What’s Real and What Wishes It Were Real

When my kids were approaching college age, we had a talk that neither appreciated.  By then, I’d spent almost 20 years on the path to my BA; 18 of those years attempting to get a EE BS and the last two settling for a Technical Writing BA with as many as possible EE classes crammed in as cross-discipline courses. I was 43 when I finally earned my BA and had been in southern California “long enough” (almost 10 years). I had to satisfy myself with a EETAS, but after a 20 year career as an “engineer” I hoped that would be good enough and it turned out to be so. My talk with the kids was about what I would be willing to help fund and what I would not. I mostly took the Jewish parent approach, “I’ll pay for any college classes you take as long as they are directed toward an engineering, medical, mathematics, or science degree. Anything thing else is a hobby and you’re on your own.” If I were a real Jewish parent I would have substituted a law degree for science, but I’m not.

Today, there is a lot of pissing and moaning from the Xgen and Millennial crowd about their oppressive student debt and I only have moderate sympathy for that, since far too many of those “degrees” were of the “studying my own navel” variety. Shriek away if it makes you feel better, but I do not believe there is a valid argument for liberal arts, arts, business, and most of what passes for vocational training costing anything near engineering, medical, mathematics, or science degrees. In fact, I think paying instructors equivalent salaries outside of those three very general fields anything near the same money just encourages foolishness. To anyone who has studied many of the “soft” fields, it’s pretty obvious that many of the most expert of “experts” in economics, literature, history, education, art, journalism, cultural anthropology, paleontology, etc are either college dropouts who are driven to learn faster than colleges are prepared to teach or hobbyists with engineering, medical, mathematics, or science degrees dabbling in the softer and easier fields. So, the downside to obtaining an engineering, medical, mathematics, or science degree is only the difficulty and effort required, which is what “higher education” is supposed to be all about.

With that in mind, a rational society trying to encourage the creation (in our case) of an educated citizenry or (in the case of actual 1st world nations) trying to maintain that educated citizenry that democracy is so dependent upon would concentrate on ensuring that anyone making the effort to obtain an education in engineering, medical, mathematics, or science would leave school with minimal debt; once that standard is obtained, we could have a conversation about the value of less necessary skills and specialties.

Academia, being the mindlessly corrupt and lazy territory of human inactivity that it is, would relentlessly try to dumb down the curriculum of engineering, medical, mathematics, and science programs to allow lazier and less competent “students” to filter into those fields and, therefore, water-down the value to the level of the fluffier academic fields. Which will be just one more thing that will have to be carefully monitored, administered, regulated, and critically considered; as it always should be. Everything heads toward entropy, including all human activities, and the harder, more complicated, more critical the human activity the more quickly it degenerates into uselessness.


Letter to Jason Lewis

Representative Jason Lewis

418 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: 202-225-2271

As a lifelong student, even past retirement, I am skeptical about the claims you are making for vocational school training. In 1970, I attended about a semester-and-a-half of vocational school electronics training. You could claim that kick-started my career as an electrical engineer, but you’d be missing most of the big picture if you did. The “education” I was receiving in tech school was primarily focused on teaching me how to repair tube-type television sets. The part-time job I had at the same time was repairing solid state industrial agriculture electronics. The vocation “education” was about five years behind the state of the industry and if I had stayed in that program for the full two years I would have graduated into an industry and economy that would have considered me obsolete before I started my career.

One of the many problems with vocational schools is attracting instructors with current industry skills. The best most seem to be able to do is to attract mediocre instructors with even more mediocre skills. The more rural the school, the less talent it is likely to be able to attract and retain. That is only partially an issue of money, since anyone cutting short a successful career to become an “industrial arts” teacher is not only taking himself out of the state-of-the-art but if you compound that sacrifice with teaching in a rural area the instructor is, literally, giving up on being in any way current. The only people willing to make those kinds of sacrifices are those who are not able to compete in the first place, so teaching a vocational education program is the best they can hope for. It doesn’t matter how much short-term money you can wave in their faces, any sentient American knows this country does not value education in the long run. The talent needed to make a real training program work won’t be fooled by a few moments of attention paid to vocational education.

More importantly, vocation education programs are mostly incapable of providing enough of an education to start a lifetime technical career. The only key to staying employed for an extended period in technology is a commitment to lifetime learning. Vocation training is notorious for being gap-filling training, not actual education. Personally, I think the real problem is that in order to fill far too many seats in traditional colleges with far too untalented students, universities have lowered their standards to attract the largest population of customers; not “students,” because that standard would be too high. The fact that every college student, regardless of major, is not required to take and pass college-level science and mathematics classes as part of a “liberal education” is the real problem. MA’s and PhD’s are passed out like prizes in Cracker Jacks boxes to people who do not meet the most basic modern requirements for “educated.” If you want to fix higher education, bring back the 1960’s requirements for a college degree.

Thomas Day


What Part of Death is Complicated?

When I was teaching, every semester a few hours to a week or more after the course’s final exam, a few "students" would call or email me messages with a variety of excuses asking when they could "make up " their missed or failed exam. Since the final often accounted for 30-45% of the total grade, sleeping in that day was expensive. For more than half of my life, I’ve been convinced that “a lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.” From the beginning of my teaching career, my syllabus clearly stated that final exams would only be administered on the day the exam was scheduled; a date and time clearly identified the day class began. With that as a background, my only response to those messages was, "What part of 'final' do you not understand?"

A concept that we regularly tried to reinforce in our classes was that there are “get fired moments” that can be career-stoppers. In a highly competitive business, like recording music, there is always someone right outside the door waiting to take your job. It really is a business where “there is no try, only do.”

Lately, some of my religious friends and relatives have been prying at my atheism asking, "What do you think happens after death?"

There could be a lot to unpack in that question, but for someone who does not believe in magic of any form the question has a pretty straight-forward answer. Remembering the final exam moments, this question does feel like déjà vu. It is all I can do not to rudely respond with, "What part of death do you not understand?" Because that is the rational answer, obviously. Death is the ultimate final exam.

One response to my hopefully scientific take on life and death was “it’s easier for me to believe in a divine creator than the idea that everything came from a Big Bang that was created from nothing.” Most Americans have a terrible grasp on mathematics and science, so it is pretty easy to understand how the most sophisticated and complicated field in science, astrophysics, is incomprehensible. However, many of the people who cling to religion for their information about how the world works, have almost no clue about even the most basic and well-accepted proven science. While they claim they don’t believe in the science behind astrophysics, they offer no excuses for not understanding most of the technology that is all around them: computers, television and radio, internal combustion, the internet, medicine and biology, and practically any complicated thing that has been invented or discovered in the last 100 years. If it were up to them or their religion, none of those things would exist today or tomorrow. It’s a wonder, to me, why anyone cares about the philosophy, religions, or the opinions of people who have provided so little contribution to progress of any sort.

The disinterest they express in understanding how even life works should be a disqualifying admission in any serious conversation about the complexities of the universe. Why, if you know so little about how life works, would you assume expertise on something as poorly-understood as death? For the most part, science knows a lot about life on earth and even a good bit about how life might exist on other planets with totally different atmospheres. Science knows more than most of us would like to know about the moments after a heart stops beating, too. However, science doesn’t make any claims about life-after-death; that remains in the territory of the con artists often known as “ministers,” “priests,” and the rest of the hucksters selling real estate in another dimension.

In a talk broadcast on MPR, Thomas Friedman recently said, “Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology, and physics. She will do whatever chemistry, biology, and physics tells her to do. She always bats last and she always bats 1.000. You do not mess with Mother Nature. (I really recommend that you listen to Friedman’s talk on this link) and nothing more or less. Nothing about spirituality has anything to do with “chemistry, biology, and physics.” Religion and the afterlife are just weird ideas made up by sheepherders and primitive people who didn’t have “chemistry, biology, and physics” to use as tools to understand the world we live in. Of course, many American citizens are also without those tools; along with mathematics, economics, philosophy, psychology, computer science, engineering, and every other aspect of advanced, modern human knowledge. Because they are clinging to ancient religions, most of which they have barely studied, and their parents and offspring are handicapped by their devotion to dead religions and imaginary gods.

An optimistic person would imagine that the stresses from global warming, a radically changing world economics, economic and social inequality, and international competition would force a “first world country” like the USA to pull itself together and get into the game before it is too late. I have spent too much time in rural America. The thing to learn from being around marginally educated, timid conservative small town citizens and politicians, and racially isolated and deluded white nationalists is that change terrifies them and they imagine they have some control over a naturally occurring, rapidly accelerating, and unstoppable change in every aspect of human life. They hope to pray away the change. If that doesn’t work, they plan on living forever in a magical afterlife where all of the problems are solved by a god.

I’m 70. I don’t expect to see any sort of useful solutions in my lifetime. On some levels, I don’t care. I wish for solutions that will allow my kids and grandkids to live long and good lives, but I won’t be here to know how that works out. Since, as far as I’m concerned, life everywhere will end when I die it’s hard to me to get really concerned about what happens after I’m dead. Believe it or not, I’m not afraid of death at all. I expect it’s possible that the few seconds after my heart stops my brain will go into overdrive and it might even be painful, terrifying, and sad. But 2-20 seconds late, it will all be over and I’ll be dead. That will be the first final exam in my life that I will have failed.