November 21, 2009

Massive Bill = Massive Increase in Government

Friday evening Senator John Ensign wanted to prove a point. To prove just how big of a change the health care bill will be to America, he printed out all 2074 pages of the proposed health care bill and carried the 20lb, 2 foot tall stack into Congress and planted it on his desk for all to see. Ensign said, "It's a massive increase in government" as he spread his arms wide to depict the size of the bill. According to Americans for Tax Reform, the bill contains the word "tax" 551 times, the word "require" 1000 times, and the word "shall" 3500 times. Clearly not matter what this bill accomplishes it will inevitably result in more taxes, work and bureaucracy for the average tax payer.

Though proponents of the bill say that it will bring many benefits to the nation people should take a step back and realize that the more legislation in effect the greater burden there is on the citizens of America to abide by such legislation. Just keep that in mind or the next bill that comes to the floor might require a fork lift to bring in.

November 11, 2009

90 candles, 100 million AK's

Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian creator of the AK-47 turned 90 on Tuesday. Touted as “a truly legendary person” by the Kremlin, Kalashnikov’s birthday was widely celebrated with the enthusiasm of a national holiday. Though Kalashnikov was awarded Russia’s highest honor, the “Hero of Russia” designation, it seems that the maker of a device that has killed millions and ravaged the developing world from the cold war era to the present should be considered more villain than hero.

In a televised ceremony Tuesday, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev lauded the achievement of Kalashnikov and proclaimed “You've invented not only the famous Kalashnikov machine gun itself but also a national brand which every Russian, every citizen of our country is proud of”. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went further to say “Your main achievement -- the Kalashnikov assault rifle -- has repeatedly been recognized as one of the best inventions of the 20th century."

To say that the prolific AK-47 was not masterfully designed would be untrue. Long touted as the standard firearm for military forces ranging from national armies to bands of guerillas and freedom fighters, the AK-47 has an impressive track record. It is durable (with an average service life ranging from 20-40 years), it is cheap (you can pick one up for as little as $30) and it is easy to use (it has been purported that a ten year old can be taught to field strip and clean the gun in a matter of hours.) Due to these factors the AK has become the most popular gun in the world. Worldbank estimates that the AK-47 accounts for nearly 1/5 of the 500 million firearms still in use around the world. Clearly Kalashnikov’s stature as a businessman and engineer is unquestionable. His status as a hero, however, is largely undeserved.

To celebrate the invention of such a weapon with such enthusiasm is unconscionable. A celebration of this occasion should be likened to a celebration of the dropping of the Atom Bomb as the AK-47 has had just as devastating an affect. The low cost and ease of use of this gun has led to the creation of a multitude of child militias in developing countries, with children as young as 6 years old being trained to use the weapon with brutal effectiveness. For this reason alone the weapon should be internationally condemned. What’s more, the weapon is so durable that a war lord simply has to recollect the guns from his fallen “soldiers” after a skirmish and redistribute them to his next wave of combatants. How many hands do you think a weapon of this nature can go through in 40 years? My guess is quite a lot and that many of them were much smaller than my own.

When asked about the tragic losses that his invention had brought on the world, Mikhail Kalashnikov replied "I've designed my weapon to defend the borders of our Fatherland, and let it continue to serve this purpose." Last time I checked, Russia wasn’t at war. Furthermore, the majority of the massive amounts of this weapon that were stockpiled during the Cold War were never fired to defend Russia. They were sold to the highest bidder without thought to any consequences. Though it is true that Kalashnikov had no control of the sale of his weapons, to honor the prolonged holocaust he has created is truly villainous in its own right and should be condemned by anyone who values the sanctity of life.

November 7, 2009

Recycling American Pride

The USS New New York, the amphibious Navy Ship built partially out of steel salvaged from ground zero, set sail yesterday. No the Navy isn't skimping on its building material budget rather the ship was built as a symbol of "strength and healing". Secretary of the Navy Ray Marbus commented that "No matter how many times you attack us, we always come back, America always comes back. That's what this ship represents." Though these words were probably said out of patriotism I can't help but imagine a terrorist blowing up this vessel and then the navy salvaging the metal to build another ship or monument. Perhaps America should worry more about why people would want to attack us or work to prevent such attacks rather than inviting attacks with such taunts. Though I'm sure many appreciate the effort to honor the memory of those lost in the 9/11 attacks, if I were assigned to operate the ship, I would be a little worried about cruising around on a floating bulls-eye.

October 31, 2009

America's Balloon Boy Culture (op-ed)

The verdict is in. The “balloon boy” scandal that briefly shocked the nation is over. The 10 year old boy who was thought to have floated into the sky inside a replica UFO device was found asleep in the attic of his parents’ house. The shocking twist? The parents had planned the whole thing in an attempt to garner media attention and launch a reality TV show based on their family. Lamentably, even in their complete failure to successfully pull off the hoax, society is still rewarding their exploitative ruse with attention and nationwide media coverage. These despicable scandals will continue to occur just as long as society supports them. Only if society can stop rewarding such shameful acts, can we, as a nation, elevate ourselves above this “trashy” entertainment and gain a little of our self-respect back.

When it comes to the blame-game there are many fingers to point. Most obvious would be the perpetrators of the scandalous acts. Paris Hilton’s promiscuity, Michael Vick’s penchant for dog fighting, or a deranged parents lust for stardom are certainly problematic, however, they are not to blame for the “Balloon Boy” culture that has emerged. There have always been and always will be utterly insane people doing utterly insane things. Our generation is no different in that respect. Where our generation differs is that we reward these insane acts with attention and often lucrative deals. Paris Hilton’s sex tapes vaulted her to the top of stardom literally overnight (despite that fact that she doesn’t actually do anything). She leaked one video of herself doing the dirty in a cheap motel room and her fame ballooned quickly afterword garnering herself multiple reality shows and a clothing line. Likewise, Michael Vick gets sentenced to over a year a prison for promoting and holding illegal dog fighting exhibition and after serving his jail time was awarded his own reality TV show. Both “stars” gaining much success and power from their respected scandals. Both leveraged the awesome power of the American media to benefit as much as possible form their respected predicaments.

One might then be inclined to blame the media for encouraging such acts but this notion is again misled. It comes down the simple market economics of supply and demand. The media being the suppliers of the Balloon Boy scandals and society being the ones demanding. If society was not so entranced in this low culture entertainment and did not demand it of the media, the media would not distribute it. Unfortunately, America is in love with stunts of this nature and American society continues to be the one ultimately responsible for today’s Balloon Boy Culture.

So what’s to be done about the Balloon Boy Culture phenomenon that has swept the nation over the last decade? As discussed before, there will always be crazy people doing crazy things for attention. It would be impossible to stop them all. The only way America can put a break out of this Balloon Boy Culture and regain come of its sanity and self respect is to stop fawning over these demi-celebs, especially when their actions are unsavory or scandalous.

We need to make to set a precedent. The next time a starlet is revealed to have a coke addiction or a father puts his kid on Ebay we must quickly rebuke the unsavory action and then leave it alone. Any more attention paid to the person in question will simply empower that person and encourage others to commit deeds of a similar nature. If we cease to care, the media will quite hyping it up, and people won’t be encouraged to do ridiculous things for the sake of attention. Of course the crazy will still do crazy things, but as long as we don’t applaud lascivious acts when they occur, America won’t be carried away with its Balloon Boy Culture.

October 18, 2009

Idiots think the world is ending because of a movie promo

According to the The Institute for Human Continuity ( the IHC to those in the know) a "mysterious celestial body will enter Earth's orbit in 2012 with disastrous consequences". The purpose of the IHC is to ensure that after this disaster strikes, the earth will continue to to survive and thrive in the post apocalyptic era. The IHC is sponsoring elections for the leader of the post 2012 world. Additionally, the IHC website features a "survival lottery" where people can register to recolonize the earth after the Big One happens.

...And idiots everywhere are buying into this elaborate hoax put on by Sony to promote the new movie "2012". Its gotten so bad that Nasa has had to issue a statement to the thousands who have been calling in to ask what the emergency procedure is in the event another planet collides with earth.

Critics of this form of advertising say that it is unethical to lead people on by the hoax, but if your dumb enough to believe a random web site's outrageous claims you deserve to think that everyone and thing you've ever loved is going to be obliterated in the blink of an eye. To harsh? Yeah...maybe. Where do you get the number for NASA anyway? I've got a few questions of my own.

October 10, 2009

Competition: No matter who wins, everyone loses

Ted was a recent graduate of the fiercely competitive MIT College of electrical Engineering. Ted was an electronics guru and was consistently ahead of the curve. At the top of his class, Ted graduated with honors and accepted an offer from Premier Consulting, the best IT consulting firm in the region. At work Ted excelled in the fast paced and cutthroat environment of this dynamic company just as he had in his rigorous courses at school. From the first day, Ted was told that Premier, like many consulting firms, had an “Up or Out” policy for advancement. If Ted excelled in developing his skills, forging strong (and profitable) client relations, and efficiently completed his work, he would be on his way to Senior Associate before the year was out. Ted also understand that out of his start class of ten, only five Junior Associates would make Senior Associate If he failed to keep up with the rigorous standards set by his colleagues, he would be out of a job when the yearend evaluations rolled around.

As the months went on Ted began to fall behind. His analytical skill development lagged behind his peers and his client relations struggled due to his shy nature. Wondering how he could stay ahead of the game and retain his position in the company, Ted began developing a Macro in his free time in an effort to automate the cumbersome analytics process he both struggled with and loathed. After three weekends spent programming away in his basement he finally completed his Macro. It turned out that by using this macro he could complete his analytics in one third the time it used to take him and at least twice as quickly as his peers. Though he briefly considered making the macro available to the rest of the company he decided against it. He recognized the fact that just as distributing a study guide to the rest of his Electromagnetism class would have damaged his chances of staying on top of the curve, so to would dolling out his Macro hurt his chances for promotion. In all reality, it was his only edge over the other first year employees. Sure this program could have saved the company countless work hours, but Ted needed this job and wasn’t going to sacrifice his livelihood for the good of a multimillion dollar corporation.

The afore mentioned scenario, though fictitious, is being played out on a daily basis in firms around the nation, especially in those firms with highly competitive cultures. Likewise, in schools worldwide, competition in the classroom is molding the workers of tomorrow into a cutthroat workforce where loyalty to oneself seems to be the only bond not worth breaking. Though educational systems that grade students on a curve and put student in direct competition with one another purport to encourage excellence and prepare students for the real world, they do more harm than good as they stifle growth of knowledge and learning on an individual and group basis and encourage a self serving bias. Furthermore, this competitive grooming in school carries over into the work place where real life ramifications like wages, bonuses, and advancement continue to enhance the problems caused by competition pushing employees to commit unproductive, unethical and even illegal actions to maintain their standing relative to their peers.

Competition can be defined as “rivalry between two or more persons or groups for an object desired in common, usually resulting in a victor and a loser” (Shindler 13). The key component is that the desired object or goal is mutually exclusive to the opposing parties and the success of one group inevitable requires the failure of the other and vice versa. Competition has been engrained in American culture for centuries and can be seen in even the most pedestrian of activities ranging from winning a little league game to one’s successful navigation out of a crowded parking lot. Though some might say that these contests are trivial or “just for fun”, the truth is that competition has seeped so far into American culture that it has rotted the American educational system and corrupted the American work place and way of business.

Start with the Education. The American Educational system has long been touted as the gold standard and has been emulated the globe over. At the heart of this institution is competition. Every day students compete with one another for scores, grades, and recognition. These rewards are scarce by nature as a way of encouraging students who achieve and implicitly (or explicitly) shaming those who do not.

The most basic reward used by every teacher in America is a grade. Generally in the form of a letter, this grade serves as a de facto currency for appraising and comparing the relative worth of students. That is to say, no one can quantify the true value of a “B” only conclude that it is better than a “C” and worse than an “A”. Though tag lines like “complete mastery of the material” and “above average understanding of concepts” are often attached to these glyphs in a half-hearted effort to provide foundation to their existence, more often than not one’s grade would determine that he officially has “below average understanding of concepts” and not the other way around.

One of the more prolific methods of assigning grades and reinforcing competition is through the grading curve. Often the standard at most universities, the grade curve represents educational competition in its purest form. The infamous “curve” is based upon the belief that grades in a class should be perfectly distributed along the bell curve with the average grade (usually a B- or B) assigned by the professor. When the final scores are tallied the professor fits the natural distribution of grades to the curve so no matter what, the scores average to that designated “B” average.

To clarify with an extreme example, if every student in a class did not answer a question wrong all year, proving that the entirety of the class had an extremely strong understanding of the material, every student in the class would receive the average grade of “B”. Though unlikely to occur, this situation illustrates the true nature of grading on the curve and its more sinister implications. That is that grading on a curve does not, in fact, test one’s mastery of material or level of knowledge, but simply one’s ability to compete with and defeat one’s fellow classmates.

In the previous scenario where all classmates have perfect understanding of the material, the ONLY way to get an “A” would be to sabotage their understanding or subvert their ability to demonstrate their understanding on tests in an effort to reduce their scores, thus lowering the average and leaving you above the curve. Though this situation is decidedly out of the norm, it is not so farfetched to imagine a similar one occurring in an easier class where a large majority of the students have high grades and an arbitrary one or two points can mean the difference between an “A” and a “B” even if the “B” student is just as knowledgeable as the “A”.

This brings about the question of the role of education systems in general. The more cynical (probably those picked first for kickball) might argue that the roll of today’s education is to rank and order students and to weed out all those considered below average. This is simply not the case. Though the average university student might argue otherwise, the goal of the education system is to increase the knowledge of all students, whether they are especially gifted or not. This fact is often forgotten when competition for grades dominates the educational landscape.

Though proponents of competition in the classroom argue that it increases motivation to learn, numerous studies have shown that students retain less information when a competitive element is brought to the situation. John Shindler writes in Transformative Classroom Management that “competition brings a variable into the equation that shifts the participants’ attention from the task itself (learning) to the cost of their performance in the task (the grade)” and that competition will “increase the attention that is placed upon doing what it takes to win, and decrease the attention placed upon learning for its own sake”. (Shindler 2)

If this “do what it takes” attitude is reinforced year in and year out throughout a person’s major periods of learning and growth, one would not expect a student to stop this competitive attitude after graduation and upon his entering the workforce. Shindler writes, “competition in life is self imposed…to say that the ‘real world’ is inherently competitive is for the most part a myth. Moreover, to say that we are preparing students for the real world by putting them in artificially constructed competitive situations is to impose our world view on them…we as educators create a more or less competitive future world by the way we encourage our students to think and treat each other”(Shindler 1). And just as damaging as competition can be in the classroom, its negative effects carry over and can be felt tenfold in the workplace and account for major losses in productivity and an environment that fosters unethical and illegal behavior.

The ill effects of competition in the workplace can be easily illustrated by examining the company involved in one of the biggest corporate scandals of all time, Enron. A self proclaimed “energy broker” Enron’s tale of success and subsequent fall from grace is the perfect case study on the effects of an ultra competitive culture. For Enron, competition was everything and Enron’s CEO and President Jeffry Skilling cultivated his workers to embrace and thrive on competition. Skilling’s motto was “Do it right, do it now and do it better” (Sims and Brinkmann 244). He encouraged his employees to be aggressive, innovative, and push the limits when it came to rules and boundaries even within the company.

In an effort to encourage productivity and innovation, Enron utilized a forced ranking system in order to determine the greatest and worst producers. At the end of the year, the bottom twenty percent of the workers were laid off. Therefore, every worker was in direct competition with one another just to keep their own jobs. Worse still, the evaluation process utilized peer grading to determine who was where in the ranking. Over time, distrust and paranoia built up among employees resulting in backstabbing and political games that had major disruptive effects on the company.

Over time this push to continuously stay ahead of the curve led workers to push ethical limitations further and further. Bribery, extortion, and flat out lying to investors became the norm in order to maintain earnings. As the culture eroded, so too did Enron’s business model as the phantom earnings piled up and were finally exposed for the fraud they represented. When the company was finally exposed, hundreds of employees lost their life savings and even more investors were left with nothing when the stock plummeted to zero. These were the results of this so called ingenious culture of competition.

Though executive management had many constructs in place to encourage this competition, for the majority of Enron’s employees this cut-throat attitude was developed in school. Sims and Brinkmann wrote that “Skilling hired only Ivy-league graduates with a hunger for money that matched his. He hired people who considered themselves the best and the brightest and were out to forward their own causes.” (Sims and Brinkmann 251). Perhaps if teambuilding and information sharing was stressed at Harvard instead of a “do whatever it takes” strategy, the Enron scandal might never have occurred. But whether it was the competitive emphasis in school or on the job that created Enron’s culture, it is clear that the ultra competitive strategy did not work and was ultimately the source of much woe for people worldwide.

So what is the answer, just eliminate testing in schools and pay all employees the same as long as they show up for work? Clearly motivation is still needed to inspire people, it’s simply a question of what behavior is being rewarded. Instead of rewarding people for individual achievement or mastery, schools and firms need to reward constituents for how much they contribute to the achievement of the institutions goals as a whole. In schools, this goal would be to instill as much knowledge into students as possible. Therefore, a student should be rewarded for adding to discussion, helping a fellow student with difficult concept, and in general doing anything to promote to spread of knowledge to him and his classmates. In this new grading system people would not jealously guard information and attempt to sabotage other students because helping others would also further your own interests.

Likewise in the workplace, employees should be rewarded for contributing to the long term goals of the company. This includes the training and mentoring of employees to make them as effective as possible. Instead of having employees in direct competition with one another, if employees were rewarded for working together to make the company as good or as profitable as possible, not only would the culture strengthen but the company’s bottom line would improve as well.

Whether in school or on the job it is clear that more cooperation is necessary to progress the interests of this nation. No longer can we pit one man against another as an attempt to provide motivation. The results of such a narrow minded philosophy are evident both in the grade obsessed classroom and the head to head workplace. Though winners and losers are thought to be established, with this mindset, everyone loses in the long run with.

Works Cited

Balderrama, Anthony. "When does competition with a co-worker go too far?" Web. 30 Sept. 2009.

Kohn, Alfie. "No Contest: A Case against Competition." New Age Journal (1986): 18-20. Web. 30 Sept. 2009.

Meisler, Andy. "The Ethics of Forced Ranking." July 2003. Web. 30 Sept. 2009.

Shindler, John. "Examinging the Use of Competition in the Classroom." Transformative Classroom Management. Allen Bacon Pub. Web. 30 Sept. 2009. .

Sims, Ronald R., and Joannes Brinkmann. "Enron Ethics." JSTOR. July 2003. Web. .

October 1, 2009

Chicago Vs. THE BID

So Obama's in Denmark right now attempting to woo the International Olympic Committee and land the games in his adopted hometown. Despite a little pressure from dark horse candidate Rio de Janeiro, Chicago (with the help of Obama) is slated to win. For the majority of Chicagoans however, this news comes with much trepidation.

With a burgeoning level of debt and already maxed out infrastructure, residents of the Windy City are more nervous than excited for this monumental decision. One of the more visible examples of the stance of local citizens occurred in a local Starbucks. A clever barista set out two tip jars one marked "yes" and one marked "no" and asked customers to weigh in with their tips in regards to the Olympic bid. By the end of the day the "no" jar was overflowing with one's and five's while the "yes" jar contained a mere handful of change.

When it comes to the question of the benefits of hosting the Olympic games, it all depends on the point of view of the one your asking. Is it good for Obama and America? Undoubtedly. An influx of attention and money would surely bolster the flagging American economy as well as give American citizens something to be excited about. Is it good for the Mayor Daley and the long term prospects for the city of Chicago? Probably. This would be Daley's crowning achievement and could cement Chicago's status as a truly international destination. Is it good for the average citizen of Chicago? No way. If Chicago wins the bid, large scale construction will have to begin within months and will not cease for the next SIX years. The loss in productivity will be extremely costly to local businesses and corporations alike.

Additionally, though proponents of the games state otherwise, landing the games has traditionally DECREASED tourism revenues on a whole because no one wants to visit a city that is in the midst of a half decade remodeling. Though tourism revenue spikes sharply around the actual playing of the games, this short lived boon is hardly enough to offset the losses accrued to during the years leading up to the event.

Bottom Line: If the news comes out tomorrow and Chicago wins, expect a good amount of Chicagoans to start thinking about a long term vacation.