Author Archive: Jim Razinha
Jim is a husband of more than 27 years, father of four home-schooled sons (26, 23, 16 and 14), engineer delighting in virtually all things technical, with more than a passing interest in history, religions, arts, most sciences (particularly physics) and skepticism.
The one (academic) thing I remember most from my undergraduate days is my Thermodynamics professor Dr. Will Sutton’s mantra: “Check your sources. Check your sources. Check your sources.” Makes perfect sense and I took that as a universal given but after reading a few PhD dissertations recently, I was wondering if it applies to the soft sciences.
For some people, “Attention Deficit Disorder” (ADD) can be a real problem. I’ve got it and I don’t view it as a “disorder”, even though as I’ve written, my particular flavor of ADD can sometimes throw up a speed bump. Anyway, now I can point to some science on scatter-brains.
I recently finished Steven Johnson’s Where Good Things Come From: The Natural History of Innovation – a recommended read, by the way. In his chapter on Serendipity, Johnson talks about Robert Thatcher’s 2007 study in which he looked at phase-lock (when neurons are firing at the same frequency) and noise (when they are not synchronized) in brains of children by performing EEGs and then giving them IQ tests. The study has the inspiring title of “Intelligence and EEG Phase Reset: A Two Compartmental Model of Phase Shift and Lock” if you are really adventurous, masochistic, or really like reading academic papers. I guess I’ll go with the first descriptor – I read it and I’m really glad I’m not into research.
For those who want to cut to the chase, Thatcher found that:
Phase shift duration (40 – 90 msec) was positively related to intelligence and the phase lock duration (100 – 800 msec) was negatively related to intelligence.
In layman’s terms, the more disorganized the brain, the smarter someone is. The noise appears to be necessary to help the brain find new connections between neurons.
Per the National Climate Data Center, the drought in the continental U.S. is the worst in 56 years. As growing your own food is apparently a big issue (Be careful that you don’t piss off your neighbors by living sustainably), expect some seriously jacked prices…while the big boys rake in record profits.
NPR had a segment today on the drought and they talked to a small farmer in Ohio about her crop. Ms. Bryn Bird raises sweet corn. Listen to the segment. At just after the two minute point, she calmly says she’s looking at a $30-40,000 loss this year. And because sweet corn is not a commodity, she can’t get crop insurance!
According to the NY Times, politics is killing the Farm Bill overhaul, but as it stands,
…farmers who grow corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and other crops receive about $5 billion in direct payments.
$5 billion…whether they grow crops or not…and that’s not even the insurance subsidies. Now, the new bill is supposed to eliminate those direct payments, but the House elephants are divided, so it won’t happen until after the election. I always thought something was wrong with paying people not to grow crops, and I’m not sure how much of the current or future farm bill goes to that specifically, but the U.S. supposedly spent
$7.4 billion last year on federal crop and revenue insurance premium subsidies for farmers.
…and at a minimum, $90 B over the next ten years for insurance premium subsidies.
Meanwhile, the small, real food producers absorb not inconsiderable losses because they can’t get insurance for such unsexy crops as sweet corn. It’s okay to be outraged now.
The SCOTUS is supposed to be ruling on the health care insurance mandate next week. I’m still scratching my head over that (I think the real “solution” is to abolish for-profit insurance, but that’s a different argument…) Don’t we already mandate car insurance? And try getting a home mortgage without insurance. Oh yeah, those are only for people who may drive or have mortgages. Maybe health insurance can be required only for those who may need health care?
On a more critical note, today’s Morning Edition on NPR had a piece about Why It’s Illegal To Braid Hair Without A License. Apparently, in Utah, braiding is such a danger to the public that it needs licensure and regulation. Clearly, we want our buildings and roads designed and constructed safely, and most people want health care from an certified provider (homeopathy excepted…), but braiding?
It seems the professions want the regulations – fewer licensees means less competition and freedom to charge more.
So…. I’m hearing government regulation is bad.
Unless it’s not.
Yesterday, my son shared the video below – Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “We Stopped Dreaming (Episode 1)”. It took me back to childhood memories when I was inspired to be a scientist. I remember watching the Apollo launches. I think I remember listening to the Gemini 4 space walk – I was four, and my father recorded it on reel-to-reel, but I don’t remember him ever replaying it. I remember staying up late and falling asleep…thankfully to be awoken by my mother just before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. …Skylab, …the test flight of the Space Shuttle Enterprise.
Years later, I left behind aspirations of a science career (practicalities…how much money does the average physicist make anyway?) for one of engineering, but the love of space, cosmology, NASA…all still with me…which is why what Neil deGrasse Tyson is saying in this video saddens me all the more.
I worry that decisions Congress makes doesn’t [sic] factor in the consequences of those decisions on tomorrow.
Apart from the applicability of that to just about any of the current Congress’s decisions, he’s dead right in this specific instance. We are not funding science. We are not encouraging and developing engineers. We are failing in educating our young people, not only in the technical fields, but in general.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compares 15 year olds in 65 industrial countries. From the 2009 report:
The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a collaborative effort among OECD member countries to measure how well 15-year-old students approaching the end of compulsory schooling are prepared to meet the challenges of today’s knowledge societies. The assessment is forward-looking: rather than focusing on the extent to which these students have mastered a specific school curriculum, it looks at their ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. This orientation reflects a change in curricular goals and objectives, which are increasingly concerned with what students can do with what they learn at school.
“…to meet real-life challenges.” Care to guess how the U.S.A. fared in the latest, 2009, assessment? You can see here for yourself, but I’ll spoil it:
- Reading – 17th (out of 65)
- Mathematics –31st (significantly below the average)
- Science – 23rd
We fail. We fail across the board. We fail where it matters. I’m not sure how we will fare in the 2012 PISA, but I seriously doubt we’ll improve. Our system doesn’t support it anymore.
Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, in their book “That Used to Be us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back”, quote Matt Miller, one of the authors of a 2009 McKinsey & Company report titled The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools, who said
They [American students] are being prepared for $12-an-hour jobs – not $40 to $50 an hour.”
I don’t know what the answer is. I admit a selfish cop out – we home educate our children – so I don’t think often on what can or should be done; we’ve taken responsibility for preparing our children ourselves. Still, one simple solution seems to be to promote science, math and engineering.
And we start doing that by not cutting NASA’s budget.
Fat chance. How much would YOU pay for the universe?
A lot of businesses (and government organizations) are faced with the problem of how to motivate employees in general, and in difficult economic times in particular. I read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us last night and had one of those face-palm “wow” moments. I can’t call it an epiphany because it came from the book, but I can say that something “clicked.”
Dan Pink summarizes his observations:
When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements:
(1) Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives;
(2) Mastery: the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and
(3) Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.
Pink spoke on this at TEDGlobal in 2009.
I recommend the book to anyone in a management (I prefer “leadership”) position.
As his subtitle suggests, you may be surprised.