STEM Celebs

This interesting article on the need of more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates in the United States to compete with other countries strikes me as the kind of thing said to Romans right before the fall. Maybe also to the English just before World War I. Of course, predictions of the future are fraught with misreading the most crucial factors.

In fact, scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries. They’re not seen as geeks or misfits, as they too often are in the U.S., but rather as society’s leaders and innovators. In China, eight of the top nine political posts are held by engineers. In the U.S., almost no engineers or scientists are engaged in high-level politics, and there is a virtual absence of engineers in our public policy debates.

Why does this matter? Because if American students have a negative impression – or no impression at all – of science and engineering, then they’re hardly likely to choose them as professions. Already, 70% of engineers with PhD’s who graduate from U.S. universities are foreign-born. Increasingly, these talented individuals are not staying in the U.S – instead, they’re returning home, where they find greater opportunities.

Global leadership is not a birthright. Despite what many Americans believe, our nation does not possess an innate knack for greatness.  Greatness must be worked for and won by each new generation. Right now that is not happening. But we still have time. If we place the emphasis we should on education, research and innovation we can lead the world in the decades to come. But the only way to ensure we remain great tomorrow is to increase our investment in science and engineering today.

How would someone determine whether someone is a celebrity? This article did not define it other than as a leader or innovator. If one used by number of Twitter followers, then Lady Gaga is the current leader with the current president trailing at number four and with only 81% the number of followers. Well, even the President of the United States was a lawyer and not a STEM educated person.

I thought maybe the Secretary of Energy would be a good place to look for a leader with scientific credentials. It appears Chu (physcist) and Bodman (chemical engineer) were. The three prior to them were lawyers at best. The rest of the cabinet were mostly lawyers or political administrators. Chu is the only scientist on the list. The president’s science advisor is a physicist, so that is good.

Conservatives do after all say government is the worst of society not the best. They look to corporations to take the societal lead. So maybe top CEOs from the Forbes top 500 list would be a better metric? Three of the top five is pretty good.

  1. Walmart – Michael Duke – Industrial Engineering
  2. Royal Dutch Shell – Peter Voser – Business Administration
  3. Exxon Mobil – Rex Tillerson – Civil Engineering
  4. BP – Bob Dudley – Chemical Engineering
  5. Toyota – Akio Toyoda – Business Administration

Personally my favorite scientific celebrities are Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Jamie Hynaman, and Adam Savage. We Americans like to see people fail. Each of these have: Neil and Pluto, Stephen lost the black hole bet, Jamie and Adam often misjudge what happens in a test. The spectacular blunders of science are reported as a discovery. Reports on the discoveries in the news usually sound as though it was the intent all along. We get the impression scientists and engineers spend every hour successfully making cool new things.

What scares me of having scientists are leaders is the over expectation of them to be better than anyone else. A smart person is only as good as the decisions they make. Even a good engineer can make mistakes. The ability to acknowledge and work towards correcting errors is not an exclusively scientific ability.

Monopoly Fears

Something brought up my abandoned Friendster blog, which had a link to fiftymillimeter which used to be my favorite photography site by people in Athens prior to me even moving here. Why “used to be”? Well over a year ago, they stopped posting to the site. Sad, I know. Still, I was curious, Where are they now? I ran across Twitter-Free Fridays looking for Toby Joe Boudroux.

What I found interesting about this post was his approach to whether or not Twitter is or is not a monopoly. I agree with the first part. The last sentence surprised me.

Being at the top of an emerging market segment does not constitute a monopoly. Unfair practices, abuses of that dominance to limit fair access to resources and outlets – those are monopolistic. If Twitter struck a deal with Mozilla that blacklisted other microblogging services, we’d have something to talk about. Opening APIs freely and allowing supplemental markets to emerge hardly seems consistent with railroad barons.

Supplemental markets would be the equivalent of a railroad baron allowing new train stations or business to sell to the customers using the trains. Open APIs allow other corporations to find a niche. However, they are not a direct competitor. For example, with Twitter, the API is not used by Pownce or Jaiku. Friendfeed who fits in both the lifestream market and the micro-blog markets does use the API. More commonly, the Twitter API is used by companies like Summize or Twitpic in searching or posting content.

If economists or lawyers determining whether a company with a large market share is monopolistic are influenced by open APIs creating supplemental markets, then this could be a strategy to avoiding DOJ further scrutiny? At Bbworld / DevCon, a frequent point of pride from the Blackboard folks was the anticipation of Bb9 to have a more open, accessible, and useful API. This API will be able to do everything the current one in the Classic line can currently do. The anticipated additions to this API could benefit many supplemental markets. (Let’s just forget at the same time, they are saying API for the CE/Vista products is a dead-end development path.)

Scoring points with the DOJ (and more importantly the court of public opinion) could never hurt while trying to sue a much smaller competitor like Desire2Learn. Some characterize Bb as not likely to stop until D2L no longer exists. Who knows? I doubt even Chasen knows. Still, it would far fetched to characterize just this as making Blackboard a monopoly.

There are pleny of alternative LMS products to the Blackboard Learning System: Moodle, Sakai, ANGEL, eCollege, and many, many more. Heck, the rumor mill would indicate more and more higher education institutions are considering and even changing to the alternatives. Blackboard acknowleges institutions likely run multiple products. With Bb 9, they encourage people to use the Learning Environment Connector to single sign-on to into the other products. With the Bb9 frame remaining so they know who got them there, of course.  Don’t forget about a Personal Learning Environment,

Certainly I dislike that Blackboard hears my objections and continues to act in ways contrary to them. However, that happens within my own team. Neither group are criminal for ignoring me.

Intellectuals and Politics

The Age of Enlightenment ended over a century ago. It was known for producing a number of intellectuals. Are intellectuals a dying breed?

According to Wikipedia, “An intellectual is one who tries to use his or her intellect to work, study, reflect, speculate, or ask and answer questions about a wide variety of different ideas.” It seems of late scientists, lawyers, engineers, and doctors have become specialized into a myopic anti-utopia. I am encouraged by mathematicians and physicists working together to create Superstring Theory or cross breeding academic areas like Georgia Tech’s Threads. Specialization may reflect the difficulty of keeping up with many bodies of knowledge growing extremely quickly. Intellectuals are exceptional people. The Age of Enlightenment ended in the first years of 1800s which is just before the dramatic increases upon which we benefit today. It was centered in Europe. I think Europe misses it. Certainly the founding fathers, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Franklin were all intellectuals.

Education, in attempting to cover as much material as possible, answers well the questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? The question, “Why?” deserves the most attention. As its the most complicated, it takes the most time to answer. People can cut the most corners with Why than any other question.

Would an intellectual run for President of the United States today? We like to think politics are dirty today. The founding fathers played the same trash talking about their opponents as happens today. The change has really been the perception of what is honorable. We don’t trust politicians today like we did even fifty years ago.

During the Cold War we needed a President who would be decisive. Smart individuals could not be trusted to make resolute decisions. They would waffle, look at nuances, and fail to make us comfortable that we are being led. Their advisors would be the intellectuals. Only the advisors have become more and more specialized. We need an intellectual capable of providing us the vision. I especially do not want someone who has all the answers before they have even seen the question. I want someone who loves learning and wishes to serve society by helping to shape our society for improvement.

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Michael Covington’s Daily Notebook:

Enough of this “electronic frontier.” I want civilization!

I agree. The Internet has become a dangerous place. Every node has its own rules, some are more developed than others, and none are completely safe.

I’m in favor of a tax on the Internet if it’s used to pay for law enforcement. Fifteen years ago, before the Internet, it was common for an ordinary American to go for months if not years without anyone attempting a crime against him. Now would-be criminals are hitting on me 200 times a day. Some of them must be easy to catch.

A tax to catch criminal behavior on the Internet? I am not so sure. Already there are tons of police working on the Internet. Mostly they are seeking to shut down child pornography and bad people getting their hands on kids. They work at the federal, state, and local levels. They are so ineffective, vigilantes have started groups to catch these people.

We keep adding from what activity we want these police to protect us. However, catching a Internet crook in some ways is trickier than catching a face-to-face crook. Jurisdictions get in the way; evidence chains are a nightmare; judges and juries have no idea what 1/10th of the technical terms mean much less how its distinct from close relatives. Lawyers will get better at this last part similar to how DNA used to confuse juries but now helps get convictions. Protecting a bank online is in ways more difficult than protecting it from someone robbing it in person.

Ultimately it comes down to acceptable risk. People are clueless to the danger, so they make bad judgments.

To Redact or Cover Up With a Black Box?

If you don’t want someone to have certain data, then don’t send it to them. Cutesy features like placing a colored box on top of text are next to worthless when it comes to protecting sensitive data. Obscuring the ability of the eye to see the data protects it from 90% of people, yes. However, one can usually get to data in a file in multiple ways. Unfortunately, lawyers and legal assistants are not likely the ones to know this.

Maybe this should be a wake up call to Adobe and other PDF software creators to actually devise a means to redact information from PDFs?

AT&T leaks sensitive info in NSA suit | CNET

Lawyers for AT&T accidentally released sensitive information while defending a lawsuit that accuses the company of facilitating a government wiretapping program, CNET has learned.

AT&T’s attorneys this week filed a 25-page legal brief striped with thick black lines that were intended to obscure portions of three pages and render them unreadable….

But the obscured text nevertheless can be copied and pasted inside some PDF readers, including Preview under Apple Computer’s OS X and the xpdf utility used with X11.