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GlennReynolds.com

Feb 5, 2004 | 5:45 PM ET

ODDS AND ENDS

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Here, in a more-bloggish-than-usual post, are some items of interest that don't require a whole entry all by themselves. 

Sonic electronic
I sometimes write about music here, so you may be interested in my recommendations to a colleague on what CDs are worth listening to as an introduction to techno music.  The post is here, over at my InstaPundit blog. 

I wouldn't go so far as to say that techno and electronica are killing rock off, but they're certainly giving it a run for its money.  At the gym the other day, the music video channel (it's not MTV, but some sort of private health club music video channel) was playing Spiller's Groovejet, with the lovely Sophie Ellis-Bextor managing to look somehow waif-like and statuesque at the same time.  She can sing, too.  (Her political views are rather puerile, but that's to be expected of musicians, alas.)  It's sugary pop, but not bad. 

Right after that was something by ATB, who is a big deal in Europe, but has never been to my taste.  Then came an Underworld video, from the Everything Everything tour.  I thought it was interesting to see that sort of thing make inroads, as the channel is usually 80s metal and contemporary hip hop.  A sign of change?  Maybe.

Do it yourself
One of the big trends of the past ten years is the growth in home studios that revolve around computers.  Programs like Pro Tools, Cubase, Acid, and Ableton Live let you do things on a computer that used to take a big expensive studio -- or that might not have been doable at all.  Many of these are available in free downloadable "lite" versions -- though even those are pretty powerful.  You can get a free download of DigiDesign's Pro Tools LE here.  It's limited to 8 tracks -- but that's more than the Beatles had for Sgt. Pepper.

NASA offers a carrot
Speaking of private technology, I'm feeling better about Bush's space plans now that Rand Simberg is reporting that the Administration is doing something that space activists been wanting for years -- using prizes to encourage private space activity.  The initiative is small, but I hope that it's the camel's nose in the tent.  Prizes did a lot to advance aviation in the early days -- perhaps they'll do the same thing for space.

Feb 4, 2004 | 10:35 AM ET

MORE ON SCHOOLS AND OUTSOURCING

My earlier post on education and outsourcing generated a lot of reader e-mail.  Most people seemed to agree that the schools have problems.  (Those who didn't were mostly teachers and administrators.)  Many, however, disagreed on whether fixing the schools would do anything to solve the job-loss problem.  Some examples:

Name: James G. Holifield
Hometown: Rolling Prairie, Indiana
You've got to be kidding.  The one and ONLY reason for outsourcing is to save MONEY.  We have one of the highest trained workforces in the world, yet you choose to blame our educational system for a problem created by business.  You translate the fact that our workers are reluctant to work for $2/hour (or less) as somehow being that they are not able to do the work.  How ignorant...and sad.

Glenn writes:  Well, cheap labor is part of it.  But the theory is that as we lose jobs abroad, we'll create new, higher-value jobs at home -- as when we lost computer chip making but leapt ahead in software.  You can't do that unless you've got an edge in capability, because then all you've got to compete on is wages.  And that's a sure loser for the United States.

Name:  Gary Hamilton
Hometown:  Montclair, NJ

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the "smartness and hard work" required to win a spelling bee is not the same as the creativity and innovation required to win a writing or robotics competition. Smartness takes many forms, and neither India or America has a monopoly on it.  Indian outsourcing is driven by lower labor costs, not by a lack of smart, hard working Americans. And, as Spellbound shows, both American and Indian cultures have their imperfections.

Name: Robert Dunlop
Hometown: Napa

Glenn,
While I completely agree that education is the key to a potentially fulfilling and productive life, I'm deeply concerned that corporate America is not only seeking well-educated people, but also that they want them to work cheaply.  I was a software engineer for the last 15 years.  And, for the last 7 years, I was a very successful independent contractor who didn't focus on
Internet-related work. 

I'm very well educated, have a broad range of skills, and possess a fund of experience in dealing with the complex issues facing businesses in a competitive environment.  However, so do the engineers in India, Russia, and China.  And they are willing to work for 4 to 5 times less than I've traditionally earned.  My market disappeared. 

I've adjusted by returning to school to earn a Master's degree in Nursing.  Something not likely to be sent offshore.  But the question I have:  What's the point of telling our youth to be well educated it there is no reward?  Is it to be, "Get an education; and, you too can work at McDonald's?"

Glenn writes:  Nothing wrong with working for McDonald's -- I had a girlfriend who paid her way through Yale Law School with money she saved (and invested rather shrewdly -- she became a tax lawyer!) while working for McDonald's in college.  But I take the point.  Most readers seemed more exercised about public schools, though:

Name: Paul Meyer
Hometown: Annapolis
School administrators today are the end product of a sieving process that started in the 60's with those college students least able to decide on a major.  They temporized up to the last moment and when forced at last to declare, discovered they were closer to an education degree than anything else.

Small wonder the system is broken.

Industry cries about shortages to trigger floods of graduates that push down wages and the colleges mutate their curriculum to maximize registrations.  Meanwhile nobody coming out of college can actually DO anything.

Name: Freda
Hometown: Atlanta, Ga

I totally agree that our education system is broken.  From my observations, the problem is with the parents and not the education system.  The education system merely follows the wishes of parents who want success for their children without the hard work.  When asked, most parents will answer that they want their children to suceed and yet they are the same people who complain that homework is cutting into their family time and so forth.  Any time when their children receive punishment of failed grades, they are the first ones to stand up and defend their kids.

Fundamentally if a system has successes, there will be failures.  There will be more failures than successes, guaranteed.  Without failures, how can you name an instance of the group a success?  Parents do not wish their children to be failures and so they want no failures at all.  Thus no child left behind.  When no children are left behind, there will be no children being ahead either.  You can't have it both ways.  We are so eager to protect our children from failure that we condemned them to failure even before they set foot in schools.  I am a parent myself and struggle with it daily.

Name: Tony Esposito
Hometown: Livermore, CA

Re: "SPELLBOUND, OUTBOUND, AND SCHOOLBOUND," (Jan. 29, 2004)
Hear, hear!  Out here in California, we're just beginning to realize how far we've fallen in educating our kids.  You might want to plug a PBS documentary that's going to be aired this week and next, titled "First to Worst," which chronicles the decline of California's public schools.  Since California has one-eighth of the population of this country, even folks outside of California should take notice.

Glenn writes:  California's schools certainly have problems.  The PBS program looks as if it mostly blames Proposition 13 for California's problems, though, which seems a bit dubious.  School officials always say they need more money, but there's not a lot of evidence that more money produces better results.

Name: Sue Balcueva
Hometown: Troy, Michigan

Mr. Reynolds,
While I agree with your statement that public schools need fixing, may I also suggest that we fix our society that sends their children to these institutuions as well.  In many instances, teachers try to enforce high standards.  Then the parents complain that there is too much homework and not enough time for soccer!  The administration backs the parents on many cases because if they do not, our failing court system lets the parents sue the district and win.  If our schools tried to enforce the expectations and rules found in Japan and India, parents and lawyers would make a fortune in lawsuits.  We need to examine our society as a whole, not just blame everything on the schools.

Name: Bradley Schwartze
Hometown: Denver, CO

Glenn,
Just read this post on Spellbound combined with outsourcing.  There is one thing about America's wealth that makes it more of a birthright than you think it is, one thing that education and hard work play only a secondary role in maintaining. That would be the ability to have that wealth protected by law (both caselaw and Constitutional protections) and by having financial institutions (insurance in particular) that are formed specifically for the purpose of protecting that wealth under certain parameters. 

One reason why that Indian parent stated "you don't get second chances in India" is because in India, there is no guarantee that the government won't keep its hands from strangling the golden goose that provides the wealth. India has been famous in recent decades for golden-goose killing. This is one thing that would likely keep outsourcing somewhat in check, and is one thing neither education nor hard work can by themselves or in tandem overcome.

Glenn writes:  That's an awfully important point.  India has gotten richer as it's moved toward deregulation and more open markets.  Legal protection for the fruits of one's labor -- and reasonably low tax rates -- is pretty much essential to economic success. 

Finally, here's a letter that ties together employers' desire for cheap wages with the problems with the education system:

Name: Dorothy Tissair
Hometown: Old Saybrook, CT

The remarks about someone not being hired because they are "too smart" for the school system are nothing new to me.  I am a 54 year-old widowed single parent who has raised two sons largely on per diem substitute teacher pay.  This despite having completed a post-degree year of teacher certification in math, chemistry, physics and biology(undergrad degree - Chemistry major with three minors) in 1989; a M.S. in Math in 1991, and a M.L.S. in School Library Media in 1998.  I have consistently answered early morning calls to cover classes and have a record of maintaining order and delivering the planned lesson for the day.  But when it comes time to hire a new teacher, the candidate chosen is young enough to be my child and possess the minimal B.A. in Education.  Why?  Because they are cheaper to hire with an 80% chance of leaving the profession before completing a Master's program.

Glenn writes:  So there you are.  Even the school systems are chasing cheap help!  I don't know the answer to these problems, but I do know that we'd better think about it.  And I don't think that protectionist legislation is going to save the day, as it never has in the past.

Meanwhile, for more on outsourcing, read this post by Daniel Drezner.

Feb 2, 2004 | 4:41 PM ET

NANOTECHNOLOGY IN THE NEWS

I've written about nanotechnology here before, and the subject is beginning to get more attention.  Last week, I wrote a column on the way the nanotechnology business community is missing the boat with a PR strategy that involves ducking questions about nanotechnology's safety.

I think that most of the questions that are being raised are bogus, and most of the rest are easy to answer.  (I've written more on that here, here, and most recently here, among other places).  But the nanotech industry seems to be pursuing a strategy in which advanced applictions of nanotechnology -those that raise the most significant ethical or regulatory issues- are dismissed as impossible, while the problems of shorter-term applications are largely ignored.

I've criticized this strategy before, because I think it's a bad one -- and I think that as someone who's a big supporter of nanotechnology, which promises to do great things in treating illness, extending life, and healing the environment.  (Here is a report of some impressive things that are already happening in that department.)  But because the industry is unrealistic -and seems to be working as hard to alienate its friends as its enemies- the coverage is turning negative, and even some of nanotech's friends are turning critic.  This article from Sunday's Washington Post demonstrates the phenomenon very clearly.

So what should be done?  The industry needs to address the critics more forthrightly.  The big hazard that many are touting is the danger that nano-materials might be dangerous if ingested. I attended a meeting of the EPA's Science Advisory Board where this was discussed, and the consensus seemed to be that while this might be a workplace safety issue, it wasn't likely to be an environmental issue generally.  The longer-term issues can be addressed via research and discussion now, and it won't take much to convince people that the scary scenarios in Michael Crichton's novel Prey aren't anything to worry about.  (Physicist Freeman Dyson does a good job of explaining why that is here.)

Dismissing advanced nanotechnology (usually called "molecular manufacturing") as impossible lets people avoid talking about its implications.  But it also runs afoul of Arthur C. Clarke's First Law

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

It also means that the discussion space is ceded to those who believe that it is possible, or who fear that it might be.  And it alienates those who believe, with considerable basis, that the claims of impossibility are wrong, or politically motivated, or both.  This doesn't seem like a smart strategy to me.

If you're interested in following nanotechnology issues, you might want to visit the website of the Foresight Institute, a nonprofit organization (on whose board I serve) that deals with nanotechnology and has produced guidelines for safe research and development in the field.  You might also want to visit the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology website.  There's also a very good article from the San Francisco Chronicle, on the subject, interviewing a venture capitalist, a chemist, and an engineer.  While there's appropriate caution about not getting ahead of ourselves, there's also some useful perspective.  Here's what the venture capitalist, Steve Jurvetson, says: 

The only thing you can safely say (about predicting nanotech's potential) is the farther out you look, the tougher it gets, and the more bold and the more futuristic the prediction. If it doesn't sound like science fiction, it's almost certainly false.

I think that's right, and I think the industry is making a serious mistake by pretending otherwise.

Finally, I have an article coming out in the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology that addresses some of these issues.  There's a draft online here.

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