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The stupid things they say and do - Part 1

I have decided to start a series of brief comments on the current flood of rather incoherent babble that attacks us in the U.S. from every which direction. Here is a relevant snippet from my favorite New York Times, 5/30/2011, Changing the world by dropping out:
Parents, do you hope that your children have the chance to become like Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, Facebook investor and hedge fund manager? If so, Mr. Thiel suggests that you encourage them to drop out of school. In fact, he will help by paying them to do it.

On Wednesday, the Thiel Foundation, funded by Mr. Thiel, announced the first group of Thiel Fellows, 24 people under 20 who have agreed to drop out of school in exchange for a $100,000 grant and mentorship to start a tech company.

More than 400 people applied. The winners include Laura Deming, 17, who is developing antiaging therapies; Faheem Zaman, 18, who is building mobile payment systems for developing countries; and John Burnham, 18, who is working on extracting minerals from asteroids and comets.
The fellowship addresses two of the country’s most pressing problems, Mr. Thiel says: a bubble in higher education and a dearth of Americans developing breakthrough technologies.
First of all, give me a break.  Are the anti-aging creams, minerals from asteroids, or PayPal money for poor countries that have none, the most pressing U.S. problems?! Or are these projects simply tied to Mr. Thiel's business ideas?

Second, let's assume boldly that  Mr. Thiel and Mr. Burnham studied physics in elementary school or high school, or - God forbid - in college. All that is required is sort of the 1850's physics. Assuming that they did, they would know in about 5 minutes that extracting minerals from comets and asteroids is impossible. There is not enough fossil fuel to burn to launch multiple rockets and a huge space ship, which then would have to travel to a remote asteroid, extract the impossibly expensive minerals, and haul them back to Earth. The last time I checked, most Earthlings had not left their planet. Also, have these two gentlemen seen the prices of crude oil and coal lately?

Obviously, both of them have no idea about physics and about the stringent requirements of engineering. Therefore, I suggest that Mr. Thiel dedicates a part of his generous $100,000 fellowship to enrolling Mr. Burnham back in a good college. There, Mr. Burnham might actually learn something useful about science and engineering, instead of taking a terminal MBA degree.  (Once you have read and digested this link, you will gain a clearer understanding of the true meaning of "terminal.") Alternatively, both these gentlemen may spend the one hundred grand on producing a timely sequel to Idiocracy.

Here is my general comment:
You do not develop a breakthrough technology that is not Facebook, when you know nothing about science and engineering. It is simply too late for that. By dealing with venture capitalists, I know from personal experience how uneducated they are in their funding choices, and how much money they pour down the drain. One hundred thousand dollars could educate two good American engineers, instead of manufacturing yet another ignorant but arrogant American businessman, who might confuse being rich with being smart.  
To close, here is a sane reaction of another New York Times reader to the similarly cocomaniac ideas of  Mr. Bill Gates:
Only experience on the front lines in a classroom makes one an educator. It’s one thing for people who have made their business fortunes to be philanthropic, but setting their own agendas to effect change in educational policy is crossing the line. It is a giant egotistical misstep to assume that one can come in from the outside and overhaul educational policy — on a national level no less.
Privately funded advocacy is no substitute for independent research. Are we seeking true educational solutions or Bill Gates’s politically motivated agenda?
Framingham, Mass., May 22, 2011
P.S. The published comment to this blog is fairly typical.  Yes, I agree, there are many more things in heaven and earth than any single person can grasp.  The implication that - therefore - somehow we we will magically overcome the current problems with the peaks of oil, coal, phosphate, rare-earth metals, soil, clean water, social complexity, etc., is simply not true.  As it happens, there are no viable alternatives to crude oil, natural gas and coal that could drive our runaway technological civilization; mining of asteroids notwithstanding...

P.S.P.S. Here is a thoughtful comment I received by email:
I guess comments are closed for your most recent blog post. I just wanted to mention I worked at a high school where one of Bill Gates's pet projects, First Things First, was implemented, and it was a complete failure. The Institute for Research and Reform in Education, which developed this reform model, of course, never mentions the dozens of high school in which their model failed.

Reading your blog helps remind me that it's not the Ph.D.'s in education that will ultimately reform education in this country. Those people are going to be bankrupt and out of work when the education system they have been forming and reforming finally reaches its breaking point, and we are left with educator individuals with actual content mastery to rebuild public education from scratch, if at all.

If policy makers have their way, public schools will soon cease to exist. An uneducated populace is a lot easier to manipulate.

"The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance."
Thomas Jefferson

It's just too bad our education system is wasting that tax.

These are things I have to be reminded of when I am tempted to take a job teaching high school again. There's a lot of personal fulfillment in it, but it is ultimately an intellectually bankrupt system, which is why I left it in the first place.

Thanks for your writings,
Iona P (Precious) Williams


  1. There are more things in heaven and earth, Tadzio, then are dreamt of in your oily philosophy.

  2. Having grown up on such stories Tad, I can point out what you missed- Atomic Motors!

    There should be nothing wrong with using radioactive exhaust, or even small fission explosions to propel spacecraft from the Earth's surface. Right? ;)

    And yes, one can be a very successful business person with all those great ideas. The engineering will be done in India, the manufacturing will be done in China. But one American will make $10^9. Which will be good for the rest of the country in what way?


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