Archive for July, 2006

Over at Wash Park Prophet, Andrew Oh-Willeke has two very interesting posts about the military and methods in which modern wars have been waged (a first post, rather long, and a second, much shorter). Although geopolitics falls outside my usual focus and definitely outside my expertise, these posts raise some interesting points about how we live in the modern world.

It’s inevitable, perhaps, that we must accept that war is still very much a part of life at many locations around the globe, including North America, and that strategic defense needs must be monitored, recognized, and met. Of course, none of that is static, and technology in particular transforms the playing field continuously. That ongoing transformation is especially apparent after the end of the putative Cold War, with the U.S. surviving as the sole remaining superpower and our enemies no longer, or at least not currently, being nation-states but loose networks of terrorists. (Never mind that the U.S. is “at war” with Afghanistan and Iraq. These aren’t wars in the traditional sense any more that the “war” on terrorism or the “wars” on poverty and drugs.) Terrorist targets typically aren’t militaries but have shifted to civilians and symbols of the governments and cultures those terrorists aim to antagonize.

So as history chugs along and technology, among other things, changes the rules of engagement, who’s minding the store to ensure that we adapt responsibly to current needs? That’s the question the Wash Park Prophet prompted upon my reading of his brief history of modern warfare (the first post) and the failure of the U.S. Navy in particular to recognize how vulnerable it has become (the second post). If some guy with a blog and some free time can assemble well-argued posts on the subject, I have to wonder who in government is paying attention to these issues and planning for the future? The Pentagon? Some government-sponsored think tank? No one? Waiting for an academic review, conducted from the perspective of hindsight, certainly can’t be the answer. That takes too long and, in the meantime, too many lives and opportunities are squandered.

It’s been argued for some time that traditional government, not unlike traditional warfare, no longer fulfills its mission, which itself is difficult to articulate. Significant evidence (omitted for brevity) of government failure, mismanagement, and corruption in the public sector is sometimes likened to market failure in the private sector. As with all mature systems, formalism sets in and renders long-established government bureaucracies incapable of responding to the changing face of both domestic and geopolitical issues. Considering that electoral politics dominates the political sphere (and the cult of personality, corrupt fundraising, and obvious profit taking that go with electoral politics), it’s a wonder that anything gets done at all. I don’t consider the mere shuffling of the deck that occurred when the Dept. of Homeland Security consolidated the work of several independently operated agencies an example of progress.

So as the public goes about living their lives — paying mortgages, raising children, writing the great American novel, and the like — we entrust and empower our government to develop a cohesive and comprehensive view of providing for the public welfare. On even the slightest review, however, what we actually have for government looks more like a headless beast, all bloated body and tentacles operating without coordination. We can mostly likely respond to new threats and cataclysms as they occur, but it would sure be nice to be able to anticipate them, which I fear we can’t when no one is truly minding the store.

If anyone has been paying attention to me at all, then I don’t even need to provide an opinion about this in the Boston Globe:

When “say,” “they” and “weigh” rhyme, but “bomb,” “comb” and “tomb” don’t, wuudn’t it maek mor sens to spel wurdz the wae thae sound?

Those in favor of simplified spelling say children would learn faster and illiteracy rates would drop. Opponents say a new system would make spelling even more confusing.

Eether wae, the consept has yet to capcher th publix imajinaeshun.

Must … keep … opinion … to … self … heroic … effort … involved.

We’ve all see the reports. U.S. high schoolers rank at or near the bottom in math and science. Admittedly, that link is to a story eight years old, but I doubt rankings have changed significantly. A new study and report are due out next year. See this link.

What interests me is that we live in an era of unprecedented technological advancement. While the U.S. may still be in the vanguard, I wonder how long that can last when the source of inspiration and creativity — human knowledge and understanding — is dying at the roots in American schools. It’s a sad joke, really, that follow-the-directions instructions for setting the clock on a VCR (remember those?) proved so formidable for most end users that a time-setting function is built into more recent recording systems such as TIVO. Technical workarounds may actually enable ever-increasing levels of disability working with our own tools. Software design takes a similar approach by removing as much need for user thought as possible. Templates and wizards take expertise out of the use of much software.

So if the U.S. is to participate in technological change proceeding at an exponentially accelerating rate, where is the expertise going to come from? Right now, from abroad. We still have robust immigration into the U.S., and they’re not all migrant farm workers from Mexico. Many of them are scientists from India and China. In patent practice, literally the leading edge of innovation, there are three distinct players: inventors, patent attorneys, and patent examiners. Browsing recent filings and recently issued patents reveals a significant number of foreigners responsible for inventing and examining. Only the attorney ranks are mostly Americans, which is a result of the U.S. Patent Office inexplicably making it difficult for foreigners to be admitted to practice in the U.S. Patent Office. For now at least, the U.S. remains a beacon, attracting many of the best and brightest, who believe they can attain a better quality of life (difficult to assess) here than where they came from. But that’s changing, too. The emergence of a sizeable middle class in India and China points to a decreasing imperative for the science elite to come to the U.S., the so-called “brain drain” that also characterizes rural relocation to cities and flight from Indiana.

What will stem our slide toward a reversal of American preeminence in the sciences? Recognizing the cause of the effect would be a good start. Currently, a starting teacher’s salary in the Chicago Public Schools is $36,956 with a Bachelor’s, $39,516 with a Master’s, slightly higher than the average for the ten largest urban districts. Maximum salary is $67,706. Those pay rates indicate how we as a society value the preparation of our young for entry into adulthood. To those with a combination of scientific expertise and communication skills, which is a more significant skill set than the typical nerdy engineer or chemist, pay rates for teachers are a significant disincentive. Further, students mostly regard their teachers in any discipline as chumps, and of course that old saw “those who can’t, teach” relegates teachers to a prestige ghetto.

Two other factors contribute: distractions of entertainment and cultural decadence. Plenty of diatribes have been written about how entertainments attract a disproportionate amount of our attention. Whether it be TV, sports, movies, video games, books, or music, Americans spend a huge amount of time and dollars preoccupied by entertainments. Even worse, those embodiments that are the most popular are also the ones that require the least mental activity, understanding, and taste. It’s obvious that most of us identify better with Everybody Loves Raymond than Masterpiece Theater, Steven King rather than William Styron, or Britney Spears rather than the Juilliard Quartet, but I for one don’t consider matters of culture and taste even remotely equivalent, especially when a popular form — by definition low culture — completely masks an art form. By way of another example, most Americans just love to see shit blown up, not so different from our collective fascination with Fourth of July fireworks. But the time, patience, and understanding it takes to see how something is built can’t compete with the immediate gratification of demolition. Writ large, we may be well entertained (I dispute that, actually), but we’re losing our ability by attrition to function well in a technological world.

A culture of decadence is not specific to the U.S., but it’s especially prominent here. In the last 150 years, we’ve worked damn hard to raise our standard of living, and for those of us fortunate enough to benefit from that rising tide (not all Americans by any stretch), it’s become easy to rest on our laurels, or rather, those of our parents and grandparents. Unlike India and China, we’re no longer fighting and clawing to reach the brass ring; we’ve already grasped it. Our perspective now is that we must remain on top of the heap, among the biggest consumers of resources per capita (see this and this and this). But we’re not doing this by continuing to strive, or at least strive effectively. See this evidence of student apathy toward their studies, which we as a culture either allow from inattention or encourage as students are regarded as mere consumers. Rather, we try to stay at the top through politcal and economic oppresion that no one wants to acknowledge, and we often couch it in terms of charity. The argument usually goes that without those manufacturing jobs we outsource to Third World countries that pay below subsistence level, those poor souls would be starving. Meanwhile, we love our low WalMart prices gained off of exploitation of economically disempowered peoples.

Is if fixable? Hard to say. Like global warming, it will have to get very bad before we will believe that any action must be taken, by which time, of course, it will be too late.