9/10/2009

What News?

The decline of the national news media has echoed (or led) the decline in the national intelligence. Someone once said that modern television news is a collection of "thank god that s**t didn't happen to me" events. Those were the good old days. As the national ship sinks, the news programs are busy distracting the public with brilliant exposes on what's happening in their network's reality shows, which talking head is going to be interviewed on which nighttime variety show, and the all important love lives of movie stars. The movie, "Stupidity," described the target audience of television news as a group with a third grade education. I have to ask why anyone would need three years of grade school plus kindergarten to comprehend the drivel presented on prime time network news?

In the last week, the distance between what the marching morons are being fed and what is happening grew so massively that I doubt the sanity and mental capacity of anyone able to watch more than 60 seconds of network news. Wall Street's mouthpieces aren't much better. The Wall Street Journal, the right wing rag most respected by derivititive traders and other hucksters, barely bothered to mention the fact that several of the recent short-term federal Treasury bond auctions had to be supported by the Fed. To put it simply, the US government is selling US government bonds to the US government. This means that the Chinese, the Japanese, the Arab oil governments, and the rest of the world's suckers have finally learned their lesson. They aren't interested in buying our paper, because our paper is nothing more than paper. The gross national product of the United States is devolving into worthless collections of imaginary money and the world knows it.

But we don't. NBC's news program, the only major news program running in the morning after this series of economic catastrophes, spent 10 minutes interviewing some douchebag who tried to sell his parents on Craig's list. The economy is swirling around the toilet bowl and what the nation hears about is this kind of crap?

This is an interesting look at what's left of our economy: "US is on the slippery slope to economic collapse."

I have to wonder if this is trickle down from the political idea that what people need is good news? Reagan won his elections ignoring reality and jabbering about imaginary good news and looking goofy and delusional (or, if you loved Reagan, you probably think he looked happy). CEO's around the country tell their middle managers "tell me what is right, I don't need to hear about what's wrong with this company." As if problems fix themselves and by gazing fondly upon the few things that are still working we can wish problems into self-correction mode. That's how you create a quality control system that resembles the United States Congress: clueless, incompetent, disabled, dysfunctional, and irrelevant.

If you say stupid things often, loudly, and with authority, it eventually becomes "common sense." Common sense is "common" in the sense the word means "falling below ordinary standards ." One piece of good advice I've followed in my past has been "figure out where the crowd is going and go the other way." That applies to common sense.

9/09/2009

Capitalism and Invention

I'm facinated by a lot of the uninformed argument about health care, relative to technology. Without Medicare and Medicade, the profitibility of the major medical device companies would be so slim that they wouldn't exist in any recognizable form, but those corporations are fighting "the public option" as hard as the more obviously self-interested insurance companies.

People claim that our capitalist system "produces" innovation and it does seem that many of the more socialist countries are less inclined to develop new drugs and devices. On the other hand, we're consistently generations behind in surgical procedures and preventive therapies and our physicians often go to Europe, Japan, India, and Singapore to learn the newest surgical tactics.

Being the traditional "ugly American," I have absolutely no personal experience anywhere but here and Canada. So I'm only getting what little I know from the media and second-hand reports and experiences. Still, it seems to me that trying to work both sides of the capitalist-socialist boarder has created an expensive, sluggish, marketing-based system that works pretty poorly for the majority of citizens. The link between capitalism and technical advances doesn't seem particularly tight.

A friend and I, about 6 years ago, came up with an invention for which he inisisted on applying for a patent. I was more convinced that we should build a product, first, and worry about the legal crap later. He went ahead, with his money, and dumped a load of cash into a New York patent law firm. The patent is still in the system, but another company is making exactly our product and selling it. They aren't making much money from it, as I suspected would be the case for our production. The whole process really made me thing about how I feel about invention, innovation, and business, though.

I've had about two dozen experiences with the patent process, in and because of my career. I invented a mobile electronic scale in the 1970's. I applied for a patent with that product, about six months after a company a friend owned went into production with the product. I did not follow up on the patent and the concept, as far as I know, is public domain now. It's also obsolete and went that way about 2 years after it went into use. I made some money. My friend got his company off of the ground with the product. I learned a lot about how corporations breech individuals' patent rights. I ended up in another industry and decided to keep my weight measurement ideas to myself. I wrote many of two companies' patent applications for a decade. I worked with patent lawyers and still communicate with one them, as a friend. The more I know, the less I want to participate in that system.

An engineer who worked for me in the 1980s had a common experience in lighting design in his own business. A Chinese company started copying his product designs and he ended up getting a consultant's fee for helping them steal his design. The feel-good stories and movies about inventors ending up rich after fighting off the corporations are mostly myth or massive good luck. My friend still creates some pretty amazing lighting controllers, but he submerges them in artwork and his customers could care less how he does what he does, so he's not as likely to get ripped off. The more he learned, the less he wanted to contribute to the corporate intellectual property theft system.

Just looking at my own experience, I don't think everyone invents and creates to get rich. I do think people might stop being publically inventive to avoid being robbed by corporations. I know people who create some incredible things for their homes and hobbies who will die with those secrets rather than lose them to some corporate scumbags. The Open Source computer world is a terrific example of that "look what I did" attitude and its disconnect from the profit motive. Moore's Law appears to be in stall-mode for the last near-decade. I wonder if the legal system has an effect on that?

Energy is an area where practically anyone in any area of technology and science could find the critical breakthrough that would save us all. Energy is probably the most tied-up-in-corporate-shell-games areas of invention law. Oil companies control Washington DC. They have the lawmakers, the lawyers, and paid technology thieves lurking around every corner looking to snag every invention that relates to their profits. Anyone foolish enough to announce "I've found the solution" to any energy problem is going to be sucked into a blackhole of corporate lawyers. Anyone smart enough to find the solution is probably going to be too smart to talk about it.

The founders of this country knew that the future belongs to invention and innovation. They created a patent office in 1790, George Washington signed the amendment. The office called itself "Commissioners for the Promotion of Useful Arts" or the "Board of Arts." Today, we talk about "intellectual property" and the associated rights, but that concept ought to be renamed "property of the powerful." Instead of protecting the rights of inventors, current law protects the corporate owners of concepts that were invented decades earlier. While stifling invention, our "property of the powerful" laws make sure publishing companies retain profits from art that was created decades ago, while ensuring that current artists are screwed multiple ways before their first fan experiences the art. The "property of the powerul" laws give priority to those with the most lawyers over those with the clearest claim to invention. The overall effect is to encourage inventors to stay out of the system, to keep their ideas to themselves.

Product design, today, closely reflects this constraining of mass participation in invention. Medical devices, for example, move in baby steps. New ideas find their way into products so rarely that you'd think human creativity had dried up. A friend described aeronautical engineering as "sued out," meaning that every new idea got so entangled into patent lawsuits that the industy has agreed not to do anything new. For an industry that is so dependent on the price of oil, you'd think that agreement would be the kiss of death. It probably will be. Auto manufacturers seem to have made a similar agreement. The movie "Who Killed the Electric Car" depicts an auto industry that is so connected to oil interests that the industry sabatoged its own best ideas to keep the oil companies happy. Today, every car company is offering exactly the same solutions to alternative energy and high efficiency vehicles. That ought to be proof that invention is not a significant part of those company's culture.

How do we fix this? We probably won't. If "necessity is the mother of invention," we're most likely going to be forced to wait for necessity. As it has taken a world-wide depression to force finance to mildly reform its corrupt practices, it will probably take a world-wide energy crisis to force industry to consider reforming creative property rights. Until then, we can enjoy the incremental, baby-stepping stutter-step of progress that we've learned to expect from our existing system.

9/08/2009

Why Teaching Sucks

In a recent conversation, my daughter made a comment about how unfair it was that teachers make $40,000 a year and "only have to work 9 months" for it. For the last decade, I've taught at a private college. For about 3 years of that decade, I had the time of my life teaching. For those 3 years, I would have agreed with her, except that I was making about $7,500 a year at the time. I was, also, working 12 months a year at two other businesses that paid the bills.

I wasn't teaching for money. I sure wasn't doing it because it was easier than my previous job. I was teaching because it was fun.

It was fun because I'd stumbled into a school situation where my boss was a terrific person with honorable motivations and his boss was, possibly, an even better person with amazing management skills. It was fun because I was learning as much as I was teaching, if not more. That's not a typical teaching position in the modern United States. It didn't last long where I worked, either.

Most schools are mismanaged as badly as the worst corporations. Most teachers find themselves in systems that provide no outlets for their own education. Most teachers are as unsupported in their classrooms as a National Guard foot soldier in Afghanistan. The web is jammed with articles describing the conditions teachers work under: Top 5 Reasons Many Teachers Quit, Why are So Many Teachers Quitting after 5-7 Years?, Valid Reasons Teachers Quit, Why Teachers Quit and Why They Don’t, Why New Teachers Quit, and hundreds of other articles on this subject.

18,000 California teachers quit every year. 6%, nationally, leave the profession every year. 20% quit after 3 years. Nationally, 50% of urban teachers quit in the first 5 years of their career. Most teachers are short-timers. Our national divorce statistics look better than the teaching profession. If the pay is so good, the hours are so short, and teaching is one of the last jobs in the country to be "protected" by a union, why is the job so unwanted after a few years of experience?

The reason is that teachers are constantly exposed to the nation's dirty laundry. From both ends of the work, teachers experience disrespect, incompetence, and disregard for their work. Students are ill-equipped to be educated. Administrators are mostly failed teachers. Society can't decide if it wants a professional education system or an amateur religious indoctrination. Government involvement swings from indifference to demanding hours of dysfunctional testing and mountains of pointless paperwork. From top-to-bottom, side-to-side, and front-to-back, teachers are surrounded by factors that would demotivate a saint.

What we're often left with is the institutional dumbing-down of the career that has paralyzed small towns and the Midwest. All of the smart kids leave for the city or better jobs as soon as they can escape and all the dumb kids stay home, reproduce, and down-breed even dumber kids. The smart kids who become teachers quickly see how screwed up the profession is and get out. The dumb kids who can't find better jobs stay in teaching, infect new teachers with their incompetence, and wait to be promoted into administration jobs where they can do even more damage.

Top all this foolishness off with the national drive for "efficiency" and you have larger classes, fewer resources in the classroom, more demands on a teacher's after-class time, fewer teachers with special skills (particularly math and science), no time for class planning, mountains of No Child Left Behind paperwork, and more needy children desperately looking for a parent substitute. Getting a day off is easier for soldiers. Having a weekend free of class planning, paper grading, or required-attendance school activities is rare. Getting support from administration is as unlikely as getting an honest answer from Little Dick Cheney. Summers are spent on a 2nd job or advanced degree pursuits or class preparation.

"Efficiency," in the US, means lower taxes for the rich. This efficiency is producing a workforce that is so incompetent that practically every 3rd world nation has better educated labor. Eventually, the rich are going to find themselves surrounded by incompetence and they won't be so rich anymore. The middle class drives everything in this country, in every country, and wreaking the education system that feeds the middle class is cultural suicide.

Any reasonably intelligent person would do anything to escape from this rat's nest of a job. And they do. That leaves the unreasonably unintelligent holding down the fort. Great jobs don't see mass evacuation from the profession. Teaching is not a great job. Try it sometime. Let's see how long you last.