Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Defibrillating Capitalism

Remember the wooly mammoth? It was a large, hairy ancestor of the elephant that thrived during the ice ages. Overhunting and rising global temperatures led to its extinction, but recently scientists have decoded 80% of the creature's genetic code, raising the possibility that we will one day in the not-so-distant-future see one in real life. Will it once again range the Earth freely? No, more likely it will be sustained in a lab or a zoo. Perhaps McDonald's will come out with the McWooly.

Remember the Chrysler auto company? It was a large, hairy ancestor of the Hummer that thrived during the oil era. Gas guzzling and rising global temperatures led to its extinction, but recently the Executive branch of the government stepped in to resurrect it with a $17.4 billion dollar get out of bankrupcy free card. Coincidence? I think not.

Do the recent collapses in the auto and securities industries represent the dying coughs of capitalism? No. Contrary to common belief those industries were not capitalistic, and haven't been for a long time. In that sense, capitalism has been writhing around on the ground for a while. Although they may have been necessary in the short term, the bailouts amount to kicking capitalism while its down.

What should we do? Can capitalism be saved? I say it can, and I have an idea of how to do it...

First, it is important to realize that capitalism works in much the same way as evolution: there is a diverse field of competition for limited resources, and the fittest survive to fight another day. The auto companies, like a lot of old industries, have become big, clunky dinosaurs in the modern era. There is no longer a diverse field of competition, because the car companies offer the same old gas-guzzling crap and if they all fail the government just gives them money anyway.

If capitalism were to work itself out, then we would expect it to happen by new car companies starting up and try something new. If they are fitter for the present economy, the auto startups would take over the market. But there's one problem for capitalism working here: capital. None of the existing companies have the capital to try anything risky (like seriously marketing a hydrogen-cell car) and nobody else has the capital to create a start-up car company. Are we stuck? If so, we are screwed.

There is hope. Another business that is becoming a relic of a bygone age is gold mining. The mines are running out of gold, and it is too expensive to risk digging in new places. Nobody has the capital to create start-up gold mining companies. But one company found a successful work-around. Goldcorp did something completely unprecedented in the gold industry: they made their gold maps public and held a competition in which anyone who could find gold would get part of the treasure. The Goldcorp Challenge worked brilliantly: new sites were found and the company jumped from a $100 million failure to a $9 billion success story.

This is not the only place this worked. Another outdated beast with high production costs is space travel. Until recently, there was no real competition--only governments could afford to send people into space. That is, until the Ansari X Prize inspired 26 teams to spend a combined $100 million dollars to figuring out a low-cost solution to putting a person into orbit. At first, the task seemed insurmountable, but in 2004 Scaled Composites won the prize 8 years after it was announced.

What should the U.S. government do to save the auto industry? Not what it's currently doing. It's giving out free money to the very companies that were selected against by the economy. That's like trying to resurrect the wooly mammoth in our post-ice age modern world. Instead, the Senate should allocate funds towards an H-Prize: $500 million to the first company to market an affordable Hydrogen fuel-cell powered car. Or something like that, anyway…you get the idea!

Making competition based auto payouts would not signal the end of capitalism, but the return to capitalism. It's well worth the shot.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

NCLB: No Country Left Behind

It's 1983. Ronald Reagan initiates project "Star Wars". Michael Jackson's Thriller tops the charts. And America's education scrapes the bottom of the charts.

An educational review commissioned by Ronald Reagan summarized their findings in the document: "A Nation at Risk." It starts off with a bang:

"Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world…We report to the American people that … the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

Why all the hubbub? The first piece of evidence is international test scores:

"International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times."

The commission made a few, clear, and urgent recommendations. For example:

School boards should adopt an 11-month contract for teachers. This would ensure time for curriculum and professional development, programs for students with special needs, and a more adequate level of teacher compensation.

It is now 25 years after this broad-sweeping and influential criticism of the American Education System. No Child Left Behind, the most substantial educational policy change in decades is well underway. So how are we doing?

Well, not so great. Shockingly few of these recommendations were ever implemented. And the results in international test scores are still abysmal, as you can see for yourself in this Washington Post article:

International Science Exam Shows Plateau in U.S. Performance

Francis Eberle, the director of the National Science Teachers Association, had this reaction:

"We need to pay attention to the results. We're just static, and other countries are improving. Whether it's global warming, energy production or conservation or homeland security, people need to be able to understand enough to make decisions as a citizen."

What does it mean to be able to understand enough to make decisions as a citizen? That is the crucial question that we need to answer to fix education. So far, our answer has focused too narrowly on the content, and not enough on the context—i.e. what to do with that content and when. The current system is built upon the mistaken notion that information can be disseminated and regurgitated independently of its relevance or actual use. NCLB exacerbates this problem by emphasizing high stakes, across-the-board tests, which, due to outdated theory and pragmatic-economic reasons consist almost entirely of cookie-cutter, decontextualized trivia problems. And even though Obama is following the recommendation to increase teachers' pay, he is doing so on the condition that there will be more "teacher accountability" (read: standardized tests).

Nearly half of Americans don't believe in the theory of evolution. Nearly HALF! This is not a good thing. How does this naïve view persist in this, the era of science, and the era of greater "accountability" and standardized tests? Well, the standardized tests measure whether you know what answer the test-makers are looking for. It doesn't test whether you believe them.

By no means am I endorsing some way of making students evaluated based on their beliefs. That goes against the very principles this nation was founded upon, and really is only a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from Thought Police. Instead, what I am arguing for is to stop worrying so much about the conceptual aspect of Eberle's plea, and more on the epistemological. We need to stop trying to shovel "knowledge" down the kids' throats without ever teaching them how to evaluate it, how to be critical of what people say, to deliberate over conflicting ideas and make a personal decision based on evidence, not rhetoric. These days we still demand that they not question authority, that there is one right answer, that creativity is not an appropriate skill to bring to school. We push harder and harder to standardize our children, when in fact human beings cannot and should not be standardized.

Although it's 25 years later, it still sounds a lot like 1983, to me. Or even 1984.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

University of Maryland Water Polo Team on CBSSports.com

Very few cameras have the temporal resolution to be able to capture and accurately portray my water polo moves on film. A foolish, if intrepid young photojournalist has recently attempted however, and you can check it out by doing the following:

Step 1: Go to http://www.sportsline.com/video/player

Step 2: On the menu on the right, click the option for UWire

Step 3: Out of the videos on the far right, click on "Water Polo Moves East"

Step 4: Make some popcorn

Step 5: Get ready to have your mind blown and your entire outlook on life changed