/* Added by TWP, 10/12/2012 */ /* End of addition */

One of the live oaks that bless my home

Friday, May 8, 2015

Letters from Saudi Arabia - II

My Dear Western Friends,

Many of you have read my previous letter, dated May 4, 2015, and responded by email. Thank you.

I think we still have a little problem: Your replies have been much too U.S.-centric.  Unfortunately,  the world today is far too interlinked, in good part because of the U.S. policies over the last 35 years, and all problems are global.  Please parse the last sentence again and try to understand that you can no longer get away with being over there and ignoring what is happening here and everywhere else.  The cheap clothing and industrial products you buy in the U.S. come at a very high price to all other parts of the world.  High price means environmental and social deterioration.

Since hardly anyone cares about the environment until they can't breath, have no water to drink, food to eat, drown in floods or mudslides; or alternatively fall sick with cancer, Ebola, cholera, AIDS or Hepatitis, let's focus on the social deterioration and project it onto the U.S.  Then, I hope, what I say might interest you.

Among other things, I am an expert on foams.  Foams are collections of gas bubbles of different sizes immersed in a liquid, say water with a surfactant.  A long time ago, I wrote a beautiful but difficult paper, "Self-similar collapse of stationary bulk foams," that very few people ever read and even fewer cited.  Please look at Figure 2 for a nice 3D picture of a foam, but do not try to read this paper. You'd only get a headache from all these math equations.

Almost all foam bubbles collapse because of a universal phenomenon, called "Ostwald ripening," (a 30s movie) and water being drained by gravity from the bubble walls. In short, the smallest bubbles disappear and transfer their gas to the larger bubbles, while the bubble walls are getting ever thinner.  This process goes on until very few very large bubbles remain, or the entire foam catastrophically collapses, which is more likely.  You can look for a few seconds at a foam in your beer or champagne glass to see what I mean. Some foams can be made rigid and long-lasting with an appropriate surfactant or polymer that prevents or slows down gas inside each bubble from crossing the bubble walls.

Let's translate this understanding of bulk foams at rest into the stationary society foams made of people with different amounts of resources.  The small bubbles in this model are the poor people, the intermediate size bubbles are the middle class, the larger bubbles are the rich, and the few largest bubbles are the super-rich.  Each class of bubbles has a bubble size distribution.  In other words, different people in each bubble category have different amounts of resources. The polymer on the bubble walls that slows down or prevents foam collapse is the pristine environment, plentiful resources, good education for all, a stable happy society, good labor laws, health insurance for everyone, good governance, etc.

Now let's globalize these social foams, that is let's remove most of the polymers and put all foams into a single huge container, so all foams (countries) can contact each other directly.  Ostwald ripening will then happen everywhere, and only the super rich will remain with almost all of the global resources, or the world will go down in flames.  The U.N. today is one of the few global institutions trying to inject some polymer here and there, but their resources are woefully inadequate, because we, the Bubble People, don't care.  We eat organic food, fly to meetings, go to concerts, and think that nothing can ever happen to us.

But you are not interested in anything outside of the U.S., are you?  So, let's look at the social foam in the U.S.  With the stabilizing polymer missing increasingly since 1980, the small bubbles disappear first, then the intermediate bubbles.  In other words, by now, most of the poor have become completely destitute and the middle class almost disappeared.

We, the Bigger Bubble People, have been gaining from the disappeared poor and our bubbles have been growing nicely at their expense.  So we felt good over the last 30 years, not suspecting that it is our turn now to succumb to the merciless logic of Ostwald ripening with almost all polymer removed by the friends of globalization.  Therefore, only now, the inevitable progression of social foam collapse in the U.S. is getting interesting to us, as we, my friends, have been really quite the upper middle class.  Well, we must disappear as well, given a sufficiently long time, and only the super-rich will remain holding all power and resources, or the entire foam collapses and the U.S. society goes down in flames.
The super-rich already control all politics in the U.S. Source: Sunday Review, New York Times, 5/10/2015.

In case you haven't noticed, the super-rich already hold all power in the U.S., but they still do not own all resources, just 80 percent of them. Will they inject some stabilizing polymer to hold our much smaller bubbles intact for a while?

I doubt it.  And that's because the super-rich always think that their huge bubbles are untouchable.  That's how they always acted throughout human history.  With the exception of the few of you, my friends, most Americans know no history, so they will have to take my word for it. 
The Jungle, a homeless encampment of tents and shacks in San Jose, Calif., was cleared in December of last year. Jim Wilson/The New York Times
That's where we are now.  Our personal bubbles are under stress, even when we don't see homeless in the Silicon Valley or around our wealthy neighborhhods:
One notorious example took place in 2013, when Greg Gopman, then the chief executive of AngelHack, a code start-up, lamented on Facebook, “why the heart of our city has to be overrun by crazy, homeless, drug dealers, dropouts, and trash I have no clue.” (He later deleted the post.)  Source: The Shaky Moral Compass of Silicon Valley, The New York Times, May 6, 2015.
Here is the punch line:  
  1. The border and social policies implemented, for example, in the U.S., E.U., and Israel, prevent us from contacting the smallest external bubbles (the illegal emigrants), while removing the polymer from the insides of our national containers and pumping gas (resources) through the walls.  This means that our societies will undergo an accelerated Ostwald ripening, while the rich will feel safer in their fast growing bubbles.  That feeling of safety is of course erroneous, because now the internal poor and displaced (the internal disappeared resource bubbles) will stir the national foams with ever fewer bubbles and accelerate their collapse.
  2. An ample, renewable supply of small bubbles (immigrants) is good for the social foam stability against sloshing (big external upsets).  The small bubbles dampen sloshing and stabilize the society. But for security reasons we forgot about this physical requirement of regenerating our societal foams.
  3. The U.S. super-rich remain in direct contact with other huge bubbles elsewhere, which may exist in more rigid foams.  Thus, some of our biggest bubbles may also be sucked out into oblivion.
In summary, the outcomes of the inevitable Ostwald ripening or social rearrangement in the U.S. are far from certain.  Such is the ever-surprising wealth diffusion in the global economy.

Wishing you a little more happiness in our disappearing bubbles, Tad

P.S. Since a theory of self-similar collapse of social foams could be developed, I challenge a graduate student of economics or a similar discipline to contact me to jointly develop such a theory.  The capillary suction due to gravity could represent job and capital flight abroad and/or loss of tax revenue from the corporations and individuals, who have been paying off politicians in exchange for tax avoidance.  

Monday, May 4, 2015

Letters from Saudi Arabia - I

My Dear Western Friends,

As one of the old classics said, and I paraphrase, "Where you look, defines your outlook."  By email, you asked me several questions. Below are some of my answers. As links in green, I picked two of my old blogs and kept on adding several articles from the New York Times that were published in the last few days.  I am not the only person who is morally troubled.

On the fracking revolution

It used to be that massive environmental destruction happened in the God forsaken foreign countries or the poor empty parts of our motherlands.  Not anymore.  Now heavy industrial activities come to where we live and work, and environmental damage happens in the ecosystems we actually care about.  That's the reality of resource exhaustion paired with the ever-growing appetite for these resources from us, the Bubble People.

Take "shale revolution" as an example: 10,000 tons of clean, round, well-sorted fracking sand per well, or one hundred 100 ton railroad cars (really big ones), or one very long train of sand per well x thousands of wells per year = environmental destruction, damage to watersheds, permanent changes of ground water distribution and levels, obliteration of farmland in Wisconsin, Minnesota, etc., silica dust inhalation, damaged communities, and so on.

For economists these are merely externalities (or lives made unbearable by the sacred ritual of environmental destruction to make money; please look at China), but for me it is just one of the many reasons for the across-the-board decline of the U.S. And the Fed-created, bank-abetted “shale revolution” bubble popped regardless. ("Fed" means the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank.) This shale bubble, however, was the only real economic growth in the U.S. economy in the last 5 years.

Each next “revolution” of this kind will leave even bigger wounds on the Earth’s thin skin and will harm us more. But it does not matter anymore: the progressing harm has been irreversible for quite some time. We, as a species, are on the final stretch of our “economic growth curve” before a major physical collapse, and nothing can prevent this collapse, no matter how much we discuss and explain the all-encompassing human myopia among ourselves and our government watchers. The popping of the bubble in which we reside will be most unpleasant and we will finally comprehend what is happening to the countless millions of desperate people, who today are on the other side. I reside uncomfortably close to that other side, so I see things a little differently than when I was bubbling away in Berkeley, California, or Austin, Texas.

On a positive note, there are still many mountains to blow up in West Virginia, Kentucky, and the rest of the world. There are still countless trees to be cut or burned. There are mangrove forests left to be converted to beach resorts or shrimp ponds that will help in killing the oceans. There are aquifers to be sucked out or polluted. And then there is air to be made unbreathable for millions.
But the victorious global free market must continue to march on unimpeded by human heart, conscience, and imagination. 

What’s your solution? (A typical American question)

The issue of global inequality is extremely serious and solution almost impossible to arrive at and implement. I guess a good starting point would be to admit publicly and for a sufficiently long time, so that the customarily deaf and blind public registers, the past wrongs. This list is very long. It is easier to start from the U.S., because of its short history, which was nevertheless filled with the almost complete genocide of Native Americans, and the absolutely brutal treatment of the human cotton-picking machines, i.e., young, fit Negro slaves. This treatment was protected by U.S. Congress for many decades and led to the Civil War because of economic reasons (the deal was simply too good for the rich plantation owners in the U.S.'s South to exchange it for human rights). Some of this old treatment of black Americans is still well and alive in many of the city halls, police departments, jails, and prisons. We should add to this list the U.S.’s nefarious behavior in Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. Again, millions perished and untold damage has been done for us, the Bubble People.

Think of the U.S. and Europe as of the huge entropy-generating machines. We keep order and cleanliness inside and spew our wastes everywhere around the world. Thermodynamically, this cannot continue. With too many devastated exterior countries, entropy must eventually be generated inside of our clean motherlands. In my mind, this internal disorder has already started in earnest.

Click on the image to enjoy it in full size. Nice. My wife on the left and I thoroughly enjoy the green plants and the blue ocean. All the plants you see in this picture of a wealthy San Diego neighborhood are irrigated.
This letter to the Editor of the New York Times, nicely reflects the sentiment of my letter: Re “Drought Frames Economic Divide of Californians” (“The Parched West” series, front page, April 27): 
Recently I walked in the wealthy San Diego suburb of Coronado, where many residents are not conserving water. I saw a guy power-washing his fence before painting it. If he really were conserving, he could have used a bucket and a rag. Then there’s the green golf course and park, and the water left on the sidewalks from night watering of the green lawns. The wealthy can afford water at any cost. They are not conserving and will not conserve. They feel that they are above the law and do not have to abide by social norms. Forget shaming them.

San Diego
When Mr. Roger Newell talks about the rich who will not conserve, he speaks for almost all of us, the Bubble People.
Click on the image to see it in full size, remembering that it is huge. In the city of San Diego the green areas are powered by fossil water from the North pumped with lots of electricity from the imported natural gas and from coal.  Do you see the almost horizontal line near the bottom (south)?  This is the US-Mexico border.  Below the line, irrigation stops and the land is a lot more like here near Jeddah: a parched savannah or desert. The peninsula on the west, pointing south is a nice, mostly rich, and green area where my daughter's wedding was. All green plants there are irrigated, just like here. Image source: NASA, 1280px-San_Diego_NASA_World_Wind_Globe.jpg.

In Europe, the bloody history is much longer and even more complex, but it follows the same path of general genocide, brutal abuse of the poor, and repeated killings of local populations in most countries, including home countries. World War I and II were among the crowning European achievements, but they face stiff competition from the earlier valiant attempts at murder and mayhem.

Once we fully admit that the rich democracies today have been built on the thick, albeit somewhat fluid foundation of the torrents of human blood, suffering and injustice, and brutal coercion to corruption in the poor countries, we may start taking corrective actions and reach out to the poor in our countries and elsewhere in the world.  But you can see that this is not going to happen with us, the Bubble People.
I don’t want this letter to become a lengthy diatribe and invite you to propose your own human solutions, not just escapist jokes designed to protect your bubbles. 
The second step would be to admit that the Europeans and Americans stole over $1 trillion from the poor Africa over the last decade or so, while aiding and abetting corruption, arms sales, proxy wars, mass murder, and ethnic conflicts. Nigeria alone saw over $200 billion disappearing from its soil and into the Western banks.

Do you know that some 5 million people perished in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the recent decade or two?  And all that for our control of their minerals and other riches. This achievement is almost as impressive as Hitler's final solution, but literally no one knows and cares about it.  Just as no one cared about Rwanda and Burundi. We, the Bubble People, eat organic food instead.

If they had any recollection of these multiple tragedies, the good Europeans would perhaps recognize their own culpability in the recent tragic events and see humans behind the black and brown faces at the steps of their fortress. The same goes for the Americans, for whom it was so easy to reject the children fleeing from death in Honduras, into where we deported our local Honduran drug gangs from Los Angeles and broke the country. I still can picture that monster space alien Republican senator proclaiming on TV that “we must love these children with tough love and deport them immediately.” Obviously, the senator was speaking to his faithful constituents, the Bubble People.
Where is Doctor Who when we need him to save Planet Earth from alien space invaders?
Space aliens, the Deleks, apparently the extraterrestrial Republicans, are trying to exterminate the Earthlings. But not to worry!  Dr. Who will come to the rescue. Source BBC: Dr. Who
While I am at it, do you have any suggestions for atoning for other U.S. crimes in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Cuba, Haiti, and so on?

Eh, maybe not.  Instead, let's intone together: "U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!...." And why? Because we are the Bubble People.

What did you learn by living in the Middle East?

From my vintage point in the Middle East, the sum total of misery caused by the failed states here and in Africa is so overwhelming that I often gasp for air to breath. I see faces of all these dying and dead children, starving women, and drowned in the sea barefooted men. They all hope to reach and be inside of our bubble, and do so with such tenacity and desperation that we will not be able to shut ourselves away from their misery, to which we have richly contributed for a long, long time. It does not matter what Ms. Le Pen says, or German neo-fascists and white American policemen do. And Arizonians will not protect their border from the desperate Mexicans, fleeing from the very drug lords we have created and sustained in exchange for the drugs we devour in such quantities. Yes, we, the happy Americans, who have been eating the entire world from the inside of our luminous bubble.  We sell them our superior weapons and movies in return and they eat this stuff.

Our bubble is bursting now. And, no, there is no such thing as a slow and gentle tearing of a bubble. There is a firm mathematical theory for the speed of the burst once it starts. The game today is to hide away all recognizable needles that might prick our bubble and pretend that the bubble cannot be popped. But what about the needles we and our government watchers have missed?

Wishing you a little more of a happy life in your personal bubbles, Tad

Friday, March 20, 2015

Our ignorance

My American friend just expressed a concern that video-conferencing through Skype from Saudi Arabia (or Poland) might be unreliable and sound quality low.  Hmm...  Unreliable at which end?  I just checked the WiFi speed at my Red Sea home, and it averaged 69.93 Mega bits per second (Mbps) on downloads and 39.77 Mbps on uploads. On campus WiFi, I clock 150 Mbps on both downloads and uploads. Just three months ago, I was lucky if I got a sustained upload speed above 10 Mbps in Austin at home or on campus.

Then there is telephony.  When my wife and I were in the savannah east of Al Ula, near Mada'in Saleh, we and our Saudi friends, as well as the Egyptian driver, were on a 3G network and the internet, checking out the missing details.  The network reception was excellent over the entire 2000 km we covered.
The ancient town of Al-Ula, parts of which are 3000 years old.
Our Saudi companions, a young Government Affairs person from KAUST (left) and the wisest, most sophisticated guide I have ever had in my life.  Most of the time both had iPads and iPhones in their hands.
A Nabatean water tank in Mada'in Saleh. After trading frankincense to Romans for a few centuries, the Nabateans became the wealthiest kingdom in the Middle East.  Here was their main town south of Petra. The settlement started 2000-3000 years ago because water flowing from the mountains appeared at the surface and was stored in big excavated cisterns.  The 3G network reception was quite good in these beautiful ruins in the middle of nowhere.
An here is the reason:  Saudi Arabia is dotted with cellular transmission towers like the ones below, carrying 3 cellular networks and a military communications network. 
These network towers came in threes everywhere we drove and kept us connected to the entire world most of  the time. When we forgot a book title or a fact in the car, we could check it immediately on Google. Our guide would often show us his pictures on iCloud.
I do not recall having nearly such a high-quality reception while traveling in the U.S.  Which leads me to this observation:  The blissful ignorance and condescension of Westerners is staggering when it comes to Saudi Arabia and technological progress that has been occurring here in real time.  The cultural progress is always slower, just as it is in Alabama or Missouri, but it is accelerating too.

In summary, Saudi Arabia is now fully on a fiber optics network and has been for almost two decades.  Technology leapfrogged, and both the internet and telephony are faster and better here than in the U.S. But my fellow Americans have no idea that the obsolete networks and cellular phone systems are now in their country, rather than in what they call "exotic places."

Now let's talk about education.  In 2008, Saudia Arabia was spending about 5.4% of GDP on education, just like the U.S. Today, a high-ranking Saudi official at a conference in the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), my new university, quoted 25% of the GDP!  And it shows.  As one drives along Saudi Arabia (NS), there are new schools being built everywhere.  There are hundreds of new vocational schools.  Families are given cheap loans to build new homes, and these loans are partially forgiven when their children finish, say, a vocational school.

Roughly 30-40 thousands of Saudi students are sent abroad each year to polish their English and enroll in American and European universities as undergraduates. These students are in the top 1-2 percent of the Saudi high school graduates and all their expenses are paid. So the Saudi students are supporting some of the financially struggling public colleges in the U.S. These students are now trickling back to Saudi Arabia, and the best of them will enter KAUST, where I will have an opportunity to teach them and do research with them. Sixty percent of the Saudi graduate students at KAUST are women. When I look at many of the remarkable technical managers in Saudi Aramco, with Ph.D. degrees from MIT, Stanford, UT Austin, Texas A&M, etc., I inevitably compare them with their significantly less educated counterparts in the U.S. oil and gas industry.

In summary, the fast growing, well-educated working elites are transforming Saudi Arabia in real time.  Most Westerners have no inkling about the rate of intellectual change and vibrant business climate around, say, Jeddah, where I live. And these changes occur as parts of the 5, 10, and 20-year coordinated development plans.  As one of the remarkable Saudis I met remarked wryly, "We have not survived here in the desert for three thousand years by being impatient."

Compare this comprehensive, high-rate transformation of the entire country and its society with the governing principle of U.S. capitalism:
"One f... today equals one f... tomorrow plus one f... each day that will follow - for the rest of my life."
OK, so this definition of U.S. capitalism follows the descriptive language of Jon Stewart.  Usually, this crisp definition is obfuscated as discounting future at a 10-15 %/year rate to arrive at the net present value (NPV) of all human endeavors.   At the higher discount rate, what happens 10 years from today is four times less important than what happens today. Our children need 20 years to grow up and become productive; that's 16 times less important than our pleasures today. 

Now you see some of the reasons why I have moved with my wife to Saudi Arabia. We have a different approach to the future. Also, professionally speaking, I can no longer stomach the ideological exhortations like this one:
"It is time to build policies that reflect our new-found [U.S. oil] abundance, that view the future with optimism, that recognize the power of free markets to drive innovation, and that proceed with the conviction that free trade brings prosperity and progress."
These words were uttered by someone famous, but they were carefully crafted by a team of lawyers, psychologists, and media people to express every selfish gene in the confused American psyche

I see this statement as a smart appeal to the collective dark meme of American culture, and a paraphrase of my succinct definition of the essence of American capitalism. My paraphrase of this paraphrase is:
"Pull out all the stops and let us plunder today all we possibly [technologically] can.  Quickly sell the spoils, tomorrow be damned, and you don't care anyway." 
I could give you a more technical description of this serious problem, but the understanding of science and engineering is so shallow in the U.S. that I won't even try.  Instead, I urge you to read this great interview with Professor Noam Chomsky.  Please read it and try to be intellectually honest, able to confront the unpleasant implications of the quotations above, and cease to enjoy watching the "American Sniper," yet another cruel meme of American culture.

P.S. Culture can be defined as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." (Edward Burnett Tylor, 1871:1)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Prancing in Davos

Tonight, I switched from al Jazeera International to BBC World Service.  It took about twenty minutes before I quit with disgust and switched back.

Here's what I saw.  Somewhere at the World Economic Forum in Davos, there was a stage lined with eight armchairs ready for a live BBC program.  Seated on the stage were Christine Lagarde, the current IMF director, a pretty African woman, likely representing the developing world, and several very important looking white men.
I started watching the BBC Davos report when Ms. Lagarde made her points:  IMF is now anything but business as usual.  Three IMF economists did a lot of analytic work and arrived at the following conclusions: (1) Extreme income inequality is bad for economic growth, (2) income redistribution is good for growth, and (3) jobs for the masses keep people engaged and are good for sustainable growth.

She told us that these points were met with great disbelief and scorn by her IMF colleagues, who told her: "This is not main stream. This is not what IMF does."  Well, now, Ms. Lagarde assured us, her thinking is main stream at IMF. OK, so far so good.

Of course, Ms. Lagarde needs to check her definitions:  Any growth that lasts for a while, leads to an exponential increase of economy and its resource needs, and this cannot be sustainable in the long run.  A well known property of exponential growth is that each next doubling creates more needs than the sum of all needs before the doubling.  For example, 1+2=3 is less than 2x2= 4, 1+2+3=6 is less than 2x4=8.

How is it possible to continue this growth ad infinitum on a finite planet with finite resources and constant primary productivity?

Wealthy Chinese have been buying tens of billions of dollars worth of real estate in California and New York each year.  House prices even in small towns, like Arcadia north of Los Angeles, went up 40% for no reason whatsoever, other than the absentee investors parking their money in large empty homes. Imagine that the same Chinese double their spending this year, and then again next year.  We will run out of real estate to sell to them.

The rich Chinese are escaping the other blessings of a runaway economic growth in China:  pollution everywhere, no clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, cancer, very expensive housing, and lots of cash focused in the hands of several thousands of business people.  These business people smuggled out $1 trillion from China in the last decade to buy a cleaner environment in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, and so on.

It makes sense.  We spend trillions of dollars asking China to produce the junk we buy,  China destroys its life-preserving environmental services, and the business owners recycle our dollars back to us buying whatever is beautiful and clean in our country.  We all envy China for their high economic growth rate.  But should we?

Still Ms. Lagarde was the bright spot in what I saw from Davos, despite her inability to answer simple questions starting from the pesky "Why?".  After her there was a prancer, who said nothing, but tried to be funny.  Then the African woman tentatively said something about lack of job creation, but no one paid attention, she was quickly interrupted and silenced, and the microphone went to a silver fox.  He did some homework and from his notes rattled out that in 1928, the global poverty rate was 84 or so percent, while in 2011 it went down to 14 percent. Everyone sighed with relief and I switched back to al Jazeera.

So let's think for a second about the statistics the silver fox read from his notes.  I bet this guy never talks to drivers of the limousines his staff hires to take him to his Leer jet.  But suppose that he took a cab from Manhattan to JFK.  Chances are high that his cab driver would be from Ghana, or Ethiopia, or Eritrea. If he decided to talk to, say, a driver from Ghana in his late 30s or 40s, this is what he might learn:

As a child, the driver lived in a small village surrounded by banana and other fruit tree groves. Twenty years ago, the villagers would have plots with vegetables and grain crops, and barter products at a local farmer's market.  Today, when this driver goes home, there is nothing left of the trees and crops.  Instead, there is a store that sells expensive Coca Cola and junk food.

Most people in Ghana are now completely dependent on a large-scale distribution system to buy expensive, often foreign food.  In one generation, the driver's village went from a healthy barter economy and good food (i.e., poverty) to buying unhealthy food from unknown sources with cash (i.e., not poverty).

Mr. Progress has knocked on the driver village's door and stimulated the global economy.  The driver had to emigrate to America to earn money so that his family could buy American food in Ghana. There you have it.

In 1928, the global population was 2 billion people and in 2011, it was roughly 7 billion people. In 1928, most of the global population lived by barter outside of cash economy, and would be considered poor today.  In 2011, more people lived in the big city slums around the world than the entire global population in 1928.  These people may not be considered poor by the learned economists, but just look around, especially when you travel outside of Davos or watch al Jazeera, or go to almost any place in Africa, or in South or Central America, or to Haiti. What water do these people drink? What food do they eat?
These people are definitely not poor. They have shoes and buy food with cash they scrape every day.  And they live happily in the global economy, whose stewards I saw  prancing in Davos.
As one of the young American economists on the al Jazeera's "Stream" program noted: " I think that the main stream economists have a very weak understanding of sustainability."  No kidding!  If these clowns are our global leaders, God have mercy upon humankind.  I imagine these people as the two-dimensional creatures crawling on a piece of paper and concocting theories as to why the third dimension does not exist.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Bird of Dawn

Finally I am in Saudi Arabia.  So many new impressions and new thoughts. I customarily watch here Al Jazeera International and the French News 24 Channel, and I never watch American TV.  I am simply tired of American navel gazing and the low quality of U.S.-based programming available here.

Today, on Al Jazeera I saw a program about a group of Iranian and French women and men, who wanted to have a public concert in Iran.  After a long struggle, the authorities relented and the group sang.  And what a concert it was! This was the introduction by an Iranian female singer:

We are the free men, who are not scared
We are secrets that never die
We are voices of who resist
We are free and our world is free.

At the end, another Iranian woman sang in the most beautiful voice:

Of the just and the unjust
They only spoke and did nothing
Oh, God! Oh, God!
See the chasm between their words and their actions.

In-between they sang the "Bird of Dawn," a metaphor for human cruelty. You probably will not find time to watch this moving and important documentary about the best in human spirit. You simply have too many emails to write and Facebook pages to visit. I understand. (Please try to watch the last 8 minutes, although you will not know what these people went through and you will not see their quiet determination.)

The young (and not-so-young) people in the documentary reminded me so much of my wife and me during our Solidarity times. They are who we were back in Poland 35 years ago, and they act how we acted. I am so glad to see that human resilience is universal and timeless.

The Syrian children are freezing to death in Aleppo and refugee camps in Lebanon.

Some 2000 people were killed in a rampage by Boko Haram in a Nigerian town of Baga. Thousands fled abandoning everything.

Three suspected terrorists were killed when they opened fire on police in Belgium.

There were hair-raising news that the fraction of NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding to people below the age of 35 has been decreasing since Reagan's presidency when the new world order began. The good NIH researchers seem to forget that the sole purpose of the new world order is maximization of corporate profit now, and if it means relying on the 66-plus year old researchers in the U.S. or outsourcing research to India, so be it.

Too many people in the U.S. cannot properly change a bulb or read.

The price of oil dropped by 50% because the deteriorating world economy simply cannot function on expensive hydrocarbons.  The logic of modern capitalism forced U.S. companies to continue the conversion of cheap capital provided by the ever-growing financial sector into the expensive oil and gas.  So much so, that the global surplus of oil supply created by the U.S., and the refusal by OPEC to cut production, caused the oil price to crash.  Saudi Arabia simply refused to subsidize the expensive U.S. oil with their own cheap oil. U.S. will start exporting oil and gas, because it cannot give up its newly found power.  How dumb this oil and gas export idea is? Very.

After hearing a pro-export stump speech from Bill Richardson (an ex-Energy Secretary), I suddenly saw my own face, my house in Austin, Texas, and the oaks surrounding it.  It was a fragment of a 3-1/2 hour taped  interview I  gave to al Jazeera in August 2014, for a program that was aired in October.  I was positively stunned.

Over the last three years, the entire growth of global supply of oil was equal numerically to the increase of shale oil production in the U.S.  Think about it. The rest of the world could not increase oil production even at $110 per barrel.

In the Bakken shale, 40 oilfield workers have been killed and hundreds wounded in sloppy field operations, and from lack of elementary training and protective gear.  Since 2005, the Workers' Compensation Insurance has returned 170 million dollars of unused payments to the employers. In North Dakota, an oilfield hand whose left arm was blown off below the elbow in a rig explosion was denied a 70,000 dollar high-tech prosthesis that would allow him to tie his shoes and so on.  The denial was justified as follows: In the dirty, dusty conditions in which this guy might work, a simple hook would do a better job. Of course, he will never be employed again.

The Dow Jones index is still above 17000 points.

The only substantial growth in U.S. economy in the last five years has been delivered by the oil and gas sector bubbling away on borrowed money.

Schlumberger just laid off 9000 workers, and other service and production companies are laying off thousands more.

Most universities in the U.S. have doubled or tripled their enrollments in petroleum engineering programs.

Twenty two teachers in the Mexican State of Guerrero were killed by the drug gangs and 110 schools are closed.

 I went snorkeling in the aquamarine warm water of the Red Sea.
Snorkeling is good where I live.
In Haiti, the dysfunctional government installed by the U.S. and other powers is falling apart. In the meantime, billions of dollars in international aid were stolen and wasted by the U.N., NGOs, and international governments. Nothing is finished and promises have not been kept. The root cause is the same as everywhere. The damaged and depleted environment can no longer support people who depend on it, regardless of the number of dollars thrown at these people.

I live in a beautiful bubble.

My backyard at sunset.
Oh, Bird of Dawn
You prey on the captured bird
You throw stones on the wounded one
You kill the weary lovers with a cruel arrow
Until their hearts are drowning in their blood.

I going shopping now.  I try to walk everywhere in KAUST, covering 4.59 miles per day on average over the last 10 days, my iPhone GPS tells me.  Yesterday, I was seen walking with a grocery bag.  I got an email asking what was wrong with my car?  So today I will drive my 150 HP car to deliver five plastic bags with groceries.  Then I will make up for my sins by walking barefoot a few kilometers along a sandy beach next to where I live.  It feels great!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Future of Engineering Education - Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series, I told you how desperately public universities play the U.S. News & World Report rankings game. Public academia appears to be unable to grasp the fact that school rankings are an elaborate scam set up to boost private schools and provide them with steady income and prestige.  This obsession with rankings also plays to the recurrent thinking in the U.S. that unless you are rich or an already highly-educated, ready-to-use immigrant like me, you are not worthy of a decent life and it is your own fault.  Yeah, shame on you, why aren't you rich or well-educated?

In Part I and Part II, I also suggested that in undergraduate education public universities would never win or place high in the current rankings scam.  Simply put, the rankings carrot is dangled from much too high for the public universities to bite, no matter how hard they try to jump.

Since I spent 18 years as a faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, and have students who are now professors at Stanford and MIT, I must tell you that Berkeley is not 18 notches beneath Harvard.  In fact, one could argue that the rich and complex social ecosystem of Berkeley puts Harvard to shame most of the time, while costing Californians four times less.

So if Berkeley = Harvard in overall rankings, why should UT Austin be number 52, after some no-name private colleges?  With all due respect, why is a Washington University in Saint Louis number 19, while Berkeley is number 20 and The University of Texas at Austin is number 52?  Has anyone heard about a Wake Forest University? I certainly haven't, but it ties with UC Los Angeles, University of Southern California, and University of Virginia for the 23 place in the U.S. News and World Report.  Have we gone mad?

OK, so we have gone mad and public universities are now focusing solely on graduate rankings, feeling correctly that in this domain they can still compete with private universities. But there is a hitch: The public perceives public universities as insufficiently caring about their sons and daughters, almost all of whom will never go beyond an undergraduate B.S. or  B.A. degree.  Few Americans ever get a graduate M.S. degree and far fewer a PhD. degree.  Especially in science and engineering, Americans seldom enroll in graduate schools. A vast majority of all PhD. students in these areas is foreign born. We continue to bet that most of the freshly-minted PhDs  will stay here and run the technical side of U.S. economy.

The top echelons of politics, diplomacy, law, banking, finance, insurance, and the military-spying-police-entertainment-industrial complex are reserved for the Americans graduating from top private schools.  This sophisticated cast system has brought to the U.S. a dismally low social mobility, marginally higher than those in the almost failed United Kingdom and Italy, and five times lower than those in Norway, Denmark and Finland. 

The current fixation with graduate academic rankings palpably hurts public universities, because they fail to see what the public supports and how their own faculty should be rewarded.  These two points are significant, because public universities have now lost much of their public support, but they have not become private universities shielded by the giant endowments and tuition charges that subsidize and maintain their unquestioned royal opulence.  Public universities usually receive strong support from their alumni and falsely assume that this support extends to the general public.  It does not.

In Part II, I quoted Edward Bernays, one of the greatest public communicators of all times, who 80 years ago pointed out that "The public cannot understand unless the teacher understands the relationship between the general public and the academic idea...."

It's that simple.  If public universities want to continue serving a large number of ordinary families, we need to be in tune with what these families care for.  The public cannot be hearing from us only how great we are in research, and how they should help us fulfill our scientific destiny.  The public simply doesn't comprehend what we are talking about.  The public wants to hear what great things we can do for the society in general and their children in particular.

The grievous disconnect between public academia and the general public is a side effect of the con game in which public academia has been ensnarled.  The purpose of this con game is to strengthen private schools and weaken public ones.  And thus we, the oh-so-smart faculty, are drowning only because we must prove to ourselves that we are as good as the private princes of pristine science.  Well, we are actually much better.  Try to imagine private schools running on one quarter or one fifth of the resources they are accustomed to and do as well as we do!  Just look at the three figures below, and Part I and Part II of this blog.  For God's sake, wake up you public academic teachers and tell your bureaucrats to shape up!  By the way, many of these bureaucrats live to play the rankings game and nothing else matters to them.  This means, in particular, that they are less than truthful when they talk about importance of undergraduate education without mentioning research needs in the same sentence.

So why do public universities think they can compete with private ones? First, let's do the numbers.

Figure 1. Total enrollment in the top 30 U.S. graduate programs in engineering.  The top private universities are in red and the top public ones in blue. Notice that in contrast to their small undergraduate enrollments, some of the top private universities have substantial graduate enrollments in engineering.  Simply put, there is a lot more money to be made off of graduate students starting their own companies and filing patents.  In general, undergraduate education is a money-losing proposition best left to public universities.  Unless, of course, you belong to the nomenklatura and a gentleman's C is in store for you, especially if daddy kicked in a few million dollars to his/your private Alma Mater. Source: 2013 rankings by US News & World Report.
Figure 1 shows that among the top 30 engineering programs in the U.S., 17 are public.  The mean enrollment and the standard deviation are 2,410 +/- 874 graduate students for the public universities and 2,202 +/- 1,323 students for the private ones.

Figure 2. Nominal tuition and fees charged by the top 30 U.S. programs in engineering . For the public universities, these are in-state tuition plus fees. For the private universities the tuition and fees are for full-time students.  Texas A&M is an anomaly in its reporting, quoting $258 per credit, the number that is incomprehensible to the public and suggests an almost free education.  In this plot I did the translation. Notice that NC State, Texas A&M and UT Austin charge the least for graduate education.  These charges are below cost and must be subsidized from their respective endowments. Source: 2013 rankings by US News & World Report.
Figure 2 shows that the mean tuition and fees and their standard deviation are $12,787 +/- $3,840 for the top public universities, and $39,426 +/- $6,148 for the private ones.  In short, a good private university charges three times more on average than a good public university.

Figure 3. Nominal income from the current graduate student populations in the top 30 engineering programs. Source: 2013 rankings by US News & World Report.

Figure 3 shows that the mean nominal income and its standard deviation are $30.5 +/- $14.5 million per year for the top public universities, and $86.0 +/- $51.6 million per year for the private ones.

So what's the conclusion here?  Public universities can fight their way to the top of graduate rankings in engineering despite income that on average is three times less than that of private universities.   When it comes to merit and funding from competitive public sources (NSF, NIH, DOE, DoD, etc.),  creativity and ambition more than make up for the lack of most other resources relative to private universities.

But this victory of sorts of public universities is a Pyrrhic one.  By focusing on research these universities undercut the already meager support of the public, which knows nothing about research and advanced degrees, and does not care.  The public cares, however, a lot about their high-school graduate sons and daughters, who cannot get into the overextended and underfinanced public universities.

For example, my department of Petroleum Engineering at UT Austin already has a 40:1 overall student:faculty ratio and in 2014 had to reject 13 out of 14 candidates for freshmen. At the same time, the public keeps on hearing a loud chorus of voices that tell them the following:  Public universities should deliver cheap and shoddy education for the unwashed masses, and they should stop competing with the private barons and princes of education, who mostly serve the affluent cast.

The public at large is generally uneducated about research and advanced degrees, and deceived.   As it so often happens in America, people actively oppose what might be good for them, because they are conned into believing that they all are incipient millionaires, who have been poor by accident just for the first x-years of their lives. I do not need to remind you that being poor in America is deeply shameful. Shame makes people pretend that they are who they are not, and vote against their self-interest. 

P.S. I wrote this blog on 2/28/2014, but out of disgust could not make myself publish it until today. A week ago I had a medical incident that made me rethink many things.  Chief among them is the creeping betrayal of more than half of U.S. population, from the poor professional soldiers and veterans, to the lower 50% of the population in K-12 schools, which receives eduction at a level below most third-world countries, to a burgeoning population of the less-than-affluent people, who want to send their children to public universities, but cannot, because these children were insufficiently educated in their dismal K-12 schools, and later must compete with the better-to-do families, whose children also flock to public universities.

Let's hope that the wrecking ball falling on undergraduate public education in the U.S. will be less than awesomely devastating.  Judging from what already happened to K-12 schools, I am not holding my breath.  Please pay attention to the ever-louder demands for (academic) teacher "accountability."  That's how it starts.  And it goes down from there.  

Edward Bernays, who was an honest original propagandist, must be turning in his grave.  Bernays genuinely believed  that manipulation of the disoriented masses by the enlightened elites served good social purpose and improved civil society.  Many high schools today do not have real teachers of sciences, but they do have accountability and mechanical, mind-numbing tests for the young inmates.

The purpose of these tests has been to indoctrinate the obedient, schematically thinking, and disoriented young consumers, not enlightened thoughtful citizens. Think then of best public universities as intensive care units, in which some of the young patients  are brought back to life.

This important link to an article "Americans Think We Have the World’s Best Colleges. We Don’t" on the utter mediocrity of most U.S. colleges at bachelor level was added on 6/29/14.  Simply put, most graduates of the generally mediocre K-12 schools in the U.S. are never resuscitated by U.S. colleges, no matter how highly the respective graduate programs in these colleges rank.  Remember that the U.S. graduate programs in math, physics, chemistry, and engineering are mostly for the gifted foreign-born students.  I often hear from this from great American kids: "How can I compete in (PhD-level) math with all these foreign-born students?"  How will I then pass the PhD qualifying exam? So these kids never become PhD students. I could write a whole dissertation on how low on average the analytic math and programing skills are among American undergraduate students.  I would be describing my personal teaching experience over the last 25 years. Other serious problems affecting performance of U.S. colleges involve child poverty, poor nutrition or malnutrition, lack of family support, increasingly language problems, and so on.  These problems are not nearly as severe in other developed countries.

P.S.P.S. Those few public high schools that still work are severely segregated, so that the well-to-do are served and others aren't.  While I do not mind elite high schools protected by difficult entrance exams, I attended one after all,  their admission procedures need to be transparent and well-publicized, and good alternatives for the less prepared/gifted children must exist.  I have a feeling that in the U.S. such alternatives do not exist.

P.S.P.S.P.S.  And here is how the private for profit universities fared and what they have done to tens of thousands of their students.  A decade ago, Corinthian Colleges was a darling of Wall Street which valued it at $3.4 billion, and was used as a shiny example for the outdated public universities.  After wasting billions of dollars of taxpayer's money and thousands of student lives,  Corinthian Colleges will have to fold.  And, yes, public often underwrites private profit and then pays for private losses.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Future of Engineering Education Machine in Almost Here - Part II

In Part I, I criticized current framing of disputes about the future of public higher education.  Now it's time for a positive proposal.  I will show you that private and public schools cannot be easily compared and should not be included in the same rankings.  As you will see, these unrealistic rankings compare equivalents of a leisurely weekend runner jogging at 5 miles per hour (private schools) with a hurried man barreling down a freeway sixteen times faster at 90 miles per hour.  It is impossible to apply the same criteria to the behavior and priorities of both.

In my mind, current university rankings by the U.S. News and World Report should be soundly repudiated by public universities acting as a group, and a case should be made to split the ranking lists of private and public universities.  I am assuming here that we will continue to insist on numerical measures of academic success, however incomplete and distorted these measures are.  That's because I realize that we are insignificant parts of the ever more powerful Machine.  Let's start from a scene from a Roman Polansky movie.

Imagine a lavish ball in an old castle.  The walls of a spacious, richly ornamented ballroom are lined with tall mirrors and a chamber orchestra is playing in the corner.  On the floor, dozens of pairs of bejeweled beautiful ladies in long dresses and elegant men in dark suits are dancing with great skill.  It's a breathtaking view!  Then you look at the mirrors and all you can see is the empty ballroom.  What you observed was an illusion, a beautiful but empty image.  You just watched the Annual Vampires' Ball in Count Dracula's castle.
The ever-insecure public academia is examining herself with trepidation:  "In my cheap dress, will I look as pretty as those private school dames?"  The simple answer is: "No, public academia is different than private schools,  clothed or naked. We serve different societal needs, and we should stop comparing ourselves to our very rich but distant second cousins." Cumulatively, the top 15 public universities charge a little less than one quarter of  the tuition and fees charged by the 15 top private universities, and enroll roughly four times more students. By this metric, the cohort of 15 top U.S. public universities is 16 times (sic!) more efficient than the comparable cohort of private universities. Therefore, it is only right that anyone who feels like it harasses and admonishes public schools, while the private school slobs are living serene fulfilling lives. Source: E.C. Escher, "Hand with Reflecting Sphere," 1935.
Which brings me to academic rankings pursued by public universities with troubling desperation.  As I wrote in Part I of this series, private universities need not worry: By definition, they are on top of all rankings. Think of this, if private schools were not highest-ranked, who would spend up to $100K  per year on private education if 25% of that sum would buy equally good public education?

The small but luxurious private universities are gate keepers, who for the right price dispense lifetime membership cards to the American nomenklatura.  Therefore, no one at the US News and World Report would dare to question the glittering supremacy of the Ivy League schools, never mind that as a cohort they are 4.4x3.7=16 times less efficient than the comparable public universities (see Figures 1 - 4 and 5 - 6). After all, the United States of America has invented the beautiful and tempting, but otherwise empty images.  And this invention has served some of us very well.

Rushing at 90 miles per hour, the stressed-out public educators are remiss in educating public about academia's priorities and difficulties.  Here is what the original U.S. propagandist (in 1928, the term "propaganda" did not have the contemporary pejorative connotation), Edward Bernays, wrote on this subject:
EDUCATION is not securing its proper share of public interest. ... The public is not cognizant of the real value of education, and does not realize that education as a social force is not receiving the kind of attention it has the right to expect in a democracy. ... There are a number of reasons for this condition. First of all, there is the fact that the educator has been trained to stimulate to thought the individual students in his classroom, but has not been trained as an educator at large of the public. In a democracy an educator should, in addition to his academic duties, bear a definite and wholesome relation to the general public. This public does not come within the immediate scope of his academic duties. But in a sense he depends upon it for his living, for the moral support, and the general cultural tone upon which his work must be based. In the field of education, we find what we have found in politics and other fields—that the evolution of the practitioner of the profession has not kept pace with the social evolution around him, and is out of gear with the instruments for the dissemination of ideas which modern society has developed. If this be true, then the training of the educators in this respect should begin in the normal schools, with the addition to their curricula of whatever is necessary to broaden their viewpoint. The public cannot understand unless the teacher understands the relationship between the general public and the academic idea....
I note in passing that private universities have developed a formidable propaganda apparatus since WWI, and continue with great skill to use think tanks and other propaganda outlets to promote their positive public image.  After all, they have ample resources and staff to drive their perennial PR offensive.  Public universities are poor propagandists, because - hmm - they are much poorer and - setting aside the corrupt "college athletics" - they are not as slick as private universities in lying and covering up:
Then as the 2012-2013 school year commenced, Joseph Asch, Dartmouth '79, wrote an open letter the incoming class of 2016 on the Dartblog titled, "Freshman, There Will be Lies." In his letter Mr. Asch warns, among other declarations, that students should begin their time at Dartmouth with the understanding that the administration will lie, underscoring his point by asserting, "Not small lies, or white lies, or inadvertent ones, but straight-out lies that help the administration gain the goals that it seeks at your expense." He reverses all that the students once thought true about an elite academic institution by telling the class that although they expect this "noble institution" to serve the students, in fact the administration "has goals to achieve, and work in an environment where lying has been part of the modus operandi for many years."
In summary, public and private universities are fundamentally different and should not be lumped together in an artificial way that boosts the Ivy League schools relative to the poorer, busier, and less glamorous public university cousins.   In Part III, I will get deeper into these gaping differences and public misperceptions.

P.S. (02/21/2014) If you think that the private and public non-profit schools are less than perfect, you should also look at the for-profit universities.  The pursuit of short-term profits and generally unethical behavior have created greedy monsters that steal money from the taxpayer and the poor. And Congress seems to be unable to control these monsters, which are feeding on mostly government-backed loans to ruin poor uneducated people.

Figure 1.  Click on the image to see it in full resolution. Tuition and fees charged by the top-ranked private universities. All of these universities are at the top of national rankings, i.e., Princeton is #1, according to the U.S. News and World Report. Add another $25-40,000 per year for living expenses. Another question comes to mind:  Is this cartel of private schools colluding in setting their tuition levels?
Figure 2.  Tuition and fees charged by the top-ranked public universities. U.C. Berkeley, the top public university in the U.S., is ranked as #20 by the U.S. News and World Report. The University of Connecticut is ranked #57. Add another $25-40,000 per year for living expenses.
Figure 3.  Undergraduate enrollment in the top-ranked private universities. All of these universities are at the top of national rankings, i.e., Princeton is #1, according to the U.S. News and World Report.
Figure 4.  Undergraduate enrollment in the top-ranked public universities. U.C. Berkeley, the top public university in the U.S., is ranked as #20 by the U.S. News and World Report. The University of Connecticut is ranked #57.
Figure 5.  Cumulative undergraduate enrollment in the 15 top-ranked private (#1-15) and 15 top-ranked public (#20-57) universities. Source : the U.S. News and World Report. The cumulative enrollment ratio is 4.4:1 in favor of the public universities.
Figure 6.  Cumulative tuition and fees charged by the 15 top-ranked private (#1-15) and 15 top-ranked public (#20-57) universities. Source : the U.S. News and World Report.  Cumulatively the private universities charge 3.7 times more than the corresponding cohort of public universities.