Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bonanza Column 265 - The Calendar

I’m writing this as we approach January 1 and as it is every year, much is being made of the “change” from one year to the next, as if it means something. Like most folks, I don’t mind an excuse for a party, but it’s probably worth remembering that calendars aren’t real.
Early on in human history, people observed that nature follows cycles – among the most obvious of these cycles is the alternation of daylight and darkness, and since all animals sleep and human being sleep at night, it was natural to treat each renewal of daylight as a “new day.” Another easily observed cycle was the apparent waxing and waning of the moon, which seemed to begin about every 28 days, so along with days people spoke in terms of months (moons). Finally, in the mostly temperate climates where humans lived, there was the cycle of the seasons.
These cycles gave us days, months, and years as naturally occurring phenomena. Then the human mind began to intervene. Cycles have no real beginning or end – like circles they just keep going round and round, but most things in human life have beginnings, middles, and ends, and so it was perhaps natural to see the cycle of the seasons as one of birth (Spring), growth (Summer), aging (Fall) and death (Winter). But if that is the case, why not begin the year in April, with the onset of Spring? Well, here another human feature comes in – call it religion or superstition depending on your bent. Along with the weather changes of the seasonal cycle, in most latitudes the cycles of daylight and darkness varied as well, and the “dying” part of the seasonal cycle, was also the time of year with the least daylight. Early religions incorporated festivals involving lights to fend off the darkness, and when the days began to gradually lengthen after the Winter Solstice, the darkness receded and they felt the world was reborn, so the custom of demarcating one year from the next in mid-winter was born.
Note that all of this calendaring is the result of human interpretations of natural phenomena. Now, thousands of years later we treat these interpretations as if they were facts. Religions set their “new year” according to their own calendar. The hijri, the Islamic New Year will occur anywhere from September to December during the second decade of the 21st Century (another invention – Centuries), rosh hashanah, the Jewish New Year is generally in September or October, tet, the Asian New Year occurs in a variation tied to the Winter Solstice, and the standard or secular New Year is, of course, January 1st. In all cases, though, the holiday supposedly marks a significant change – different years have different astrological and astronomical influences, as do different cycles, etc., and otherwise rational people vary somewhere between full credence and sheepish uneasiness in their relationship to the changes. Look at the turn of the millennium a dozen years ago or the supposed end of the Mayan calendar last week for illustrations of this phenomenon.
So let’s have a party, wish each other a happy “new year,” and remember to write 2013 on our checks (does anyone write checks any more?), but let’s not take it too seriously. Things will change, and we’ve set certain things (e.g. the government, budgets, credit card expirations) up to change in concert with changing over to a new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Calendar or whatever, but remember the aphorism “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they are the same thing). The world in 2013 will consist largely of the effects of what happened in 2012, 2011, etc., and we would do well to keep working at what we began in 2012 and not expect any magic to occur when we take down one calendar and put up another.
Happy 2013.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Bonanza Column 264 - The Need for a New National Dialogue

It ought to be too obvious to bear mentioning that the problem of gun violence in the United States does not admit of easy answers, but the spate of reactions in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown indicates that a significant number of people with access to public platforms don’t seem to understand that simple fact.
I understand the appeal of simplicity. The problem is that in order to come up with a simple solution, you have to over-simplify the problem. It’s easy to say “ban all guns,” but as we’ve learned from Prohibition and the “war on drugs,” banning anything only creates an underground economy in the banned substance, and underground economies are much harder to regulate and control than open trade. Conversely, the “let’s arm everybody” argument is equally unrealistic – to have all kinds of untrained and unscreened people running around with deadly weapons hardly seems likely to improve the situation.
The spokesman for the NRA says we should have armed guards in every school, ignoring both the financial costs and the psychological costs of our children having to go to school behind armed guards. It also ignores the fact that in the shootings at Fort Hood in 2009, in the most populous U.S. military installation in the world, a single gunman killed 13 people and wounded 29 others. Despite being surrounded by armed, trained military personnel, some of whom engaged him, the killer fired 214 rounds before being stopped. There were also armed guards at Columbine and Virginia Tech, to no good effect.
Here are some things we can say: first of all, automatic and semi-automatic weapons have only one function, which is to shoot as many rounds as possible in the shortest possible times. Fully automatic weapons have been illegal since Prohibition, and the most recent ban that was allowed to expire, was full of holes including, incredibly, “grandfathering in” weapons manufactured and sold before the ban and already in people’s possession, i.e., potentially on the market. These are not hunting weapons or self-defense weapons, they are designed for and work well in combat situations against multiple adversaries.
Secondly, weapons for hunting or self-defense do not need ammunition clips that hold 30 rounds or more. Hunting, say deer or elk, you’re going to get one shot, maybe two at a time before the animal is either down or gone. If I’m defending my home against intruders, there are unlikely to be more than a couple of them, and they are likely to take off after the first shot or two.
Third, analogies advanced on both sides of the argument are flawed – yes there are countries where a large part of the population own and even carry guns, and those countries have lower rates of gun violence than the US. And there are countries where almost no one owns guns and those countries have lower rates of gun violence than the US. Looking at it logically, one has to at least entertain the notion that gun ownership, whether free or restricted, has no correlation with gun violence. What does? I have to assume that the culture of those countries – how people approach violence in general and gun use in particular – has something to do with it.
Fourth, blaming easy scapegoats is unlikely to make anything useful happen. In the past ten days we’ve seen attempts to place blame on everything from the media to the NRA, to violence in movies, to the State of Connecticut’s position on same-sex marriage, to the absence of prayer in schools, you name it. All of that is blatant opportunism on the part of the speakers, cynically taking advantage of a tragedy to advance their pet agenda. Twenty children and six adults are dead – that is a fact; anything else is just opinion, and in most cases the “connection” between what is being blamed and the tragedy exists only in someone’s fevered imagination.
So what do we do? As with most complex problems there are some obvious steps to take – restore the ban on automatic weapons and beef it up – get them off the market and make the penalties for violating the ban draconian. In the longer run, though, let’s get into a serious national conversation about what facilitates a culture in which gun violence happens at a rate far higher than anywhere else in the world. Is the Second Amendment really central to what America is about? Given the Founders wrote that amendment when the most deadly weapon around was a flintlock, does it need to be modified? How is it that the NRA has a stranglehold on so many of our elected officials? What do we need to maintain, modify, or eliminate in our national dialogue to have people be safe in their own homes, schools, military bases, and streets? Until we address these questions, we’d best keep in mind the aphorism, “If we don’t change our direction, we’re liable to get where we’re headed.”

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bonanza Column 263 - A Possible Lesson from Newtown

In the wake of Friday’s tragic killing of 20 elementary school children and 8 adults in Connecticut, it’s almost impossible to write about anything else. Everything – the fiscal cliff, the war in Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea, Gaza – pales in comparison.
At the same time, there is hardly anything worth saying. The 24-hour news cycle has shown the horror repeatedly as if somehow it is still news 24 and 48 hours later. There are the predictable calls for tighter gun controls and the equally predictable disgusting attempts by self-styled religious “authorities” to exploit the tragedy by asserting that it is God’s punishment for not enough prayer in schools and a host of other agenda-based causes.
Mostly what happens in this situation is a carnival of opining which does nothing other than give the opiners some air time. Somehow we have become a society in which the important distinction between opinion and facts has been lost, and opinions are routinely stated as if they were facts. Let’s look at some facts:
·        Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass murders (killings involving 4 or more victims) carried out with firearms across the country, in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii.
·        Of the 142 guns possessed by the killers, more than three quarters were obtained legally. The arsenal included dozens of assault weapons and semiautomatic handguns.
·        Half of the cases involved school or workplace shootings (12 and 19, respectively); the other 31 cases took place in locations including shopping malls, restaurants, government buildings, and military bases.
Now you can make any interpretation of those facts you want to – everyone has the right to their opinion – but don’t confuse your interpretation with fact. If you say that the fact that three-quarters of the weapons used were obtained legally means that we should ban all guns, it’s your right to say that and to believe it. It’s not your right to argue it as a self-evident fact; it’s not a fact, it’s your opinion. Similarly for the idea of arming teachers or having greater security in schools.
Here’s an opinion that we keep hearing as if it were a fact: “the problem is that not enough people are armed; if there had been armed people in the theater in Colorado, they would have stopped the shooter before he could kill as many as he did.” Here’s a fact: in all the 62 mass murders cited above, not one armed person attempted to stop the shooter. It’s possible that there were no armed people at any of those shootings, but that seems statistically improbable, particularly in places like Arizona and Colorado that have very loose concealed carry laws.
Here’s a fact: A teacher, Victoria Soto hid her students in a closet. When the killer confronted her, she told him they were in the gym; he killed her, and her students remained safe. My opinion about that is that it was heroism of the highest order.
We are also seeing a flood of statistics regarding gun ownership, crime rates, murder rates, etc., in the US versus the rest of the world. These statistics are facts – in and of themselves they don’t mean anything until they are interpreted, and interpretations are not facts, so it isn’t legitimate to argue whose interpretation is right or wrong, better or worse.
This failure to make the distinction between facts and opinions is (in my opinion) a large part of what has us in the situation we are in now as a nation. Whether it’s economic strategy, environmental strategy, education, you name it, we are mired in divisiveness, and divisiveness is never fact-based – it’s always about whose opinion, whose interpretation of the facts is “right.” Here’s a news flash – no opinion is right, no opinion is wrong. The value of opinion and interpretation is that they create avenues for action – we rarely act based on the facts, we act based on how we interpret those facts. The most useful conversation is not who’s right, but which interpretation gives us the most opportunity for effective action.
This tragedy will be politicized – both sides of the gun control issue will argue that it proves their point. It does not. In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King said “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.” If we concern ourselves with that, we will be discussing opinions. Here’s a start – when you speak, notice when you speak your opinion as if it were a fact, and then correct yourself – say clearly that it’s your opinion, and open your mind to listen to and learn from other points of view. In that way we can honor the memory of Victoria Soto and all those children who were robbed of their future.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Bonanza Column 262 - Education Needs to Learn from Business

I'm well aware of my tendency as I grow older to look upon the past as a time when all was good and to worry about the present and despair of the future, and I do my best to control it. I try to remember that the idyllic small-town youth I remember was obtained only by a tacit agreement to ignore institutionalized poverty, racism, homophobia, gender bias, and all the rest of the ignored factors that made the 1950's a fool's paradise for the white, male-dominated, heterosexual middle and upper classes. 
Notwithstanding those very real flaws, the bitter fruits of which we are harvesting to this day and likely will continue to harvest for years to come, there were some things we did right. Even in the backwater upstate New York town where I grew up, everyone got a solid educational grounding for adult life. To be sure, there were two tracks, one for those destined for college and the other for those whose education would end at High School, but care was taken that both groups got an education that did more than merely pander to their transitory teen-age tastes or prepare them only to pass tests, and too much of today's education seems to be about those two dubious goals. In this the educational establishment is showing itself to be decades behind the business world.
In the latter stages of the manufacturing economy, roughly from 1850 to 1950, American business measured its success by the numbers - units produced, revenue in, profits out, etc. Peter Drucker, a leading management thinker for much of the 20th Century was famous for the dictum that "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it," and American industry took this to heart. Measurement and its cousin statistics became the supreme power worshipped at the altar of American business.
With the transition to a new age of business - call it the Information Economy or the Interaction Economy, or the Experience Economy - there probably won't be an "official" name until after the next transition - the primacy of "the numbers" began to be challenged. Not that numbers and measurement won't always have a place, but the importance of Drucker's other maxim, "you don't measure what you get, you get what you measure" began to become clear. If you measure salespeople's activity (e.g. number of sales calls) you will get a lot of activity; if you measure their productivity (e.g. number of sales closed), you will get a lot of productivity, and so qualitative factors, considered "soft and fluffy" in the Manufacturing Economy came into increasing prominence.
Our education system seems to be going the other way. Under the banner of "performance-based" education, what is being emphasized is test scores, and just as when you measure salespeople's activity you get more sales calls but not necessarily more sales closed, when you measure test scores you get higher test scores but not necessarily more education. In other words we are in danger of turning out skilled test-takers rather than educated people.
One unintended consequence of the emphasis on test scores is a dumbing-down of the education system. Makes sense doesn't it? If you want higher test scores, teach easier material! So increasingly we find the "harder" subjects being dropped or made optional. For example, in more and more school districts, the classics are no longer required or in some cases even taught. The classics of world literature, music, philosophy, as well as the forms of mathematics that taught us to think - algebra, geometry, trigonometry, are going by the wayside in favor of whatever is currently trendy in too many schools.
The culprits in this unfortunate trend are not the teachers. Ive yet to meet a teacher who is happy with "teaching to the test." Rather it is the educational administration, beginning with the Federal Government that seem to be looking for a simple way to measure and have neglected to pay attention to Drucker's second principle. If you measure test scores, you will raise a generation of good test-takers, not educated citizens. Secretary Duncan should take a leaf from Business's book, see what is at the source of real learning, and measure that, messy as it may be.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Bonanza Column 261 - Climate Change - the Long and Short of It

In the long run, the question of how much human activities are contributing to climate change is an important one. While a substantial majority of climate scientists agree that overuse of fossil fuels and other factors do contribute significantly, the possibility remains, however slim or substantial you might judge it to be, that over geological spans of time, the Earth’s climate fluctuates naturally on a spectrum between ice ages and global warming. As I’ve said before, this is a question that should be resolved on the basis of science, not opinion, notwithstanding the fact that we seem to be living in a time when many vocal non-scientists seem to think that science and opinion/religious interpretation deserve equal consideration. (As the Dalai Lama said, “someone whose faith is not grounded in reason is like a stream of water that can be led anywhere”)
In the shorter term, we have to deal with the reality that, whatever the causes, we are in a period of climate change in the warming direction. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), 50% of Americans live within 50 miles of a coast and that number has been increasing substantially over the past 30 years. Add to that the population who live in non-coastal flood plains, e.g., near rivers and major streams, and you have a significant portion of the population whose lives and livelihoods are affected by rising sea levels and by rain in areas and at times when not long ago there would have been snow. Areas around Lake Tahoe in this latter category include Truckee, and in the greater region, we’ve just seen Reno and Sparks gearing up for potential major damage. In 1997, we saw Reno flooded significantly when the Truckee River overflowed its banks.
While the nature and necessity of societal response to long-term climate change may be considered to be debatable (and while I don’t think it is, I’m aware that others disagree), the need to respond to the short-term issues is not. We’ve seen what rising sea levels combined with a weather emergency can do in coastal communities from New Orleans to New York, and having seen that further loss of life and property without significant attempts to defend against them is politically, societally, and humanly unacceptable.
Make no mistake, there is a limit to what we can do. Earthquakes, tornados, superstorms, tsunamis and other cataclysmic weather events will continue to occur and there will be damage and loss of life. Nonetheless, it is our responsibility as citizens and the government’s responsibility as well to do what can be done to minimize these effects. In Hawai’i, for example, the State and local goverments have detailed plans to do this – tsunami warning sirens, organized evacuations to higher ground, and significant efforts to educate citizens and visitors so that when execution of these plans is needed, things go generally smoothly and effectively.
This distinction between the long-term and short-term issues of climate change is important. When they are lumped together, those whose economic interests and/or religious convictions are threatened by the consideration of human contribution to the long-term effects rally against efforts to do something about protecting against the short-term effects, whatever their causes, and lives and property are lost.
The regular reader of this column knows that, by training and disposition, I am a rationalist, and an empiricist, which is to say I am biased toward a scientific approach and I trust the scientific interpretation of data to create theories that can be tested and revised as new findings arise, or that can be promoted from the status of theory to that of scientific law, which is itself subject to revision. Those who do not wish to deal with science claim this constant revision invalidates science and prefer to cling to rigid, if unsubstantiated, belief. That is their right, but it leads to a kind of fatalism that I abjure, and as the Dalai Lama said, it creates the danger of being led around by the nose. Either way, if we are not to simply be victims of the vagaries of weather and climate change, we need to be vigorous in our approach to both the possibilities of human contribution to climate change and to the need to protect ourselves from its effects, regardless of the causes.