Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Unconventional Education, or why the unique can help kids succeed.

My life has been drastically affected by teachers, a fact that makes me believe that teachers must be an integral part of how education will be improved here in the US. Both of my parents are elementary school teachers, and they do amazing things every day.

Many times, great teachers are also what you would call unconventional teachers. They take the end point, look at the usual way to go, and then do something completely different.

For an example, I give you Mrs. Frizzle.

Sure, she isn't real. But I can dream. And the idea of visualizing biology (even if you don't get to be the food Arnold eats) is a great idea.

There's also teaching by pushing students above and beyond what people think they are capable of...anyone remember Stand and Deliver?

This professor is baller. He earns the respect of his students, in a way that empowers them.

And then there is Jack Black, who teaches kids at a pretty uptight school how to be different.

And then there's the teacher in October Sky, who taught the boys that it was okay to love science in a coal-mining town. (and if you've never seen this, go for the eye candy that is Jake Gyllenhal. hott).

The list goes on and on (Mr. Holland's Opus, The Karate Kid, To Sir With Love, Finding Forrester, Music from the Heart, Dead Poet's Society, and yes, even Sister Act II).

Then there are also those teachers like Alton Brown, the guy from Man vs. Wild, people who write design blogs, Anthony Bourdain, Bill Nye, Abby from NCIS (it's on in the exercise room. All the time. She cracks me up), the guys from Mythbusters, the History Channel...

These are the people that spur you onto discovery, learning, investigation. They inspire curiosity. And that is the way to motivate students. No, I'm not saying that students should watch TV or movies to find their inspiration. But what I am saying is that these people---these unconventional creative thinkers---we need them to look up and say, "You know what? I want to be a teacher." And that...that would be cool.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Muppet death, or why I should move to Vienna

I'm not a fashion writer. I'm not a fashion blogger. Yet, years and years of experience gleaned from reading my grandma's weekly issue of People Magazine, a few personal body image crises, and a college degree in biology have led me to a couple of facts:

1. Your body is your body. We are all different in a very biological sense. It's not going to help you to covet someone else's body, or covet the ability to wear what they wore. Feel comfortable in your own skin. Love what you have...drink lots of water, eat your vegetables, exercise, don't smoke...your body will reach its optimal point for yourself. Maybe you don't look like Jennifer Aniston. Or Brad Pitt. You aren't. Embrace it---enjoy it.

2. Dress for your body. I realize this is kind of difficult, as women's clothing is now more generalized than it used to be...but that's okay. It just means you have to be open to shopping for longer amounts of time, be open to trying new things, and accepting that "this year, blazers are cut completely wrong for my shape. I better hit the thrift sotres to find the right stance." Figure out what works for you, and experiment with new trends in the dressing room before deciding that skinny jeans are your new fave. Personally, I think skinny jeans are fabulous. But not on me. And that's okay.

For an example, consider ballroom dancing competitions. To me, dancing is something where you should feel absolutely beautiful, poised, lovely, floating. This has nothing to do with your weight, your hip size, or your height. This has to do with how you carry yourself. And I ask does one carry themselves in these monstrosities?

Keep in mind...this monstrosity cost $650.

Compare this to a dress someone has actually worn to an MIT competition: (2004: see here for the photo album)

Now, I have watched these people dance. They are amazing. Completely. They are also wonderful people who have interesting lives that do cool research here. But why oh why has killing muppets become the pregamming sport to ballroom dancing?

It reminds me of being in dance when I was younger - and sure, I did learn how to dance and coordinate myself (thanks for letting me do this, Mom) - but there were other lessons that just made me feel bad about myself. The other girl that shaved her arms starting when she was eight, the sequins under my armpits, the scads of makeup I had to wear...what in the world does this have to do with dance?

And I compare this to ballroom dancing in Vienna. I have a friend currently living there who positively glows about how fun it is to get gussied up in a dress you love and spend time with people you care about. And wow...they do it without the muppet sacrifice as well.

Competitive ballroom's rules for dress and how you have to show yourself out is akin to the clothes that the clothing industry wants to make women wear. But yes...there is an alternative. Anyone want to move to Vienna with me? But let me get some thrift store shopping in first...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

This Old House

Even though Boston is awesome (love the weather, public transportation, people, school), there are some things I really miss about Minnesota...and one of them is my house.

I'd like to be one of those people that just doesn't get attached to material possessions and cherishes her relationships and memories much more. But it's hard to stop loving the home you grew up in and visit only so often.

The house on our property was originally constructed in the early 1900s, and it was the lone farmhouse on a rather large lot...something that allowed for the retention of about one acre when the farmland was partitioned off for other homes later in the century.

Then there's the sump pump, the place we convinced my little brother that there was another older brother than all of us that drowned..."he fell in there and DIED" We were kind of macabre children, apparently...

But miss you.

Me and the giant in the kitchen: (ps look at his shoes! are they not the most festive shoes you have ever seen? because they are.)

The playhouse then:
and now: (birch tree long gone...although I feel I must mention that I collected sap from that birch tree when I was about 8 in the old school glass apple juice bottles in hopes of making one told me how much I would need! I felt so proud of my full jug...then dad told me that it would make only a spoon of syrup. I was frustrated)

Eric proving he could fit into the window seat in the upstairs bathroom (note: there are no hinges on this cover. This is one of those awesome still unfinished projects in the home redo):

A view of the garage and chicken coop from my 0ld bedroom's window:

And my daddio making bacon on a Saturday morning:

Hey mom...doesn't it feel great that your parlour will never have this much of my stuff in it ever again? Wowzers...

Also, cranky-but-loveable-often-abused 1987 chevy caprice...I miss your doors that don't open, your gas mileage that wasn't that awful, and your kemps ice cream bucket full of candy.

Oh home. I miss you.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentine's Day 2009

...was positively lovely. Homemade soft pretzels? Oh yes!

Also, these were fairly easy to make. I promise.

Soft Pretzels

Originally from MayaMade

Makes 12-14 pretzels


1 cup of warm water
2 1/2 teaspoons of active yeast (one of those little packets)
1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
2 tablespoons soft butter - for greasing the pans
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
5 teaspoons baking soda


1. Combine warm water and active yeast. Let sit for five minutes.
2. Add flour, salt, and sugar. Mix for three minutes.
3. Add pastry flour.
4. Knead until the dough loses its stickiness. Let in rise in a covered and oiled bowl until doubled in sized.
5. Punch down and divide into 12-14 pieces. Roll into 18 inch snakes with tapered ends. Loop into traditional shapes, or hearts, letters, numbers... the possibilities are endless.
6. Place on a greased baking sheet and let rise until almost doubled in size again.
7. Preheat the oven to 475ºF.
8. Bring a pot filled with 4 cups of water to a boil. Carefully add baking soda - it will fizz. (don't use an aluminum pan for this step!).
9. Carefully lower the pretzels into the water for one minute or until they float to the top - flip halfway through (the color changes).
10. Remove with a slotted spoon and return to baking sheet. Sprinkle with coarse salt.
11. Bake until golden.

There was also the lovely curry chicken, complete with our bottle of champagne and the beautiful red roses (yes, they are in a water pitcher. I'm just that classy).

The weekend was also full of lots of phone calls to friends, plus a long walk, a PCR reaction that worked (woo-hoo! PCR is a DNA experiment that I do in lab, and it's a hand-wavy science that is based in rules yet is often tricky to get to work correctly. Which is a pain). I also switched things around in my room, putting the bed against the window to try and open things up a bit. We'll see how I like it, but odds are good it will stay this way. It's hard to live in a furnished apartment in some ways, since you are really bound by the size of things and have to work around what you have to keep. It's been very nice, certainly, but I'm itching to be somewhere that I can choose a bed (and have it NOT be an extra long twin. Because these make me feel like I'm in college, and I would rather feel like an adult, thank you very much). Soon...soon.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Science of Octuplets

(first, as an aside, I spelled "octuplet" as "octoplet" the first time I wrote the title, and all I can think of is cute octopus babies...)

This whole situation has raised me nearly speechless. I have been raised to understand that life and children are a blessing, and deserve as much love as you can possibly throw at them. I am that quintessential definition of pro-life: I want every child to grow up loved, disciplined, tickled, taught, well-fed, pushed to their limits....every child deserves that opportunity.

Yet, when children are brought into the world and are unable (for one reason or another) to receive this sort of comprehensive love, it makes me sad. I'm talking physically cry sad. When I read stories about 10 year old child soldiers in Africa, I cry. When I hear stories about children sexually abused by their parents, I can't sleep at night. When I see pictures of things like Columbine, it hurts. I don't mean to lay blame on parents, or on society, or on the children themselves. Environment is a complicated thing, and we don't truly understand how genetics influence who a person will become (and nature vs. nurture is a whole different post).

Regardless, this whole issue is just bringing to light the very sad emotional state of a very vulnerable woman who is veritably obsessed with having children, something that will almost certainly result in a diminished quality of life for her children.

The children's grandmother is concerned for her daughter's well-being (see here), even while living with her daughter and attempting to support her daughter's choices.

The fertility clinic is also being implicated in malpractice and ethics lawsuits, (also here) which in my opinion is a completely valid accusation. (also, I love the long French nails...really? Women without a job have money for manicures? When they are pregnant with eight babies?) She says of one of her children "He's doing really well-he's not on oxygen." Right. Because not being on oxygen is all your children have to worry about. "I wish I could stay all day long with you!" Um...maybe you should have thought about spending all day long with the six children you already have!

And that doesn't even touch on the ethics of the IVF business at all...fertility clinics are mostly unregulated, and there seem to be (from the looking I did online) fewer regulations for fertility clinics than for animal subjects use in biological research and clinical trials (to test drugs and so forth). Where is the IRB on this matter (or some other organization)? Why has this not been made an important subject to think about?

The mother of the children is hopeful that people will change their opinions about her choices, and she's currently using a publicist to handle all media exchanges. Fantastic.

And then the scientist in me kicks in:

-women are not meant to have litters. We do not have uterine horns ("extended uteri") like other mammals such as pigs, mice, and rats. We also only have two nipples. Do the math.

-You have subjected EIGHT children to a premature birth knowingly---there are a myriad of consequences to this choice, most superficially hospital time, cost to the government, health of your children.

-If you feel as if you "missed out on that sort of personal connection" in your childhood, how in the world do you think you are going to give your 14 children all the attention and care they deserve? You have no job. You have no husband. She calls her own childhood "dysfunctional." What do you think your children will feel when they look back at the circumstances surrounding their conception and birth? You will take care of them "as best as you can." I say that is not good enough...and there are people that are responsible for this failure in the choices offered by modern medicine. She longed for friends growing up...maybe a better way to work through that issue is therapy instead of having 14 kids in less than 8 years.

Even Kate (from TLC's Jon and Kate Plus Eight) thinks that this mother "has a very long road in front of her." That is probably the world's biggest understatement.

Unless this woman makes some serious changes, it seems to me like she could be faulted for negligence in her children's lives, resulting in removal of her children from her home and being placed in foster care...which is a far cry from the loving home she wants to give them. And that just makes me sad.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Bill Gates - TED Talk

For those of you that haven't heard of TED, it's an amazing resource showcasing innovative thinking in all sorts of different fields - from music to education to's fantastic.

Bill Gates talked of education and malaria: two of my favorite subjects, I might add.

Check it out here. (and please browse around - there is something there for everyone!)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

25 things

1. Both of my pinkies are "flexed at the proximal interphalangeal joins to approximately 45 degrees" - they are always bent at an angle and pressing them down just pushes them back up again.

2. I don't drink coffee, mostly because my father drinks about 5 pots a day, and becoming that addicted to a substance is a scary thought.

3. My one regret about choosing science is the constraints it puts on my wardrobe. I am now limited to closed-toed shoes and pants, which is hard for a girl who owned 82 skirts at the end of high school. I miss the days when I'd put on jeans in the morning but smuggle a vintage dress in my backpack and then wear it all day, exasperating my poor mother. Now I'm just poor. Thank goodness for thrift stores.

4. My brother and I convinced Jacob that we had an older sibling who drowned in the sump pump in the basement. His name was Henry. He had curly brown hair. We'd also tell him "oh that was originally one of Henry's books" and he'd screw up his eyes and say "Nu-uh!" and we'd both nod seriously and say, "We're telling the truth." Jacob is getting to the non-gullible age now, and it's kind of sad.

5. I was never a very good actress or singer, and never had a lead in high school plays (although playing an Ozian in a green condom costume was pretty ridiculous, as was playing the sluttiest of the young ladies at a NY boarding school). I don't miss acting at all (but I do enjoy playing in pit orchestras now).

6. I dressed up as a mermaid in my junior year of high school wearing an awesome $5 sparkly aqua thrift store dress and shells in my hair (with silver heels!). Later that year, I lost my voice for three weeks, and ended up in the hospital. This lead some of the students in my band to send me a gigantic butcher paper card with the little mermaid stenciled on it. It made my day - I still have that poster.

7. I really like washing the dishes. It's therapeutic, and it warms up my hands. Actually, most cleaning relaxes me and makes me feel accomplished (barring scrubbing my roommate's boyfriend's hawked loogies in my shower--that's just gross)

8. I regret not studying abroad during undergrad. I hope I am able to post-doc or work abroad after I finish my doctorate. I don't know if I want to be an ex-pat or not, but it's a possibility. I think I'd prefer living in the states and doing a lot of traveling all the time. My parents raised us with the luxuries of travel and a home, and I am really glad that they thought it important to make sure we went to lots of different places in our childhood. Actually, my brother and I counted my dad's loose change (saved in nine Kemps ice cream buckets from 1972 to 1994) and sorted out the cool coins (like wheat pennies and such). After counting and rolling all of the remaining coins, we used the money to go on a family camping trip to South Dakota.

9. I had my first molecular and cellular pathophysiology course today, and it makes me wish that I had done an MD/PhD (or, even better, an MD taught in grad school, not in med school!)

10. I haven't eaten a hot dog since kindergarten.

11. If I wasn't in science, I would probably own a vintage clothing/furniture/jewelry/housewares store. Design blogs are my crack right now, and I love the idea that environment can drastically change your outlook on life (a very biological concept indeed!). It'd be great to go to the homes of people who are consolidating life when they are moving on to a condo or health care center, and work with them to preserve their memories and the memories that the objects contain both to the original owner (possibly through some sort of professional photo album that they can take with them) and passing on those memories to the next owner. And I love thrift stores and getting my hands dirty finding beautiful things that tell a story.

12. Although I am pretty much a ginormous failure in computer programming, I'm pretty sure I passed my kinetics class by writing good homework problems (the professors are writing a textbook and had us write review problems) as well as knowing a lot about circadian rhythms in plants (thanks Loni and plant class!).

13. Ear buds never fit in my ears.

14. One of the things that hurts me most is seeing others willfully try not to learn and understand the world around them. They bask in ignorance, and that apathy is just crushing to me. I'm not saying you have to learn/do/see/be everything. But explore topics that interest the informed on all sides of an issue. Care about something.

15. Remember Boxcar children books? I read all of them in kindergarten, and I coveted the cardboard boxcar that they were stored in at the library, but alas--Mrs. Mills said that it was best where all students could appreciate it. Also, I thought their last name (Alden) was actually "Aladdin." Oops.

16. I love having more dishes than I know what to do with so I can throw parties for all of my friends! I have found everything at thrift stores, and the hunt is the perfect thing to get me out of bed on a Saturday morning.

17. My new roommate is my 11th in my educational career.

18. My princess bedroom room is on the third floor of the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul in the turret at the corner of Washington and 5th.

19. Watching TED Talks while eating breakfast makes me want to take on the world---all the time.

20. Ever since I first saw the episode of "Wishbone" (the Pride and Prejudice one) I have wanted to be one of the extras in historical fiction movies or television shows so I can wear awesome costumes and dance and look coquettish.

21. I'm trying really hard to stay in touch with people from high school and college, and I've found it to be really difficult. Schedules don't match up, people are busy, and don't get me started on the fact that I still have zero cell reception in my apartment. That said, I love sending packages, making random phone calls during the day, and keeping up with people by reading their blogs or emails.

22. I think it's hilarious that I started out as a music performance major in college and ended up in engineering at MIT. I still don't know how that happened, and I lived through it.

23. Having to do my taxes the first time is really stressing me out (admittedly, part of it is because I'm on a grant, and no one really tells you what to do). It strikes me as odd that the government spends so much time and money to make taxes "easy" yet spends oodles more to audit people and make sure they did things right. How about just doing it for us? Or enacting higher sales tax? Whatever you do, make it less complicated.

24. I love cooking and experimenting, but I wish I had more time to do so! I'm also trying to be better about planning my week's meals in advance, but it's really hard! Also, I'm going to make bento lunches for my kids. I'm pretty sure they don't have a choice in this matter.

25. It is one of my goals to go on the Daily Show and talk about science.

Science and Policy Bootcamp - Day 5

Last day!

Instead of lecturing, we were able to hear more about some personal experiences with policy through a panel of three scientists who have worked in the public sphere:

-a younger lady who works for the Union of Concerned Scientists in the arena of missile defense, especially in conjugation with the space program; earned a PhD in physics and decided that academia wasn't for her and cold-called until she finally came to UCS, a think tank that works to produce public policy-related recommendations based on science

-a young man who works for the state of Massachusetts in the energy department (apparently MA has put into law to be producing CO2 at 80% below 1990, an astonishingly ball-sy policy move. I am proud to live here). He worked on the hill with an AAS fellowship for a year, and he was definitely in a suit and tie

-a graduate of MIT in electrical engineering in 1950; he went to Oxford to get a DPhil in physics, but quit after one hour (really) and decided to earn another bachelors degree, this time in economics. He worked at MIT for a bit, then went into the army for the Korean war, worked in technical/engineering related things for awhile, and eventually made his way to DC and worked as a science advisor for both Eisenhower (during the Sputnik era) and Carter. Since then he has worked as a professor at MIT (although he doesn't teach anymore).

After a week of endless economics and bureaucracy, it was nice to see human faces behind the roles that people play. The woman who works for UCS was wearing a really cute dress and fun earrings, the older gentleman was pretty much exactly like Pa, and the MA-DoE guy was really crisp and reminded me of a friend in business school.

Some points they brought up:

Authority - in the scientific field, authority is gained via publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals-it is more akin to mutual scientific agreement of a given scientist's ideas, experimental method, and quality of research. That reputation is kept via the continuation of publishing great papers, and can become irreparably tainted by publishing false data, coming to unrealistic conclusions, or manipulating data. Outside the scientific community, we are the "white coat people" who do experiments and should be able to come up with all-or-nothing conclusions of Truth and Existence: they are "honest brokers of integrity." Right. I don't know if anyone can seriously say that the profession of scientist automatically makes you honest (reference human cloning, among many, many others).

Uncertainty - within any scientist's work is an amount of statistics and probability that shows the possibility of a conclusion being correct or incorrect. In the policy world, using quantitative statistics versus qualitative descriptions like "highly likely" is turning into quite the debate. Some argue that it is untruthful to use anything but the scientifically determined outcomes, with all of the "messiness" they incur. Others say that because the average person does not have the statistics background to understand these figures, why bother? If the rigor is there (something that most people do believe) then using adjectives instead of percentages should be acceptable. For me? I wish that everyone understood the statistics. But as that is pretty idealistic...and because of that I'm not feeling adamant about either side. Another student in our class brought up that studies have shown how humans aren't so good at processing what does it matter? Either way---provides a good reason to require stats in high school.

Just being a scientist doesn't mean you're excellent and knowledgeable about everything. Is it okay to use your reputation as a scientist in say, genomics, to say that you believe climate change exists? Scientists do have influence. But you need to learn how to use it.

Partisanship in science - why are there so many left-leaning scientists? Is this a self-selecting field? On the other hand, engineering is seen as a primarily right-leaning discipline. Why? When inviting scientists to the hill, does their political affiliation matter? Should we try to make sure there is a balance of political persuasions, or would that destroy the meritocratic method of selection (in much the same way affirmative action is accused)?

Richard Lindzen, a professor here at MIT, is one of the most famous dissenters in the field of climate change, is a atmospheric scientist and physicist that has been ostracized from most of the MIT community. talked to him this past week, and the young woman laughed, saying "taking one for the team."

I asked a question about what they read everyday to keep up on science and technology, as well as the rest of the world. The overwhelming response was reading the big three (NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal), and blogs. There is now a new way to disseminate knowledge through blogs: from very technical well-researched blogs to those that reference these first blogs, and then the secondary and more lay-person oriented sites---instead of having one person to do it all (know everything technical and how to explain it to anyone from other scientists to biology teachers to people whose occupations are as far away from rocket science as possible). Now, there is a succession of people which make the very technical something accessible to all readers. That is pretty darn cool.

Also - a rather timely article from Science Progress entitled "Change Scientists Can Believe In." This basically echoes everything this class has taught me about research and innovation. It needs to happen, and it's worth it, both monetarily and otherwise.

And with that...I am exhausted. And torn. I still have no idea what I want to do with my life.

Science and Policy Bootcamp - Day 4

Day four was a global look at energy policy, something that the professor wrote a book on that is coming out in March. If you're interested, check it out.

We started the day by looking at energy technology and policy as the next great innovation wave: for economic, health, geopolitical, quality of life, and environmental reasons, we need to get out of our addiction to oil. Pick your reason. This is your motivation...your carrot in the so-called challenge model.

Frankly, there is blame to go around, and our professor names energy as one of the biggest failures of the past forty years. Detroit has lobbied to keep fuel economy low, and now their big cars with terrible miles per gallon are going to kill their ability to compete. Half of the budget for the defense department is spent protecting oil lines. American drivers want to keep gas prices low.

We need to incentivize newer technologies, but there are issues of choice, as well as scale that are going to make this a really difficult problem to overcome.

The nice thing is that energy is embedded in established markets like transportation and utilities (over 2 trillion dollars a year). But the bad thing about energy is that this established market is going to be really hard to try and retool. Once upon a time, our energy system worked. Our education system worked. Our health care system worked. Our transportation system worked. Our taxation system worked. They have each caved in upon their niches, becoming almost non-functional relics of the past. How do we look at these systems and radically improve how they work? That's the real issue. The US is great at the new frontier, but once we have invented something, it's over and done. We don't go back.

That's what these next decades will require: we need to innovate in older parts of the economy and increase productivity and efficiency. Retrofitting all of these sectors is going to be a huge project, and having a focus on research and development in all of these established industries is crucial.

Yet, there is no silver bullet. None. So get over it. Now. We have other things to do.

So how do we do all of this? (the below focus directly on the energy sector)

-technology neutrality: put both biofuels and hydrogen on the same page. Yes, they are at very different stages and need very different types of support. But both have potential. And we need to look at this in the long term, supporting both radical and incremental innovations.

-actually invest in R&D...pharma spends 20% of their profits on innovation. Energy spends 1%. Change this. The rate of overall return for federal R&D is four to one. With energy, it's estimated that this could turn into a forty to one economic recovery.

-tax gas. Use the revenue for research and development.

-support services-type operations like energy audits (an H&R Block for energy advice)

-begin a new incarnation of DARPA for energy. Bring together the nation's best scientists and appropriate their talent.

-work on market launch--make sure to understand how to interact with a new technology.

Another point is that behavior change can increase fuel efficiency by 25%. That's incredible. People, check the air in your tires. Don't over-accelerate. Don't speed. Congratulations, you have now made a difference. World War II was a great motivator for Victory Gardens, collected old aluminum foil, and mobilizing a highly skilled, smart, and ready workforce. We can do this again. And frankly, we need to. Find your carrot, and go forth! Science and the government are trying to catch up, but in the meantime, do what you can and more.

If you're interested in more information on energy, check out MIT's "Future of ..." series. It's fascinating.

We also had some grad students from the Science and Policy Initiative (SPI) visit and talk about several fellowships for interning and working in DC. The AAAS Fellowship (American Association for the Advancement of Science) is for after your PhD, and it encourages members to take an active role in life in DC. Most of the fellowships mean you are a fellow in name only--you are just doing the job of a normal staff member (although you do have the ubiquitous networking perk of being a fellow). There's also the President's Management Fellowship, which trains people to be high-level management at the government level, as well as the National Academies of Science fellowship. All in all, there are lots of possibilities and opportunities for me to work in DC if I'd like to...thank goodness I do have some time to process and decide what I'd like to do.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Science and Policy Bootcamp - Day 3

At long last...I know you all were waiting with bated breath. Right. Sorry about the delay, though...this class put me behind-ish in lab work, and then I had to present at lab meeting last night, and my roommate moved out, necessitating a ton of cleaning. Anyways...back to policy:

Day three was all about manufacturing. And I'm not going to lie....snore. We went through some of the manufacturing revolutions, as well as how things are currently progressing in emerging economies.

I do understand the importance of manufacturing, but five hours of it was really rough, especially since much of the vocabulary was general and yet applied (as in, it uses words that I know from common usage, but they mean something different in economics and industry).

American manufacturing started with Alexander Hamilton, who saw the promise in factories and built good fiscal policy, as well as a pro-commercial economy (as well as national taxation and banking). The US had the best manufacturing until World War II, and trade agreements helped our allies. However, after the war ended, the global economic model began to grow, and no one was really “in charge.” Manufacturing became the currency of world trade (although services are increasing drastically in their importance). From 1973 to 1993, there was declining productivity and growth, and we were basically rescued by computer technology and the internet.

Some important distinctions in manufacturing philosophy: America’s method is to never stop the production line, and throw out what doesn’t meet quality-based standards. Japan’s method is much different: if any worker sees a problem, they can stop the line. Also, things are made to order, which reduces cost and risk. Additionally, the Japanese industry guarantees lifetime employment, and labor becomes a fixed cost. However, Japan has a problem: they are resource-poor, and therefore must have an export orientation (so they can pay for imports. Yes it feels backwards to me, too).

Korea is also an interesting case study, showing that developing countries are able to develop industrially. After the Korean War, the formerly classist society broke down due to universal military service, a meritocratic institution. Confucianism and Christianity combined to form a combination of improving self and community, ethics which fit in very well with the industrial structure. Higher education was encouraged and mandated by the government, and integrated/monopolistic companies (like Samsung) were created to allow for easy transfer of ideas and building the best product without intellectual property strings attached. An unfortunate side effect of this whole process was rampant corruption. (you can’t get everything right, I guess).

How do we create economic growth if we don’t want to lower wages? The answer is research and development. Once you reach that frontier, all you can do is innovate and create. For places like Korea, that is the next step: getting to this edge and being an innovator instead of just a producer. A fair point--is it necessarily bad to be a second adapter? No—they can often improve on the mistakes of the past, producing higher yields at a lower cost.

Do any countries or companies just focus on innovation and divorce themselves completely from the manufacturing process? As it turns out, the answer is yes: a common example is Apple and the Ipod…the technology wasn’t new, and the parts weren’t new, but the whole product and system or a database with music made it a crossover product that was extremely successful. This really frustrated companies like Sony, who “know” electronics, but they didn’t come up with this innovative idea. The piecemeal parts also came from all over the world (a distributed manufacturing model. Several companies, including H&M and Ikea, have uncoupled design and manufacturing, leaving the creation of the individual pieces to the factories themselves, thus creating challenges for industry to solve in terms of lowering cost.

An interesting problem that could grow out of all of this is oil. Suddenly, we’re going to find that—yikes—it is expensive to transport things all over the globe. And we’re going to have to rethink how factories work, possibly building zero-waste factories that are able to be diverse in their outputs (ie, that produce the entire product or several components not just one discrete part or component).

India’s approach is novel since it is innovating in the service sector, building a comparative advantage in one of the most critical parts of daily life: software. Software, you say? Really? Okay. Now stop and think about how much in your life is legislated by software. Email, banking, the system at the grocery store, the algorithms that make sure planes don’t crash in the sky, the national defense system, cell phone companies…as the US loses software designers to India, we are losing one of the most pervasive ways to innovate. And according to the people who know, only 200 people in the world functionally understand how an operating system works. That’s only slightly more than the number of princesses in the world (160, since you’re asking).

So—should we require programming in high school? I personally think it’d be great to offer programming as something that will take care of your foreign language requirement.

To conclude day three:

One of the professor’s odd comments was, “I’m sure you’ve all visited Japan.” Some of us glanced at each other, curious at why he would think a very diverse group of twenty graduate students somehow had the money to go to Japan.

A recommendation (for President Obama and others I’m sure): “Get China “right” or it’ll be one hell of a century.”

Really--during this entire lecture, I felt like a History-Channel-style version would be more exciting and interesting. Next time, maybe?