Monday, May 31, 2010

Computing a sense of proportion

The wor;d's single biggest problem is...? Climate change. So, when a list of the world's biggest computers is released, lo and behold, just a handful of the world's top 500 are devoted to weather, let alone climate change.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A proper education

As all too many parents will be all too aware, it’s exam time again. All around the world, offspring are swotting up obscure facts about Tudor history how a dialysis machine works and the generic formula for making a salt from acid and metal, all ready to regurgitate it all again in sweaty halls all around the planet. And parents recall their own traumas, dredging an unwilling memory for the distribution of opal deposits in Australia and the difference between gerunds and gerundives.

I had it relatively easy: unlike most of my contemporaries (or indeed most reasonable beings) I used to do a lot better at exams than at course work, so the extra stress translated into extra marks I really didn’t deserve. But still, definitely not the best days of my life.

More to the (present) point, not the most useful either. But there the problem lies not so much in examinations as such as in the knowledge I was being examined on. Did I really need to know where opals are mined in Australia? No, more forcefully: under what possible circumstances would I ever want to know where opals are mined in Australia? I suspect that no one but an Australian mining engineer could possibly need that information.

Standard bitching about the education system, of course. And I have to admit that, it’s a little disingenuous. As a typical teenage geek, I rather liked knowing that sort of thing. I loved that sort of obscure information. Indeed, I positively cherished it. But can I really claim that it added to my education? I suspect not. Nor looking at so much of what my children have been examined on over the last few years, can I arouse any greater enthusiasm for the current curriculum.

The fact is – and I emphasise that this is a fact – is that, in far too many cases, what my children are learning is contributing nothing to their education. My daughter spent two years studying Tudor history. Why? Because it was the syllabus. But what did that teach her? Does she have a better understanding of life – her own life and the life of the society she lives in? Especially compared with what she might have been taught?

My impression is that schools teach based on the assumption that they are preparing the student for long-term specialisation in that topic. On that basis it makes sense for the curriculum to consist of so many apparent fragments – because if they study this topic long enough, it will all fall into place. By the time they graduate, they will indeed have a very good knowledge of their specialist subject.

But of course this is completely irrational. We can’t specialise in everything on the curriculum. Andin any case, it is far from obvious that even specialisation is best achieved by specialising from the very start.

So here is an alternative proposition: that at every stage in the education process – every break point at which students are winnowed out by a change of level - departing students finish their studies with is a fully rounded understanding appropriate to that level.

Take biology. What could a child who learns biology up to – but no further than – the age of 16 be taught that would pass this test? Well, what are the relevant topics? Diet, perhaps, or drugs or reproduction or basic environmental processes perhaps? Any of these, and perhaps a few others.

And what exactly would they be taught? I don’t know, but not, I suspect, the technical details of how the body or an ecosystem works so much as the ‘functional’ connections they need to know about – what different lifestyles entail, the real nature of the foods and (legal and illegal) drugs around them, and so on. Only later – at the point at which such things have a greater significance to the student because they can do something about them – would the technical details be taught.

This would plainly be much more of an education. It just wouldn’t involve anything like much modern schooling. On the other hand, precisely because it isn’t abstract technical knowledge, I suspect that this sort of education would be a lot more politically sensitive. What food company is not going to lobby against straightforward teaching of the facts of modern diet – the disastrous health consequences of how industrial food is made, transported around the world, and so on? What pharmaceutical company is not going to lobby against straightforward teaching of the facts of prescription drugs and the modern drug industry?

But that, of course, is very largely the point. A population that was no longer ignorant – not even its least educated member – about the world it inhabits would be better equipped to deal with the modern world – including changing it to suit their needs. Indeed, if I were looking for a recipe for eliminating political apathy, this would certainly be high on my list of innovations.

Likewise for every other topic. Personally I would replace the current obsession history teachers have with the Tudors and the origins of the First World War with a general course on world history – not the Euro-centric nonsense that condemns the vast majority of humanity to the void and ignores the real history of the modern world – and a more detailed political history of post-War Britain. And then between 16 and 18 I would teach the same things again, by with a greater focus on the mechanisms of globalisation and how Britain got to be like it is.

And so on. Even English would be taught quite differently – by looking at the use of language around us, in advertising, in politics, in the media, and so on. Conversely, would 16-year old biology students study dialysis? No, of course not. Nor would anyone else, perhaps, except a specialist in renal medicine. It’s not hard to think of a hundred alternative curricula, sharing only the fact that they lead to education rather than exam certificates.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dear Lloyd

Mr L. Blankfein
CEO Suite
Goldman Sachs
Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Dear Lloyd

How are you? Well, I hope. I appreciate that you must be busy these days, what with the SEC investigating you and so on, but I thought I’d write anyway – perhaps, like me, you find that a little personal news can brighten up a dull day.

It’s a lovely day here in England. Spring is well on the way, and I’m spending a lot more time in the garden these days – I can’t say I envy you all the time you must be spending in dreary board rooms!

Not that it’s been exactly a bed of roses here lately. In fact we’ve been having one or two domestic problems. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, but I had to stop working last November, and I’m still looking for a new job. As you can imagine, it’s been a strain, but I can’t say there’s anything special about us – several of our friends are in the same boat. I’m not sure it’s a boat any of us want to be in, but at least we are all in it together. Bit short of oars, though!

On the other hand, it helps me to sympathise with your own plight – what a shock it must have been, having your pay cut so savagely last year – from $42.9 million to under $10 million! I hope you aren’t having to make too many difficult choices. Anyway, I’m sure it won’t last - once people really appreciate what you and your colleagues in the financial services sector have done for us all over the last few years, hopefully you’ll get what you truly deserve.

And here at home, I’m sure everything will be OK in the end. My wife is looking a bit stressed these days but assures me that she’s not too worried. I’m not sure how worried ‘too worried’ is – at least she isn’t on pills yet! - but we’re OK for the moment. Our savings run out next month, but we’ve still got the children’s savings. One of her usual brilliant twenty-year plans was to put aside their child benefit each month since they were born, to make sure they wouldn’t start their working lives with huge debts from university. We had hoped to have enough put aside to get them all the way through, but I guess we’ll have to make other plans. It’s a pity – neither of them look like potential investment bankers (I guess we’ve brought them up wrong) so it will be many years before they’re out of debt.

Still, it can’t be helped. I’m only glad my wife had such foresight and we have something to fall back on now, even if it is only by accident. Otherwise we’d have to start thinking about selling the house. Now that can wait for a few months, thank heavens.

Of course, we count our blessings. I saw the other day that millions of your compatriots have lost their homes (all those sub-prime mortgages, I believe), and 31 million are now either out of work or ‘underemployed’ – a very ugly word, don’t you think? Unemployment is up here too, though not so sharply, I believe. You must be relieved that it didn’t hit the financial sector as hard as the rest of the country – it must be hard finding a good investment banker at the best of times.

It’s been a strain in other ways too. You won’t know our niece, but we’ve been trying to support her through school. She’s a lovely girl, and really benefits from being able to continue her education. But I’m afraid that that’s had to stop now, at least until I can get another job. I hope it isn’t too late – perhaps we can find some more cuts to see her through.

But the real pity is that we’ve had to stop pretty much all our regular charity contributions too. I hope you’ve been able to keep up your charity work – it’s the Robin Hood Foundation your work for, isn’t it? But what an irony – all the wonderful work you do for the poor of New York, and then to be accused of leading the rich in robbing the poor. How unfair is that?

Most of our contributions go to charities working in developing countries. They used to send us newsletters and reports from time to time, and it was great seeing how much good they do. They also made us more than grateful that we live in such wealthy countries. You probably recall the UN saying a while back that 100 million more people will be living on less than $2 a day because of this recession, and recently I read somewhere that the World Bank is saying that 50,000 more babies will die in Africa. (Perhaps you could ask your fellow investment bankers to make a small contribution there – I don’t know whether you are a religious man, but it’s doing God’s work, isn’t it?)

It must be especially galling to see the company you have devoted your whole life to being vilified so. If it were me, I’d be wondering what sense it makes to be an investment banker, when people just think you’re a con man. Look how vigorously Goldman Sachs staff are contributing to the recovery – so many of your best people right there at the top, advising your government and the banks and doing so much else.

Yet people are still ungrateful – for example, why would anyone give a book a hurtful title like Chasing Goldman Sachs: How the Masters of the Universe Melted Wall Street Down… And Why They'll Take Us to the Brink Again? There are even people who suggest that you plan to exploit the carbon trading markets to make billions – surely they can’t think you’d be so irresponsible?

By the way, we were all very impressed by the clever way your people arranged to borrow government money at 0.5% and then use it to buy government bonds that pay 3%-4% - a healthy profit for doing nothing at all! How ingenious! As that cheeky Matt Taibbi puts it, it’s ‘no different than attaching an ATM to the side of the Federal Reserve’. You must be so proud.

Well, I’m sure that’s enough from me for one day, but I’ll write again soon. Please feel free to pass my letter around to all your friends on Wall Street – we’re all thinking of them.

Best wishes