Category Archives: Education

Forced diversity of race is racist

Let me browse through some thoughts on efforts to address endemic racism. I’m not sure I’ll get anywhere, but you might as well enter the laboratory of my mind on the issue.

I’d like to begin with a line of the bible (why not?) “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Lev. 19:15). This sounds good, but in college admissions, I’ve found we try to do better by showing  favoritism to the descendants of those who’ve been historically left-out. This was called affirmative action, it’s now called “diversity”.  

In 1981, when I began teaching chemical engineering at Michigan State University, our department had race-based quotas to allow easier admission to the descendants of historically-disadvantaged groups. All major universities did this at the time. The claim was that it would be temporary; it continues to this day. In our case, the target was to get 15% or so black, Hispanics and American Indians students (7 in a class of 50). We achieved this target by accepting such students with a 2.0 GPA, and not requiring a math or science background; Caucasians required 3.0 minimum, and we did require math or science. I’m not sure we helped the disadvantaged by this, either personally or professionally, but we made the administration happy. The kids seemed happy too, at least for a while. The ones we got were, by and large, bright. To make up for the lack of background we offered tutoring and adjusted grades. Some diversity students did well, others didn’t. Mostly they went into HR or management after graduation, places they could have gone without our efforts.

After some years, the Supreme court ended our quota based selection, saying it was, itself racist. They said we could still reverse-discriminate for “diversity,” though. That is, if the purpose wasn’t to address previous wrongs, but to improve the class. We changed our literature, but kept our selection methods and kept the same percentage targets as before.

This is a popular meme about racism. It makes sense to me.

This is a popular meme about racism.

The only way we monitored that we met the race-percent target was by a check-box on forms. Students reported race, and we collected this, but we didn’t check that black students look black or Hispanic students spoke Spanish. There was no check on student honesty. Anyone who checked the box got the benefits. This lack of check bread cheating at MSU and elsewhere. Senator Elizabeth Warren got easy entry into Harvard and Penn, in part by claiming to be an Indian on her forms. She has no evidence of Indian blood or culture Here’s Snopes. My sense is that our methods mostly help the crooked.

The main problem with is, I suspect, is the goal. We’ve decided to make every university department match the state’s racial breakdown. It’s a pretty goal, but it doesn’t seem like one that helps students or the state. Would it help the MSU hockey squad to force to team to racially match the state; would it help the volleyball team, or the football team?  So why assume it helps every academic department to make it’s racial makeup match the state’s. Why not let talented black students head to business or management departments before graduation. They might go further without our intervention.

This is not to say there are not racial inequalities, but I suspect that these diversity programs don’t help the students, and may actually hurt. They promote crookedness, and divert student attention from achieving excellence to maintaining victim status. Any group that isn’t loud enough in claiming victim status is robbed of the reverse-discrimination that they’ve been told they need. They’re told they can’t really compete, and many come to believe it. In several universities, we gone so far as to hire “bias referees” to protect minorities from having to defend their intellectual views in open discussion. The referee robs people of the need to think, and serves, I suspect, no one but a group of powerful politicians and administrators — people you are not supposed to criticize. On that topic, here is a video of Malcolm X talking about the danger of white liberals. Clearly he can hold his own in a debate without having a bias referee, and he makes some very good points about white liberals doing more harm than good.

Robert Buxbaum, November 5, 2017. In a related problem, black folks are arrested too often. I suggest rational drug laws. Some financial training could help too.

Kennedy’s perfect, boring college-entry essays

To get into any college you have to write an essay or two, generally including one describing why you want to go that particular college, and many students have trouble. How do I make myself stand out, they ask. My suggestion: Don’t. Make it clear that you want to go, but dare to be dull with the details. John Kennedy did; you can too.

JFK's dull letter to Harvard. It's his only essay.

JFK’s dull letter to Harvard. It’s his only essay.

Most school essays limit the number of words. The reviewer too prefers you keep it short. If you want to go to Harvard, or Princeton, or Iowa state, show you can say what needs to be said within the word limit. The first sentence must tell them that you want to go that college, specifically. Mention the college: you want to go to Old Ivy, say. Once that’s taken care of, just state your reasons. Unless you’re going into the writing program, the baldest, simplest terms will work just fine — e.g. that Old Ivy provides an excellent education. It’s better if you can mention a more-specific field of study, e.g. liberal arts or zoölogy, but that’s not necessary. You can now list three or so details to back up your claims. For example, you might mention that the zoölogy program at Old Ivy is well-regarded (mention the school often), that you enjoy their sports team (the ground-hogs, say), or their extracurriculars. Mention that your dad went there or your uncle (and is your hero — hero is a good word) or that you like the location. Surely there is some reason you want to go. If you can mention a famous teacher or alumnus, all the better. Flesh it out if you have space; don’t if you don’t. Conclude with a sentence pointing to the future: that this school will help me do something you want to achieve. You can be specific or not, but don’t lie. Dull is more effective than a lie. I’ve copied, above, John Kennedy’s essay to Harvard, and below his essay to Princeton. These essays follow the pattern, and are dull within the pattern. His conclusion for the first essay: that he wants to go to Harvard to be “a Harvard Man.” He got in. He used the same, dull letter for Princeton, but had more space. For Princeton he said It would have a good effect on me, and that he wanted to be “a Princeton Man.” He got into Princeton too, and went there for two months before switching to Harvard.

John F. Kennedy's, almost identical letter to Princeton. He got in there too.

John F. Kennedy’s, almost identical letter to Princeton. He got in there too.

You may think that letters like this only work if you are John F. Kennedy, and to some extent that is true. But not totally. I got into Princeton grad school from a background in public school, with no famous relatives or money. My grades were better than JFKs, but my essay had the same structure with some more specifics. As I recall, I explained that I wanted to go to Princeton because I wanted to study chemical engineering in a top department. I may have mentioned a famous professor, and stated I wanted to work on nuclear fusion — a big Princeton specialty at the time. That’s about all, as I recall.

This formula can be tweaked for the other college (and non-college) essays. I’ve previously written about the two speeches at the opening of the Gettysburg cemetery, in 1863. Edwin Everett gave the first speech of the day, excerpted and analyzed here. His speech followed the formula and was lauded. He told folks that it was important that we are here honoring the dead, and followed with three or four reasons for why it was important. His conclusion pointed to the future significance of the events. Republicans and Democrat listeners agreed this was a speech to remember from a scholar of note. Everett’s face graced the $50 bill for the 40 years after his death.

Abraham Lincoln also spoke at the Gettysburg dedication, but he didn’t follow the formula. He spoke of liberty, and America, and of a government of the people. His speech was panned at the time, even by Republicans. More details here. Though people now see his Gettysburg address as a landmark, at the time even the Republican press didn’t like it  Fortunately for Lincoln and the republic, they warmed to the speech over the next year – in time for the election of 1864. When you apply to college, you want entry now. You can’t wait a year for people to warm to your essay. Stick to the formula. You don’t want the compliment of finding, years from now, that one of the reviewers who rejected you remembers your words fondly. That will be too late. Write for the dull audience in front of you; help them put your application in the “accepted” box. As a last note: If you can not find any truthful reason that you want to go to Harvard or Old Ivy you probably should not be going there. The beginning of wisdom is self-knowledge, and the primary audience for your essay is you.

If you find you have good reasons, but find you need help with the process or with your english grammar, I should mention that my niece owns a company to help folks get into college — link here. She also has a book “From Public School to The Ivy League.

Robert E. Buxbaum, August 7, 2017. Some two years ago, I wrote an essay for my daughter on the joys and pressures of entering her junior year in high school. Here it is. 

The mass of a car and its mpg.

Back when I was an assistant professor at Michigan State University, MSU, they had a mileage olympics between the various engineering schools. Michigan State’s car got over 800 mpg, and lost soundly. By contrast, my current car, a Saab 9,2 gets about 30 miles per gallon on the highway, about average for US cars, and 22 to 23 mpg in the city in the summer. That’s about 1/40th the gas mileage of the Michigan State car, or about 2/3 the mileage of the 1978 VW rabbit I drove as a young professor, or the same as a Model A Ford. Why so low? My basic answer: the current car weighs a lot more.

As a first step to analyzing the energy drain of my car, or MSU’s, the energy content of gasoline is about 123 MJ/gallon. Thus, if my engine was 27% efficient (reasonably likely) and I got 22.5 mpg (36 km/gallon) driving around town, that would mean I was using about .922 MJ/km of gasoline energy. Now all I need to know is where is this energy going (the MSU car got double this efficiency, but went 40 times further).

The first energy sink I considered was rolling drag. To measure this without the fancy equipment we had at MSU, I put my car in neutral on a flat surface at 22 mph and measured how long it took for the speed to drop to 19.5 mph. From this time, 14.5 sec, and the speed drop, I calculated that the car had a rolling drag of 1.4% of its weight (if you had college physics you should be able to repeat this calculation). Since I and the car weigh about 1700 kg, or 3790 lb, the drag is 53 lb or 233 Nt (the MSU car had far less, perhaps 8 lb). For any friction, the loss per km is F•x, or 233 kJ/km for my vehicle in the summer, independent of speed. This is significant, but clearly there are other energy sinks involved. In winter, the rolling drag is about 50% higher: the effect of gooey grease, I guess.

The next energy sink is air resistance. This is calculated by multiplying the frontal area of the car by the density of air, times 1/2 the speed squared (the kinetic energy imparted to the air). There is also a form factor, measured on a wind tunnel. For my car this factor was 0.28, similar to the MSU car. That is, for both cars, the equivalent of only 28% of the air in front of the car is accelerated to the car’s speed. Based on this and the density of air in the summer, I calculate that, at 20 mph, air drag was about 5.3 lbs for my car. At 40 mph it’s 21 lbs (95 Nt), and it’s 65 lbs (295 Nt) at 70 mph. Given that my city driving is mostly at <40 mph, I expect that only 95 kJ/km is used to fight air friction in the city. That is, less than 10% of my gas energy in the city or about 30% on the highway. (The MSU car had less because of a smaller front area, and because it drove at about 25 mph)

The next energy sink was the energy used to speed up from a stop — or, if you like, the energy lost to the brakes when I slow down. This energy is proportional to the mass of the car, and to velocity squared or kinetic energy. It’s also inversely proportional to the distance between stops. For a 1700 kg car+ driver who travels at 38 mph on city streets (17 m/s) and stops, or slows every 500m, I calculate that the start-stop energy per km is 2 (1/2 m v2 ) = 1700•(17)2  = 491 kJ/km. This is more than the other two losses combined and would seem to explain the majority cause of my low gas mileage in the city.

The sum of the above losses is 0.819 MJ/km, and I’m willing to accept that the rest of the energy loss (100 kJ/km or so) is due to engine idling (the efficiency is zero then); to air conditioning and headlights; and to times when I have a passenger or lots of stuff in the car. It all adds up. When I go for long drives on the highway, this start-stop loss is no longer relevant. Though the air drag is greater, the net result is a mileage improvement. Brief rides on the highway, by contrast, hardly help my mileage. Though I slow down less often, maybe every 2 km, I go faster, so the energy loss per km is the same.

I find that the two major drags on my gas mileage are proportional to the weight of the car, and that is currently half-again the weight of my VW rabbit (only 1900 lbs, 900 kg). The MSU car was far lighter still, about 200 lbs with the driver, and it never stopped till the gas ran out. My suggestion, if you want the best gas milage, buy one light cars on the road. The Mitsubishi Mirage, for example, weighs 1000 kg, gets 35 mpg in the city.

A very aerodynamic, very big car. It's beautiful art, but likely gets lousy mileage -- especially in the city.

A very aerodynamic, very big car. It’s beautiful art, but likely gets lousy mileage — especially in the city.

Short of buying a lighter car, you have few good options to improve gas mileage. One thought is to use better grease or oil; synthetic oil, like Mobil 1 helps, I’m told (I’ve not checked it). Alternately, some months ago, I tried adding hydrogen and water to the engine. This helps too (5% -10%), likely by improving ignition and reducing idling vacuum loss. Another option is fancy valving, as on the Fiat 500. If you’re willing to buy a new car, and not just a new engine, a good option is a hybrid or battery car with regenerative breaking to recover the energy normally lost to the breaks. Alternately, a car powered with hydrogen fuel cells, — an option with advantages over batteries, or with a gasoline-powered fuel cell

Robert E. Buxbaum; July 29, 2015 I make hydrogen generators and purifiers. Here’s a link to my company site. Here’s something I wrote about Peter Cooper, an industrialist who made the first practical steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb: the key innovation here: making it lighter by using a forced air, fire-tube boiler.

Marriage vs PhD

Marriage vs PhD, from Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD) comics.

Marriage vs PhD, from Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD) comics.

Here’s a PhD comic comparing getting married to getting a PhD. The similarities are striking. It’s funny because …

 

 

….one does not expect so many similarities between the two endeavors. On thinking a bit further, one realizes that marriage and graduate school are the main, long-term trust relationship options for young college grads, 21-23 years old who want to move out of home and don’t want to yet enter the grind of being a single, wage slave (grease monkey, computer-code monkey, secretary, etc.)

College grads expect some self-fulfillment and, as they’ve lived away from home, mostly prefer to not move back, Entry level jobs are generally less-than fulfilling, and if you move away from home as a single, living costs can eat up all your income. One could get a same-sex room-mate, but that is a low commitment relationship, and most young grads want more: they’ve an “urge to merge.” Either PhD or marriage provides this more: you continue to live away from home, you get an environment with meals and room semi-provided (sometimes in a very cool environment) and you have some higher purpose and long-term companionship that you don’t get at home, or as a secretary with a room-mate.

I suspect that often, the choice of marriage or grad-school depends on which proffers the better offer. Some PhD programs and some marriages provide you with a stipend of spending-money. In other programs or marriages, you have to get an outside job. Even so, your spouse or advisor will typically help you get that outside job. In most communities, there’s more honor in being a scholar or a wife/ husband than there is in being a single working person. And there’s no guarantee it will be over in 7 years. A good marriage can last 30-50 years, and a good PhD may lead to an equally long stay in academia as a professor or a researcher of high standing. While not all majors are worth it financially, or emotionally, you can generally do more and make more money as a PhD than with a low-pay undergraduate degree. Or you can use your college connections to marry well.

What type of job are you looking for?

Some people are just cut out for the grad-school life-style, and not particularly for normal jobs. Ask yourself: What type of job will make me happy? Could be it’s research or home-making? Then go find a mate or program.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum (married with children and a PhD), July 1,, 2015. Growing up is perhaps the most difficult and important thing anyone does; getting married or entering a PhD program is a nice step, though it doesn’t quite mean you’re an adult yet. Some months ago, I wrote an essay about an earlier stage in the process: being a 16-year-old girl. For those interested in research, here’s something on how it is done using induction, and here’s something on statistics.

An approach to teaching statistics to 8th graders

There are two main obstacles students have to overcome to learn statistics: one mathematical one philosophical. The math is difficult, and will be new to a high schooler, and (philosophically) it is rarely obvious what is the true, underlying cause and what is the random accident behind the statistical variation. This philosophical confusion (cause and effect, essence and accident) is a background confusion in the work of even in the greatest minds. Accepting and dealing with it is the root of the best research, separating it from blind formula-following, but it confuses the young who try to understand the subject, The young student (especially the best ones) will worry about these issues, compounding the difficulty posed by the math. Thus, I’ll try to teach statistics with a problem or two where the distinction between essential cause and random variation is uncommonly clear.

A good case to get around the philosophical issue is gambling with crooked dice. I show the class a pair of normal-looking dice and a caliper and demonstrate that the dice are not square; virtually every store-bought die is uneven, so finding an uneven one is not a problem. After checking my caliper, students will readily accept that after enough tests some throws will show up more often than others, and will also accept that there is a degree of randomness in the throw, so that any few throws will look pretty fair. I then justify the need for statistics as an attempt to figure out if the dice are loaded in a case where you don’t have a caliper, or are otherwise prevented from checking the dice. The evenness of the dice is the underlying truth, the random part is in the throw, and you want to grasp them both.

To simplify the problem, mathematically, I suggest we just consider a crooked coin throw with only two outcomes, heads and tails, not that I have a crooked coin; you’re to try to figure out if the coin is crooked, and if so how crooked. A similar problem appears with political polling: trying to figure out who will win an election between two people (Mr Head, and Ms Tail) from a sampling of only a few voters. For an honest coin or an even election, on each throw, there is a 50-50 chance of throwing a head, or finding a supporter of Mr Head. If you do it twice, there is a 25% chance of two heads, a 25% chance of throwing two tails and a 50% chance of one of each. That’s because there are four possibilities and two ways of getting a Head and a Tail.

pascal's triangle

Pascal’s triangle

After we discuss the process for a while, and I become convinced they have the basics down, I show the students a Pascal’s triangle. Pascal’s triangle shows the various outcomes and shows the ways they can be arrived at. Thus, for example, we see that, by the time you’ve thrown the dice 6 times, or called 6 people, you’re introduced 64 distinct outcomes, of which 20 (about 1/3) are the expected, even result: 3 heads and 3 tails. There is also only 1 way to get all heads and one way to get all tails. Thus, it is more likely than not that an honest coin will not come up even after 6 (or more) throws, and a poll in an even election will not likely come up even after 6 (or more) calls. Thus, the lack of an even result is hardly convincing that the die is crooked, or the election has a clear winner. On the other hand there is only a 1/32 chance of getting all heads or all tails (2/64). If you call 6 people, and all claim to be for Mr Head, it is likely that Mr Head is the favorite. Similarly, in a sport where one side wins 6 out of 6 times, there is a good possibility that there is a real underlying cause: a crooked coin, or one team is really better than the other.

And now we get to how significant is significant. If you threw 4 heads and 2 tails out of 6 throws we can accept that this is not significant because there are 15 ways to get this outcome (or 30 if you also include 2 heads and 4 tail) and only 20 to get the even outcome of 3-3. But what about if you threw 5 heads and one tail? In that case the ratio is 6/20 and the odds of this being significant is better, similarly, if you called potential voters and found 5 Head supporters and 1 for Tail. What do you do? I would like to suggest you take the ratio as 12/20 — the ratio of both ways to get to this outcome to that of the greatest probability. Since 12/20 = 60%, you could say there is a 60% chance that this result is random, and a 40% chance of significance. What statisticians call this is “suggestive” at slightly over 1 standard deviation. A standard deviation, also known as σ (sigma) is a minimal standard of significance, it’s if the one tailed value is 1/2 of the most likely value. In this case, where 6 tosses come in as 5 and 1, we find the ratio to be 6/20. Since 6/20 is less than 1/2, we meet this, very minimal standard for “suggestive.” A more normative standard is when the value is 5%. Clearly 6/20 does not meet that standard, but 1/20 does; for you to conclude that the dice is likely fixed after only 6 throws, all 6 have to come up heads or tails.

From skdz. It's typical in science to say that <5% chances, p <.050 are significant. If things don't quite come out that way, you redo.

From xkcd. It’s typical in science to say that <5% chances, p< .05. If things don’t quite come out that way, you redo.

If you graph the possibilities from a large Poisson Triangle they will resemble a bell curve; in many real cases (not all) your experiential data variation will also resemble this bell curve. From a larger Poisson’s triange, or a large bell curve, you  will find that the 5% value occurs at about σ =2, that is at about twice the distance from the average as to where σ  = 1. Generally speaking, the number of observations you need is proportional to the square of the difference you are looking for. Thus, if you think there is a one-headed coin in use, it will only take 6 or seven observations; if you think the die is loaded by 10% it will take some 600 throws of that side to show it.

In many (most) experiments, you can not easily use the poisson triangle to get sigma, σ. Thus, for example, if you want to see if 8th graders are taller than 7th graders, you might measure the height of people in both classes and take an average of all the heights  but you might wonder what sigma is so you can tell if the difference is significant, or just random variation. The classic mathematical approach is to calculate sigma as the square root of the average of the square of the difference of the data from the average. Thus if the average is <h> = ∑h/N where h is the height of a student and N is the number of students, we can say that σ = √ (∑ (<h> – h)2/N). This formula is found in most books. Significance is either specified as 2 sigma, or some close variation. As convenient as this is, my preference is for this graphical version. It also show if the data is normal — an important consideration.

If you find the data is not normal, you may decide to break the data into sub-groups. E.g. if you look at heights of 7th and 8th graders and you find a lack of normal distribution, you may find you’re better off looking at the heights of the girls and boys separately. You can then compare those two subgroups to see if, perhaps, only the boys are still growing, or only the girls. One should not pick a hypothesis and then test it but collect the data first and let the data determine the analysis. This was the method of Sherlock Homes — a very worthwhile read.

Another good trick for statistics is to use a linear regression, If you are trying to show that music helps to improve concentration, try to see if more music improves it more, You want to find a linear relationship, or at lest a plausible curve relationship. Generally there is a relationship if (y – <y>)/(x-<x>) is 0.9 or so. A discredited study where the author did not use regressions, but should have, and did not report sub-groups, but should have, involved cancer and genetically modified foods. The author found cancer increased with one sub-group, and publicized that finding, but didn’t mention that cancer didn’t increase in nearby sub-groups of different doses, and decreased in a nearby sub-group. By not including the subgroups, and not doing a regression, the author mislead people for 2 years– perhaps out of a misguided attempt to help. Don’t do that.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, June 5-7, 2015. Lack of trust in statistics, or of understanding of statistical formulas should not be taken as a sign of stupidity, or a symptom of ADHD. A fine book on the misuse of statistics and its pitfalls is called “How to Lie with Statistics.” Most of the examples come from advertising.

The mystery of American productivity

Americans are among the richest and best paid people in the world. On a yearly basis, Americans produce and earn about 20% more than Britons and about 30% more than Japanese. On an hourly basis, counter to what you might expect, American workers produce about 30% more than Britons or Canadians, and about 50% more than the vaunted Japanese.

Per hour worker productivity, from the Economist.  We do OK for backward hicks.

Per hour worker productivity, from the Economist. We do OK for backward hicks.

French and German workers produce about as much as we do, per hour, but tend to work fewer hours. Still, the differences are not quite what you might expect. French workers take many more hours off than we do and are still so much more productive than the British that it appears they could take an extra month off and still beat them in yearly output. Japanese workers meanwhile produce only as much as the French, per year, but take far more hours to do it. One thought is that it’s all the vacation time that makes French so productive and it’s perhaps the lack of vacations that causes the Japanese to be relatively unproductive.

Not that vacation time alone explains our high productivity, nor that of the Germans or Italians relative to the Canadians and Britons. One part of an answer, I suspect, is that we put fewer roadblocks to workers becoming business owners, and to running things their own way. Another thought is that US and Germany have a low minimum wage, comparatively, and Italy has no minimum wage at all; Germany had no minimum wage in 2013, the time of the productivity comparison. In countries like this, there is a larger profit to be had by clever individuals who work hard, think, and start their own businesses. With minimal requirement on how much to pay, the business owner can bring to bear a mix of low-wage, minimally productive workers with labor-saving innovation, allowing them to become rich while decreasing unemployment. It also allows them to serve otherwise under-served parts of the market and profit from it. And profit is a powerful motivator. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “a why beats a how.” 

The nine European countries with no minimum wage are among the richest on the continent, and among those with the lowest unemployment: Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland. By contrast, England, Canada, and Japan have relative high minimum wages and relatively high unemployment. There are also some poor countries with no minimum wage (Egypt, Zimbabwe, Rwanda…) but these countries suffer from other issues, like rampant crime. I’ve argued that the high “Living Wage” in Detroit is a major cause of Detroit’s high unemployment and bankruptcy. If low minimum wage is a major source of American worker productivity and wealth, it would be a real mistake to raise it.

Worker productivity is the best single predictor of long-term national success. As such, the long-term prediction for Britain, Canada, and Japan is not good. Unless something changes in these countries, we may expect to see them off to a long, dark tea-time of declining significance. Perhaps, it is a fear of this that was behind the resounding defeat of the Labour party in British elections last week. The Labour government oversaw England’s last big drop in productivity.

R.E. Buxbaum, May 28, 2015. It’s also possible (unlikely) that US universities are really good, or at least not as bad as thought. We don’t seem to quite beat the enthusiasm out of our students, though we do drug them quite a lot. Here’s a Forbes article on minimum wage.

From Princeton: dare to be dumb.

Let’s say you have a good education and a good idea you want to present to equally educated colleagues. You might think to use your finest language skills: your big words, your long sentences, and your dialectically organized, long paragraphs. A recent, Princeton University study suggests this is a route to disaster with the educated, and even more so with the un-educated. In both groups, big words don’t convince, and don’t even impress, like small words do.

Most people won't care what you know unless they know that you care.

Like this fellow, most folks aren’t impressed by fancy speeches. (cartoon by Gahan Wilson)

http://web.princeton.edu/…/Opp%20Consequences%20of%20Erudit…

People, even educated ones, want ideas presented in simple words and simple sentences. They trust such statements, and respect those who speak this way more than those who shoot high, and sometimes over their heads. Even educated people find long words and sentences confusing, and off-putting. To them, as to the less-educated, it sounds like you’re using your fancy english as a cover for lies and ignorance, while trying to claim superiority. Who knew that George W. was so smart (Al Gore?). Here’s George W. at the SMU graduation yesterday (May 18). He does well, I’d say, with mostly one-syllable words.

This is the sort of advertising that people notice -- and trust.

Lower yourself to be one of the crowd, but don’t go so far that you’re the butt of jokes.

Reading this study, I’ve come to ask why fancy language skills is so important for getting into  college, and why it adds points when writing a college paper. Asked another way, why are professors pleased by something that’s off-putting to everyone else. One thought: this is a club initiation — a jargon to show you belong to the club, or want to. Alternately, perhaps professors have gotten so used to this that it’s become their natural language. Whatever the reason, when outside of university, keep it simple (and) stupid.

Some specifics: at job interviews, claim you want to work at their company doing a job in your field. Only when dealing with professors can you claim your goal is capitalizing on your intellectual synergies, and phrase that means the same thing. Don’t say, you’ll do anything, and remember it’s OK to ask for training; poor education doesn’t hold-back American productivity.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, May 19, 2015. Here are some further thoughts on education, and some pictures of my dorm and the grad college at Princeton back in the day.

He/she gave it to him/her/them – the new grammar of transgender

When I was in grad school, at Princeton there was a grammar joke about a ghetto kid who comes to Princeton. The kid asks, “Where’s the library at?” and is told, “This is an ivy league school. One does not end one’s sentences with a preposition here.” So the kid rephrase: “Where’s the library at, asshole?” What makes this joke poignant was that I found language divides class, and is a weapon of class war, too. At Princeton, I was of lower economic class along with virtually all of the grad school. It was not that we had less spending money, but we came from public schools, while the undergraduates were virtually all from private, “prep school”. It showed in wardrobe, tastes, and especially language.

Protesting at Fergusson; white radicals marching against cops and the system.

Ferguson rally; white radicals in a black neighborhood. Are the locals as against cops and the system?

To the prep-schooler, the working class was cheap because they were racist, or apartheid, and the preppy was trying to remedy this through activism. Rarely mentioned was that daddy was a major landlord, a college president or ambassador to Chad, or that they planned to go off to jobs in finance, law, or politics as soon as they were done rallying against class, racism, and the system. I imagine that their radical politics was partially sincere, but partially a social tool to keep the unwashed bourgeois at arm’s length. The best answer, I thought then, and now, is in grammar: we are not stingy racists, just being frugal.

The sexist label of today seems similar to the racist label of those days: partly sincere, partly a social tool built on fear, and the answer too, I think is grammar. Most people see no problem with a name change (just file the paperwork), or with a change in driver’s license sex indicator (who knows or cares?). The problem comes in with the loudly gender fluid: those who’re male today and female tomorrow and want to be respected for it. Are they a legitimate 3rd gender, or an over-pampered minority with no good claim to victimhood or anything else.

Transgender does not have to do with bed partners. Some people like to "keep it fluid" and this is where the grammar problems come in.

Transgender does not have to do with bed partners, but with self-image. Some people are confused and like (need?) to “keep it fluid”; this is where the grammar problems come in. Yet others are sons of privilege trying to make a point. Is this person confused or trying to make a point? Does it matter?

In this, and all such cases, I think it pays to respond to the legitimate complainant first and see if that answers all. One popular option is to use the words “they” or “them” when male or female labels don’t fit. Thus: “I gave my homework to them,” even though only one person received it. This is bad in my mind as it solves one problem but creates at least two others. It’s confusing to call one person many, and gives that person’s opinion extra weight. “They voted yea”, implies many people, not just one. Most Americans cringe when the queen of England says, “We request…” The queen gives her request extra weight by speaking in the plural. Similarly, “L’État, c’est moi.

More republican would be to avoid all pronouns and use the person’s name, e.g. “I gave it to Dennis”. But this can be awkward if the name is long (Hermione) or repetitively used, or if the person’s name is in flux too. What to do with someone who’s Ernestine to some, Dr. Peters to others (and Ernest in the country). Once a person settles on a single gender the grammatical problem pretty well resolves: good manners suggest one use the pronoun “him” for one who dresses male and calls himself Alphonse, not Alice.

Carrie Nation, If she says she's a woman, good manners suggests I agree

Carrie Nation, prohibitionist. If she says she’s a woman, good manners and common sense suggest we agree — no matter how masculine her behavior or dress.

There is thus a need for a good singular pronoun for the gender-fluid, and the socialists have one ready: call all people “comrade,” a word specifically chosen to be gender neutral. It further implied political solidarity and economic unity. This is fine, for some, but uncomfortable for a capitalist. Another option, one Karl Marx himself used, is “citizen.” But this word carries its own baggage from revolutionary France. Instead, I suggest “mate” or “lately” based on pirate lingo: ‘I gave me homework over to yer mate.’ It’s strange, but works. Give it a try on “talk like a pirate day,” September 16 every year.

It’s now to be asked, have we addressed the broader problem of those who see any gender identification as an injustice of the capitalist, repressive system? I answer, does it matter? I suspect these folks are unhappy with themselves, and will never be otherwise, but that’s just a suspicion. Even unhappy folks do good, even when they do bad too.  Here’s a poem “International Women’s Day” (1920) by–Alexandra Kollontai (1920).

Down with the world of Property and the Power of Capital! Away with Inequality, Lack of Rights and the Oppression of Women – The Legacy of the Bourgeois World! Forward To the International Unity of Working Women and Male. Workers in the Struggle for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat: The Proletariat of Both Sexes!

Suffragettes -- Meeting at Cooper Union. Not quite the poor, oppressed, but bringers of positive change, when they were not fighting for prohibition.

Suffragettes meeting at Cooper Union. Not quite the oppressed, but bringers of positive change– and also of prohibition.

Ms Kollontai was a main founder of Women’s day, and this is/ was a good thing. She was also a daughter of privilege and a fan of Stalin’s brand of social engineering (the sort that hung engineers from the lamp-posts as a warning to anti-proletarians). She was Soviet ambassador to Sweden, and as ambassador, kept Sweden from helping Poland or Finland when Stalin and Hitler joined forces to simultaneously invade those countries and murder the population. I find that the world is crazy, and so are the people who do things. You just have to try to take the good with the bad, and laugh if you can. You can not do otherwise.

Robert E. Buxbaum, March 30-31, 2015.

Much of the chemistry you learned is wrong

When you were in school, you probably learned that understanding chemistry involved understanding the bonds between atoms. That all the things of the world were made of molecules, and that these molecules were fixed proportion combinations of the chemical elements held together by one of the 2 or 3 types of electron-sharing bonds. You were taught that water was H2O, that table salt was NaCl, that glass was SIO2, and rust was Fe2O3, and perhaps that the bonds involved an electron transferring between an electron-giver: H, Na, Si, or Fe… to an electron receiver: O or Cl above.

Sorry to say, none of that is true. These are fictions perpetrated by well-meaning, and sometime ignorant teachers. All of the materials mentioned above are grand polymers. Any of them can have extra or fewer atoms of any species, and as a result the stoichiometry isn’t quite fixed. They are not molecules at all in the sense you knew them. Also, ionic bonds hardly exist. Not in any chemical you’re familiar with. There are no common electron compounds. The world works, almost entirely on covalent, shared bonds. If bonds were ionic you could separate most materials by direct electrolysis of the pure compound, but you can not. You can not, for example, make iron by electrolysis of rust, nor can you make silicon by electrolysis of pure SiO2, or titanium by electrolysis of pure TiO. If you could, you’d make a lot of money and titanium would be very cheap. On the other hand, the fact that stoichiometry is rarely fixed allows you to make many useful devices, e.g. solid oxide fuel cells — things that should not work based on the chemistry you were taught.

Iron -zinc forms compounds, but they don't have fixed stoichiometry. As an example the compound at 60 atom % Zn is, I guess Zn3Fe2, but the composition varies quite a bit from there.

Iron -zinc forms compounds, but they don’t have fixed stoichiometry. As an example the compound at 68-80 atom% Zn is, I guess Zn7Fe3 with many substituted atoms, especially at temperatures near 665°C.

Because most bonds are covalent many compounds form that you would not expect. Most metal pairs form compounds with unusual stoicheometric composition. Here, for example, is the phase diagram for zinc and Iron –the materials behind galvanized sheet metal: iron that does not rust readily. The delta phase has a composition between 85 and 92 atom% Zn (8 and 15 a% iron): Perhaps the main compound is Zn5Fe2, not the sort of compound you’d expect, and it has a very variable compositions.

You may now ask why your teachers didn’t tell you this sort of stuff, but instead told you a pack of lies and half-truths. In part it’s because we don’t quite understand this ourselves. We don’t like to admit that. And besides, the lies serve a useful purpose: it gives us something to test you on. That is, a way to tell if you are a good student. The good students are those who memorize well and spit our lies back without asking too many questions of the wrong sort. We give students who do this good grades. I’m going to guess you were a good student (congratulations, so was I). The dullards got confused by our explanations. They asked too many questions, and asked, “can you explain that again? Or why? We get mad at these dullards and give them low grades. Eventually, the dullards feel bad enough about themselves to allow themselves to be ruled by us. We graduates who are confident in our ignorance rule the world, but inventions come from the dullards who don’t feel bad about their ignorance. They survive despite our best efforts. A few more of these folks survive in the west, and especially in America, than survive elsewhere. If you’re one, be happy you live here. In most countries you’d be beheaded.

Back to chemistry. It’s very difficult to know where to start to un-teach someone. Lets start with EMF and ionic bonds. While it is generally easier to remove an electron from a free metal atom than from a free non-metal atom, e.g. from a sodium atom instead of oxygen, removing an electron is always energetically unfavored, for all atoms. Similarly, while oxygen takes an extra electron easier than iron would, adding an electron is energetically unfavored. The figure below shows the classic ion bond, left, and two electron sharing options (center right) One is a bonding option the other anti-bonding. Nature prefers this to electron sharing to ionic bonds, even with blatantly ionic elements like sodium and chlorine.

Bond options in NaCl. Note that covalent is the stronger bond option though it requires less ionization.

Bond options in NaCl. Note that covalent is the stronger bond option though it requires less ionization.

There is a very small degree of ionic bonding in NaCl (left picture), but in virtually every case, covalent bonds (center) are easier to form and stronger when formed. And then there is the key anti-bonding state (right picture). The anti bond is hardly ever mentioned in high school or college chemistry, but it is critical — it’s this bond that keeps all mater from shrinking into nothingness.

I’ve discussed hydrogen bonds before. I find them fascinating since they make water wet and make life possible. I’d mentioned that they are just like regular bonds except that the quantum hydrogen atom (proton) plays the role that the electron plays. I now have to add that this is not a transfer, but a covalent spot. The H atom (proton) divides up like the electron did in the NaCl above. Thus, two water molecules are attracted by having partial bits of a proton half-way between the two oxygen atoms. The proton does not stay put at the center, there, but bobs between them as a quantum cloud. I should also mention that the hydrogen bond has an anti-bond state just like the electron above. We were never “taught” the hydrogen bond in high school or college — fortunately — that’s how I came to understand them. My professors, at Princeton saw hydrogen atoms as solid. It was their ignorance that allowed me to discover new things and get a PhD. One must be thankful for the folly of others: without it, no talented person could succeed.

And now I get to really weird bonds: entropy bonds. Have you ever noticed that meat gets softer when its aged in the freezer? That’s because most of the chemicals of life are held together by a sort of anti-bond called entropy, or randomness. The molecules in meat are unstable energetically, but actually increase the entropy of the water around them by their formation. When you lower the temperature you case the inherent instability of the bonds to cause them to let go. Unfortunately, this happens only slowly at low temperatures so you’ve got to age meat to tenderize it.

A nice thing about the entropy bond is that it is not particularly specific. A consequence of this is that all protein bonds are more-or-less the same strength. This allows proteins to form in a wide variety of compositions, but also means that deuterium oxide (heavy water) is toxic — it has a different entropic profile than regular water.

Robert Buxbaum, March 19, 2015. Unlearning false facts one lie at a time.

Detroit emerges from bankruptcy. Not quite.

missing homes Detroit

While Detroit’s central core comes back, surrounding, homes burn at 220+/month, leave Detroit streets looking like the teeth of an aging hillbilly.

Detroit went bankrupt last year, the largest US city to do so since New York in 1970. As with New York’s bankruptcy, Detroit’s was used to cancel old debts and rewrite ill-thought contracts. Detroit also got to jail some crooked politicians including mayor Kilpatrick, described as “a walking crime wave.” But the city and county have no easy path out of bankruptcy as both city and county are likely insolvent. That is, they spend more than they take in despite massive out-state funding, and high taxes, 10% above the state level. To make matters worse, they are losing population at the rate of 1% or so per year. It’s hard to fund a city built for 2 million on the tax revenue of 1/3 as many, especially when they are mostly unemployed. Unless a lot changes soon, another bankruptcy is almost inevitable — likely this time at the county level.

We got in this state, largely as a result of a 50 year war between the black, solidly Democrat, somewhat anarchist, political establishment of Detroit, and the white, stayed, mostly Republican out state. The white population fled following the riots of the 60s and the richer black population soon followed. The remainder stayed, trapped in slowly decaying neighborhoods as the city went broke. White flight allowed the black community to develop its own, Motown culture, but except for the music industry, it has not benefitted from this culture.

Detroit's murder rate, 45/100,000, is the highest in the US. It's coming down but not that fast.

Detroit’s murder rate is the highest in the US. It’s come down 10% in the last 2 years, but has far to go.

Detroiters have poor health, poor savings rates, high murder rates, and a fire rate of about .22% per month, 2.6% per year. The city lacks basic city services like reliable fire fighting and street plowing. Police at one point erected signs that said, “enter at your own risk.” There is a lack of small businesses and the services they would provide too: laundromats, grocery stores, and taxis (though no lack of bars and marijuana maintenance clinics). Employment in the auto-industry is down. And it’s not being replaced by home-grown small business – perhaps hampered by the low savings rate. A surprisingly large fraction of the Detroit homes are in foreclosure, see map, and with it a high abandonment rate and a high fire rate. As pheasant and dear return, non-core Detroit is beginning to look like farm country.

Detroit foreclosures near me. Blue is occupied homes, red is unoccupied, yellow unknown, and green is destroyed homes or vacant, foreclosed land.

Detroit foreclosures near me. Homes in dark blue are occupied foreclosed, red is unoccupied, and green plots are destroyed homes or vacant, foreclosed land.

It’s not clear what political leaders should do. The city council would like to return to their pre-bankruptcy ways where they could borrow as much as they felt they needed and spend on whatever they saw fit — often on fast friends, fast cars, gambling, and vacation homes outside of the city. But the out-state population has been reluctant to give them the credit card. Is this racist or is it prudent — probably both, but this can not continue. The city and county pension funds were ransacked for ill-advised investments and consulting fees to cronies and their power-lawyers. Either the money is replaced from out-state or there will be some unhappy retirees in the not-too-distant future. My guess is that the state will have to pick up the tab for this mismanagement, but that they won’t want to hand over management control afterwards.

Rand Paul, a potential GOP presidential candidate, has proposed rebuilding business and property values by a method that the city will almost certainly reject. His solution: cut services to low-population density areas and cut taxes on business and earned income. While this would likely bring in new people and new businesses, the people would likely be white, and the businesses white-owned/ white-serving. Black-Detroiters have too little savings, organization and income to directly benefit from this plan. Detroit’s Democrat politicians will claim, not without merit, that this is welfare for rich whites: a way for them to become yet-richer while doing nothing for the poor blacks of the burning neighborhoods. They are likely to demand control as the elected officials of the town: regulating business and raising the minimum wage to create “equality.” I suspect this is a bad idea.

Detroit hunger games

Detroit suffers from two populations and a divide.

To some extent we’re already seeing the return of white-owned, white-serving businesses. Classic buildings in the core of the city have been purchased by white developers – notably Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans leading to gentrification and an influx of single, white hipsters. The newcomers are viewed as half-saviors, half-carpetbaggers. They dwell in a whiter city core with hipster bars and expensive restaurants. Does a poor city with massive debt, crime, and unemployment benefit from a core filled with high-priced, gourmet coffee and fern bars?

The author, Robert Buxbaum, enjoys a day at an artificial beach in central Detroit.

The author, Robert Buxbaum, enjoys a beer at an artificial beach-cafe in central Detroit with some, few black folks, none poor. Is this good for Detroit?

The new hipsters put a squeeze on city services too — one that’s hard to deal with fairly. Detroit can not afford to plow all the streets after a snow. Should the new high-tax white folks get plowed streets, or should they suffer equally with everyone else? Detroit education is abysmal, but the high tax-bracket folks want better. Should they get it, or suffer equally? They want extra street lights and police protection. Should they get it, or suffer equally? Is this the way up?  A solution I’d proposed some while ago was to divide the core city from the now-rural outskirts so that each could be managed more sanely. It’s not a grand a solution like Rand’s plan, but less likely to be rejected. One way or another, we seem destined to have a Detroit with a rich core and abandoned neighborhoods. I suspect it might as well be managed that way.

Robert E. Buxbaum, February 10, 2015. I don’t have solutions, but write about the city’s problems, and the partial solutions I’ve heard as a way to clarify my thinking — and perhaps yours too.