Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."



About ten days ago some of my Twitterati friends were declaring the impending apocalypse of H1N1 (aka swine flu). Now that Mexico has gone several days without a death from this virus, the variety of interpretations has been vast: from BBC News's quote of the World Health Organization's Director of Global Alert and Response that the spread is "not sustained" to GMA News's alarmist declaration that this virus "... could mutate and come back with a vengeance".

Now Mexican authorities are downgrading their death toll by nearly 50% -- to 101 suspected deaths and just 19 confirmed. While tragic, these numbers are about equivalent to the fatality statististics seen in seasonal (non-Type A) influenza, which claims more than 30,000 lives annually. The single fatality in the U.S. was a 23-month old toddler visiting Texas from Mexico City (where 22,000,000 citizens suffer from the worst air pollution in the world -- compounded by the thin air at a base elevation of nearly 7,000' (2,200m) above sea level).

The best pundit of all has turned out to be Randall Munroe, who (in his brilliant comic xkcd) says "Twitter is great for watching uninformed panics unfold live."

While I do not correlate Twitter-spread misinformation with yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater, I do believe a higher level of personal discretion is important. Do your own research, exercise your own personal hygeine (one of the positive by-products of this past week) and maintain sufficient supplies in your home to ensure your own local resilience: Awareness + Preparedness + Capability = Resilience.

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New Oak Ridge High School

Five years of community planning and fundraising, eighteen months of construction, over $60 million dollars and the newly renovated Oak Ridge High School is open for business.

I have never seen a community come together in such a moving and powerful fashion as Oak Ridge. With the leadership of UT-Battelle (manager of Oak Ridge National Lab) and their $2 million donation, the Oak Ridge Public Schools Education Foundation (of which I am honored
to be a part) and the community (through donations, sales tax increases & QZAB bonds), this school of 1,400 is now home to:

  • A science curriculum second to none
  • Five Career Academies integrating communications, math & science
  • A Center for the Arts
  • Technology labs for every department
  • State-of-the-art instructional facilities and libraries

In a very moving dedication ceremony, Principal Chuck Carringer "presented" the school to a panel of students drawn from across all Oak Ridge schools -- one student from each grade, pre-K through 12th grade:

This is a great day for Oak Ridge, and for excellence in science education among any school - public or private. And it is our biggest regret in our upcoming move to Colorado: that my kids will not get to be students in this extraordinary place.

(Donor Wall with Astrolabe)

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Beakman in Oak Ridge!

The inestimable Beakman, the King Kong of Knowledge, was at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge today. Man-cub, announcing "I like pie!" (or was it, "I like pi"?), was dubbed "Pi-Guy" by Beakman -- and got to go on stage as a volunteer answerer with a crazy wig:
We got to see Beakman make a bat appear out of thin air, watch "Beakman Bucket" spew (with audience participation as the three elements of the pharyngeal process) and observe Bernoulli's Principle with the aid of a paint roller, a leaf blower and a roll of toilet paper.

Great fun!

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Osinga Roundtable: Boyd's Evolution

In an October 1939 radio broadcast, Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as “… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The same can be said of the late Colonel John Boyd, whose prowess as a fighter pilot and whose lectures on the relationship between energy and maneuverability revolutionized the U.S. Air Force – but who published no books. Rather, his legacy was left in a stack of acetate vu-graphs (thankfully digitized by Chet Richards) and reams of personal papers. For his studious review of the latter, distilling the mind of Boyd into book form, Col/Dr Frans P.B. Osinga deserves our gratitude. He has played Clausewitz to Boyd’s Napoleon.

In Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, Osinga presents us with a fascinating “deep dive” into the evolution of a brilliant thinker – a thinker who devoted his life to applied learning and teaching. Though it is unfortunate that Boyd did not see fit to publish his theories in book form (unsurprising given his professional environment far from the Ivory Towers of academe), it is evident from his 1,500+ presentations that he rigorously developed and willingly shared his ideas. Boyd’s stamina (both mental and physical) to lecture for more than a dozen hours at a time is testament to his devotion and his determination to succeed.

Osinga nicely complements the work of Boyd biographers (most notably Coram, Hammond and Richards) by dedicating the preponderance of his 300+ pages to how Boyd’s thinking evolved – describing his intellectual influences from the expected (Sun Tzu, Clausewitz) to the unexpected (Popper, Kuhn, Polanyi). Particular attention is given to the influence of classical physicists (Newton) as well as quantum theorists and mathematicians (Heisenberg, Gödel).

Boyd embodied the now-popular notion of the “Medici Effect”, a horizontal thinker who integrated perspectives across multiple, seemingly-divergent disciplines into a cohesive whole. His insights have proven applicable to a wide array of topics, and foretold of the emerging science of complexity theory (though I dislike Osinga’s use of the composite term “chaoplexity”, which undermines the distinction between “chaotic” – i.e., non-linear and seemingly random – and “complex” – i.e., a large number of interrelated properties or parameters). Given the swagger of the fighter pilot who bested the “best” in air-to-air combat in forty seconds or less, there is no doubt that Boyd – were he alive today – would be a prolific ‘blogger, and a Chicago Boyz contributor whose inputs would outweigh all of our Roundtable writings combined.

While many associate Boyd solely with the “OODA Loop”, he has given us far more than just a lexicon – just as Tom Barnett’s work is far more than simply “Core - Gap” and “Leviathan - SysAdmin”. Regardless of one’s willingness to accept his ideas, the sheer effort Boyd invested in his research – and Osinga’s effort in compiling the salient points for us – is an invaluable tool in anyone’s intellectual toolbox.

The motto of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration is Litera Scripta Manet: “The written word endures.” It is ironic that intellectuals tend to revere the commentator more so than the subject on whom they write: Herodotus over Leonidas, Thucydides over Pericles, Clausewitz over Napoleon. If history is consistent, then in a hundred years the name Osinga may be equally associated with the name of Boyd.

Update: Crossposted at Chicago Boyz.

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Middle School Football

Yet another benefit of living in Oak Ridge: Middle School football! In Oak Ridge, our two middle schools are four-year schools for grades 5-8 (ages 10-13). Both middle schools (Jefferson and Robertsville) feed into Oak Ridge High School, and both boast student bodies of about 600.

They also have organized football teams. The photo above is from this month's City Championship, in which my daughter's school (the Robertsville Rams, in red) thoroughly trounced Jefferson. In fact, Jefferson's net offensive production for the final three quarters of the game was minus-six yards. Final score: Robertsville 38, Jefferson 6.

Add to this an outstanding music program (starting with 4th grade strings), a phenomenal science curriculum (including not just one, but two Advanced Placement physics classes -- along with 17 other AP classes offered -- at ORHS) and national recognition for sustained excellence in education, and you'd be hard pressed to find a better public school system anywhere else.

On the topic of education reform, Überblogger ZenPundit has begun a two-part blog entry on "building an innovation-intersectional idea society" (Part I of II is linked here). I'm doubly pleased that my review of John Kao's latest book Innovation Nation helped catalyze such an outpouring of creative synthesis of a variety of ideas from the ZenPundit.

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Review: John Kao's Innovation Nation

Ten years after Prof. Clayton Christensen’s groundbreaking book The Innovators’ Dilemma defined the relationship between “sustaining” and “disruptive” innovation, Dr. John Kao has come out with a Paul Revere-esque “call to arms” for America. The subtitle of Innovation Nation (“How America is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back”) is intended to be a wake-up call to our cultural complacency regarding emergent threats in the world – not just transnational terrorists, but market threats that are eroding the long-term viability of our economy. Since my truck’s personalized license plate is a play on the word “Innovate”, and my own work experience has shown me firsthand our propensity for “outsourcing” the intellectual heavy lifting, I find John’s warning both apt and very timely.

John Kao is a true 21st century “Renaissance Man”. He is a doctor of medicine (holding an M.D. from Yale as well as a Ph.D. in Psychiatry), an entrepreneur (with an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and 14 years on its faculty teaching “innovation”), who has also been engaged in film making (he was a production executive for 1989 hit sex, lies and videotape and Executive Producer for 1992’s Mr. Baseball), and is an accomplished jazz pianist (spending a teenage summer in L.A. recording with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention).

John is perhaps the world’s foremost “innovation advocate”, and a mentor to many Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies (both U.S. and abroad) and international organizations. I have been fortunate to have known John for several years, since then-Major General Jim Dubik (as Director of the Joint Experimentation Directorate at U.S. Joint Forces Command) sent me to San Francisco to check out the guy who wrote a tiny (5cm x 10cm) “innovation manifesto” – tiny because it’s “for very busy people”. Those two-and-a-half hours Kao’s office in the San Francisco Film Centre at The Presidio – an office once occupied by Robin Williams – is perhaps the most inspiring rap session I’ve ever experienced.

He is also a man with a true “long view” – a vision not just for our immediate future, but for this and the next century. In Innovation Nation, Kao describes the evolution of “innovation models” – from individual achievement to today’s “version 4.0” that rapidly adapts best practices across a globally diffuse environment of open architectures and collaboration. America is the “incumbent”, but also seemingly blind to the challenges posed by emergent innovation powers like Singapore, Denmark and Finland.

The book continues with an honest critique of America’s education system, comparing and contrasting our response (in terms of funding, curriculum development, teacher training, school construction, etc.) to Sputnik and President Kennedy’s famous challenge at Rice University in 1962 to today’s sagging U.S. aptitude test scores and lackluster performance in math and science. John compares the high barriers to entry (both literally and figuratively) of our nation’s immigration system to that in global innovation hot spots, along with the perils they bring.

The closing chapters of his book make it “real” by offering prescriptions – from the micro (building personal “dream spaces”) to the macro (crafting a “National Innovation Agenda” and empowered policy-making entities). Although some historical anecdotes are slightly dated (e.g., a reference to Thomas Friedman’s quote that two nations with a McDonalds have never gone to war – the Balkans being the notable exception), the positive aspects of Globalization hold true. And like any prescriptive work that is future-focused, it is here that he is taking the biggest gamble – and will undoubtedly be derided for offering specific solutions that may not stand the test of time. But like the esteemed professor at Harvard Business School who told him everything “useful” about innovation has already been written in the literature, John will take it all in good measure – and continue to be a strident champion for the grease in the gears of entrepreneurialism. I encourage anyone that is serious about cultivating an ethos of innovation in their organizations to study the insights of Innovation Nation.

Addendum: Last night (Oct. 4th) John was featured on The Colbert Report, which used the 50th anniversary of Sputnik to examine the competitive landscape of innovation today. You can see it here:

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Public Education, Reprise

At this morning's weekly breakfast meeting of the East Tennessee Economic Council in Oak Ridge, hosted at the Y-12 National Security Complex by BWXT/Y-12 President and CEO George Dials, George told the collected community and business leaders that fully half of his skilled labor force (e.g., machinists) is eligible to retire. While there are more than enough physicists and engineers to go around, there is a dearth of master machinists, pipefitters, electricians and other skilled craftsmen to meet the growing demand -- both at Y-12 and in the burgeoning nuclear power industry. George has often said, "You don't want a physicist to fix your plumbing!" (Dr. Thom Mason, Director of the neighboring Oak Ridge National Lab, is a physicist. :-)

So, how many high schools have abandoned teaching "shop" in favor of computer science? Probably too many... (Even vaunted Oak Ridge High School has canceled Auto Shop; that teacher is now teaching Engineering.) My previous post on "Great Public Schools" has elicited a great dialog between some 'blogfriends. In response to an offline question, Überblogger ZenPundit (who has also commented on the previous post) offered the following assessment of education in America. It is reprinted here with his permission:

Speaking analytically and from close to 20 years of firsthand professional experience, the public school system's fundamental problems are an anachronistic orientation (Agrarian calendar, industrial mass production, and Taylorist model, hierarchical control), a breakdown of the home to school social contract and iniquitous, unreliable & irrational funding mechanisms disconnected from the system's legally required objectives. There are other problems, naturally, but those are the major systemic stumbling blocks to wholesale improvement.

That being said, it is not obvious to me that the primary alternatives to public education are any better when measured with identical yardsticks (surprisingly, often they are worse). Those that are (usually idiosyncratic programs of high quality) suffer from a lack of scalability. You just can't set up a top-notch Montessori program for 75 million kids - in fact, it's tough to do so for 75. Anything that is scalable - like curricular reforms and high standards featured by many charter schools - can be done more efficiently in public education for reasons of economies of scale. The only reason it isn't done is lack of political will and budget.

Homeschooling works best when the parents are exceedingly motivated and well educated, and their children are young and intellectually curious. Many home schoolers abandon the effort when their kids hit junior high and high school and the subject matter becomes more specialized - these kids either come to me performing well-above grade level (about 25-30%) or below grade level due to significant gaps in content knowledge because Mom really didn't understand fractions or the Civil War or whatever and skipped teaching it.

Catholic schools vary in quality these days just like public schools because the number of members of religious orders teaching in them (highly educated folks working cheap) has declined severely. In Illinois for example, St. Ignatius College Prep is a top high school but the average Catholic high School here is staffed by secular teachers who weren't good enough to find jobs in the public school system. What Catholic schools offer as a system that public schools do not is a culture, discipline and a sense of identity that some people find valuable (and a leg up in applying to Notre Dame, DePaul, Gonzaga etc.).

Other private schools, military academies etc. tend to be highly specialized in terms of mission.

Essentially, instead of judging which system is best, I'd look at what specific schools are available in your area and select the one that is relatively better than the others. If they are about even, save yourself a bundle of cash and use the public school system - unless safety/discipline is a concern.

Has the pendulum swung too far toward the "knowledge worker", and away from the skill crafts that build the infrastructure of our society? And what can we do to reclaim the "social contract" between parents and educators? I fear that my grandchildren will be left with a non-competitive economy competing against a hungry, agile, cheap global workforce.

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Great Public Schools (Yes, in America!)

While the U.S. collegiate system is the envy of the world, our primary and secondary schools have become punching bags for the media, politicians, and disaffected parents. This week's U.S. News & World Report even has an article on "education consultants" who, for a fee, will help parents find "good grade schools". This same article decries our nation's "sagging SAT scores", with a USA Today-esque graphic helpfully showing the downward trend in Reading (508 two years ago to 502 today), Math (520 two years ago to 515 today) and Writing (497 last year, when this module was introduced, to 494 today). Maximum possible is 800. Überblogger ZenPundit has blogged extensively on the topic of public schools.

This is why we're so glad to live in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Who'd have thunk that one of the best public school systems in the nation would be nestled in the hills of southern Appalachia? In fact, both Newsweek and Expansion Management magazine have consistently ranked Oak Ridge as among the best school districts in the nation -- with Oak Ridge High School garnering accolades from them as well as the Wall Street Journal as one of the best high schools in the country.

Note that these are public schools, paid for by the city (through sales and property taxes), the state (through franchise and excise taxes) and the federal government (through income taxes and other revenues). And even citizens outside of the Oak Ridge district can send their kids to our schools: annual tuition is about equal to what the "education consultants" in the USN&WR article mentioned above charge for simply finding a good grade school.

Is this because of our city's founding as an integral part of the Manhattan Project during World War II (city motto: "Born of War, Living for Peace") and its close proximity to one of the nation's finest National Labs, or because of proactive citizens and School Board members like blogger Citizen Netmom, or because of the forward-leaning Oak Ridge Public Schools Education Foundation? Or some combination of all of those (and other) factors?

This much I know: U.S. test scores may be failing -- but not in Oak Ridge. Our prowess in math and science may be slipping -- but not in Oak Ridge. And as a product of the California public school system (from elementary through undergraduate), I am proud to learn new vocabulary words like onomatopoeia from my 10-year-old daughter.

Click for a summary of Oak Ridge Schools awards and honors.

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Be Prepared

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a number of online courses related to Homeland Security and Civil Preparedness. Anyone with an interest in the National Response Plan, and the soon-to-be-mandatory-for-communities National Incident Management System (NIMS), can take self-paced courses online through FEMA's Emergency Management Institute. The courses are free, short (no more than two or three hours each), and passing the online final exam gets you a certificate with "Continuing Education Units" (CEUs).

I'm spending my evenings this week at the Anderson County Emergency Operations Center for their in-residence offering of "ICS-300" (Intermediate Level Incident Command System). It might be interesting to someday pursue formal "certification" in Emergency Management through the International Association of Emergency Managers.

On the topic of community preparedness and protection of "intellectual property" and symbols, there is an interesting legal battle brewing between the American Red Cross and Johnson & Johnson over the "red cross" symbol. On August 8th, Johnson & Johnson filed a civil complaint against American Red Cross over the licensing of products bearing the Red Cross symbol to third parties. Read the respective press releases here (Red Cross) and here (J&J). Personally, why an $11B (yep, that's a "B") company cares about a couple million dollars in retail sales by a predominantly volunteer and philanthropic organization is beyond me ...

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