Posts Tagged ‘United States

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?

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04
Jan
11

life in the megacity

Scientific American had an article a few days ago about recent ideas about the future of “megacities.” Especially in the developing world millions upon millions of people are moving from the farm to the city. As these cities grow one of the big concerns is that the cities will build themselves so that high carbon transportation (a.k.a., automobiles) will be the only feasible way to get around. Los Angeles is the prototypical American city built almost exclusively for auto travel. For decades mass transport was rejected in LA in favor of spending the money on more freeways to accommodate the sprawl. Now mass transit is pretty much out of the question. If the rest of the growing world cities go down that road decreasing emissions will be nearly impossible.

Urban areas already account for about two-thirds of world energy use, and they’ll hit 73 percent by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. The cities of the future will be bigger, and there will be more of them. According to the United Nations, there were 21 “megacities” in 2009 — urban agglomerations whose population exceeds 10 million. By 2025, there will be 29 — and they’ll hold one-tenth of humanity.

One group of thinkers has pegged four scenarios for urban development:

Sprawlville: cities do everything to accommodate cars in the city and to and from the burbs. But in the end the heart of the city simply succumbs to impenetrable gridlock.

Planned-opolis: where government does everything to automate commutes with self-driving cars and to computerize work so many people can work from home.

Renewabad: where cities build very dense centers with a lot of public transit.

Communi-city: in which city centers die and are replaced by lots of peripheral neighborhoods where people live and work. You can ride a bike to work.

The scenarios leave people unclear about what version or mix or versions will emerge.

But coincidentally two researchers (Adam Millard-Ball and LeeSchipper) published a preliminary copy of a paper titled: “Are We Reaching a Plateau or ‘Peak’ Travel? Trends in Passenger Transport in Six Industrialized Countries.”

In the last several years in the US, UK, Canada, Sweden, France, Germany, Japan and Australia there seems to be a plateau of travel.

Since 2003, motorized travel demand has leveled out or even declined in most of the countries studied, and travel in private vehicles has declined,” the authors wrote in their study. “Car ownership has continued to rise, but these cars are being driven less.

There are several factors that probably play a role: car market saturation, the recession, the price of gas, and aging population. But they assert that the main factor may be road congestion.

The researchers think that the biggest factor of the travel plateau may be traffic congestion. As Schipper said in an interview with Miller-McCune, “My basic thesis is, ‘There ain’t room on the road.’ You can’t move in Jakarta or Bangkok or any large city in Latin America or in any city in the wealthy part of China. I think Manila takes the prize. Yes, fuel economy is really important, and yes, hybrid cars will help. But even a car that generates no CO2 still generates a traffic problem. Sadly, what is going to restrain car use the most is that you can’t move.”

It could be that some problems work themselves out in the long run. The solution may not be what anybody wants, but it’s what you get when you hit the wall. Auto transport may just grind to a halt in the megacities mentioned above, opening the door to other alternatives.

13
Dec
10

Ya gotta take the long view to put today in perspective

A press release from Ohio State today drew attention to te findings by a couple of researchers (Julie Ditkof and Michael Barton) that led them to conclude that underneath the Hawaiian Island chain is one massive magma chamber that is only 1.9 to 2.5 miles down. That’s pretty thin skin!

It reminded my why I like geology: it puts today’s seemingly urgent events in perspective by showing that, in geologic time, today is less that a blink of an eye. There is a very, very long past and there will be and equally long future. As my mother used to say: “This too shall pass.”

Last year about this time my wife and I vacationed on our favorite island, Kauai. Since the island is at the northern end of the chain I googled the history of the islands and learned that Kauai is about 6.1 million years old. Actually, the whole chain has been burping up islands for over 65 million years as the Earth’s crust moves over a hot-spot at a few centimeters per year. Many of the earlier islands have subsided back under the Pacific and are just called seamounts.

At the southern end of the chain is the Big Island (a.k.a., Hawaii) that still has active volcanoes like Kiluea. Off the southern shore is yet another volcano, Loihi, that hasn’t even broken the surface yet. I hear that there is some sort of gimmick where somebody is already selling land on the island that will eventually reach the surface. Yeah, get your beach-front property now; it’ll be ready for condos in about a half-million years.

Be that as it may, I find it reassuring that no matter what I’m fretting about today (e.g., the economy, politics, climate change, etc., etc.) there will be another beautiful piece of paradise out there in the Pacific long, long after whatever we do today– or fail to do–fades into time.

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.

28
Apr
10

the learning load for kids ramps up

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Since the crash of 2008 many Americans have been reeling under a barrage of information about financial dealings such as derivatives. Much of what we’ve heard on the news from Wall Street financial and government officials has left many of us glassy-eyed. We’ve had a crash course in high-finance, and a lot of it’s more than we ever wanted to know.

In todays’ Huffington Post Timothy Geithner, Secretary of the Treasury. Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, and Valerie Jarrett, a White House Senior Advisor, suggest that our children need stronger education in money matters in school. They cite the recently completed National Financial Capability Challenge testing the knowledge of high school students.

More than 2,500 teachers and 76,000 students in all 50 states participated in the voluntary exam, which shows interest is strong. But the scores were disappointing. The average student is just squeaking by with 70% correct. Students failed to answer basic questions about credit cards, car insurance, and compound interest.

To remedy this situation the propose more school education about the intricacies of financial transactions.

Let’s pass serious financial reform. Let’s promote financial access. And at the same time, let’s make sure that we are providing all Americans — especially our youth — with the financial education they need to succeed in this increasingly complex, fast-moving economy. Their futures — and ours — depend on it.

It’s hard to disagree with the idea, but my point is that there’s hardly any area of life where more and better education in school wouldn’t offer better prospects. My professional background is health, so I could argue that stronger education in how our bodies work, how we can prevent illness, and how to cope with the medical system would help avoid serious situations for individuals and society such as the obesity epidemic sweeping the nation. Finance is just one more need in a long list. I’m confident parents and educators see benefit in stronger teaching of the basic three “Rs,” math and science, job and people skills, to name a few.

While I was in cancer public health many organizations in my state, California, tried to get comprehensive health education as part of school curriculum. Two things kept it from happening. One was school educators who said the curriculum was already too full. The other was opposition from some parents and religious leaders who didn’t want “comprehensive” health ed to include anything having to do with sex.

Life seems to get more complicated with each generational cycle. Complexity begets more complexity. My dad was a member of the so-called Greatest Generation. He was a city fireman. When he retired in the ’70s his financial dealings consisted of his pension, a paid-off home mortgage, Social Security, and a life insurance policy. Investing was only for the rich, not working guys like him. I sometimes envied the simplicity of his financial life when, a decade after graduating college, my employer began to push for 401(k)s, offered supplemental annuities, everybody had to have a mutual fund, and supposedly financially savvy folks began to leverage their home equity. People seemed to know what they were doing, yet we had the financial panic engineered by pros who know even more. I’m not sure education is the antidote for flimflammery.

25
Mar
10

if they live into the 22nd century, what then?

I’ve mentioned before that the chance of children born now have a 50/50 chance of living to 100. Prof. James Vaupel of Duke U puts it this way:

“It is possible, if we continue to make progress in reducing mortality, that most children born since the year 2000 will live to see their 100th birthday — in the 22nd century,” Vaupel said. If gains in life expectancy continue to be made at the same pace as over the past two centuries, more than half of the children alive today in the developed world may see 100 candles on their birthday cake.

In my 40 years in public health the drive I saw in health institutions was to work relentlessly toward reduced mortality and greater longevity. That was without question our measure of success. I never heard anyone ask if there were any unintended consequences to all this effort or anything we might need to prepare for.

Fortunately Dr. Vaupel seems to signal a change.

This leads to an interesting set of policy questions, said Vaupel. What will these dramatically longer lifespans mean for social services, health care and the economy? Can the aging process be slowed down or delayed still further? And why do women continue to outlive men – outnumbering them 6 to 1 at age 100?

It also may be time to rethink how we structure our lives, Vaupel said. “If young people realize they might live past 100 and be in good shape to 90 or 95, it might make more sense to mix education, work and child-rearing across more years of life instead of devoting the first two decades exclusively to education, the next three or four decades to career and parenting, and the last four solely to leisure.”

One way to change life trajectories would be to allow younger people to work fewer hours, in exchange for staying in the workforce to a later age. “The 20th century was a century of the redistribution of wealth; the 21st century will probably be a century of the redistribution of work,” Vaupel said.

Good thinking!




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