The Cool War

Candice eetimesIn his 1981 science fiction novel, The Cool War, Frederik Pohl described a global conflict in which active economic sabotage up to and including biological warfare, not to kill or permanently maim, but to put pressure on the economies of their enemies by pulling workers out sick and to raise their health care expenditures.  In the story, children were deliberately infected with an engineered viral illness and sent on “good-will” tours of the enemy nations.

Today, we find ourselves in an actual, real life cool war with Russia.  However, they have figured out a very clever and inexpensive way to create the desired epidemics – and they don’t even have to bioengineer a new virus.  All they have to do is amplify and spread anti-vaccine propaganda and disinformation via the internet.  Get even a small number of people in the West to refuse or delay vaccination of their children and/or themselves and latent illnesses such as measles and influenza will do the job for them, and its working.    For each child that is sick, a parent stays home from work to tend that child.

Today, we see an epidemic of measles, once thought to be eradicated in the industrialized nations, showing up in pockets of distrustful communities influenced by anti-vaxxer propaganda.  Which disease will be next?

Further External Reading:

The Most Boring Subject In School

Candice eetimesWhen I was a Senior in high school, I took the last class one was required to take to graduate, U.S. History.  After the instructor passed out our ponderously thick, heavy textbooks, I flipped through the pages… “yep” I though to myself.  The same old mix of shallow knowledge of dates, “important people”, wars, hagiography, and lies.  Yes, lies.  Worst of all, even the truly important stuff was written in the most boring dry prose, drained of both context and drama.  I was convinced that it was deliberate so that we wouldn’t become curious about our history, so that we would be unable to question authority.  Yes, I was that cynical.  When I closed the book that first day of class, it was the last time the book was opened until another student was to be in possession.  Of course, I got an “A” in the class.

High school history textbooks are the worst places from which to learn our nation’s history.  It’s no wonder that so many people are so mislead.  History is also the only subject in college where the first task of the professors is to disabuse their students of misinformation and even disinformation that they learned in highschool.  Every other subject the profs may build upon an earlier foundation.  But in history, it is not possible.

So, unless you were a history major in college, you, my dear reader, likely have all sorts of junk “history” rattling around in your memory.  What to do?  Read some real history.

First, read Lies My Teacher Told Me:

Then, read a more honest book like A People’s History of the United States:

But don’t stop there.  Keep reading, keep looking for more and better texts.  In addition to reading about history, take advantage of films and documentaries.  But avoid like the plague, the “History Channel”.  The material there has not only been watered down, but is repetitively boring!

I have this daydream of historians creating a curated list of good dramatizations of historical events so as to put some meat on those dry bones… and allowing high school students to watch those films followed by classroom discussions.  Maybe then history won’t be the most boring class in high school.

What would be your recommendations on books, documentaries, and historical drama films and why?

America Revised by Frances FitzGerald (1979) is a history of American history text books.

Historical Military Drama & Propaganda Films:
The Crossing shows the famous crossing of the Deleware which bolstered the struggling Continental Army during the early phase of the American War for Independence.

The Scarlet Coat depicts the humanity of both sides of the American War for Independence, the unmasking of Benedict Arnold as a traitor to the American side, and the cruel treatment that was meted out to “spies” by both sides.  A few liberties are taken with the history, but the drama, politics, and emotion itself are accurate.

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell is a classic Hollywood style film dramatizing the career of Col. Billy Mitchell.  Mitchell was an advocate for air power for both land and sea operations.  He strongly advocated the development of aircraft carriers and deprecated the utility of battleships, having demonstrated that they were extremely vulnerable to air attack.  Mitchell prophetically predicted that the Empire of Japan would one day attack Pearl Harbor by air.

Tora, Tora, Tora is reasonably accurate account of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan using carrier based aircraft.  The key element of the film is that the US intelligence services had already cracked the Japanese diplomatic and military codes but failed to warn US forces of then known attack plans against on Hawaii and the Philippines

30 Seconds Over Tokyo may be a bit of Hollywood over dramatization and war propaganda, but it tells the story of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo using B-25 “Mitchell” bombers which demonstrated to the Empire of Japan that the US Navy could respond to the Pearl Harbor attack and bring the war back to their territory by using the same carrier based aircraft tactic and how the Chinese and Americans were allies during the war.

Midway is an accurate dramatization of the Battle of Midway Island in which US Naval forces took the initiative to engage the Japanese navel forces using aircraft from aircraft carriers, using intelligence gathered from having previously cracked the Japanese military codes.  This is believed to be the turning point of the war and the first naval engagement in which the ships never came in direct sight of each other.  The decision to attack Midway Island was made soon after and likely a response to the Doolittle raids.

Victory Through Air Power is a combination of propaganda and educational film produced by the Disney Studios during the war.  It documents the rationale for the massive “total war” bombing of both military and civilian economic targets in Japan and Germany.  It’s actual utility has been questioned, but one can’t understand the bombing campaigns in WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam without understanding it’s historical theoretical roots as a war strategy.  The film mixes animation and technicolor photography in a masterful and artfully beautiful film about a deeply troubling subject.

Fat Man and Little Boy is a hollywood drama about the development of the first atomic bombs.  Some dramatic license was taken, but it does convey the tenor and tone of mix of fear and sense of urgency felt by the various teams as they wondered if the NAZI regime in Germany would be first to build them.  One can not understand our modern world without understanding what drove these scientists and military planners to develop them.

How to Earn a College Degree Debt Free

Candice eetimesI earned a BS by examination in ’82, and was admitted to Stanford Graduate School that fall, debt free.

Some expansion is warranted here, as many are confused by my statement on “by examination”.  I had about one year of Jr. College, mostly general ed requirements, earned at four different Jr. Colleges over about five or six years, taking one or two evening classes at a time while working various jobs.  At this rate, I might get an AA degree in another five.  I had been working in Silicon Valley pink color jobs and was looking at a career ceiling unless I had at least a four-year degree that my employers would respect, which at my then present rate, I might earn in another 15 years, if ever?  A friend told me about a little known program called the Regents External Degree from the University of the State of New York (now spun out as Excelsior College).  They offered college credit by examination, specifically, (back then) if one could earn at least a minimum score on a Subject Graduate Record Exam (not the general), they would award about a year’s worth of university credits.  Looking at the minimum score needed, it appeared that you had to be at least within one standard deviation of the norm for that exam, typically at least in the 33%tile or so.  Remember, that meant that one is scored against students that had already earned a degree in that field and who wanted to go onto graduate school in that field… a high standard.  I’m fairly certain that the Regents never thought that someone would attempt it, but I figured that if I could earn decent scores on three subjects of the then available exams, I would have a BS.  It would save me 15 or more years!  With little to lose and much to gain, I jumped on it!

The exams are offered only several times a year and one could only take one at a time.  I decided I would try the Biology exam.  I borrowed every biology text I could lay hand to… studied every waking moment not at work.  I took practice exams to hone my test taking skills and to look for areas of weakness.  When I took the test, one of my friends was also taking it.  I left an hour early from the three-hour time allotted and saw my friend give me a quizzical look.  She told me later that she had thought I was giving up.  No, I had already finished an hour before that and had gone through it a second time, catching some dumb mistakes.  I earned a 99th%tile score, the highest available.

I next chose psychology, having taken a psych course at one of the JC’s.  I brushed up on the basics and took a few practice exams.  I got a 93rd%tile.  It wasn’t the perfect score because I hadn’t cared to study up on all of the silly pseudo-science that was still to be found in the exam: Freud, Jung, etc.  I only had a few weeks between the exam dates, so didn’t have much time to study in any case.

I still needed a third exam and was running out of easy {for me} options.  I would have to take one with heavy math… I was advised by my mentors that if I really wanted to have a decent career, given that this was Silicon Valley, of the exams available my only real choice was physics.  Chemistry might have been easier for me, but not as likely to be as impressive in Silicon Valley.  Ugh!  No easy peasy English Lit exam would do…   Please understand, I’m smart… but NOT good at math.  My highest math class was intro to calculus.  Earlier, I had had to repeat algebra in high school after failing it the first time.  Ugh!  No choice, I dug in.  I bought some physics books along with their problem set workbooks and sat down every waking hour not at work to plough through them.  Ugh!  I got math help from some of my mentors, like Dr. West at work.  I was not confident about doing well enough on the physics exam.  But I figured that if I didn’t get a good enough score, I could always try one of the others, the English Lit exam perhaps, just to get the BS and call it a day.  Well that test was worse than I could imagine.  No ducking out early.  I hadn’t finished.  I had answered all of the non-math problems first, but still… I walked for an hour on the lovely Stanford campus w/ a raging migraine before I could drive home.  I was very worried I hadn’t gotten a high enough score.  But… I did, at 45th%tile.  Not bad for someone who had never stepped foot in a college physics classroom!


The Regents agreed to grant me a degree in psychology… but not biology or physics because they also required upper-division lab courses in those subjects.  Fortunately, after some negotiation, they agreed to grant a waiver for the lab requirement on the physics degree due to my extensive real world experience in high-tech clean room work, documented by Dr. Belt, Vice President of Fairchild Semiconductor.  I had a dual degree in psychology and physics, very strong minor in biology… and with Dr. Belt and Fairchild’s sponsorship, was admitted to Stanford Graduate School in the Materials Science Dept. as an Honors Coop part-time student, paid for by Fairchild.  Why materials science?  That was the department that taught classes and conducted research in semiconductor fabrication/processing.  It also had the highest number of women, w/ near gender parity, unlike the electrical engineering or computer science departments.  There was no hope that I would ever actually finish a degree, as I could only take maybe one class at a time while working full-time as a fab supervisor, which I did, but an Honors Coop has access to far more than just classes… as well as taking classes for credit, I audited several just for the knowledge.  The classes were available for viewing real-time via microwave video link at work.  (And now you know where I ate lunch… not always at “lunch time”.)

So, I went from having a smattering of general ed jr. college credits to a degree and onto graduate school at an elite university in about a year’s time!  With my official status as a graduate student Fairchild promoted me and sent me to in-house management classes.  I was soon supervising a small group of engineers, technicians, student interns, and clean room operators manufacturing microelectronic devices in a small prototyping fab.  {As proof that Silicon Valley was a small world back then, one of the technicians reporting to me was a young women just a few years older than I, who had grown up only two doors away.  We used to play records and practice dancing together growing up.}  Not bad for someone who only a few years before had been intermittently homeless and couch surfing.

Our Whispy Thin Air

Candice eetimesWe live on a planet with almost no atmosphere to speak of.  Oh, I know it is a lot more than the Moon or Mars.  But compared to Venus, we live on the edge of space.  But most of us take what we have and think it is really thick.  We think of “space” as being ‘way up there’.  But it isn’t.

Our atmosphere is held down near the Earth’s surface by gravity.  The air pressure we depend upon is caused by the weight of the air above us.  But how thick is the atmosphere?  How much is really above us?  Far less than most realize.

Because the density of the air is related to how much air is above, the density changes with altitude because there is less air above as we go higher.  That means that most of the air is compressed at the very bottom, at low altitude.  How low?  Well, if one climbs a mountain that is 2000m (6,000ft), one is already above 20% of the atmosphere.  Climb Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth at 8,500m (29,000ft) you can look down at 55% of the atmosphere, over half-way to space.

To get a feel for how thin this really is, visualize the Earth which is 6,371km radius on average.  Now visualize a radius only 20km larger, where 95% of the atmosphere lies below… if you drew a circle six inches in diameter with a compass the atmosphere is the thickness of the pencil line!

Let’s shift gears a moment and visualize the amount of atmosphere.  If one were to compress all of the air and convert it to a liquid it would be only a bit over 3m (16ft) deep.  That liquid would be about the same density as dirt or aluminum.  That’s it, 3m of radiation shielding between you and the vacuum of space.

Now, realizing how very little atmosphere there really is… one has a new appreciation for how little pollution it can absorb, including all of that O2 we are converted to CO2 greenhouse gas.  But that’s a topic for a future essay.

Cursive Writing and Flint Knapping

candicecoverWhen I was in elementary school, I got very high marks in nearly every subject except penmanship.  Except, we weren’t allowed to use a pen!  We used a Number 2 pencil on coarse paper.  But somehow we were expected to have a lovely flowing hand perfectly duplicating the Palmer script we were taught in 3rd Grade.  I just couldn’t do it… and it caused me deep shame when those poor marks brought on disappointed looks from my parents.  Never mind that their penmanship didn’t look anything like the Palmer script either!

Trying to write cursive with a ballpoint pen as I was allowed to do in Jr. High and High School was only marginally better.  I also developed my own script, idiosyncratically changing the letter forms to make it easier to write and far easier to read.  First that awkward capital “G” was replaced with a block lettered form, then the capital “D”.  Then the lower case “f” and “g” became two flowing loops without that silly “knot” in the middle.  But still my hand would ache.

I learned to type in Jr. High, taking the class twice to gain accuracy and speed.  I began using the typewriter for most of my writing.  It was neater, easier to read, and looked more mature than my childishly poor handwriting.

One of my classmates held his pen in an odd fashion.  I asked him about it and learned that he had been having so much trouble with his hand he had been refered by his doctor to a physical therapist who showed him a technique of holding the pen upright between his index and middle fingers while his thumb came behind the pen instead of to the top and side as it did in the conventional pen hold.  This configuration allows greater force with less strain in the fingers.

I tried this pen hold and found it hard to write script with it… and then learned that my classmate had abandoned cursive for his own idiosyncratic block writing.  It was far more legible and easier on the hand.

Then I discovered the fountain pen.  What a miracle pen!  I could suddenly write in a lovely flowing cursive hand.  I retained my new letter forms of course.  But now I could write for hours with no hand cramping.  I used it for journaling and personal letters.

But I could not use a fountain pen in the clean room.  We use special polymer fiber “paper” that does not shed particles.  I had to use a ballpoint pen because the thinner fountain pen ink just smeared and wicked along the fibers.  I had to go back to block printing to make it legible to co-workers.

Then, I needed to carefully document my work in a patent notebook.  Thank goodness for gel rollerball pens!  I developed a new idiosyncratic block printing that allowed me to smoothly connect some letters.  It uses a combination of smaller “upper case” letter forms and traditional lower case forms we all learned in 1st Grade.  You can see a sample on an earlier blog essay here.

But, back to penmanship with old styles.  As an adult, I learned calligraphy.  I bought special pens with various tip angles and widths to allow one to write using various scripts.  I learned many modern and ancient scripts.  My favorite became half-uncial, a script that was popular in hand-copied manuscripts in the middle-ages.  From that, I developed my own script that mixed 9th Century half-uncial style with Futhorc letters to replace modern letter combinations, (e.g. “th” is replaced with “thorn” and “ng” is replaced with “nettle”).

From all of this work, I learned that scripts are based on the writing technology.  Everything involved feeds back to the script, the pen, the ink, the paper or animal skin, and the use model.  Many scripts were developed for goose quills and oak gall ink.  Block printing was developed for use with chalk on slate and pencil on paper.  Which brings us back to learning cursive in school… and why it should be abandoned as being no more useful to modern school children than learning to knap stone tools.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love calligraphy.  I just don’t see cursive as a useful script for school children as it was created for old style fountain pens most commonly available in the late 19th Century.  Today, school children will need to learn how to use a ballpoint or gel rollerball pen.  The best script for that pen is block printing… and we should probably do some time motion and ergonomic research into developing a new block printed script specifically designed for these modern pens.

If schools really want to teach cursive, they should combine it with teaching other equally or even more artistic and ancient calligraphic scripts using archaic pen technology in an elective art class.

Further External Reading:

How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive by Josh Griesbrecht

Recognizing A Fellow Inventor:

Candice eetimesDaniel Darst… Well Done!

Yesterday I filled a new prescription for pills that I was supposed to take one half at a time.  The pills are tiny and did not have a cut line mark to allow it to be broken in half.  Thus, the pharmacist gave me a pill cutter.

The device is a marvel.  The more I examined it, each little component, the more I admired its design.  So many clever elements in an easy to use device.  Each and every feature of the device was both aesthetically pleasing and obeyed the dictum of good design that form should follow function.  It has a razor blade to cut the pill neatly in half and a sliding plastic safety guard to protect one’s fingers when the clamshell is opened.  On the bottom was a patent number molded into the clear plastic.  A quick google search turned up the patent:

Well done, Mr. Darst !

Actionable Means to Improve American Schools

Candice eetimesEight Evidence Based Reforms To Fix Our Schools

In recent decades we have seen many suggestions for school reform that have failed to deliver their promised results.  This ranged from “No Child Left Behind” which punished schools for having higher concentrations of struggling students to creating charter schools and vouchers for private schools which punish the less fortunate in other ways.  We have seen the poor results of “teaching to the test” and paradoxically lowering the standards of teachers when we increase the certification requirements.  There are things we can do to improve our schools based on real evidence.  However, most of them go against the grain of conventional wisdom and American culture and traditions.  Here’s the list and then the evidence:

School Hours

Increase the time at school for pre-adolescents.  Elementary school hours make no sense for most families.  School end earlier than most parents get off work.  It puts strains on working parents.  It also falsely encourages teachers to increase homework assignments with the rationalization that that time is available for parent supervised study.  Retaining young students at school until later also allows longer and more frequent recess and free time which has been shown to improve learning.

More Recess, a lot more.  Kids need breaks from instruction.  They need to move and relax.  They also need more time to socialize and learn social skills without adult supervision.

Shift school start times later for adolescents.  Teenagers have a time shifted natural sleep cycle compared to children and adults.  They need just as much sleep but fall asleep and arise later.  But our middle and high schools expect them to get up early, in many school districts, even earlier than elementary schools to allow them to be bussed first and then participate in after school sports.  This requirement causes sleep deprivation that impairs learning, increases risky behavior, causes more traffic accidents, and causes health problems.

Year Round Schooling.  Summer vacations rob students of study time, cause summer backsliding, etc.

Athletics and Physical Education

Eliminate After School Sports.  Schools should focus on academics instead of being sports clubs that pretend to be schools.  Sports are expensive.  Supporting sports reduces resources that could be applied to academic subjects.  Eliminating after school sports will free up resources while at the same time changing the school culture to value academic over athletic achievement.

Eliminate investments in physcial education.  High schools and middle school do not need to provide expensive gymnasiums, showers, or swimming pools.  With no after school sports, expensive bleachers, tracks, sports-fields, etc. are not needed.  Running and jumping jacks do not require special equipment.  Our emphasis on P.E. is from our military who wanted to transfer the cost and time to get infantry ready for war to our schools.

How to Save American Schools

Teaching Credentials

Eliminate educational credentialing for high school teachers.  When schools are free to hire teachers based on their knowledge and teaching skill rather than being limited to the pool of people who took specialized “education” degrees and credentialling programs, the quality and quantity of available teachers will increase by many fold.  If one is looking for someone to teach autoshop, who would be a better candidate, a retired auto mechanic or someone with a liberal arts undergraduate degree and a masters in “education”?  Who would be a better Electronics teacher, a middle-aged electronics engineer or an English major with the required credential in “education”?  A physics teacher?  A biology instructor?  A math teacher?  Who would be a better culinary arts teacher?  Even looking at more conventional academic classes… which would be better, a professional writer, journalist, editor, or a recent English major with an “education” credential?


Ban Homework.  Except for reading textbooks and novels, homework does NOT improve learning.  This is especially true for elementary school age students.  Homework actually hurts learning.  It turns something from a joy into a chore.  It is frustrating for slow learners and is boring for fast learners.  It actively hinders gifted students by robbing them of time that they could be spending learning things they are interested in at their faster pace.  It robs families of family time and pits students against parents.