Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Great Plain Drain

Meritocratic winners debate whether the world is getting better and better,
or whether it is getting worse and worse.

Tomorrow's anticipated World Series opener between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees carries an interesting twist. The starting pitchers, C.C. Sabathia for the Yankees and Cliff Lee for the Phillies, each won Cy Young awards* in 2007 and 2008, respectively, while playing for the Cleveland Indians.

In other words, if you're a Cleveland baseball fan, you probably want to kill yourself.

I'm struck by how similar this situation is to a more widespread and more consequential phenomenon in our country. I witnessed it as a student at Penn, a university which boasts an acceptance pool from all fifty states and many countries besides.

People entering Penn may come from all over, but graduates are not nearly so far-flung. They tend to congregate in the major metropolitan areas of the Northeast and of the West Coast. My dear friend Ben, who returned to his native Minnesota for law school in Minneapolis, is by far the exception.

The result is what some have called the "Problem of Meritocracy:" the nation's smartest are drawn from all over to the coasts, leaving the "flyover states" desolate of leaders and thinkers with perhaps the highest potential. This article puts it aptly, likening the SAT to strip mining:
For the meritocratic system is a method that uses impersonal technology (e.g., the SAT) to help us identify valuable natural resources (bright kids), and then pitilessly removes them from their ecological contexts (local communities), never to return them, thus creating cultural landscapes just as ravaged as the denuded mountainsides of Kentucky coal country.
I am not sure what I think about this issue. If you ask me, the principal advantage in going to the University of Pennsylvania compared to the much-cheaper Penn State University, where one could ostensibly learn the same facts and study the same subjects, is in being surrounded by brilliant friends and classmates. This grouping would not have been possible had we not been brought from hither and yon to the same twelve square city blocks.

In addition, my primitive understanding is that the "knowledge-based economy" into which the United States continues to develop requires collections of really smart people. Take a company like Google for example, whose achievements have made significant improvements in daily life for just about everyone who uses the Internet. Those achievements were all developed by groups of very smart people who likely came from all over.

Yet I also know that a great deal of this coastal congregation amounts to selfish gain rather than the greater good, as a large stack of currency trading books I saw today reminds me. The University instills certain values, but duty and responsibility are not among them, nor anything that acknowledges anyone is responsible for students' success but themselves.

Perhaps the great danger in meritocracy lies here, in the easy bridge it offers to entitlement. Those who have conquered meritocratic establishments do so by definition according to their own achievements. That is probably a better system than the old standby of heredity, but it hides the many factors that students have no control over yet which play crucial roles in their successes.

Since students are led to feel entitled to their standing, nothing inhibits them from adding to that privilege rather than sacrificing for others' benefit. Notable losers in this exchange may be the communities which poured their resources into raising these children to begin with, or anyone not blessed with the same kind of golden ticket.

I have pride in my hometown of Phoenixville, which is doing just fine without me, but to which I would love to contribute meaningfully someday. I know there are countless other locales which are not so lucky, and which could be enlivened greatly by the devoted attention of their native sons and daughters.

Make no mistake. I will be rooting for Cliff Lee to absolutely topple the Yankees hitters, while I hope C.C. Sabathia is himself toppled by the Phillies' bats. But lurking in the back of my mind, as I watch the game with many friends who are lucky in the same way I am, will be a feeling of loss for the Cleveland fans and the large swaths of America which they represent.

*The Cy Young award is given annually to the American League pitcher and the National League pitcher deemed to be the best in his respective league.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What else is going on in there?

I woke this morning with Pachelbel's Canon in D played by a Game Boy synthesizer stuck in my head.

This occurrence is intriguing because while I have heard Pachelbel's Canon many times, and while I have heard music played on a Game Boy synthesizer many times, I have never heard Pachelbel's Canon played on a Game Boy synthesizer before. Yet there it was, playing through my head.

Even more interesting: I realized later on that the canon playing through my head was at least in parts in a minor key, while the actual canon is written in D major.

So completely unbidden by conscious thought, for no reason known to me, while I slept my brain spun together a novel arrangement of a song it knew and an instrument it knew, and then transposed it to a minor key.

By now, however, various other songs have crowded it out. If only I had a USB port for capturing such things...

*I have some basic musical inclination, but nothing special, and I am not nearly as avid of a music listener as many others I know. Yet I virtually always have something playing in my head, which I understand to be relatively rare. I think my dad was the same way. Curious.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Apparently the world is going to end in three years and some change.

Sony is making a movie about it. The date will be an almost-symmetric 12/21/2012. Also it's the end of the Mayan calendar or something. Some of my students last year were fascinated by this possibility.

Conjecture on the end of the world based on round numbers seems to be relatively common (remember Y2K?). But roundness of numbers is misleading.

1,000 is only round because we use a base ten number system (a choice almost certainly due to the fact that we have ten fingers). The choice of ten is otherwise arbitrary.

By base ten, I mean that each place in a number refers to a power of 10. The number 3,762, for instance, is shorthand for:
3x103 + 7x102 + 6x101 + 2x100
= 3x1,000 + 7x100 + 6x10 + 2x1
= 3,000 + 700 + 60 + 2
= 3,762
Computers are built on a base two number system, better known as binary. In this case each place refers to a power of 2. For instance, the binary number 10110 is shorthand for:
1x24 + 0x23 + 1x22 + 1x21 + 0x20
= 1x16 + 0x8 + 1x4 + 1x2 + 0x1
= 16 + 0 + 4 + 2 + 0
= 22
Any number can be represented in base ten, or in base two, or in base anything. This means that numbers which look round are only round in one particular number system. In base two, 1,000 is just 8. Some people find 8 a particularly appealing number, but most probably do not. But 1,000 in a base two system? That's 1111101000.

So to us, in our crazy base 10 mindset, 12/21/2012 looks mildly interesting. However, in another system, say base seven, the date is represented 15/30/5403. The year 2,000, which many more people got excited about, is just 13132 in base six. Not so round in either case.

Humans are superstitious as a rule, and it's easy to believe that round dates carry hidden significance. Whatever adjectives you might use to describe such a belief, it is if nothing else a tad anthropomorphic.

Side question: How would human history have differed as a function of the number of fingers we have?

*All of this is not to say that I am above celebrating the arrival of a round number.
** 2,000 in base 7 is actually 5555, which still has a certain roundness to it. We're so lucky the world didn't end at Y2K!

Monday, October 5, 2009

You, sir, are not like me.

Today's ride, about 12 miles.

Is it better or is it worse to encounter in your daily life people who are not like you?

I think most would say that it is better to encounter a diversity of people. However, most choose to live around others similar to themselves, which would speak to the contrary. Certainly, auto-dependent and traditionally homogenous suburbs do quite a bit to keep their residents selectively isolated.

One such experience today got me thinking about the question. While on a bike ride, I waited at a light to turn from 12th onto Walnut. As the light changed the other way, an African American biker transitioned from the sidewalk to the road, signaling his way with the "ding ding!' of a bell attached to his handlebars, offering a polite thank-you as he passed.

Within a few blocks I had caught up to him and found myself biking side-by-side. This experience is a pleasing one, for reasons related to physics, and because I feel safer and more relaxed when taking up the whole lane with another rider. (This practice is perfectly legitimate in Center City, where there is no bike lane and the right lane is thus reserved for bikes and for buses.)

Soon we crossed through an intersection, and he alerted some jaywalking pedestrians of our passage again with his bell. "I like your bell," I said.

"Thanks," he replied. "My partner gave it to me."

"It's nice."

"Yeah, I want him to get one for my grandson, too. I know he'd like that," he responded.

"It's useful, too," I added.

"Yeah." We rode a bit more. "I'm heading up Sixteenth Street here, so you have a good day," he said. And we parted ways.

I don't know how many gay African American grandparents I've met before. I don't think that number is very high, but you wouldn't expect it to be for someone like me either. Yet by virtue of using a non-isolated mode of transportation, and by living in a city where many kinds of people reside, we came into contact just by chance.

Though I suspect there is virtue in such experiences, I am not exactly sure what that virtue is. I do think it is helpful just to be reminded that there are ranges of experience drastically different from my own, that the world is a lot bigger than I conceive it to be.