Saturday, February 22, 2014

One-size education does NOT fit all

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, education, contrarian views, sensibility

A tragedy is slowly unfolding in America. It has been going on for two generations, and will not be easily halted. The fiction that college is for everyone is turning "no child left behind" into "most adults left behind." A university education has become the shibboleth of employment, any employment. In some states such as California, the traditional alternatives to college, vo-tech schools and apprenticeship programs, are vanishing or have been done away with entirely. Thus, millions of kids who really aren't suited to classroom education find themselves wasting time "learning" useless things while amassing huge debt.

Prior to about 1960, perhaps 15% went to college and 3/4 of those obtained at least one degree. Today 2/3 of high school graduates begin college immediately, but only about half (55-58%, depending on the source you read) of those actually finish at any time in their life.

The Wikipedia article Higher Education in the US opens with some telling statements:
"In 2006, 19.5% of the adult population had attended college but had no degree, 7.4% held an associate's degree, 17.1% held a bachelor's degree, and 9.9% held a graduate or professional degree."

"The United States Department of Education did a longitudinal survey of 15,000 high school students in 2002 and surveyed them again in 2012 at age 27. The survey found that 84% of the 27-year-olds had some college education but only 34% achieved a bachelor's degree or higher…"
Adding up the figures in the first statement, in 2006 54% of adults had had some college and 34% obtained at least a 2-year degree. The figures increased a little by 2012, where it was found that 34% (of those age 27) had at least a 4-year degree among 84% who had "some college".

The most significant factor in this change? The Higher Education Act of 1965, which established federal loans for college education. Federal loans and subsidized or guaranteed loans, with little accountability by the schools, have produced a generation bearing massive debt and degrees that are largely useless. Most who staged the Occupy protests of the past few years were unemployed degree holders with debts they have no prospect of paying off.

To quote Bill Bennet, "Our current borrowing mess partly stems from the mentality that pursuit of college is valuable at any cost." This from page 163 of Is College Worth It? by Bennett and David Wilezol. These authors show in detail the troubles that have arisen from a flood of federal money to higher education institutions.

Let's take just one figure to set a background. Just over a third of Americans have a college degree, and if you add a few percent with an associate's degree, it approaches 40%. What kind of work is there for the other 60%? Hmmm? The plain conclusion is, that for the majority of Americans, College is NOT worth it! But let us not forget that for some, college IS worth it. The answer to the book's title is a resounding "It depends."

It is commonly stated that a college degree is worth a million dollars. If you compare the lifetime earnings (44 years from age 18-62) of a high school graduate with no college, to those of a college graduate (40 years of earnings), the graduate will earn an extra million, or on average about $25,000 per year. But this average tells only part of the story. Bennett and Wilezol show the results of "bang for the buck" (AKA "return on investment" or ROI) studies for about 1,200 colleges. The top ten are impressive: on average a $2 million lifetime advantage, after subtracting out the tuition cost. But for the bottom ten, it would be better to invest the $50,000 or so in a mutual fund and leave it alone, because the ROI for the school is negative! A student spent the money (or still owes it) but earned no more than someone with no degree, and for 4 fewer years. Even more, the half who start college but don't obtain a degree are in the worst shape: Debt in the $5,000-$50,000 range, and little if any earnings boost.

Very few get into those top-ROI schools such as Harvey Mudd or Princeton. Fortunately, a table in Chapter 3 (pp 109-110) identifies 40 colleges with a total ROI, factoring in tuition loan repayment and graduation rates, in the range of $300,000-$650,000.

The authors discuss at some length the value of being the kind of student who might get into a top school. It is likely that such persons will succeed whether they attend college or not. They also discuss the stigma of "blue collar" work, yet this is still the foundation of the American middle class. The local plumbers, carpenters and electricians charge quite a bit more per hour than I was paid in my high-falutin' professional job! I just had a couple of guys in to install a new appliance. One was the company owner. No college. A self-made millionaire (owns about 20 rental properties in addition to being a remodeling guru). Lots of fun to talk to. Still working because he likes it, but with solid retirement plans, that involve still more real estate somewhere further south.

I mentioned the collapse of vo-tech education. So far as I know, of the dozens of vo-tech schools in California some 40+ years ago, none remain. Nationwide, the number is under half of what it was. The schools teaching skilled trades are struggling to stay afloat, yet hundreds of thousands of jobs that need their graduates are going unfilled because so many kids have been told and told and told that they need college to get ahead, and are made to feel inferior if they'd prefer a trade.

I could get more into cases, but I suspect it would be redundant. Only about 1/4 of Americans benefit financially from going to college. There are others who benefit in other ways, because the acculturation of university study is broadening. But you can learn "liberal studies" at the library, or by joining a "Great Books" reading club. My Dad wrote a humorous piece and sent it to us when he turned 75, "Why I Didn't Go to College"; it closes with, "I was too busy making money." But he does mention his military years. Becoming a Captain in the Army is worth an MA degree any day! And the Army paid for it.

How to decide if college is right for you? If you didn't enjoy classwork in high school, you won't enjoy it at a university. If there is something you like to do, that people might be willing to pay you to do, where can you learn more about it? At college? Well and good, GO. At a trade school? Go there. Online? Do it! But above all, borrow only as a very last resort. It makes little sense to borrow $50,000-$200,000 so early in life, unless you were admitted to a very elite school with a very high ROI.

The last chapter of the book mentions MOOC's, Massive Open Online Courses. They are becoming a force that just might topple the more problem-ridden colleges, and that is a very good thing. They also open up very high level instruction, at very affordable cost or no cost, to everyone. The Stanford professor who first ran such a course has said that he brings Stanford-level instruction to 100 times as many students as could ever be admitted to Stanford. An increasing number of businesses are partnering with MOOC offerings, seeing the great results they bring.

Finally, you ought to know that the authors' viewpoint is conservative, as is mine. We need a dose of conservatism in higher education; rampant liberalism is responsible for the lack of oversight that led to the failures the book outlines. Ronald Reagan said it best: "When your car spins off the road into the ditch on the Left, you need a tow truck firmly on the Right to pull it back to center." Regardless of your politics, read this book, especially if you are a high school student wondering what to do next.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How Niven would remake us

kw: book reviews, science fiction, nanotechnology

The Goliath Stone, by Larry Niven and Matthew Joseph Harrington, has two protagonists, Toby Glyer and William Connors, AKA Mycroft Yellowhorse and a few other aliases. Connors was an employee to Glyer, became his mentor—working for him was part of a very long range scheme—and created, with Glyer's unwitting help, the "nanites" or whatever you might call them, that refashion humanity.

The novel isn't quite high concept, but nearly everything does revolve around all the possible implications of nanotechnology. Niven has always been at his most creative when collaborating with another strong writer, and the bubbling fountain of ideas he and Harrington have produced seems the fruit of many long bull sessions, with nothing left on the cutting room floor.

Two sets of nanites are in play. Firstly, a mission using them was sent to an Earth-grazing asteroid, in part to deflect it, but more to experiment with asteroid mining. No human design is ever perfect, so there is wiggle room for unexpected evolution among the "operators", which have been programmed to link up and take advantage of parallel processing. Hey, this is SciFi, so of course they develop super-high AI. Secondly, nanobots are secretly (even to Glyer) set loose among humans, and begin to remake them in an image chosen by Connors/Yellowhorse. This super-bright fellow is apparently the only fully ethical person existing; would that such a man could be! Ethics takes some strange turns, however. The new "inner population" can detect certain attitudes, and in extreme cases act on them, so for example, when one psychopath launches a weapon his head explodes.

A concept along another dimension, apparently coined by these authors, is a new title, Soylent. While the foodstuff in the movie Soylent Green was named to imply it was derived from soya and lentils, here Soylents are "activists whose reforms always seem to shorten the lifespans of human beings." This sounds like an excellent coinage, and I hope it gets into the popular vocabulary. Congress, for example, consists almost entirely of such persons, regardless which side of the aisle they sit on. I suspect Yellowhorse's nanites would cause lots of head-exploding after certain congressional votes. One can only wish…

 Something that makes a novel by Niven so riveting is the turns of the plot. You know a novel will be complex when a list of dramatis personae numbers more than 40. Yet the prose helps a reader along so you don't get lost. Where I do get lost is in the flurry of literary references and puns used by the protagonists. There are only so many of these an author can unobtrusively explain, so a few took me some thought. The name Yellowhorse is explained, and is a particularly chilling image.

Niven's writing sometimes rattles my cage, or borders on offending me. But the flow of interesting ideas makes it worth reading anyway.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Veritas liberabit

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, journalism

It has been said in several ways; in the instance I know, a good friend was advised, "A real journalist must be prepared to spend time in jail." Baronet Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." The logical conclusion is that all those in power are corrupt. It is the experience of any who have in any way embarrassed a powerful person that this is totally true. Of course I understand that being opposed or jailed by officialdom is no proof that you are right. But a lifetime spent as a "journalist" while never ruffling the feathers of the powerful is a certain proof of being, as O'Keefe names such people, an "anti-journalist".

Now, suppose you were to make it your business to be a modern Diogenes (he of the lantern, looking for "an honest man" — one who could gaze without flinching). You shed the light of day upon what you find. Maybe you submit your videos, uncut, to YouTube. What will be the result?

Just ask James O'Keefe, founder of Project Veritas. He has a few years of this under his belt, as he describes in Breakthrough: Our Guerilla War to Expose Fraud and Save Democracy. Since he began practice as a citizen journalist (that is, self-funded), he has spent about half the time under house arrest, and odd bits of time jailed here or there.

From the beginning, O'Keefe and his allies have carried out their investigations without breaking any laws, and recording every bit, and posting every bit, which demonstrates that. For example, while testing the ease of committing voter fraud in several states, none of them ever actually took in hand a ballot offered in response to a carefully worded request in the name of a dead person or of a non-citizen who was registered to vote. In most cases, the operative would say, "Wait while I go back to my car for my passport" or "...driver license" or whatever. They were always (always!) assured, "You don't need that. We take your word." This was true even when one of them approached a poll worker in D.C. and asked, "You got a ballot for Eric Holder?" Offered the ballot, he demurred, and left. Amazingly, Holder (you know, the U.S. Attorney General) later said no law had been broken. That punctured the sails of numerous pompous officials who wanted the operative, and O'Keefe, and anyone else they could get their hands on, "prosecuted to the full extent of the law." That is what such folks say when they have been blindsided.

The breakthrough of the title is described in detail in the closing chapters of the book. Project Veritas folks shined the light of truth on the mainstream media, and found them wanting, found them as corrupt as the governmental officials they had been steadfastly refusing to investigate, even as they persistently hounded O'Keefe and his allies, endlessly recounting crimes that had not actually been committed.

You have to read it to believe it.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

This may be who we will be

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, futuristics, technology

Yogi Berra said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." Yet I love to read books of projection when they are well produced. When you get the former CEO of Google together with the head of Google Ideas together, good production is a given. Good prediction? Perhaps.

Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen are big thinkers, they operate on a big stage, and their book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business is appropriately wide in scope. Their topics are ourselves, our identities—and all that goes with them—, and the world's nations and their fates under galloping scrutiny. I was relieved to read their focus on people and what people do with technology, rather than a gee-whiz screed on the neat-o things technology is doing.

For a privileged few, greater technology yields a closer and closer approach to a Utopia. It is reasonable to expect increasing good for most people. An unknown proportion of humanity will instead suffer even greater repression: 1984 on steroids. It all makes me wonder whether it will remain possible to keep a low profile, when every profile passes through smart pattern-seeking software. And what patterns will it seek? That is up to the writer(s) and the agency.

People wonder why I, a power user of computers since the 1960s, would keep my "dumb" phone—it makes phone calls and texts, and I don't have a data plan—when I have a desktop supercomputer that I built myself. Well, I know better than to think I have a life as private as the norm of the 1990s or earlier. But I do take steps to mitigate the damage, and I'll leave it at that.

These authors repeatedly state that what humanity does with technology is up to them and thus uncertain, for better or for worse. Yet they go into some detail about just how a repressive state can go into total control freak mode, such as by practically giving smart phones to all, but phones that are preloaded with apps that track and surveil the owner. Yet surveillance can work both ways. Fully half the book delves into the consequences of state failure and chances of reconstruction, after making it clear that better communications make revolution easier, but following up on a revolution even harder.

The loud and clear message is that, particularly in a disruption, communication is primary. One might think you need to first get food and water to refugees in a disaster. You do, but how do you know where they are, and how to make sure the supplies go where they ought? Communication. So the authors recommend erecting cell towers in stage one of any rescue or reconstruction effort. Then it occurred to me: Why not make every Red Cross (or whomever) truck a mini-cell tower or satellite hot spot? Use it to "light up" the few square miles around its location with good communications.

Human ingenuity always transcends the vision of an inventor. No technology is fail-safe, and fail-soft is pretty hard to achieve. New uses are always discovered, and new abuses even more so.

The apocryphal Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times" will now apply more than ever.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Am I interesting enough to write about?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, writing, memoir

First please note that the keyword above is not "memoirs" but "memoir". The title of Beth Kephart's book Handling the Truth: on the Writing of Memoir should make it clear. The book is not a memoir, but contains advice about writing your memoir. Ms Kephart should know, I suppose; she has written five memoirs.

I recall a time that a person of note (at least to him- or herself) would, upon approaching dotage, retreat "to write my memoirs". It was done once, to cap one's life, to grasp the chance to tell one's own story, perhaps in hopes of having the last word. Fat chance if you're at all controversial, but a nice try!

Times have changed. Now the word is singularized, and "a memoir" can limn events and experiences from any period from a few days to all the life one remembers or can reconstruct. Or—and this interests me most—a memoir might deal with certain kinds of experience throughout a life, leaving other sorts of things to be dealt with in another volume. Thus, in "Part 2: Raw Material", the sections on Photos, Loves, Weather, Landscapes, Songs, Colors, Voices, Tastes, Smells, Possessions and First Memories could each form the core of a separate memoir. Although the author intends these to be woven into a single work, an analytical sort such as I am might do better focusing on one aspect at a time. I particularly like the idea I had upon finishing the book last evening, to collect favorite photos from all eras I've lived through (6.5 decades and counting), to form a core of a memoir.

The essence of the author's work, to which she returns again and again, is the nature of truth and how we handle it (thus the title). I think we have all experienced a bull session with siblings or other relatives, or with classmates or colleagues, in which a dispute arose over some event, and everyone had a different take on what happened. Every memory is partial. Our visual-auditory-sensory-memory system is selective. Our brain's storage system is very capacious, but definitely not infinite. Also, each person has a different perspective, a different angle. In an extreme case, two people standing a few feet apart and looking out the front door will see entirely different scenes. If closer together, so they see some of the same things, each will see things the other does not. Our attention, informed by prior experiences and interests, is like that doorway.

From where I sit, I can, by scanning my visual center, read the titles of most of the thousand or so books in this room. With a little more care, I can discern the serifs and other details that distinguish the hundreds of typefaces used. A photograph with enough detail to enable the same would require some 30-50 million pixels. We don't know how the brain encodes a visual memory, but a good (not extreme) quality JPEG image file would be about 8 Mbytes in size. If we were like super high quality (think Omni Theater) video recorders, a few minutes' worth of visual memory would fill the brain. Most of what we see (99.9% or more!) is filtered out. Now that I have looked away, back at the computer screen, I couldn't tell you the order of the books. I have a pretty good idea where the ones are that I use the most, and that is about it.

Even the more, we often conflate memories. If you've been to a certain villa for vacations ten years in a row, and on one occasion your younger brother needed medical attention, can you be very sure, 20-30 years afterward which of the ten years it was? Your brother may know the most accurately, were he old enough to form stable memories (at least 5) at the time. I remember pulling my younger brother out of a swift river when I was 7 and he was 3. He doesn't remember it. And anyway, it might actually have been the next year. Perhaps my father (in his 90s) might remember the year better, if he remembers which years we visited that particular farm.

So when we discuss past events with others who were there, we need to keep an open mind. Planning to put that event in a memoir? Then do your best to collate all the memories, taking advantage of which person has the strongest interest in accurate recall.

This brings to mind a problem students of the Bible have in making a Harmony of the Gospels, something I have also done. It is an attempt to turn the Gospels into a single historical narrative. Events recorded in two or more of the Gospels are sometimes different in detail. For example, Mark may write of a leper or blind man being healed, where Matthew mentions two lepers or two blind men. Even worse, the healing of Bartimaeus is listed before Jesus entered Jericho in Mark, but afterward in Luke. Some use such "conflicts" to denigrate the accuracy of the Bible as a whole. But consider each writer. Matthew was a tax collector. An expert in accurate counting. If he says Two, it was two. Mark (actually Peter, who told the stores Mark wrote down) focused on one, and may have noticed only one of them. Further, Luke was not an eye-witness. He interviewed people some 30 years later, and put down the stories in the best order he could, but in many cases, he could only use the order in which he got them from others. However, Luke was also a physician, so when he says a certain man had dropsy, you can be sure it was dropsy. The word is used only in his Gospel. He probably asked the eye-witness of details regarding the sick man to make his diagnosis.

OK, you have lots of material, and a great interest in generating a memoir. Now what? The shortest sections of the book involve the mechanics and process. Much more important, to exercise empathy and to have a worthwhile goal. Memoir is art, and we are encouraged, "Seek Beauty". You want your reader to be glad to have read it, even if you are writing only for three family members and no others. Actually, especially when writing for a small audience! Will they be offended? Thus the need for empathy.

Most of all, we are urged to read, read, read. Almost a quarter of the book is a long Appendix in which we find short reviews of more than 70 published memoirs, sorted into categories by aim or subject, recognizing that "the subject" is typically one slightly more prominent than two or three others. I may take Ms Kephart's advice, but as an autodidact, I may not. Just as I find "folk art" (art by nonprofessionals) more satisfying than the classics, the efforts of unschooled writers more frequently have great charm and beauty. If I write any memoir(s), the key question is, Why? Maybe some day soon I'll know.