I read Chris Baty's quirky writers guide, No Plot, No Problem. Chris is the founder of National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo). Every November thousands of writers, from school kids to professionals, write 50,000 word novels (think The Great Gatsby or Of Mice and Men). The rules are simple: You may work for no more than one week prior to November 1st thinking about your novel plot, setting and character, but cannot write a single word of text until November 1st. You must finish by midnight, November 30th. You can submit the mss (scrambled if you wish) to the word count "validator" after November 25th. If your word count is 50K +, you are a "winner". Every year about 17% of the entrants completes a novel. Many have been published (after extensive editing, I am sure), some by first rate publishing houses.

Chris's book is an excellent guide to the writing process. The key to completing a writing project is having a real deadline. Other important factors are being part of something larger than oneself, gaining support from friends and family, making very public commitments which will bring total humiliation in case of failure.

There are nanowrimo groups in hundreds of cities across the US and in many other countries. Nanowrimo also encourages high schoolers to join in the effort and has a national school coordinator.

Nanowrimo makes an ironic commitment to the idea of quantity over quality: 50,000 words and we really don't care how awful. But Chris thinks that the only way to do anything well is, well, to do it. Quality arises out of intelligent effort, and that requires a structured activity with a real deadline.

The best learning experiences involve doing something hard and lonely. Schools specialize in making this just about impossible. Nanowrimo is the real thing! And doing something as lonely as writing a novel is just a tad easier when you can draw on the strength of those thousands of others writing along with you.

This November you can go out to the cafes all over the country, late into the evenings, and see dozens of people typing away furiously on their laptops. Look for copies of No Plot, No Problem sitting next to the coffee mugs. Better yet, you can sign up on the nanowrimo website and write your own novel.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

More on the Voice of the Weakest Link

Today's news from the Associated Press:

"Mass public shootings have become such a part of American life in recent decades that the most dramatic of them can be evoked from the nation's collective memory in a word or two: Luby's. Jonesboro. Columbine. And Now Virginia Tech.

Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota State Department of Corrections, said the availability of guns was not a factor in his exhaustive statistical study of mass murder during the 20th century.

Duwe found that the prevalence of mass murders, defined as the killing of four or more people in a 24-hour period, tends to mirror that of homicide generally.

Duwe also found that mass murder was just as common during the 1920s and early 1930s as it is today. The difference is that then, mass murderers tended to be failed farmers who killed their families because they could no longer provide for them, then killed themselves. Their crimes embodied the despair and hopelessness of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the sense that they and their families would be better off in the hereafter than in the here and now.

Despondent men still kill their families today. But public shooters like Virginia Tech's Seung-Hui Cho are different. They are angrier and tend to blame society for their failures. . . "It's society's fault ... Society disgusts me," Kimveer Gill wrote in his blog the day before he shot six people to death and injured 19 in Montreal last year."

Comment: in the Great Depression depair and hopelessness were turned inward. The mass murderers were unable to survive, to provide for their families. They didn't blame their victimes; in a crooked way they were protecting them.

Today's mass killers are not defeated by nature, but by society, by epidemic displays of differentiation: BMWs, Nike Airs, Starbucks Lattes.

The law of karma: for every action an equal and opposite reaction.

The Voice of the Weakest Link

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

A community is only as strong as its weakest member.

Seung-Hui Cho was our weakest member. He was delusional, psychotic. And like many psychotic young adults, he had been unable to find his voice and assert himself during his childhood. He was scrawny and undeveloped, the runt of the litter.

That does not justify us in deafening our ears when he finally spoke up.

True, according to the New York Times he earlier claimed to have a girl friend in outer space. He said that he grew up with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. These were psychotic delusions. Symptoms of Mental Illness!

But his rant against hedonism, trust funds, and high-class tastes should not be as easily dismissed. Picture a poor, tongue tied immigrant kid whose parents work in sweatshop conditions, a kid who is humiliated in his everyday interactions with spoiled, insensitive suburban counterparts, who is bullied and terrified.

He said, “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience.”
He said,"you had a billion chances" to avert this tragedy.

Are these expressions of psychotic delusion or simply of human pain?

Why is it that no one has commented on these telling phrases?

Cho nursed his hurts and fears and tried to find an outlet for them in literary art but it all came out crooked. And it frightened everybody away. No one could listen. So he kept most of it to himself and it fermented inside and became toxic and then it exploded.

We can employ moral outrage, call him evil, place him beyond the pale. This is impotent, like locking the stable after the horses have escaped. Moral language can be a useful deterrent. It tells those who are about to step over the edge that there is an edge and that the community guards it, that there are serious consequences in stepping over it. But in this case the line has already been breached. And Cho is dead. There is nothing left to deter.

Putting everything together, it might be useful to consider whether Cho "could have done otherwise," whether the language of morality usefully applies to him? Follow the story of this life as it is now unfolding. Is this not a story of a mass murder just waiting to happen?

Judging Cho frees us from listening to him. If we listen we might hear a human voice through the psychotic delusions. We might learn something about what it feels like to be bottom dog, weakest member, in a world where every choice -- of garment, food or language -- is a costly mark of differentiation, a put down. Stylish clothing, exotic coffees from Africa, cool and knowing 'in-group' lingo. Every behavior wearing a sign saying "forget you, Cho!" A "billion chances" -- probably not much of an exaggeration.

Hey, wait a second, Leonard! Are you excusing mass murder?

Of course not. Excuse also falls within the language of morality. It is too late for that now. It is time for facing up to reality.

What I am saying is "listen up!" Listen to the voice of the weakest link. Cho is gone, but someone else is next in line.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Amazing Girls

It is admission season at American colleges. The New York Times ran two front page articles about college admissions last week. On April 1st it ran "For Girls, It’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too," by Sara Rimer. It followed this up on April 4th by "A Great Year for Ivy League Schools, but Not So Good for Applicants to Them, by Sam Dillon.

The first is about the "amazing girls" of Newton North High School, taking four AP courses, running track, studying philosophy, playing classical music at the level of concert artists, taking SAT cram courses and competing in the dating and mating game. They are being packaged, or are packaging themselves, for the nation's top colleges. They do five hours of homework every night. They are stretched to the breaking point. And despite their amazing achievements, they are not getting admitted to their top college choices. The message: you have to be a wonder woman -- brilliant, persistent, incredibly talented, malleable and packagable . . . and 'hot' . . . and it just may not be enough.

The second is about the admissions statistics for the colleges so eagerly sought by these amazing girls. Sure enough, each of the colleges is receiving more applications than ever, and accepting a smaller percentage of applicants. Harvard turned down 1,100 student applicants with perfect 800 scores on the SAT math exam. Yale rejected several applicants with perfect 2400 scores on the three-part SAT, and Princeton turned away thousands of high school applicants with 4.0 grade point averages. That's right -- perfect may not be good enough.

What does all of this intense competition for the top colleges -- competition that is tearing these amazing girls apart -- mean?

It means that the k-16 system is collapsing. There is plenty of room for your daughter (or son) in college. But there is simply not enough room in the top colleges for even the most amazing kids. When I was applying for college in 1960, only about 20% of the high school graduates were considered "college material". And this was more a matter of expectations than achievements. I don't remember many of my classmates as being all that amazing. When we went to college and graduated we immediately distinguished themselves from more than 80% of our age cohort. Add in a few years of post-college training or an advanced degree and our pathway to the professional class was clear.

Working class kids at that time still got jobs, or went into apprenticeship programs if they had the right connections. They could still enter the secure middle class.

But there are very few high skilled industrial jobs in today's post-industrial society. Since the 1970s more and more working class graduates have been going to college, and the college world, both public and private, expanded to accommodate them all.

The result is that more high school graduates can go to college, but today's college graduates have to compete against their entire age cohort, not just 20% of it, to get a firm toehold in the middle class. The ones who cannot differentiate themselves from their college graduate peers face job insecurity and shrinking prospects.

So what is the solution? The only way today's high school graduates can attain what we had, without being amazing, fifty years ago, that is, a clear path ahead , is to be even more amazing than amazing, even more perfect than perfect.

This is not the life that we want for our children.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Next Things

Next things. The emerging present not the future.

New kinds of schools and universities. New books. New Magazines. New Arts and Music. New technologies. New forms of health care. New trends. New You Name It.

The aim is to look over the next mountain, to sort out hype, to imagine new needs and new solutions to old problems.

Some themes. The world is vastly over-educated and under skilled. Conviviality and solitude are necessary every day. The Professional Mystique must be challenged and exposed and undermined. People can do for themselves. Things are seldom what they seem. Democracy is a good idea that should be tried out. People are beautiful. Stories are more powerful than information. Multiculturalism and Globalization are tired ideas.

Some tasks. Review books and magazines -- especially trendy ones-- and say what I like and what I don't. Follow hot debates and pick a few worthy fights. Share experiences from my varied tasks and travels. Keep my ear to the ground. Look for the signs of the times.