Thursday, September 29, 2005

Noonan: Authority not = to Responsibility

Peggy Noonan:
David Brooks on "Meet the Press" Sunday said he thought Katrina had given rise to a greater public desire for "authority" and "order." I found what he was saying typically thoughtful, but I differ with him. That difference gives rise to this piece.

I don't think Americans are or have been, by nature, lovers of authority. When we think of the old America we think of house-raisings on the prairie and teeming cities full of immigrants, but a big part of the American nature can also be found in the story of Jeremiah Johnson, the mountain man who just wanted to live off by himself, unbothered and unmolested by people and their churches and clubs and rules. He didn't like authority. He wanted to be left alone.

We live in the age of emergency, however, and in that age we hunger for someone to take responsibility. Not authority, but a sense of "I'll lead you out of this." On 9/11 the firemen took responsibility: I will go into the fire. So did the mayor: This is how we'll get through, this is how we'll triumph.

In New Orleans, by contrast, the mayor seemed panicked, the governor seemed medicated, and the airborne wasn't there until it was there and peace was restored. Until then no one took responsibility. There was a vacuum. But nature abhors a vacuum, so rumors and chaos came in to fill it. Which made things worse.

No one took charge. Thus the postgame commentary in which everyone blamed someone else: The mayor fumbled the ball, the governor didn't call the play, the president didn't have a ground game.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Is It Time to Shut Down Engineering Colleges?

I've said before that something is wrong with engineering education in America, so I agree with Dominic Grasso that our engineering training in the U.S. needs to change:
Do we gain anything by educating engineers in the United States?

I would argue that, with a few exceptions, we really don’t. As they are currently trained, American engineers are at relative parity with their foreign-born counterparts, are more expensive, and offer no competitive advantage. But there is a way out of this predicament, one that would provide a raison d’etre for American engineering programs, and make for the kind of design the planet now so urgently needs.

Faced with the increasingly complex design challenges of the 21st century — an era where resources of every kind are reaching their limit, human populations are exploding, and global-warming related environmental catastrophe beckons — engineers need to grow beyond their traditional roles as problem-solvers to become problem-definers.

To catalyze this shift, our engineering curriculum, now packed with technical courses, needs a fresh start. Today’s engineers must be educated to think broadly in fundamental and integrative ways about the basic tenets of engineering. If we define engineering as the application of math and science in service to humanity, these tenets must include study of the human condition, the human experience, the human record.

How do we make room in the crowded undergraduate engineering curriculum for students to explore disciplines outside math and science – literature and economics, history and music, philosophy and languages – that are vital if we are to create a competitive new generation of engineering leaders? By scaling back the number of increasingly narrow, and quickly outmoded technical courses students are now required to take — leaving only those that teach them to think like engineers and to gain knowledge to solve problems. Students need to have room to in their schedules for wide ranging elective study.

There is a need for advanced engineering training, to be sure, but the place for that is at the graduate level — in one of the growing number of nine-month masters programs, perhaps.

Teaching engineers to think, in the broadest, cross-disciplinary sense, is critical. Consider two examples of the failures of the old way.
But those two examples, the only given, seem to betray a deeper motivation.
The breach of the levees in New Orleans, which has unleashed a torrent of human suffering, came about not solely because engineers designed for a category 3, rather than a category 4, hurricane. It was caused by decades of engineering and technical hubris, which resulted in loss of wetlands and overbuilding on a grand scale. Would engineers who had studied economics, ecology, anthropology, or history have acted the same?

Or consider Love Canal (or any of a thousand other environmental debacles of the last 50 years). Would designers who had read Thoreau’s Walden, studied Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, or admired Monet’s poppies have allowed toxic chemicals to be dumped into the environment so remorselessly?
From this I infer an environmentalist agenda that may be clouding Grasso's analysis. I think blaming Love Canal on the lack of well-rounded engineering education is simply off the mark. As to the more contemporary example of the New Orleans levy, it seems that their failure had less to do with engineering "hubris" and more to do with good old-fashioned corruption and mismanagement (IE: "low-bidder").

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Catherine Seipp on "Everybody Hates Chris" on NRO

She likes it.

When to Plan and when to Improvise

Arnold Kling observes that we are too enamored of "central planning" when sometimes, like during big disasters, improvisation will lead to better, quicker solutions.
Critics of the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans tend to focus on the need to formulate and implement better plans. I suspect that a more sober assessment might instead identify poor improvisation as the main problem. That is, if officials close to the scene had assumed more responsibility and been granted more leeway to focus on results, rather than waiting for instructions or assistance, then some of them would have taken more initiative and averted some of the worst problems.

I think that people have a tendency to put too much faith in centralized planning, and they do not have sufficient regard for decentralized improvisation. The more ambiguity that exists in a situation--because of its novelty, uncertainty, and the absence of critical information--the more that it favors improvisation over planning.

In my previous essay, I pointed out that large organizations necessarily must lean on planning, while small organizations necessarily must rely on improvisation. I also pointed out that there are many problems which require both planning and improvisation, and that such challenges make it quite difficult to come up with an optimal organizational design.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Confessions of an Engineering Washout

I didn't wash out, but Doug Kern has hit the nail on the head in his "Confessions of an Engineering Washout." His four-month experience can be extrapolated to describe my four-year experience, except my school had no TA's (which made it even worse) but it did have many hands-on type of instructors who WERE good teachers. It was the theory side of engineering that was so bogus. This particular bit hit home:
I nearly fainted when I learned that I received a 43% on the Physics final. I nearly fainted again when I learned that the class average was 38%. A sub-50% grade on a science test is a curious creature, as much the product of grader whim as academic achievement. "Hmmm…looks like he understood a tiny bit of this question. I'll give three points out of ten. Or should I give four? Whoops…tummy rumbling…better make it three." Having allegedly mastered 43% of the course material, I was now deemed fit to take even harder Physics classes. I wondered: at the highest levels of physics, could you get a passing grade with a 5% score on a test? A 3% score? A zero? Could drinking from a fire hose actually slake your thirst?
In my Physics class, 35% was passing. (Incidentally, I didn't...the first time ;) Anyway, here's the bottom line:
The United States contains a finite number of smart people, most of whom have options in life besides engineering. You will not produce thronging bevies of pocket-protector-wearing number-jockeys simply by handing out spiffy Space Shuttle patches at the local Science Fair. If you want more engineers in the United States, you must find a way for America's engineering programs to retain students like, well, me: people smart enough to do the math and motivated enough to at least take a bite at the engineering apple, but turned off by the overwhelming coursework, low grades, and abysmal teaching. Find a way to teach engineering to verbally oriented students who can't learn math by sense of smell. Demand from (and give to) students an actual mastery of the material, rather than relying on bogus on-the-curve pseudo-grades that hinge upon the amount of partial credit that bored T.A.s choose to dole out. Write textbooks that are more than just glorified problem set manuals. Give grades that will make engineering majors competitive in a grade-inflated environment. Don't let T.A.s teach unless they can actually teach.

None of these things will happen, of course. Engineering professors are perfectly happy weeding out undesirables with absurd boot-camp courses that conceal the inability of said professors to communicate with words. Fewer students will pursue science and engineering majors, and the United States will grow ever more reliant upon foreign brainpower to design its scientific and manufacturing endeavors. I did my part to fight this problem, and for my trouble I got four months of humiliation and a semester's worth of shabby grades that I had to explain to law schools and employers for years. Thousands of college students will have a similar experience this fall.
It's an old engineering joke that "I went to School X to be an Engineer and now I are one." This reflects the general acknowledgement that many engineers aren't very agile with their communication skills. Yet, as Kern points out, we need to expect more, especially of those who are supposed to teach the succeeding generations. We shouldn't gear all of our engineering schools toward the prodigies. Instead, a bit of the practical needs to be "engineered" into the system so that smart kids can be nurtured and not scared away.

Don't Get Stuck on Stupid

Doing my part to spread a meme.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Iran is in Iraq

It seems that the British have been fighting Iranian supplied "insurgents" in southeastern Iraq. The reason given is that Iran is increasingly frustrated by the current European Union driven nuclear talks.
British officials are convinced that Iran is implicated in the upsurge in violence and suspect it may be connected to Britain’s hardening position against Tehran’s nuclear programme. Britain has been working closely with Iran over the past two years to reach a compromise. But with the victory last month of the hawkish President Ahmadinejad, Iran has hardened its position.

Britain is now actively lobbying to have Tehran referred to the UN Security Council, where it could face sanctions.

Iran’s policy in Iraq is co-ordinated by the Supreme National Security Council — the body responsible for running its atomic industry. “The Iranians are careful not to be caught,” a British official said. “But they like to stoke up the temperature in Iraq when it suits them.”
Hm. Does this mean that the fact that negotiations exist doesn't guarantee that both parties will deal openly? That the diplomatic process, in and of itself, doesn't guarantee success? Wow, whoda thunk?


Remember when there was a big fear about Global Cooling? I had and now I have proof. The article is an interesting little piece, but two particular paragraphs struck me. First, that climatologists
are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change, or even to allay its effects. They concede that some of the more spectacular solutions proposed, such as melting the Arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot or diverting arctic rivers, might create problems far greater than those they solve. But the scientists see few signs that government leaders anywhere are even prepared to take the simple measures of stockpiling food or of introducing the variables of climatic uncertainty into economic projections of future food supplies. The longer the planners delay, the more difficult will they find it to cope with climatic change once the results become grim reality.
To that, I'd say it's a good thing the political leaders didn't heed the warnings of the leading climatologists in 1975, what, with global warming and all (heh). The second paragraph hits the mark squarely:
Just what causes the onset of major and minor ice ages remains a mystery. “Our knowledge of the mechanisms of climatic change is at least as fragmentary as our data,” concedes the National Academy of Sciences report. “Not only are the basic scientific questions largely unanswered, but in many cases we do not yet know enough to pose the key questions.”
I suppose that, 30 years later, our scientists have gotten better. Especially with all of that research money they've had at their disposal. For instance, it appears that they may have been right after all, as it seems that global warming can actually cause global cooling. Makes sense to me.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A conservative responds to Ferguson

Edward Feser makes some good points about the selectivity of Andrew Ferguson's examples of current "mainstream" conservative thought:
Ferguson makes some good points in his article about the corrupting effects on conservative activists of ten years in power. But this particular passage is just silly. Granted, the contemporary writers and works he mentions are, shall we say, not of the highest intellectual quality. But why take these as representative of “conservative books”? Why not cite instead the sorts of books produced by authors associated with publications like City Journal, Commentary, First Things, The New Criterion, or any of a number of other intellectually serious conservative journals? It’s not as if people like Theodore Dalrymple, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Roger Kimball, Fr. Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel stopped writing after 1994.

Or why not cite the many important works produced by conservative philosophers like Roger Scruton and John Kekes, several of which have been published within the last decade or so? Scruton’s many books on modern politics, sexual morality, aesthetics and architecture, globalization, and a host of other issues constitute as wide-ranging, systematic, and powerful a critique of liberal moral, political and cultural assumptions as has ever been produced. Kekes’s trilogy Against Liberalism, A Case for Conservatism, and The Illusions of Egalitarianism comprise a sustained challenge to the prevailing orthodoxies in contemporary political philosophy. And there are many other important authors and works in philosophy that could be cited, such as Anthony O’Hear’s Beyond Evolution and After Progress, or David Oderberg’s Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach and Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach, a pair of volumes that represent the most thorough and vigorous defense of traditional morality to have appeared within mainstream philosophy in decades.

I emphasize such philosophical works not only because this is a blog devoted to philosophy, but also because their existence shows that there are writers within the conservative movement who are capable not only of producing clever analyses of current policy questions, but also of taking things down to first principles in a way that meets the highest standards of rigor. Of course, there are many conservative authors and books in academic disciplines outside of philosophy that could also be mentioned, many of them much better known to mainstream conservative writers like Ferguson than the philosophers just mentioned probably are. Hadley Arkes, Robert P. George, John Lukacs, Thomas Sowell, Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, and James Q. Wilson would be a few examples, and they have all written serious books within the last decade. And then there are libertarian scholars like Richard Epstein, Randy Barnett, and many others, who have also published substantial works over the last ten years.

Yet the only authors Ferguson can think to cite are the likes of Michael Savage and Sean Hannity? This is the kind of thing I would sooner expect from the sort of ignorant academic leftist who seriously thinks that conservatives who call for a more balanced curriculum want to put Ann Coulter’s latest tome on the political philosophy reading list. Ferguson should know better.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Another asks, "What the heck happened to conservatism?"

Andrew Ferguson at the Weekly Standard looks back at the last ten years (when the WS was founded) and doesn't like what he sees.
I suppose any philosophical tendency, as it acquires power and popularity, will simplify itself, define itself downward. That's democratic politics for you. But something more corrosive is also at work. Marshall McLuhan was righter than anyone ever would have guessed. The medium really is the message. Conservatism nowadays is increasingly a creature of its technology. It is shaped--if I were a Marxist I might even say determined--by cable television and talk radio, with their absurd promotion of caricature and conflict, and by blogs, where the content ranges from Jesuitical disputes among hollow-cheeked obsessives to feats of self-advertisement and professional narcissism (Everyone's been asking what I think about . . . You won't want to miss my appearance tonight on . . . Be sure to click here for my latest . . . ) that would have been unthinkable in polite company as recently as a decade ago. Most conservative books are pseudo-books: ghostwritten pastiches whose primary purpose seems to be the photo of the "author" on the cover. What a tumble! From The Conservative Mind to Savage Nation; from Clifton White to Dick Morris; from Willmoore Kendall and Harry Jaffa to Sean Hannity and Mark Fuhrman--all in little more than a generation's time. Whatever this is, it isn't progress.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Is the U.S. a failing state?

Greg Scoblete has a piece up at Tech Central Station in which, recalling Thomas Hobbes' description of the essential functions of a modern nation-state, he questions whether the modern U.S. government qualifies as a failed state.
Katrina's aftermath was, at the end of the day, a testament to just how unmoored the government has become from its fundamental purpose. This unmooring, this failure to properly establish a limited set of priorities and execute them with a high degree of competence springs from two complimentary impulses. As we have channeled the "war of all against all" into constructive political and social outlets, the government has expanded the definition of what "protection" entails. No longer is the Leviathan responsible for our physical security, but our medical security, our retirement security, even our mental health. It's concerned that we smoke and that we're too fat.

But we are not in Hobbes' desired monarchy, where decisions are subject to the arbitrary whims of an unelected crown. We have endorsed this expansive concept of security at the ballot box. This is not the place to debate the merits of specific entitlements only to suggest that a government that continuously assigns itself ever expansive mandates will, by necessity, become more attenuated. Federal officials that should spend time on core issues that only government can tackle, spend time denouncing Mark McGuire and McDonald's.

Republicans of an increasingly rare variety used to endorse the principle of a limited, prioritized government that assigned itself those tasks that only the Leviathan could accomplish, letting other agencies -- local, civil and private -- grapple with the rest. Yet with entitlement spending ballooning and egregious pork barrel spending at unprecedented highs, it's clear setting priorities and making difficult "either/or" decisions is out of fashion.
In short, our government has become a mile wide and an inch deep in effectiveness. Perhaps. As Rush Limbaugh and others have noted, however, there is one government "agency" above all others that has performed well: the U.S. Military. Once called upon, they executed. Similarly, the Red Cross, itself not a government agency, has done its usual above-and-beyond service. No, it was the bureaucrats who failed, not the people in the field. But I've been over that already.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Preventive Measures Could Have Saved More from Katrina

As DRUDGE reminds us, there were warnings before Katrina hit telling people they'd be on ther own if they didn't leave now. Of course, as has been pointed out, both the city government of New Orleans and the state government of Louisiana were slow in implementing their own evacuation plans. Why? Was it because they feared that if they implemented said plan--and if Katrina wasn't as bad as had been feared--they would be portrayed as contemporary boys-crying-wolf? Did they themselves not take it seriously enough?

As an engineer involved in managing and implementing preventive and predictive maintenance policies in industry, I am well-acquainted with the idea that if you pay a little up front, you will probably forestall paying a lot--usually unexpectedly--down the line. Planning ahead and paying $200 in labor and parts and losing a few hours to machinery downtime is much better than a catastrophic and unexpected loss that could necessitate replacing the equipment entirely and losing valuable time in production. This common sense approach could have been implemented by the bureaucrats of New Orleans and Louisianna--and thousands of lives could have been saved--but it wasn't.

Instead they whine about the (inevitably) slow reaction of one red-tape laden bureaucracy (FEMA), and try to hide the fact that they, the bureaucrats closer to the situation, should have proactively put into action an adequate evacuation plan, thereby lessening the need for such reliance upon federal aid.

It should have been obvious that the existing plan failed to account for those who could not independently get out of the area. It should have been obvious that, given this last, the people stuck in New Orleans shouldn't have been left to bring their own food and supplies into the Superdome. These are just some of the problems that should have been foreseen. Instead, too many waited for someone else to make the call. Now, when it is too late, they cast about, looking for someone other than themselves to blame for the tragedy. What a shame. If they had done an adequate job of saving the skins of their citizens, they wouldn't have to worry about saving their own.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Pres. Clinton on the speed of response to Katrina

The attempts to play partisan politics amidst disaster continue, but even a skilled partisan politician like former President Bill Clinton realizes there is a time and place for everything. So, to those of you who praise the good ol' days of he '90s, and by extension laud the man to whom you give so much credit for "presiding" over the era, pay heed to what he has to say regarding the speed of the government's response to Katrina. [via Captain Ed and A.J. Strata]
MALVEAUX: Let me ask you this: There are some people at the New Orleans Convention Center who say that they have been living like animals -- no food, no water, no power. And they are the ones who are saying: Where are the buses? Where are the planes? Why did it take three days to see a real federal response here? Mr. Bush, you, whether it's fair or not, had gone through some administration criticism about your handling of Hurricane Andrew.

G.H.W. BUSH: I sure did.

MALVEAUX: Do you believe that this is legitimate?

G.H.W. BUSH: Yes, I do. What happened? We all sighed with -- not legitimate. I believe that they ought not to be as upset, but I can understand why they are. We thought, a lot of people thought, that when the hurricane went to the right a little bit, New Orleans was going to be spared. And it was only the next day that, you know, there were these horrible problems with the levee. But, look, if I were sitting there with no shower, no ability to use bathroom facilities, worried about my family, not knowing where they were, I'd blame anybody and so you have to expect that.

MALVEAUX: But do you think this administration responded quickly enough?

G.H.W. BUSH: Of course I do.

CLINTON: Let me answer this. The people in the Superdome are in a special position. And let me say, I've been going to New Orleans for over 50 years. There's no place on earth I love more. They went into the Superdome, not because of the flooding, but because we thought the hurricane was going to hit New Orleans smack dab and they'd be safe in there if they didn't leave town.

What happened was, when the levee broke and the town flooded, what did it do? It knocked out the electricity and it knocked out the sewage. They're living in hellacious conditions. They would be better off under a tree than being stuck there. You can't even breathe in that place now.

So I understand why they're so anxiety-ridden. But they have to understand, by the time it became obvious that they were in the fix they were in, there were a lot of other problems, too. There were people -- they were worried about people drowning that had to be taken off roofs.

MALVEAUX: So you two believe that the federal response was fast enough?

CLINTON: All I'm saying is what I know the facts are today. There are hundreds of buses now engaged in the act of taking people from New Orleans to the Astrodome in Houston. And you and I are not in a position to make any judgment because we weren't there.

All I'm saying is the way they got stuck there, I see why they feel the way they do. But the people that put them there did it because they thought they were saving their lives. And then when the problems showed up, they had a lot of other people to save. Now they've got hundreds of buses. We just need to get them out. I think they'll all be out by tomorrow. Didn't they say they would all be out by tomorrow morning?

G.H.W. BUSH: Yes.

MALVEAUX: OK. Well, thank you very much. I'm sorry. We've run out of time. Thank you.

G.H.W. BUSH: Let me -- I just to want finish. I believe the administration is doing the right thing, and I believe they have acted in a timely fashion. And I understand people being critical. That happens all the time. And I understand some people wanted to make, you know, a little difficulty by criticizing the president and the team. But I don't want to sit here and not defend the administration which, in my view, has taken all the right steps. And they're facing problems that nobody could foresee: breaking of the levees and the whole dome thing over in New Orleans coming apart. People couldn't foresee that.

CLINTON: Yes, I think that's important to point out. Because when you say that they should have done this, that or the other thing first, you can look at that problem in isolation, and you can say that.

But look at all the other things they had to deal with. I'm telling you, nobody thought this was going to happen like this. But what happened here is they escaped -- New Orleans escaped Katrina. But it brought all the water up the Mississippi River and all in the Pontchartrain, and then when it started running and that levee broke, they had problems they never could have foreseen.

And so I just think that we need to recognize right now there's a confident effort under way. People are doing the best they can. And I just don't think it's the time to worry about that. We need to keep people alive and get them back to life -- normal life.