Archive for the 'Social Change' Category

14
Jan
11

A slap on the side of the head

I’ve said before I’m grateful to Sputnik and the USSR for enabling me to get a good education back in the ’50s and ’60s. The US taxpayers were generous to education during that time mainly, it seems to me, because we were scared as hell the Soviets were going to surpass us.

Perhaps something similar is happening again. This time it’s the Chinese. All of a sudden they seem like the 900 lb. gorilla in the room. Back last December the results of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the results of it’s international standardized education program (PISA) comparing 2009 test scores on math, reading, and science for 15-year-olds in 65 countries. The top four aggregate scores were, in order, Shanahai-China, Finland, Hong Kong-China and Singapore. The US teens in 24th place in math, 17th in reading and 23rd in science. The US students ranked down in the pack with many European countries.

That results have raised alarm in some quarters.

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Monday.

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

Well, in the US a sense of crisis seems to be needed to get any action on social issues. So perhaps another Chinese surprise–the quite visible test flight of a stealth fighter just as US Secretary of Defense Gates landed for a visit–will add the the sense of urgency.

Maybe it’s a question of whose “exceptionalism” will win. The US has proclaimed it’s exceptionalim for decades. Scholars say the Chinese have a sense of cultural exceptionalim that goes back a couple of millennia. So when is the chest thumping of exceptionalism a confidence-builder, and when is it a pair of foggy, rose-colored glasses that obscure a society’s perception of the capabilities of other people?

Advertisements
07
Jan
11

is synthetic life approaching?

By Richard Wheeler (Zephyris) 2007. Lambda rep...
Image via Wikipedia

There has always been a metaphysical aura about life. In addition to the material in a cell or other living thing, most people seem to think that when we say “life” we’re talking about a spark or energy that transcends the material constituents of that living thing.

But suppose that organisms that show all the properties of life can be created by off-the-shelf raw materials of our world and made to function as living through human-designed processes? At no point would some spark or energy be added to jump-start life processes although complex chemical reactions are central to synthesizing the constituent parts. (Is the term Frankenmolecules already taken?)

Researchers are working on just such approaches in an effort to understand the details of how living things get organized, and just recently another step was  taken. Princeton chemist Howard Hecht and his team built proteins from scratch, put them in bacteria, and the bacteria used them to grow and carry on just like the proteins they naturally generate. They demonstrated that there’s nothing mystical or magical about molecules generated in vivo. Actually, there were two artificial steps: they designed artificial DNA that then generated the synthetic proteins.

“What we have here are molecular machines that function quite well within a living organism even though they were designed from scratch and expressed from artificial genes,” said Michael Hecht, a professor of chemistry at Princeton, who led the research. “This tells us that the molecular parts kit for life need not be limited to parts — genes and proteins — that already exist in nature.”

“What I believe is most intriguing about our work is that the information encoded in these artificial genes is completely novel — it does not come from, nor is it significantly related to, information encoded by natural genes, and yet the end result is a living, functional microbe,” said Michael Fisher, a co-author of the paper who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 2010 and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California-Berkeley. “It is perhaps analogous to taking a sentence, coming up with brand new words, testing if any of our new words can take the place of any of the original words in the sentence, and finding that in some cases, the sentence retains virtually the same meaning while incorporating brand new words.”

Although millions of proteins from evolved DNA already exist, the ones Nature has produced is only a small fraction of the proteins that could be produced by heretofore unseen DNA and protein combinations. The potential design space is vast. Some people think living things were produced by intelligent design from the beginning, but I think these experiments are getting us closer to the truth. Evolution of the world’s material into living things over a hell of a long time gave us what has gone before, but we’re getting closer and closer to true design of life forms from a huge set of possibilities that will become part of our world in the not-too-distant future.

01
Jan
11

Here we come, ready or not!

Compare the population pyramid of the USA whic...
Image via Wikipedia

On this date 65 years ago the first kids of what would become the “Baby Boom Generation” started to build perhaps the most influential demographic in US history. Today the first ones turn a symbolic and practical corner by entering the traditional 65-year-olds bracket. It’s like the first play of the fourth quarter of a football game. There’s more game ahead, but the end is palpably approaching.

I got a three-week jump on the gang. I was born in December 1945, but I still count myself in that social bracket. It took awhile for a social perception of the big population bulge to emerge and longer to find out what the consequences would be. As the “pig in the python” moved through the decades the sheer size of the population affected everything from education to social norms to defense practices.

Now here we are at another key point. We’ve gotten better at understanding that such a large population pool has social, political, and economic consequences, but in the US we still don’t do much to actually prepare for things. Ken Dyctwald has been talking about the “Age Wave” since I was in public health grad-school 40 years ago. He’s made a career and an industry out of spelling out what’s coming…but knowing that the hurricane is swirling around and heading to shore hasn’t produced great preparation. The Age Wave may result in something Katrina-like because, in the US, we have ideological prejudice against planning. No, we prefer to wait until the calamity is upon us and then scramble to survive. After it’s over we proclaim: “We made some mistakes but we learned from this disaster and it’ll never happen again.” Famous last words, over and over.

I’ve gotta say, already having my Medicare card in my pocket and Social Security checks being deposited in the bank is comforting. It’s the people at the back of the Boomer cohort that have more reason to sweat it. The denouement of the Baby Boom generation is one of the huge dynamic factors that, along with others, suggest to me that the future will be like a vortex–hence the name of this blog–of swirling forces that’ll send us all spinning. For what it’s worth, here we come.

26
Dec
10

Jobs for 2011 and beyond

I retired a year ago, but I feel f or the people who aren’t working because their job was shot out from under them one way or another. So I was interested in this data from oDesk about online jobs in 2011. They predict:

  • Online work will continue to double year-over-year, while local employment will not rebound to pre-recession levels.
  • In the next year, more than 500,000 employers will tap cloud-based workforces for the first time, including 25% of the Fortune 500.
  • The number of people looking to online work as the primary or sole source of their income will double over 2011.
  • Hiring of online workers by non-U.S. companies will explode in 2011. Proportionally, U.S. spending in this area will grow more slowly next year, and will represent 65% of the total spent on online work.

The top 10 categories of job in demand include:

  1. Web programming
  2. Web design
  3. Blog and article writing
  4. Data entry
  5. Graphic design
  6. Search engine optimization
  7. Other web development
  8. Website content
  9. Mobile apps
  10. Web research

The top 10 skills needed include:

  1. PHP
  2. HTML
  3. English
  4. WordPress
  5. Photoshop
  6. CSS
  7. SEO
  8. MySQL
  9. Writing
  10. MS Excel

I’d make two points: 1) a lot of these are not strictly IT jobs and some of the skills are really generic (writing, English!), and, 2) the online access to jobs is really increasing. So no matter what your job these days, you need to develop and keep online skills. This will become more the case in the near future. I feel sorry for some of my former colleagues who dismissed web activity as “that stuff my kids know” and now are out of work in their 50s.

With the economy and politics forcing the workforce to put together longer and longer careers, it’s absolutely necessary to plan to keep your skills, cultural knowledge and attitudes sharp for 50 years, not just long enough to make middle-management.

23
Nov
10

Single molecule computer chip

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?

In the 1967 movie, The Graduate, a family friend, Mr. McGuire, offers Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) just one word of advice to set him on a path to future success: “plastics.” That was more than 40 years ago. If I were to adopt a one-word recommendation for the emerging generation it would be: “nanotech.” I’ve mentioned this before.

I was reminded again last week about how dramatic the development in the science and technology of billionth-of-a-meter devices is. Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Institute of Materials Research and Engineering announced a partnership with 10 European Union organizations for the ATMOL project–an effort to build a single molecule computer processor.

A*STAR’s IMRE and 10 EU research organisations are working together to build what is essentially a single molecule processor chip. As a comparison, a thousand of such molecular chips could fit into one of today’s microchips, the core device that determines computational speed. The ambitious project, termed Atomic Scale and Single Molecule Logic Gate Technologies (ATMOL), will establish a new process for making a complete molecular chip. This means that computing power can be increased significantly but take up only a small fraction of the space that is required by today’s standards.

The R&D will work on some cutting-edge techniques for creating molecular components: “The fabrication process involves the use of three unique ultra high vacuum (UHV) atomic scale interconnection machines which build the chip atom-by-atom. These machines physically move atoms into place one at a time at cryogenic temperatures.”

But here’s the thing about this path to success: How do you sustain a career in a field where your current knowledge is as evanescent as the morning dew? Riches will be made in nanotechnology, but knowledge obsolescence has been a problem for mid-career technicians in IT for decades. I don’t see how it’ll get any better.

19
Nov
10

Chinese-born scientist reveals why the future belongs to China

Earlier this week there was an article about a China-born scientist named Yihua Zeng who is a solar weather scientist developing techniques to predict solar storms so we can anticipate the effects the energy outbursts will have on Earth and the finicky satellites swarming around it.

This is a new field and the article related how Ms. Zeng came to her calling. She was born in China after the Cultural Revolution had screwed up the nation and her father’s life for a couple of decades. After 1977 things got better and she started school. The article reports:

She was encouraged in math and science ever since elementary school in a culture that honored the sciences. “Being a scientist is very cool and very sacred,” says Zheng. “It’s almost every child’s dream to be a scientist when they grow up.”

That’s the remark that blew my mind! Imagine — in contrast to the prevailing culture in America — that we too honored the sciences and the dream of children was to be a scientist when they grow up. I can’t even imagine a greater contrast between two societies. Highly educated people in the US have been treated with derision and even suspicion my wholelife. Many names have been given to scientists: nerd, geek, dork, brain, egghead, mad scientist, weirdo, etc. The negative epithets applied to the highly educated and to scientists  have demonstrably damaged the recruitment of capable young students into math and science, especially girls. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” but it happens every day.

In America we have idolized the man of action, or the common-sense, two-fisted action figure. Solve problems with muscle, not brains. In Asia and other countries the intelligent, well-educated person is venerated. That, to my way of thinking, is a cultural flaw America that can’t reverse any time soon. We scratch our heads and ask, “How do we fix our schools? Why is our education system broken?” Ms. Zeng revealed why: it’s a cultural thing and cultures are incredibly hard to change. Our grad schools are filled with foreign students, but today countries like China are actively working to repatriate them after graduation unlike a couple of decades ago.

A few months ago I posted about how much China is committing huge amounts of money to educating their population. Add to that the comments of Ms. Zeng and I think the future seems pretty clear. I have long believed that the future belongs to the countries or cultures that make the most of their intellectual capital: the brains of their people. Those cultures deserve to lead the world. Seems to me the leadership in science, technology, and, hence, wealth and culture will shift to other hands.

02
Nov
10

“American Dream” or World Dream?

Last weekend Fareed Zakaria on his CNN show, GPS, did a great set of interviews with four CEOs of major “American” companies: Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM; Klaus Kleinfeld, CEO of Alcoa; Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola; and Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. They all opined on the show’s topic : Restoring the American Dream.” I found this an interesting coincidence since my last post was about how an iconic US company, Intel, has become a global giant that is sprinkling the largess of its chip manufacturing business around the world including a community in my own backyard.

I thought the questions from Fareed and responses from the execs did an exceptional job of examining what led up to the current anxiety about the country’s future and of eliciting some thoughtful ideas about what needs to be done to get back on track to a strong economy and national self-confidence. I would encourage everyone to watch the podcast.

Of the four CEOs, the one whose remarks resonated most with me was Lou Gerstner, perhaps because we appear to be about the same age and perhaps have witnessed the same history. He raised some issues I’ve thought about but that I have not seen discussed before. Fareed asked Gerstner if we could get back to the American Dream of the past. Gerstner said:

We come from a world where we sort of  had it made. The American Dream was a reality but it was driven by factors that no longer exist. We were alone in the world after WWII. In fact the war itself got us out of a depression and got us into investments in important technologies. And then we had the cold war; we had Sputnik. We had all these things that drove us to have a common purpose. Today I don’t see that.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s what I experienced growing up. During WWII the major nations in Europe and Asia were knocked flat on their backs. They spent more than a generation recovering from the war. During that time Americans seemed to inflate with the idea of  American exceptionalism.  I think there was a degree of racial arrogance in it as well. Many seemed to think that our Caucasian, post-European culture made us inherently superior to the masses of dark-skinned, black-haired people of the world just struggling to survive. We would always be on top because we were superior and, et sequitur, we deserved to be there.

Sputnik gave the US a great shock for which I will be forever grateful. California, where I was born, had developed a first-rate public education system, and I was drafted into a strong curriculum of math and science in high school. After all, the country needed rocket scientists. I attended University of California schools at a fraction of what kids pay today. Of course, that was also before the taxpayers decided in 1978 through the infamous Prop. 13 they didn’t want to support community education that much with property taxes and precipitated the decline of education in the state.

The other CEOs on Fareed’s show last weekend did a good job explaining how global trade — which was supposed to enlarge America’s power and wealth — turned around to bite us in the butt. It turns out there are a lot of hungry, smart, hard-working people in the world who would like to make the American Dream their dream too. The American Dream is the model for the global middle-class vision.

My takeaway from “Restoring the American Dream” is that today’s families have to greatly enlarge the frame within which they plan for their future well-being. The playing field for prosperity grows more and more level. Thinking just locally about  job security is not enough. Over the horizon there are many millions of children in classrooms and workers in factories aspiring to live affluently. Rising to that level and staying there is going to take a lifetime of foresight and effort.




Umm, Delicious Bookmarks

Archives

RSS The Vortex

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.