The Game of Life – Windfalls Matter, Education Doesn’t

Nicholas Kristof painted a portrait of China as the emerging leader of this century through their serious and aggressive education goals in an article in the NY Times a few days ago. He compares his own daughter’s “excellent schools in the New York area” to a peasant school in Guangdong Province and finds it lagging two grades behind — an appalling discrepancy. When well-traveled, well-educated affluent Americans pale in comparison educationally with China, you’d think Americans would begin to understand the “competitiveness” concerns Silicon Valley has been screaming about for years. After all, if the top classes of American society cannot compete with the children of peasants, what does that say about American competitiveness in a global economy? Yet America does nothing more than wring hands and complain while China pulls ahead. Why?

Perhaps the witty essay by Lawrence Downes (“Love and Debt”) today holds the answer. In his exploration of the newly revised “Game of Life” from Milton Bradley, he found that players who chose to forgo education and have children did much better in the game than those who deferred having children, spending time and money on education. Debt just happens, with no downside consequences — no foreclosures, no homelessness. There is no connection made between career, salary and education. In fact, to make the game more interesting those who are not educated were far more likely to win lotteries or other windfalls than those who are educated. In the world of Milton-Bradley, a doctor is more likely to end up poor than a “strawberry picker”. A degree is simply a means to more debt, and not a means to social mobility.

In the real world, we laugh at such silly notions — after all, it is a game and games aren’t real. We all know that debt is real and inescapable. Credit reports make or break obtaining mortgages and using credit. Interest rates can escalate on the basis of one late payment, causing people to spiral deeper and deeper in debt for old purchases. It isn’t debt that “happens” — it’s poverty. So why should we care? Perhaps because the games we play very much reflects our biases and wishes, sometimes to the exclusion of all else.

Salaries and job security are tied very much to education. Those who start off poor and ignorant are statistically likely to remain that way if they do not better themselves through education. In Silicon Valley, there is a tremendous demand for educated workers. Whether you believe there is an H1B visa crunch or not, it is inescapable that engineering and programming jobs are increasingly going overseas to get the job done. This is not just because of lower salary costs (the costs of administering an overseas contract when factoring in time, travel and oversight ends up more in the realm of two-to-one, not the 10-to-one HR drones like to quote), but because countries like China and India are turning out more and better engineers, scientists and programmers than America.

According to Computing Research Association’s 2005-2006 Taulbee survey of Ph.D.s in computer science and computer engineering (CS & CE), instead of increasing the number of CS and CE doctorates, they have been steadily decreasing since the dot-com boom, so that the “number of new CS majors in fall 2006 was half of what it was in fall 2000 (15,958 versus 7,798)”. China and India are simply picking up the slack. In addition, the CRA notes that “54 percent of CS doctorate recipients in 2004 held visas”, up 8 percent in two years. As Americans shun these majors, more and more foreign students are taking their places in American universities. And those students are the ones Google and Microsoft and the next big startup will hire.

Very few people who hang around the house watching TV and having kids ever win a lottery. Those divorced from society are much more likely to end up in prison or hospitals. People who are impoverished through lack of education, access or debt aren’t likely to get that magical windfall — that get out of debt free card that Milton-Bradley promises them. In fact, according to mathweb’s lottery calculator, if I had to pick six correct numbers in any order from 1-49, the odds of my winning are 1 in 13,983,816! But this doesn’t even scratch the surface — restrictions on ordering and numbers reduce the odds significantly. According to PBS Frontline, the odds of winning the California Super Lotto Jackpot are 1 in 18 million! Despite the enormous reality distortion field that surrounds the occasional “lucky” lottery winner (Steve Jobs RDF is nothing compared to this), the truth is it isn’t going to happen to most everybody — just a few folks. Is that a good basis for financial security? According to a 2006 survey from the Financial Planning Association and the Consumer Federation of America, “one-fifth of Americans (21 percent) [and] 38 percent of those with incomes below $25,000” believe that winning the lottery is the means to personal wealth and debt mitigation. And it should be noted that 30 percent of those with no high school degree believe in a lottery saving them, versus only 8 percent of those with a college degree.

While people who have a college education often have more relationships, opportunities and financial leverage, those who have not built this economic network rely on fantasies of wealth. Milton-Bradley built this fantasy into their world, with a twist — the lower the status and profession chosen, the more likely the player to get windfalls. The higher the status and profession chosen, the more likely the player would accumulate straight debt with no windfall potential. The message to children who play this game is pretty clear — don’t bother to go to school, stay home and have babies, play the lottery and everything will be fine. Hmm, I don’t know about you, but that’s not the way every millionaire and billionaire (yes I know a few well) in Silicon Valley got their wealth…

To be successful, a game must hold the promise of a world that we wish were real. Games reflect our values and aspirations. If Americans didn’t believe more in lotteries instead of education, why would they push games like this on their children?

Bill Gates has recently joined with Eli Broad to spend $60 million to push education to the political forefront as a nonpartisan “single-issue initiative”. According to Bill Gates, “The lack of political and public will is a significant barrier to making dramatic improvements in school and student performance”. Mr. Broad adds that “We’re trying to create a Sputnik moment, to get people to see that our very economic future is at stake.” So far, even with all their money spent on advertising, they are having little effect on the political campaign. Not surprising, really, when three of the major Republican presidential wanna-bes don’t believe in evolution (so much for healthcare and biotech investments) and Democrats spend their wad on other matters like Iraq.

This disdain for education as the key to success is why America will lose and why China will win. But Milton-Bradley will probably sell a lot of games. And isn’t that what America is all about?

The American “Can’t Do” Culture

In the aftermath of the terrible slaughter of 32 students and professors yesterday at Virginia Tech, there have been a number of calls to action on staunching the proliferation of guns, and counter-calls for more guns. My son came home from school, and the first thing he asked me was “Is it true that the first thing Bush said after the Virginia Tech killings was he supported gun rights?” The answer was – Yes, he did. The blood was still wet on the ground and ideologues were commending the killer for possessing (although not using) guns.

If it appears like madness prevails in America to us Americans, it is a certainty to those outside of America…

Strange Friday – Anna Nicole, Jim Gray, Nowak

The last few weeks have had such a bizarre series of news items that I must admit have distracted me. Some of these items involve people I actually know or things I really care about. Others are simply too strange to ignore, especially when they make the front page of the NY Times and every other news organization I read.

Jim Gray, lost at sea! Jim and I have spoken and corresponded about the work I’ve done at InterProphet with SiliconTCP and no drop routing over the years. He’s an old Tandem alum and colleague of William’s (see The Google Test). It’s so startling that I almost believe if I sent an email to him right now telling him I disagree with one of his observations, I’d get an email right back clearly and succintly debating me point-by-point.

Fun Friday – Apple Phone Home, Supremes on Science

Apple, the Benetton of compsys, is poised to announce their own blackberry ripoff for the stylish crowd, as Michael Kanellos notes. Now, I know a lot of people who live by their blackberries, but I guess they’re not the glitterati – just the people who, like, invented networking, or designed the chips used in these devices – so I guess they don’t count. Anyway, after settling that unsettling patent conflict, RIM I suspect isn’t worried…

Kanellos is correct in his evaluation of Apple’s competitors in this market – all established, ruthless, and adaptable – and that experience in building this product matters. Actually, experience building any product matters, but Apple has often gotten away with slipshod manufacturing glitches that corporate and international customers would never tolerate. Service also matters in the cellphone biz – reliability, coverage – you don’t want to be lost in the woods without a signal as some CNET editors have recently discovered. Finally, making a fancy video phone work well is a lot more than just hardware – just walk into any cellphone store and make a salesman take and send a video clip from one of their fancy video cellphones – you’re likely to find they don’t know how. All in all, Apple had better deliver well here – but I wouldn’t want to bet my life on it.

Cornelia Dean in the NYTimes wrote an interesting piece on the conflict between scientific method and legal reasoning that is worthwhile reading for technologists. In a revealing moment during the current case before the Supreme Court on regulation of carbon dioxide to control greenhouse gases inducing global warming, Justice Scalia was quoted as saying “Troposphere, whatever. I told you before I’m not a scientist”.

Lest people think this is a recent problem, a patent attorney who argued before the Supreme Court many years ago told me that during one case involving computer methods and software one of the “lesser lights”, in a recap over the algorithms used, moaned to another justice “We’re not going to hear about logarithms again, are we?”

Fun Friday – CNET says “The only good girl geek is a dead girl geek”?

As the last slice of pumpkin pie vanishes and the pot of turkey soup slowly simmers on the stove (and yes, I do make turkey soup – it’s good for you), a few items for post-holiday tech cheers and jeers…

A guest columnist on Matt Marshall’s VentureBeat, in an attempt to appear Internet-saavy, made a slight mistake – he called Vinton G. Cerf, Google exec, Turing winner (among other honors), ICANN chairman, and co-inventor of TCP/IP, a man who has also served on the Board of one of my companies, InterProphet, “Vince”. So naturally I pointed out this slight error. And you’d think that would be the end of that since anybody can google Vint – he’s all over the Internet for goodness sakes!

But alas, assuming someone will use the power of the Internet to avoid looking the fool is just silly I suppose…

Fun Friday: DSL Debacles, Celebrity Linux, and Ubuntu

Tom Foremski of Siliconvalleywatcher.com has picked up my little meditation on how telcom companies keep competitors from serving DSL even if they don’t want the business (see DSL Debacles and Competitor Cheats) with the headline “Lynne Jolitz tries to get DSL on a DSL line”. We’ve got a few comments on this one relating to dark fibre which some folks might find interesting.

On the celebrity front, I’ve been waiting for the ultimate celebrity distro, and finally it’s here – Paris Hilton Releases Tinkerbell Linux. Now, I know that ever since 386BSD everyone and his dog does Unix releases, but I’m gratified to see the dog finally get her due. And unlike my rather dry technical discussions of OS open source, Paris has added the touch of glamour to Linux that I’ve always wanted to see in BSD: “First,” she writes, “I think The Open Source Movement is, like, really hot. I’ve been dabbling with coding for ages, but it’s taken me some time to find the courage to release it. As you know, I’m a shy and modest person, and wasn’t sure if it was good enough for the strict standards of the coding community.” What’s next? – Brittney Linux, the kind you can dance to? 🙂

Finally, it probably comes as no surprise that there is a lot of source contributor turnover in open source kernel projects, what with the low user esteem, nonexistent pay, endless “such terrible food and such small portions” complaints, burnout and rampent piracy. But usually it’s the “control freak” kernel developer that’s blamed for everything. So it’s refreshing to see why major Linux contributor Matthew Garrett left Debian for Ubuntu: “”In his own blog, Garrett relates his gradual discovery that Debian’s free-for-all discussions were making him intensely irritable and unhappy with other members of the community.”

Why he likes Ubuntu? The “technical code of conduct” (which means talk distro and code, not politics) helps, but the key is to see an end to discussion and make a decision. “At the end of the day, having one person who can make arbitrary decisions and whose word is effectively law probably helps in many cases.”

I wish them well. 386BSD also enforced a code of conduct similar to Ubuntu’s today. But unless there is genuine respect for their developers, the poison of ridicule can erode even the best of intentions. I’ve watched Ubuntu take some of the best ideas we pioneered a decade ago with 386BSD Release 1.0. I hope they learn from history and don’t just imitate it.

Fun Friday – Men Expect Success, Women Work for Success

On the talk show circuit, if there isn’t a “us versus them” crisis, they’ll invent one. After all, ratings matter, and the best ratings are gotten from the “battle of the sexes”, never mind the reality.

The latest fad, seized upon by fervent talk show hosts, academics of questionable credentials, and ideological rantists is that of the “academic gender gap” where girls are supposedly pulling ahead of boys. Crisis indeed! It must be the girl’s fault, or the school’s fault. It must be favoritism. It must be bias. Or is it?

New York Times and the Politics of Academic Prejudice

Dr. Lawrence K. Altman in the New York Times today takes on the problem of poor academic peer review and fraud in scientific journals, and how their failure to carefully vet papers has resulted in public mistrust. However, the lack of oversight, audits, and failed analysis of scientific papers cited — a good first step — to anyone involved actually describes the symptoms of a more insidious disease. The greatest problem faced by researchers today is the ease by which anonymous reviewers of unstated credentials can blackball competitive ideas and promote others they prefer with impunity. Thus, instead of a battle of ideas openly discussed, papers are promoted merely for reinforcing entrenched ideas already espoused by the reviewer or for spinning trendy ideas in which the reviewer may have a stake.

I have heard academics and researchers candidly discuss paper rejections based not on good science but on bad blood and old rivalries. Professor John Doyle of Caltech, a respected researcher who has won prizes for his papers, often quotes the ludicrous academic paper rejections he has received, primarily because he has (self-admittedly) not spent enough time stroking the reviewers at conferences prior to actually sending in a paper so as to “prepare” them and get “buy in to the idea”. And after poorly reasoned (if not completely untrue) rejections, the coup de grace is always that the paper is “poorly written”, no matter how well-published and credentialed. It is a scandal. Is it no surprise then that many researchers are now spending more time writing for trade press while the quality of papers in journals diminishes?

Recently at Stanford I was gratified to hear Dr. Shri Kulkarni of Caltech brazenly discuss his dislike for “paying” journals to publish his work when magazines like Nature gladly accept his articles and pay him for them. Perhaps as a Berkeley alumna who has written both academic papers and published extensively in the trade press, I am inclined towards the intellectual honesty of both Dr. Kulkarni and Dr. Doyle for putting the stranglehold of personal and professional bias in scientific review on the table — after all, both of them received their Ph.D’s from Berkeley, and both of them refuse to remain silent on this outmoded, repressive and ultimately anti-innovative process.

Fun Friday: VCs Get Googled, Tempel 1 to Get Deep Impact

Well, we’ve finally got the lowdown on the post-IPO Google payoff, courtesy of Bill Burnham, and it’s quite a tidy haul. How much? Theoretically “…all the way back in 1999 Kleiner and Sequoia each invested $12.5M in Google for a 10% stake. Fast forward to the Summer of 2004 and these stakes were worth $2.03BN at Google’s IPO price of $85/share”.

They had to back off on selling all that at the IPO, however, which meant they did even better. According to Kleiner’s distribution statements (SEC Form 4) “… to date they have distributed shares worth $3.549BN. They still have another 2.6M shares worth $752M as of yesterday’s close, so the total value of their stake is $4.3BN which represents a 344X return on their investment of $12.5M … not too shabby”.

What about Sequoia? “making an educated guess they have returned about $3.8BN to date and have stock worth another $940M left to distribute for a total return of close to $4.7BN which is about $200M higher than Kleiner’s $4.5BN (with the mystery shares). Based on their $200M more in proceeds for the same stake and their careful doling out of shares to protect the market, Sequoia wins the award for best distrubution process”.

For those of you not sponging off one of the Class A VCs, look toward the heavens (or NASA TV). Tempel 1 is scheduled to be hit by Deep Impact to determine if it really is a dirty snowball or a dirty dustball. Unless you have a rather large (11-inch or better) aperture telescope, watch it on the Internet – it will be Magnitude 11 and pretty hard to spot unless you’re very experienced.

So for all those unhappy people who didn’t make out like bandits on the Google IPO, repeat after me: “The best things in life are free”. At least, until Google figures out a way to put banner ads on Tempel 1.

Squandered Victory a Fascinating Talk

Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, spoke yesterday at a special PARC forum on “Our Squandered Victory and the Prospects for Democracy in Iraq”. I must admit, I was skeptical that I would find him an agreeable (or even informed) speaker – I’m not a great fan of the Hoover Institution. But he knew his stuff, was right on the money about the money (the billions spent on this war), had lots of those “where did they get those guys” stories of screwups in Iraq (our guys – not their guys), and presented a thorough convincing argument for how badly the administration has bungled the job from an insider’s perspective.

Why is he an “insider”? Apparently Larry Diamond was asked by Condoleezza Rice to go to Baghdad as an adviser to the American occupation authorities. Diamond wasn’t an Iraq war supporter, but he said he thought creating a “viable democracy” was important. He was there last year.

One of the best speakers I’ve seen this year. He answered every question, and met critics head-on. I wish more Americans could talk to him as someone who’s really “been there”. It’s one way to cut through the spin and make your own “fair and balanced” decision.