Twofish's Blog

September 15, 2007

Confessions of an Economic Hitman

Filed under: academia, economics, education, politics — twofish @ 6:00 pm

I started reading the book “Confessions of a Hitman” in the Strand bookstore, and I found to be a wonderful and insightful description of what is wrong with the world.  What I found interesting was that most of the reviews I read about the book make Jack Perkins sound like a wacko conspiracy theorist, when from the book, I think he got pretty close to how the world really works.  From my own experience, the way that the world works is far scarier than any conspiracy theorist could possibly imagine.  Let me explain…..

Jack Perkins said that he was prompted to write because out of guilt, and curiously guilt is the reason that I blog as much as I do.  I feel guilty because I worked at Halliburton, saw Dick Cheney in action, and I didn’t say anything.  It turns out that Dick Cheney and Halliburton are far scarier than any of the conspiracy theorists imagine.

Conspiracy theorists imagine that there is some secret committee within Halliburton that is plotting to run the world and make themselves rich by ruthless control of the world oil supplies, and that there are selfish, ruthless, men in power that hope to keep themselves in power by going evil things designed to enslave the world…….

How I wish that were true!!!!!!

The reality is far scarier.  Working in Halliburton, I found Dick Cheney to be a completely incompetent administrator, and Halliburton to be an extremely badly run company.  Both of them do the day-to-day stuff more or less well.  They can pour concrete competently.  But Halliburton and Dick Cheney seemed to be completely incapable of high level strategic thinking or of being able to adapt and recognize high level strategic thinking.  It is this low-level competence combined with a lot of vision and inability to listen and react that formed a vastly dangerous combination.

So I was relieved when he left Halliburton, what possible damage could he do as Vice-President?

My experience has been that the “evil schemers” of the world aren’t the really dangerous people.  “Evil schemers” who are competent will at least do nothing to harm themselves, and you can usually negotiate a deal with them so that they don’t harm you.  The really dangerous people that I’ve found are the “incompetent schemers”, people who think that they are doing good, but lack the curiousity and questioning ability to understand what is going on around them.  A loaded machine gun is far more dangerous in the hands of a four-year old than in the hands of a Mafia hitman.

The typical “evil schemer” is Henry Kissinger.  Kissinger did some nasty, rotten things while he was Secretary of State, but he had some basic competence and vision, and there is plenty that he did that was good.  He was responsible for the fact that my mother could send a letter to her father  in Mainland China for the first time in over a decade and reading the diplomatic exchanges that lead up to the opening with China is extremely emotional.  Now if my parents were Chilean leftists or East Timorese, I can understand how they would hate Kissinger.  I understand what they feel, and I understand why they feel it.  But my parents were who they were, and I am who I am.  Christopher Hitchens thinks that Kissinger should be put up for war crimes trials, and if that ever happens, I’ll be passionate in my defense of Kissinger.  This is an important point because I happen believe that after we die, in some way or another, we will be put on trial for what we did on the planet.  I will defend Kissinger.  I wonder who will defend Cheney.

Something else that the conspriacy theorists talk about is the “corporate dominated media” with the idea that again there are evil people in the world that try to mold people’s thinking to keep themselves in power.  The truth I believe is far scarier.  The big media corporations exist to make money, large amounts of money.  So how do you make large amounts of money in media……  The answer is quite obvious and shocking……

You tell people what they want to hear…….

Liberals get Fox News wrong.  It’s not a vast corporate conspiracy to brainwash people in America.  The truth is that there are lots and lots of people who want to hear what Fox News is telling them, and by telling people what they want to hear, you make large amounts of money.  Rupert Murdorch is an interesting fellow, and I’m sure that if there were large numbers of people who would be willing to pay cash money to hear liberal news, he’d put up a liberal news channel.

The problem with reality is that the truth is messy, the truth is uncertain, the truth is painful, the truth takes a lot of time and effort to get right.  It is really not worth the pain, agony, and fear of looking for the truth, unless the alternative is worse.  And the worst part of it is, you never know if you have the truth.

The comforting thing about conspiracy theories is that they divide the world into the good and the evil, and obviously the speaker is on the side of good.  The problem is that the world doesn’t quite work out that way.  One thing that makes reading confessions of an economic hitman uncomfortable is that I always have the nagging fear that something that I’m doing is resulting or will result in something very, very horrific.  I’m working in a nice office in the middle of corporate America, maybe something I’m doing is causing or will cause something horrific to happen.

So maybe I should quit my job, but wait…..  Maybe by doing what I’m doing I’m preventing something horrific from happening, and if I quit my job, *that* is the action that will cause something horrible to happen.  Scary….. Isn’t it…..  So maybe I should think some more, but maybe by thinking about this, I cause something horrible to happen, so I should stop thinking, but maybe *that* is going to cause something evil to occur…..

I’ve basically resigned myself to the fact that I’m doing something bad and that on judgment day, I will be ashamed and guilty at some of the things I’ve done.  I’m just hope that it isn’t something really bad.  Reading “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” gives me scary feeling that it will be.

It’s the curse of Adam.  Chapter 3 of the book of Genesis recounts of the story of Adam taking a bite of the tree of knowledge.  It’s actually a deep story because it recounts an experience that every human being goes through.  When you are a baby, people take care of you, and you are not responsible for any actions that you take, because you don’t know the difference between good and evil.  Once you take a bite of the apple and once you are able to appreciate the difference between good and evil, then you must leave the Garden of Eden.

September 11, 2007

Charles W Eliot’s Education for Efficiency

Filed under: academia, education, harvard, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 5:24 am

A wonderful book by Charles W Eliot about the purpose of education.  The thing that I find remarkable about Eliot is his vision of Harvard University as a mass institution, whose goal was to play an integral part in the transformation and emergence of a new American superpower in the 19th century.  Something that I’ve noticed in Eliot’s work is the element of New England unitarianism.  Education for him was as for me, a means of saving the souls of people, and there was this idea which is deep within unitarianism that all people can and should be saved.

December 20, 2006

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August 16, 2006

Too many smart people….. Implications for MIT

Filed under: academia, education, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 1:33 pm

My annoyance with a lot of reports on education in the United States is that they totally miss the big problem that is facing the United States, which is going to get worse over time, and that is that the US educational system has been wildly successful at producing the most educated and literate society in the history of the world, and the social, political, and economic systems are unable to adapt to this wild success. (Someone ought to do a paper on the “myth of American educational failure” as well as a paper on the “myth of the failure of the war on poverty”.)

There is a lot of doom and gloom about how the educational system has failed, but this flies in the face of the reality I see every day. If the US educational system is such a disaster then why is it that admissions to elite universities have become so hypercompetitive, why is it that the salaries of teachers and academics are so extremely low, why is the system set up to *actively weed out* people from the academic system. If you look at the numbers, the US is generating 1000 physics Ph.D’s each year and the economic system simply has no idea what to do with them all. This is not a sign of a failed educational system.

The analogy that one can present is with food. For most of the history of mankind, the struggle was against malnutrition and hunger. Today, in most parts of the developed world, hunger is not a problem, and the big problems are obesity and diabetes. Similarly, the problems we are now facing in the educational system are not problems of educational scarity but of educational abundance.

And the “problem” is going to get worse. One number that gets constantly quoted is how many engineers China and India are producing, what isn’t mentioned is that China and India are struggling desperately to find jobs for all of these people.
This wild success has a lot of consequences. One major one is if the number of qualified people increases and the number of spots for those qualified people stays the same, the selection criteria get increasing silly and arbitrary. If you have 1 spot and 200 qualified applicants, there is no good way of filtering out people, and the system you use to choose that one person is going to be bogus.

So what do we do….. It would be immoral (and more importantly impossible) to make people stupid (although the educational system is trying), so the only solution I can see is to remove a lot of the bottlenecks that stand in the way of getting smart people to be socially productive.

This has implications for MIT. From a “get qualified applicants” point of view, MIT could boost undergraduate enrollments by a factor of five to ten, and still have roughly the same caliber of student. If we get rid of the restrictions that limit undergraduate education to 18-22 year olds, then the number of qualified applicants could easily go up to twenty to fifty without sacrificing educational quality. The bottlenecks are logistic, number of dorm rooms, campus buildings, number of teachers etc. etc. etc, but those logistical issues can be dealt with.

(The admission test I’d use for MIT is simple. If you find jokes about 100 digit prime numbers on bathroom walls funny, you are in.)

August 11, 2006

More rants on the *STUPID* education report

Filed under: academia, education, globalization — twofish @ 3:17 pm

Apologies for being impolite and confrontational. If there was a chance that I’d get listened to without being impolite and confrontational, I’d be nice. But when you point out that the emperor has no clothes, you have to be a little rude.As far as the absurdities in the report:

1) Giving people more information about costs is silly. I already know that Harvard costs a lot more than Austin Community College, but if I were a parent, I’d be willing to spend pretty much anything to get my kid into Harvard because he or she then gets linked into the power elite social network that runs the world. That’s worth mucho bucks.

2) Focusing on costs is also silly. Graduate students and teachers are already being squeezed, if you focus on costs then the system will just squeeze them more and cut corners on quality metrics that aren’t being measured. There *are* ways of some massive cost savings, but these require some major restructuring of the system. There is no pedagological reason why an MIT undergraduate physics major shouldn’t be able to satisify their calculus requirement with a course taught at Austin Community College, especially since some of the teachers at ACC are better than the ones at MIT. (Research universities don’t care that much about teaching skills.)

3) The members of the panel were *incredibly* inbred which is why the report was non-sense. Someone mentioned that they found themselves very quickly in agreement with each other, and that is a general warning sign that that a committee is inbred. Everyone in the panel were senior upper-class executive members of the power elite. There were no graduate students, junior faculty, undergraduates, parents, high school teachers in the panel. Also it is not sufficient enough for these people to be “merely listened to”, in order to get a good report, you need them *in the panel*.

4) A lot of the facts in the panel are conventional wisdom which might also be wrong. There are a lot of philosophical and pedagological assumptions which went unquestioned. Just to name an obvious one, is the only purpose of education to get a job and enhance national competitiveness.

Also because the members of the panel are from the upper class power elite, I think they are missing what is really worrying people like me in the upper middle class. I’m seeing the United States quickly divide into winners and losers, and I really worried that I and my kids are going to end up in the “loser” column. In academia, I’m already in the “loser” category, which is a shame since I think I’d make a damn fine astrophysics professor if given a chance, and that’s not going to be from traditional academia. I gave that up because I couldn’t be that nasty to myself or my kids.

The anxiety spreads to education because education is *the* class determination mechanism of our time. It does no good for someone in the middle class to have their kids have a cheap affordable education if it means missing a chance at getting into the power elite. People in the power elite are just not going to understand the nature of this anxiety, which is why you have report after report filled with non-sense.

Most of the reports I’ve seen involve integrating the lower class into the middle class, but those seem misplaced since if the middle class self-destructs (which is in the process of happening) then there is nothing to integrate into, and saving the American middle class means creating a global middle class. National boundaries are becoming irrelevant and there is just no way of not having the United States turn into a nation of “have’s” and “have not’s” as long as the world is that way.

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