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Wednesday 31 March 2004

The Return of G. Clotaire Rapaille

More John Kerry stuff.

It appears that the Kerry campaign has hired G. Clotaire Rapaille as a consultant.

We at Tinotopia have run into Clotaire once before, when we looked at a story about SUVs by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker. In that story, M. Rapaille featured prominently:

Over the past decade, a number of major automakers in America have relied on the services of a French-born cultural anthropologist, G. Clotaire Rapaille, whose speciality is getting beyond the rational — what he calls “cortex” — impressions of consumers and tapping into their deeper, “reptilian” responses. And what Rapaille concluded from countless, intensive sessions with car buyers was that when S.U.V. buyers thought about safety they were thinking about something that reached into their deepest unconscious. “The No. 1 feeling is that everything surrounding you should be round and soft, and should give,” Rapaille told me. “There should be air bags everywhere. Then there’s this notion that you need to be up high. That’s a contradiction, because the people who buy these S.U.V.s know at the cortex level that if you are high there is more chance of a rollover. But at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I’m safer. You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and look down. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion. And what was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That’s why cupholders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe. If I can put my coffee there, if I can have my food, if everything is round, if it’s soft, and if I’m high, then I feel safe. It’s amazing that intelligent, educated women will look at a car and the first thing they will look at is how many cupholders it has.”

Ooookay. Anyway, G. Clotaire Rapaille’s advice to the Kerry campaign? That Kerry needs to act ‘less French’ and to give more ‘one- and two-word answers’ to questions. He also was advised to buy clothes from K-Mart, and to spend time in bars drinking from bottles.

To a French “medical anthropologist”, that’s what makes an ordinary American: being short with words, poorly-dressed, and uncouth.

With political advice like this, how can Kerry fail to inspire the electorate? He’s a shoo-in!

Posted by tino at 14:04 31.03.04

Oh Thank Heavens

A school system in Merrillville, Indiana is finally doing something about the real issues in education. Here’s the whole story, with my emphasis added::

MERRILLVILLE, Ind. — Officials have banned pink clothing for the remainder of the school year out of concerns that the color has become associated with gang activity. Administrators last week told students at the city’s high school and two middle schools to avoid wearing pink clothing or accessories, said Michael Berta, associate superintendent in the Northwestern Indiana district. “There is no evidence of gang activity. But because of the growing use of the color pink we decided to be proactive. Girls and boys are supposed to avoid wearing pink,” Berta said Monday. None of the district’s 6,500 students have been disciplined for wearing pink, he said. Berta said the issue came up at a recent administrator’s meeting when a principal remarked that there were more students wearing pink. “Not only were there more kids wearing pink T-shirts and pink hats, but also pink shoelaces, which was unusual,” he said. Clothing retailers said pink is a popular color in current styles. “About 30 percent of my items for this season are pink. It’s ‘in.’ I have pink in every shade,” said Amanda Zipko, owner of Amanda Gayle’s boutique in Schererville.

The school authorities notice that ‘more students’ are wearing pink; so it simply must be some kind of ‘gang’ symbol. Oh, brother.

And people wonder why I call for the total abolition of public education. B.S. like this is just one small part of it.

Posted by tino at 09:57 31.03.04
Tuesday 30 March 2004

John Kerry Promises to Solve All Your Problems.

It’s not really my intention to write much about the presidential election; as far as I’m concerned, the contest is between one anti-Constitutional gang of thugs and another. Maybe I’ll change my mind at some point down the road, but in general I’m not all that interested. Getting worked up about things people say during a political campaign will get you nothing but high blood pressure, to begin with; and I have less idiotic things to worry about, besides. Nevertheless, this makes two posts in a row commenting on John Kerry, simply because he happens to have caught my attention today.

I am not a fan of George Bush, but John Kerry — really the entire Left — scares the bejeesus out of me. There was a story in the Washington Post today headlined ‘Kerry to Unveil Plan to Reduce Gas Prices’, and it was accompanied by this photograph:

John Kerry, pictured surrounded by black-and-red flags

I’m sure this is what we all want in the White House: someone who appears to believe that the price of commodities is (or should be) manipulated and set by the government, and who appears in public surrounded by children waving black-and-red flags. With stylized eagles on them.

The whole thing reminds me a bit too much of Roderick Spode.

Besides, I thought that the democrats wanted gas to be expensive, to better discourage people from buying those evil SUVs.

(Those flags are actually the flags of the United Farm Workers.)

Posted by tino at 20:15 30.03.04

Kerry Proposes Re-Introduction Of Involuntary Servitude

So John Kerry has proposed a plan whereby the federal government will require high-school students to perform ‘community service’.

John Kerry believes we need to think big and do better and get more young Americans serving the nation.

What the hell is it about politicians that makes them think that it’s a good idea to compel young people to work for the state for free? Replace ‘high-school students’ with any other group of people, and the insanity is clear. If he were to suggest that black people, or middle-aged executives, or welfare recipients, or immigrants, or even politicians, be compelled to ‘volunteer’ for make-work projects of the state’s choosing, he’d be laughed off the stage, and people would seriously question his fitness for office.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that high-school students can’t vote. Maybe the headline should be “Compulsory Unpaid Labor Plan For The Statutorily Disenfranchised”. I thought that had ended by 1865.

Service Should Be a Graduation Requirement: John Kerry believes that knowledge of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship - including the duty to serve your community - are as important to American adults as knowing how to read and do math.

Note that the only way to ‘serve your community’ in John Kerry’s warped universe is by ‘volunteering’ to do things that don’t actually need doing (if they needed doing, someone would already be paying to have them done). You are not ‘serving your community’ by working in a gas station, or by stocking shelves at the grocery store, or by flipping burgers — despite the fact that people in your community need their gas pumped, their shelves stocked, and their burgers flipped. It’s not service unless you’re forced to do it, and not paid for it.

Kerry’s own website doesn’t expect these hordes of forced volunteers to replace people who are actually being paid to do work now: “No state would be obligated to implement a service requirement if the federal government does not live up to its obligation to fund the program,” it says.

So they expect this forced labor to actually cost the state money. Let’s get this straight: there’s a group of people you plan to require service from, for no payment. Yet you fully expect that this program of indentured servitude will cost you money in the end. That isn’t service, it’s welfare.

Kerry also proposes a slightly less-wacky system where high-school graduates would perform ‘service’ for two years and in return have the government pay for for four years of college tuition, based on the average tuition at a state university. But:

If service members decide not to go to college, their award can be used for job training, to help start a business, or to make a down payment on the purchase of a home.

This ‘award’ sounds like what I’d call ‘money’, but with some strings attached. So how much money is it? The best statistics I could find indicate that the average annual tuition at a state university in the U.S. is $5,254; so four years would be $21,016. This is the amount of the ‘award’ that Kerry proposed to pay people for two years’ service. That’s a little over $10,500 a year, or $2.62 an hour based on a 40-hour week and a 50-week year.

So maybe the headline could also be: “Kerry Proposes Paying Government Workers $2.62 an hour”. The minimum wage in the United States is $5.15; so Kerry is proposing paying these people — these ‘volunteers’, who are, remember, the ‘backbone’ of American society, and whose participation in the grand American Experiment is a Shining Beacon To Us All — just a tiny bit more than half the minimum wage.

A private employer who did such a thing would wind up in jail; but Kerry is using this scheme to run for president. Good thing he’s so electable, or he might have to stop talking through his hat.

Posted by tino at 14:24 30.03.04
Monday 29 March 2004

Customer Disservice

That’s the Washington Post’s headline, not mine. It appears over this story, which doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know: customer service sucks.

What is interesting is the common thread that runs through each of the customer-service horror stories told by the Post: these are solely failures of procedure. One case involves a defective washing machine, but even there the real problem rose out of the seller’s and/or the manufacturer’s total inability to live up to their promises.

Why is this? These companies can achieve all these miracles — machines that wash your clothes, pocket telephones that work in almost any inhabited spot on the globe, and so on — but they seem determined not to be able to deal with their customers when anything goes wrong.

There are a number of interesting stories in the article, but the one that’s most fascinating is that of a woman who attempted to buy a washer and dryer:

Consider Katie Kannler’s struggle to get a new stacked washer/dryer delivered to her Arlington townhouse in February. It arrived on the scheduled delivery date but was defective — the dryer handle was missing. The delivery man promised to call her within three days to set up a new delivery date.

So far, so good. Ideally, a missing handle would have been noticed at some point in the process before the thing got to the customer’s home, but mistakes happen.

Unfortunately, the delivery people didn’t call back. This is a failure, but a small one. Maybe they mistranscribed her phone number; maybe they lost the paper; maybe the guy who was supposed to call her was sick that day. None of these should ever happen, but it’s still at least comprehensible that they would. So

On the fourth day, after no call, Kannler called Home Depot where she had bought the appliance. Home Depot said it had nothing to do with delivery; she needed to call GE, which delivers all the appliances Home Depot sells.

And here is the utter customer-service failure. Ms. Kannler does not have a relationship with GE; she has a relationship with Home Depot. Home Depot sold her a washer and dryer, and Home Depot collected the money. That Home Depot subcontracted some of what they sold to M.s Kannler to another company is none of Ms. Kannler’s business or concern — but since Home Depot has collected her money, they don’t really give a damn any more. It gets even worse, though:

GE, however, said it wasn’t responsible because Kannler ordered a Maytag. But Maytag referred her back to GE.

So: Ms. Kannler gives money to Home Depot; Home Depot says that delivering the thing isn’t their problem, and hands her off to GE. GE, in turn, hands her off to Maytag. Maytag, having only manufactured the thing (presumably without the missing handle) sent her back to GE. If Maytag were truly interested in building customer loyalty, they would have sent out a repairman with a spare handle — but they might be excused as she didn’t actually have the dryer in her house at the time.

“I spent all afternoon on the phone, and no one would tell me what was going on,” said Kannler, who finally went back to Home Depot to talk to the store manager. She could only talk to a salesman, who gave her another number to call — the local delivery firm — before her problem was resolved.

Because the store manager, or the salesman, couldn’t possibly have handled this for her as part of their bargain to deliver to her home a functioning and complete washer and dryer. Why bother? Let the customer do the work.

I don’t bother doing business with people like this. It’s a violation of Retail Rule #3 to make your customers work for the privilege of giving you money, and of rule #8 to expect the customer to give a damn about how you do what you do.

Now, to put this rule into practice you need a definition of ‘work’ just as observant Jews do. If you define ‘work’ too broadly, responsible retailers will have to drive up to your house with a truck full of merchandise and hold it up for your inspection while you eat chips and watch TV in your underwear. I don’t think it’s ‘work’ to require someone to come to your store; I don’t think it’s ‘work’ to require them to pick their own merchandise off the shelves and bring it to a till themselves. I don’t think it’s even necessarily ‘work’ to require the customer to figure out for themselves what product will best meet their needs (though see Customer Service Rule #6).

Taken to an extreme, it’s not ‘work’ for IKEA to require the customer to evaluate products, pick them from shelves in a warehouse, load them into his car, and take them home and put them together himself — because IKEA makes this system known to customers up front, and because it compensates the customer by offering furniture at lower prices than just about anywhere else. Each time they require the customer to do work, there’s some advantage to the customer, too; the customer isn’t working for IKEA, he’s working for himself.

Home Depot, though, doesn’t sell assemble-it-yourself washers and dryers, and ‘do it yourself’ does not refer to troubleshooting the store’s twisty maze of subcontractors.

A new machine was finally delivered, but it was so noisy that Kannler called in a Maytag repairman. His conclusion: It was improperly installed. But, he said, it was up to the deliveryman to reinstall it. A GE repairman showed up last weekend and fixed “something that had not been tightened down properly” during installation, GE spokeswoman Kim Freeman wrote in an e-mail. “While we feel badly that these consumers had a difficult experience — it is the exception, not the rule,” she wrote. On Friday, Kannler reported the machine was still not working properly. A Maytag repairman has scheduled yet another visit.

Which makes three times, on this one delivery, that GE has got it wrong — never mind the bureaucracy, the buck-passing, and everything else. But it’s the exception, remember, not the rule.

The Post says that customer service is going downhill because of the famously declining economy, but I don’t buy it for a minute. When things were booming, customer service sucked because, companies said, they couldn’t hire sufficient staff. Now that the unemployment rate is up, companies say they that customer service sucks because they’ve got to cut costs.

The bottom line is, most companies don’t give a shit about customer service; and since the problem is so wide-spread — since so many companies are so bad at it, there’s no real competitive disadvantage to treating your customers badly. What are they going to do? Everyone else is just as bad.

And it’s not that customer service costs so damned much, either. GE, Maytag, and Home Depot each spent far more money running around to Ms. Kannler’s house and answering her phone calls than they would have had someone just bit the bullet and paid for a new goddamned handle right off the bat. These people are spending staggering amounts of money trying to keep from spending any money.

Which is the mystifying part. Customer service, like advertising, doesn’t cost — it pays. It’s perticularly cheap compared to the cost of attracting new customers to replace the ones who’ve left, vowing never to give you another penny. The mysterious thing is why in most fields nobody has decided to compete by streamlining their procedures so that they don’t spend most of their time making it plain to the customers that the company’s procedure is more important than customer satisfaction, and further that the company’s procedure is not even geared to result in customer satisfaction. Besides retaining and attracting customers, they’d spend less time arguing with people, and thus save more money.

Posted by tino at 19:15 29.03.04
Tuesday 23 March 2004

Your Tax Dollars At Work

Now that American IT jobs are fleeing overseas, more American geeks are themselves looking to do work outside the country. This is a challenge, of course, because few countries are as welcoming of immigrants or ‘guest workers’ as is the United States.

And to make things worse, the U.S. government is apparently prosecuting people who do work overseas that the government doesn’t like. Like, for instance, arranging computer security for online casinos.

A recent New York Times article reports that US prosecutors are beginning to use the federal aiding and abetting statute to investigate and potentially prosecute those who, through perfectly lawful activities, assist online gaming companies that flout US law. This includes banks, broadcasters, ISPs and advertisers who help these casinos get their message out.

Thank goodness we’ve got the federal government on the job, helping to make sure that people don’t gamble online. And thank goodness the world is at peace and there are no other things that the government could be doing with these resources. Imagine: if we were, say, under threat from a loose coalition of fascist theocrats determined to destroy western civilization, the feds might have to go soft on gambling. And then where would we be?

Posted by tino at 10:30 23.03.04
Monday 15 March 2004

Lazy and Perhaps Telling Headlines Department

Today on the BBC we find two headlines: for this story about Europe’s growing awareness that al-Qaeda’s war isn’t about opposition to Hollywood, Halliburton, and George Bush, but rather about opposition to western civilization in general:
BBC Headline: Europe Facing up to al-Qaeda reality

…And this headline, for this story about yesterday’s Spanish elections:
BBC Headline: Spain awakes to socialist reality

Given the BBC’s political bent, I hardly think that this is the comparison they were trying to draw.

Posted by tino at 10:46 15.03.04
Monday 08 March 2004

Spalding Gray 1941-2004

You need Quicktime to make this work.
If you don’t like embedded movies, you can download it here.

Posted by tino at 21:28 8.03.04

The Housing Market Keeps Lurching Along

Oh, sure, there’s nothing wrong with the housing market:

Louie Guimmule is among hundreds of people who want to buy into Chatham Square, Old Town Alexandria’s newest townhouse development, where prices start at $560,000 and reach $1.1 million. When he stopped by the construction site last Saturday, dozens of prospective buyers, sleeping bags in hand, were lined up — a full seven days before the developer was planning to accept contracts on the first, still-unbuilt units.

As the Post article observes, it’s not uncommon to see people camping out to get tickets to certain popular movies and concerts; but these people are generally either very young or are obsessive nerds; and besides, they’re not camping out to get tickets at all but to get particularly good tickets for the same price as less-good tickets. Here, though, we have relatively wealthy people waiting in line at a construction site for the opportunity to spend $500,000 to a million dollars to buy a house.

Usually, when you spend a million dollars to buy something — anything — you don’t have to camp out to do so. In the million-dollar range, there’s very few things where the demand exceeds the supply. Why is housing different? Why is it that people will not just line up but camp out on the sidewalk so they can line up for days in order to spend a million dollars on a house that they haven’t seen because it hasn’t been built yet?

The usual Libertarian response to complaints about suburban sprawl, bad urban planning, and the horrible traffic that those things generate, is to point out that people continue to buy houses in the middle of nowhere for ever-increasing prices, so the market is just supplying what people want. However, here we’re faced with the phenomenon of million-dollar townhouses in an area known for its bad traffic.

The Washington area has generally high real-estate values, but for a million dollars you can find something quite nice. In Great Falls, VA, one of the highest-buck areas in the Washington suburbs, at the moment there’s an 18-year-old house for sale for $959,000 with two acres of wooded land, a big swimming pool, a two-car garage, five bedrooms, 3.5 baths, etc., etc. You do not have to camp out to buy this house; you just need a million dollars. Yet people are willing to pay that much (and more) for much less house if it’s in the right location. The ‘right location’ almost always means a very dense location.

Why is this? Do people only want to live in dense locations? Obviously not, or we wouldn’t have tract-house subdivisions sprawling all over the country. But that people are willing to pay a hefty premium — and camp out — for the opportunity to live in dense surroundings would seem to indicate that there’s significant unmet demand for the dense-housing product.

Posted by tino at 11:35 8.03.04
Saturday 06 March 2004

We want ‘diversity’ — so we’ll fit in.

There’s an article in the real-estate section of Washington Post today on ‘kid-friendly’ neighborhoods. There are a lot of things mentioned, such as nearby swimming pools and parks, ‘walkability’ etc. However, of course, ‘diversity’ has to be mentioned:

For some parents, however, diversity is as big a selling point as a community pool or festival. Vicki Wilson, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Pardoe in Bethesda and parent of two adolescents, said, “After being raised in a rich white suburb, I wanted to raise my kids in a place that’s culturally and economically diverse; I wanted there to be people with more and with less, materially speaking, so that when my kids got to high school they wouldn’t be the only ones without a car.”

It is interesting that this woman sees one of the benefits of economic ‘diversity’ the fact that there will be people living around her who have roughly the same amount of money as she does, i.e. her kids will not be the poorest and thus only car-less kids at their school.

Others who agree on the importance of diversity note that vibrant neighborhoods don’t always cater to children.

I would think that living in a vibrant neighborhood wouldn’t be all that good; you’d constantly be patching the cracks in the plaster. Oh, wait, by ‘vibrant’ they mean… what, exactly?

Elaine Martin, a stay-at-home mother of a 4-year-old who lives between Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan, loves her neighborhood’s variety: “We see people in turbans and men holding hands; we have an Ethiopian hardware store […]

Oh, thank God. You know, I’ve spent time in places where you can’t get Ethiopian hardware, and I’ll never go back to that kind of living — if you can call it living.

[…] and a lot of serious dog lovers,” she said.

For me, this conjures up images of Al Gore down on one knee, speaking very dispassionately to a golden retriever: “You are a good dog, Bonzo. A treat is in order for your handling of that butt-sniffing incident.”

And, of course, in less ‘vibrant’ neighborhoods, everyone hates dogs. Or maybe they’re just too casual in their love for them.

But the local video store has very few G-rated movies, the health club offers no babysitting, the pharmacy has few brands of diapers, and most restaurants don’t provide high chairs or diaper-changing areas. “When I go to the suburbs to eat and they give us a little plastic bag with crayons, a bib and a high chair, I’m like, ‘Whoa, so this is how the other half of the world lives,’ ” she said.

So, in other words, her ‘vibrant’ neighborhood — must be all the heavy trucks rumbling past — caters to all kinds of needs, as long as they’re for Ethopian hardware or homosexual hand-holding. It doesn’t particularly cater to what this particular woman needs. Sounds great. But then maybe you don’t want to live in a place that’s too ‘child-friendly’:

Today’s model of a child-friendly neighborhood often has the benefit of being parent-friendly, too, said John McManus, editor in chief of New York-based American Demographics magazine. That notion appears to hold true in American University Park. Resident Stacey Rabbino, a lawyer and mother of a 10-month-old, said that besides attending the neighborhood’s kid-oriented events such as the ice cream social and fall festival, she can walk with her daughter and meet friends at nearby restaurants such as the bagel shop on Massachusetts Avenue.

“There are tons of kids there,” she said. “You never feel like you have to be careful — they can spill and throw stuff on the floor and it’s fine.” [emphasis by Tino]

Yeaaaaaarrrrrgggh. That’s definitely how you want to raise children: to teach them that they can spill and throw stuff on the floor and it’s fine. When the bagel shop shuts down and is replaced by something less ‘child-friendly’ (and that has to spend less on cleaning), I bet that Ms. Rabbino will complain.

Posted by tino at 15:27 6.03.04
Friday 05 March 2004


Apropos of what I wrote the other day about some people being all-too-ready to feel that you’re doing them some psychic harm Andrew Sullivan writes:

“MICRO-AGGRESSION”: It’s a new term to me, but my conversations with college students this past couple of days have convinced me it’s real. What’s a micro-aggression? It’s when you offend somebody for the usual p.c. reasons. You need not mean to offend someone; you may even be trying to flatter them; but if they feel they’re offended or hurt in any way, it’s a “micro-aggression.” An accumulation of “micro-aggressions” can lead to actual aggression. I accidentally committed a “micro-aggression” two days ago when I used the term “Islamo-fascist” to refer to terrorists or unelected despots who use Islam as a cloak for their violence or tyranny. One poor young student was reduced to tears because I used this term. She said she felt attacked because she is a Muslim. I pointed out that the entire point of the term is to distinguish these theocratic thugs from genuine, mainstream Muslims. And she acknowledged that. Nevertheless, I had committed a micro-aggression. If I were on a campus today, I might be subject to discipline.

There are other interesting references to ‘micro-aggression’ here and here and here .

The third link, in particular, underlines, without apparent irony, Sullivan’s further point:

What you have here, perhaps, is a post-modern, post-Christian attempt to resurrect different levels of sin. I committed what Catholics call a “venial sin,” a small-bore, not-too-important, micro-sin. But unlike Catholic teaching, which insists that for something to be a sin, it must be consciously intended, with “micro-aggressions,” your motives are irrelevant. In pomo heaven, the individual, after all, has no real autonomy, no independent soul, no personal conscience. He’s just reflecting the interplay of power-structures. So in the pursuit of progress, we have resurrected the imperatives of Catholic moral teaching and removed moral responsibility at the same time.

Posted by tino at 14:44 5.03.04

Darwinian Education

Woe is us, the Republic is doomed! We’ve got nothing to look forward to except a slide into mediocrity and third-worldness, and all because Johhny Can’t Read.

I’m not sure that there’s anything to worry about, in part because Why Can’t Johnny Read was published in 1955. As far as I can tell, there has never been a time or a culture where people were not moaning about how things are going to hell because the kids today aren’t learning anything. If American schools were already so terrible in 1955, you’d think we’d have seen some effects of that by now. Instead, we have the baby boomers — who were in school in 1955 — whining about how bad things are now. (I have written about this before.)

I have no doubt that there were some kids — maybe a lot of kids — who weren’t learning to read in school in 1955. There are certainly a lot of kids who aren’t learning to read today. I’m no fan of our system of education, largely because it seems to go out of its way to make sure that it doesn’t satisfy anyone involved. Children are incredibly curious creatures; effective teaching is mainly a matter of channeling that curiosity into certain areas. A child whose curiosity is thus channeled will, instead of fully understanding the fluid dynamics of mud pies, learn to read or to do math or whatever other useful skill is on offer.

This is, of course, hard to do. When you’ve got a room full of children, it’s very hard if not impossible to do any of this nurturing and channeling of curiosity garbage. To be able to do anything at all, you’ve got to maintain some kind of order, and this generally involves squashing curiosity. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got the class under control, but at the expense of making the real goal, education, that much harder to achieve.

There’s nothing wrong with Summerhill, but this is a very resource-intensive approach to education, and one that doesn’t scale very well. Summerhill is education, but it isn’t really a system of education. The entire Summerhill philosophy is that good education is something that is impossible, or at best very difficult, to systematize. If you accept that you have to do mass education — and, to keep costs low and for a lot of other reasons, I think that’s not an unreasonable conclusion — you have to systematize it. And everyone seems to be agreed on one thing: that the American system of education sucks. Even John Kerry and George Bush seem to agree on this point, even if they disagree about what should be done to change that.

And here’s where I disagree with both John Kerry and George Bush. I don’t think it’s necessarily true that there’s anything wrong with the American education system. Instead, I think that a lot of people are mistaken about what the system really does, and what we genuinely want and need it to do.

One hundred percent of educators are themselves well-educated white-collar workers, so they don’t see this; and this influences the way most of them see the world: they believe that the education system is designed to produce teachers — or some other kind of well-educated white-collar workers, anyway.

But it’s not. We don’t need that many teachers, or that many investment bankers, or that many lawyers, or that many novelists or computer programmers or architects.

As the saying goes, the world needs ditch-diggers, too. That’s an inelegant way of putting it, but the reality is that the world’s computer programmers, lawyers, and so forth need their garbage collected and their plumbing plumbed. Some people are also not well-suited to what is often referred to by the horrible phrase ‘knowledge work’; for these people, a career as a lawyer would be an algebra class that never ends.

Most countries handle this by deliberately sorting children at a certain point. Everyone gets more or less that same elementary education, learning basic history and to read and to do basic math. After the local equivalent of sixth or seventh or eighth grade, the kids are either put on a track that might lead to university, or what in the United States we generally call a ‘vocational’ track.

In the U.S., we’re culturally unable to do this. The United States has no established church, but it has what amounts to a state religion in our cultural belief in opportunity. There’s no way we could set up a system where children’s opportunities were curtailed in any official way. Mistakes would occasionally be made in the sorting, but even if the system were perfect, the Lake Wobegon syndrome has a strong hold here; we wouldn’t readily accept being told that any child was below-average. We still need to sort people into the smart and the not-smart, though, so we have a deliberately Darwinian system of education. It’s certainly possible to get a good education from any public school system in the U.S., but it’s by no means assured.

If you’re smart, and if you have the necessary cultural values to succeed in school, and if you are motivated to succeed, you will — no matter how ‘bad’ your school is. If you do not bring those things in with you, you will not, no matter how good the school: it’s that simple. Our schools are like the rest of our society in they provide opportunities for the people who can take advantage of them. In American schools, as in American society generally, success is up to the individual.

A lot of people think that there’s a problem with American society’s intense competitiveness; they say that it’s unfair, racist, sexist, or whatever else. But the strange thing is that everyone thinks that there’s a problem with the education system, even those who see the value of Darwinian competition in other areas of society.

Some schools have attempted to eliminate or curtail explicit direct student competition by banning competitive games on the playground and by eliminating contests like spelling bees. The thought is that such competition hurts the losers’ self-esteem, by proving that they’re inferior to some other kid in some specific thing. (Of course then there’s the question of whether it’s a good idea to maintain ‘self-esteem’ by simply denying the child the opportunity to understand his own limitations; but that’s a topic for another day.)

To the best of my knowledge, though, nobody has even attempted to address the real competition in schools, that between those who can get something out of the whole education system, and whose who cannot: the system is always blamed, despite the fact that ‘bad’ urban schools turn out the occasional success, and that ‘good’ schools in wealthy suburbs turn out some ne’er-do-wells.

It’s possible that we shouldn’t try to eliminate this competition, this individual scramble for an education, from schools. There’s probably a very good and tidy scientific word for this, but I don’t know what it is: so I’ll say that American schools work very well as efficient difference amplifiers. When kids enter school at age 5, they’re all at about the same intellectual level. Some of them can read, and some cannot; some can tie their shoes, and some cannot. But the ones who can read can’t, generally, read very well, and the ones who can tie their shoes are clumsy at it. The differences between the smarties and the dummies are small.

As they progress through the system, the smart kids — the ‘able kids’, really, because it’s not all about innate intellectual capacity — get smarter and more able at a much faster rate than do the dumb or ‘unable’ kids. By the time high school graduation rolls around, the differential is vast: the smartest kids are reasonably well-read, and they have a basic understanding of science, math, and history. The dumbest kids still can’t read — and in some cases, I’m sure, they still can’t tie their shoes. The smart kid goes on to university, and the dumb one to Wal-Mart or the Public Works Department. Society needs both of them.

I suggest that this differential-amplification is a necessary and proper part of any effective system of education, but that deeply-ingrained cultural values in the United States require that we not consciously acknowledge this. We believe that everyone has opportunity; and, given equal ability, everyone does. That abilities and thus opportunities differ from person to person is widely-understood and accepted.

We like to see limitless potential in children, though, and so we pretend that these realities of life do not apply to them; that they all have the ability to do anything at all, and to do it well. As much as we like to see potential in a child, we understand on some level that maintaining that illusion into the child’s adulthood would require some kind of Harrison Bergeron nightmare.

We cannot ‘reform’ education in the United States until we fully understand what we want education to do.

That the debate is thoroughly politicized doesn’t help: the teachers’ unions and the educational establishment in general say that more money and thus more educational establishment is the answer. Fundamentalists of one stripe or another, be they religious or political, complain that the schools are ‘indoctrinating’ the youth to think thoughts that the parents would rather they not think. Politicians and the general public are up in arms because the ‘quality’ of the schools — which in practice means the number of kindergartners who go on to be qualified to work in the education establishment — very directly affects the value of real estate and thus general tax rates and revenues.

A lot of our issues with education could be solved, I am convinced, by de-monopolizing the system: in short, by taking the state out of education, there would be more flexibility in education, and people would be more able to get an education that suits their individual needs. (Taking the state out of the equation would also eliminate a lot of the terrible second-order effects — a lot of them impacting urban planning — that result from the effective state education monopoly: but that’s another subject.)

Would every child then be college material? No, but this isn’t how we should measure the ‘success’ of education — and this shouldn’t be seen as a problem by anyone except those who have spent millions of dollars to build superfluous colleges.

Posted by tino at 12:28 5.03.04
Thursday 04 March 2004

Seeing Vandals as Idiots

Yesterday, I wrote that the very best way to get people to not do certain things is to associate those certain things with foolishness. We don’t have very strict laws against running around naked in the streets — in some places we have no laws at all against this — but almost no one actually runs around without clothes on. Why? Because nearly everyone would be embarrassed to do so.

Joe Louis Memorial, with white paint on itApparently someone has taken my recommendations to heart. In Detroit, two men recently painted the Joe Louis Memorial — a giant fist — white. The men say that they wanted to make an anti-violence, not a racist, statement. I’m not sure I buy that. Two white police officers were recently killing in Detroit, and the suspect is a black man. A photo of the two dead officers was left at The Fist, along with a note reading ‘Courtesy of the Fighting Whities’.

The story is in the Wall Street Journal. If you subscribe to the Journal online, click here. Otherwise, you can click here until next week. If you miss that, you can download a 376K PDF of the article here. And remind me sometime to write about accessibility of information online.

Anyway. Whatever the vandals’ motivation, at least one person is responding appropriately:

Like many of her listeners, Detroit radio talk-show host Michelle McKormick doesn’t buy such explanations. “Honestly, I think they’re just a couple of rednecks upset about the deaths of the cops,” she says. “They thought they were being clever, but they weren’t smart enough to think it through.”

It’s a start. If we can also apply this kind of contempt and scorn to people who, say, kill police officers, we’ll really get somewhere.

Posted by tino at 14:28 4.03.04
Wednesday 03 March 2004

Respect, Culture, Violence, and the Schools

From The Washington Times:

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has approved a security plan for Ballou High School that would include armed police officers patrolling inside the building, X-ray machines to inspect all bags and packages, and secure doors that would remain locked except in an emergency.

The plan, prepared by Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and released yesterday at the mayor’s weekly news briefing, comes in response to the Feb. 2 fatal shooting of James Richardson in the cafeteria at Ballou High School. Another student has been charged in the slaying.

“Our concept as we move forward will be to individually assess the security needs of our schools on a case-by-case basis and design and implement security plans that will work and will fit with each school,” Mr. Williams said. “Now we’re starting with Ballou, but we’re not stopping after Ballou.”

The plan, which Mr. Williams described as “custom-designed” for the Southeast high school of 1,097 students, will include up to 30 police officers and security guards patrolling the building in a combination of fixed and roving patrols during school days. The 24 security guards, six police officers and one school investigator called for in the plan will be under the command of a police sergeant.

Chief Ramsey said police will complete initial security assessments at the District’s 14 other high schools within 30 days to get a better idea of how many officers will be needed. He said he would like to see legislation allowing police officers to work part time in the schools, in addition to their regular shifts, a proposal the mayor said he would support.

Other changes at Ballou will include the purchase of four metal detectors, three X-ray machines, a computer system with a photo-ID database that will include student schedules and disciplinary infractions. Images from the school’s 53 surveillance cameras also will be fed to the police department’s Joint Operations Command Center.

So to protect a population of 1200 or so people, the city is going to spend — how much? The article doesn’t say; Chief Ramsey said “a cost analysis has not been completed because the plan first had to be approved by the mayor,” which directly contradicts the first sentence of the article.

We’ll just take it as read that the D.C. public schools — and ‘urban’ (i.e. poor) school systems in general — spend a lot more money per pupil than your average suburban school system, and achieve a lot less. There are a lot of reasons for this, including an entrenched and bloated bureaucracy. Another cause is the values and culture of the students (and their parents), which culture involves things like shooting your classmates.

Only a tiny minority of D.C. students do things like this, of course, but this tiny minority is still far larger than it is in most school districts. And while education is inherently inexpensive — all you really need is a teacher, a student, and a log — security is inherently expensive, and effective security particularly so.

And so I find it strange that nobody is trying, or even suggesting, the simple expedient of saying publicly that these people carrying guns etc. into the schools are jackasses. The school authorities, the police, the news media all talk about the need to spend lots of money — money the city won’t spend on things like education, sewer repair, pothole filling, etc. — to combat these kids. And that’s got to be quite a boost to the ego: these teenagers are, the city acknowledges by its actions, more important than the streets, the sewers, the parks, and the libraries — and certainly more important than the education of their non-violent classmates.

Low-class people seem to be quite enormously concerned with the issue of respect. This is most often discussed as it applies to poor, uneducated inner-city blacks (because of the common slang use of ‘dis’, from ‘disrespect’, to mean any kind of slight from a dirty look to an attempted murder), but you see the same thing among white hillbillies, too. Any of these people are liable to start hollering at you for some insult they perceive in the way you’re dressed, in how you speak, in your hairdo, car, shoes, etc., etc., etc. — what you might call the ‘cut of your jib’.

I have nothing against people going around armed for purposes of self-defense, but it’s a problem when you have armed people who see a knife or a gun as ‘defense’ against someone calling them a name, or not showing them enough ‘respect’.

Having an itchy trigger finger doesn’t exactly inspire respect, though, of course; it inspires fear. If you’re not picky, though, you might not mind being feared instead of respected, because the superficial results are similar. You defer to the man you respect because he’s likely to be right; this tendency to be right is why you respect him. You defer to the man you fear because he’ll plug you if you don’t. Whether you’re respected or feared, people are more likely to agree with you.

So what do we do when these people with a chip on their collective shoulder use violence or threats of violence to make things difficult for everyone else? In this case, we make it clear how difficult it is for the city to overcome their will. The city shifts the schools’ focus from education and more toward opposing these would-be violent miscreants.

Better to more sharply distinguish between respect and fear by making it abundantly clear that the low-lifes are, in fact, low-lifes; that they are clowns. The military achieves discipline in boot camp not by working through the problems of recruits who step out of line, but by ridiculing them and by belittling them in front of their peers. The recruits, or most of them anyway, don’t conform to the rules because they understand that rigid discipline is necessary for an effective fighting force; they conform because they don’t want to be made fun of as the weak link.

If there’s a genuine risk, I’m not against taking measures to secure the school (or whatever) and its occupants against harm — just as the military removes from its ranks the truly dangerous recruits who don’t respect themselves enough to fall into line.

But along with this should come a healthy dose of scorn, and not the staged and false disdain that you see a lot of social issues these days: Smokers are jokers! Users are losers! Drinking is wack if you’re a teen! I cruise without booze!

Something like that will achieve precisely the opposite of the intended result, because the only people who take to heart such bland slogans are themselves Tools. You need to be truly rude for this to work.

I recommend use of the words ‘jackass’, ‘idiot’, ‘moron’, and so forth. Suggest that these people — they’re almost but not quite exclusively male — are violent because they have underdeveloped genitalia. Imply that they’re gay and trying to hide it through macho posturing. I’m sure that the gay lobby wouldn’t like this (probably with reason), but there’s no better weapon against a teen boy who thinks he’s tough than to suggest that he’s a homosexual. (And most hair-trigger idiots are teen boys at heart, whatever their age.)

Neither small dicks nor closeted homosexuality actually lead to violence, but the junior-gangster set would be horrified if anyone thought either that they had a small dingus or that they were fruity. Stop glorifying these people, and start belittling them, and the problem will abate.

Posted by tino at 10:10 3.03.04
Tuesday 02 March 2004

Throw Rocks At Boys

Unless you have been living under a rock, you are probably aware that a company called David and Goliath produces T-shirts that say things like “Boys are stupid — throw rocks at them”.

I don’t really have a problem with these shirts as such. They’re idiotic, but the cartoons are cute, and they’re perfectly matched to the requirements of their target market, which would seem to consist largely of pre-teen girls.

However, these shirts, and the reaction to them, illustrate something about the state of civil society in America. These are some of the designs available on the shirts:

David and Goliath T-Shirt Image David and Goliath T-Shirt Image
David and Goliath T-Shirt Image David and Goliath T-Shirt Image
David and Goliath T-Shirt Image David and Goliath T-Shirt Image
David and Goliath T-Shirt Image David and Goliath T-Shirt Image

Now, every once in a while, you’ll see a man wearing a T-shirt that advertises the wearer’s belief that women are stupid, or that they’re bad drivers, or that they’re only good for sex. These men tend to be fat, uneducated, and rural. They also almost have to be homosexuals, given how difficult it must be to meet women while wearing a shirt like that. They are not, in short, worn by people in the cultural mainstream.

These David and Goliath T-shirts, though, are sold in malls, and I’ve seen clean-cut little midddle-class girls wearing the things while out and about with their normal-looking parents. Clearly, there is some segment of the mainstream population that not only believes that it’s acceptable to wear such a tasteless garment in public, but that it’s acceptable to allow their children to wear such garments.

That’s fine, though; this has always been a problem. After all, people allow their children to wear bell-bottom pants and choncho belts in public, so I suppose anything goes.

I’m not going to discuss the complaints that have been made about these shirts: they insult and, in some cases, advocate violence against a class of people based on their sex. It’s not hard to see how people could find this objectionable.

What’s interesting is the response to the complaints. The company that makes them correctly points out that they can print anything they like on a T-shirt; T-shirts are Constitutionally-protected speech. As long as there are people willing to buy the T-shirts, there’s no reason for them to stop making the things.

The more interesting response is from the Left generally. An article in last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle makes a particularly inapt comparison:

The shirts are either, depending on the degree your knee is jerking when you read this, another brick in the wall of civilization crumbling down — or just Monty Python-esque, ironic dark humor. But judging by all the recent angry chest-beating and predictions of widespread crushed self-esteem among adolescent boys, you’d think a male version of Hooters had just opened up. Oh, sorry — bad analogy. Hooters is just good, clean, inoffensive fun. Unless you’re a woman.

You know, I’ve never been to Hooters, and in fact I would not be caught dead in one. I find the entire concept offensive, and ultimately probably for the same reasons as Jane Ganahl, the Chronicle’s writer. She would say this Hooters ‘objectifies’ women: I would say that it’s so horribly tacky that I would not want to be associated with the establishment in any way.

However, I am broad-minded enough to recognize that not everyone has the same tastes, and that Hooters provides good employment opportunities to women based largely on the fact that they’re women. Hooters waitresses make a hell of a lot more money in tips than do waitresses in places that do not emphasize the staff’s tits.

But that’s not all.

If these hand-wringers were as worried about the self-esteem of our girls, they might take a walk out into the school parking lots at lunchtime and listen to the music by certain gangsta rappers - - the kind that refers to all women as “bitches and ho’s,” some of whom clearly need to be slapped around. They might want to consider banning those CDs, in addition to those esteem-damaging T-shirts.

Well, you see, there have been attempts to ban ‘gangsta rap’ CDs, and to prevent the sale of these to kids. The Left usually complains about these attempts as right-wing racism. And nobody argues that ‘gangsta rap’ is good clean fun and that people who think otherwise should ‘shut up and get a life’ — the Chronicle’s headline on this article.

The Left talks about ‘tolerance’ a whole lot, but the real agenda becomes clearer by the day: control. I don’t like right-wing control freaks any more than I like left-wing ones; but at least the right-wingers are relatively up-front about what they want. The ‘tolerance’ crowd is awfully intolerant of certain things, and willing to be tolerant of other things that would seem to be antithetical to their stated core beliefs of justice, equality, and, of course, ‘tolerance’.

Posted by tino at 13:38 2.03.04
Monday 01 March 2004

Environmentalism and Humanity Wired has an article about Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace who has since broken with what’s generally considered to be the environmental movement:
The unifying principle is simple: “There’s no getting around the fact that 6 billion people wake up every morning with a real need for food, energy, and material.” It is this fact, he charges, that environmentalists fail to grasp. “Their idea is that all human activity is negative, while trees are by nature good,” he says. “That’s a religious interpretation, not a scientific or logical interpretation.”
Posted by tino at 11:26 1.03.04