In Annals of the Former World, John McPhee tells about a geologist whose hobby is locating the tailings piles from old silver mines and assessing their potential yield, given that new technologies can extract silver better than Nineteenth Century technologies. It's a good and profitable game, widely replicable.
All over, we have records of tremendous intellectual and practical efforts that labored under misconceptions or lacked crucial technology or were directed at strangely limited projects. One part of extraction is to understand, in detail, the misconceptions, the gaps in resources, the odd purposes of these efforts. The other part is to re-imagine these projects as they could have been, to take the projects as "theme" and run "variations."
In the last few weeks, I have been involved in several collaborative planning processes, at various levels of public importance -- from planning a sermon to planning a course to planning for the future of an educational institution to rearranging parish committee structure. In each process, it seemed that progress got made largely by saying it right, or saying it more right. This had a couple of aspects. A good formulation of what we were about was, first of all, real substantive work: it opened some possibilities of action, closed others, sent people's research off in particular directions. But also, maybe more important, the right way of saying what we were about was memorable, catchy, repeatable without distortion, without long explanations. There is an interesting link between "a feasible solution to a problem" and "an memorable and easily communicable solution to a problem." In human affairs, there's a premium on elegance.
There is an idea abroad now that some of our institutions need to be very selective, to have rigorous standards. The fight is about which ones. In particular, in Minnesota, the fight is about whether the U of M should raise the bar. But nobody disputes that the Nobel Committee should keep the bar high, or the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein used to work.
But I want to sound a cautionary note about selectivity in general. The most elite group ever assembled was likely the Los Alamos gang that built the first atom bomb. As I heard the story, they were still debating at the time of the first explosion whether that explosion would produce a chain reaction in the atmosphere, burning up the earth. Now I can imagine some people who aren't real good at physics, who might not even be admissable to the new U, saying to them guys: "Are you out of your f***ing minds? You are blowing this thing up before you have figured out whether it is going to fry the planet?"
I think that, to every elite group, however constituted, there has to be a back door, through which people enter who have enough distance from the enterprise to say, "Are you out of your f***ing minds?"
When the newspaper of record for the United States produces gibberish about the massive dissemination of a flu virus to which many people have no immunity, I get worried. Here's a bit from an article in today's Times:
Dr. Jared N. Schwartz, a microbiologist and official of the College of American Pathologists, said his group asked Meridian to include a type A influenza virus in the test kit, but did not specify which strain. When Meridian checked a United States government manual, he said, its team found that the A(H2N2) strain could be sent to laboratories as a biosafety Level 2 microbe, the second-lowest level of danger in a four-class rating.
But Meridian apparently did not know that the C.D.C. and the National Institutes of Health have been discussing upgrading the classification of the A(H2N2) strain to Level 3, as Canada and some other countries have done.
Dr. Schwartz said that Meridian "perhaps did not use good judgment" in selecting the A(H2N2) strain, and should not have sent the strain to Canada and other countries without checking further on its biosafety classification.
Dr. Plummer agreed, saying, "Meridian made an error in choosing the A(H2N2) virus to send out." The strain was listed as A(H3N2), a common strain, on the permit forms for customs, Dr. Plummer said.
So, what went wrong? There are several possibilities:
1. The Center for Disease Control (and the NIH) should have made this strain a category 3, but instead made it a category 2. (In making it category 2, were they in fact authorizing it to go in test kits? What's up with these categories?)
2. Meridian should have known that CDC was considering making this strain a category 3 and should have treated it as if it was already a category 3. (Why should they have known that? How could they have known that?)
3. Meridian should have known that Canadians regarded this strain as category 3. They should have known that Canadians would object to getting a category 3 strain in a test kit.
4. Meridian should have labeled the strain correctly when it was sent through customs.
There are also a couple of questions lurking here: was the alleged mistake of choosing the wrong strain a separate mistake from the mistake of labeling it wrong, in a way that wouldn't alarm Canadian customs, or were those mistakes somehow connected? By the way, what's up with a label system that makes something dangerous one pen stroke different from something safe?
Further, why is everyone saying that the mistake is Meridian's mistake, when, on this account, they were simply relying on information in the government manual? Is the problem just because they didn't consult the Canadian manuals before shipping, or is Meridian expected to make an independent assessment of the danger of the strains it ships, apart from looking up numbers in a manual? (To put it another way, would Meridian be in the clear, if it had just shipped this stuff to U.S. labs?)
I suppose if I get on Google and go hunting, some of these mysteries will be cleared up. But what worries me is that the major paper in the country can't tell a straight story about this matter. That suggests that the reporters (Lawrence Altman and Marc Santora) are confused or that the information they are getting is very messy, or both.
Let's all earn our pay, folks, and do our jobs here. Let's get picky. This one matters.
I learned from the Strib today that a U.S. company shipped thousands of vials of 1957 flu strain, to which nobody born after 68 has immunity, to labs all over the U.S., Canada, and 18 foreign countries. The experience with the last flu season shows us the limits of vaccine production.
I hate to beat dead horses, but it has to be said: there is no evidence I can see that the current U.S. military operation in Iraq is doing anything substantial to prevent terrorism. It seems rather to be inspiring the growth of new terrorist activity. Maybe it is doing other good things over the long haul, and surely it is preventing some nastiness, while creating other nastiness. HOWEVER, people were correct back in 2001 to say that the terrorist threat was real. (They focussed, I think, on the wrong evidence; the anthrax mailings were the real story.) And the war has made us simply incapable of devoting enough resources to the real terrorist opportunities to address that threat.
Yesterday, in the New York Times, Brian Greene wrote a very helpful piece on quantum theory. Here's the best part:
The very idea that an electron, or a photon, or any other particle, travels along a single, definite trajectory from here to there is a quaint version of reality that quantum mechanics declares outmoded. Instead, the proponents of quantum theory claimed, reality consists of a haze of all possibilities - all trajectories - mutually commingling and simultaneously unfolding. And why don't we see this? According to the quantum doctrine, when we make a measurement or perform an observation, we force the myriad possibilities to ante up, snap out of the haze and settle on a single outcome. But between observations - when we are not looking - reality consists entirely of jostling possibilities. Quantum reality, in other words, remains ambiguous until measured. The reality of common perception is thus merely a definitive-looking veneer obscuring the internal workings of a highly uncertain cosmos.
Greene reassures the reader that this effect is only present with respect to very tiny particles. The question, "Is Fido in his doghouse?" has a definite answer.
Today, the New York Times reported that congressional outrage had killed a program to study the effects of pesticides on babies. The best part of that article:
A recruiting flier for the program, called the Children's Environmental Exposure Research Study, or Cheers, offered $970, a free camcorder, a bib and a T-shirt to parents whose infants or babies were exposed to pesticides if the parents completed the two-year study. The requirements for participation were living in Duval County, Fla., having a baby under 3 months old or 9 to 12 months old, and "spraying pesticides inside your home routinely."
To find out whether pesticides are harmful to babies, you have to encourage parents to keep using pesticides in their homes for two years, while repeatedly asking the question: "Are these chemicals damaging my baby?" I hope they gave them a really good camcorder, with 10X zoom.
As Greene says, the quantum effect is only manifest in really small things.
Most university education is destined, as learning to speak a language is destined. For kids with resources and good wiring, the question is just: where will they go to college? And it doesn't matter all that much. Most of what any given college or university does for most undergrads can be done as well at 20 other places, locally.
But then there's the education that otherwise wouldn't happen, for students from families that don't support higher education, for students with no money, for kids with kids, for students with bad wiring. That's the education that begins a family tradition, that sets an example for a whole peer group, that makes people who had given up decide to try again, because Joe or Sally showed that -- even with all these deficits and problems -- it is possible to succeed at the U. This is education that changes the world.
Anybody who has ever tried to make anything happen that isn't destined, that isn't supposed to happen -- quitting smoking, getting clean and sober, breaking a cycle of abusive relationships -- knows that that is hard work, like labor. Anybody who has ever tried to fight with destiny knows that those who undertake that fight fail and screw up culpably over and over and over again for years before they work their way out of their problems. It is useful to remember that the problems were forged over generations.
Anybody who has ever tried to fight with destiny knows that the only help that means anything is somebody's fierce allegiance to you personally and to your health and success. Not good intentions, not ideals -- fierce allegiance.
The reason I support maintaining the integrity of the General College as a flexible admissions gateway to the University of Minnesota is because students tell me that the College holds them very tight. That kind of communal ferocity comes from a tradition, from a culture that has been found out over many years, with many boneheaded ideas discarded along the way. It cannot be transplanted or engineered or cloned.
With respect to undergraduate education, the University of Minnesota has a choice: it can condemn itself to causal irrelevance, to doing more or less well what would be done anyway, somewhere, or it can maintain those cultures within its domain that wrestle with grim destiny and sometimes win.
You can't make a university rouser out of the words, "We do what everybody else does, pretty damn well."
I knew a guy who studied old nomad texts. He was translating a piece from a mongol leader to his generals in the field, and came upon the line, "These are my orders; to verify them I send my underwear." The instructor explained that, in the days before notary publics and regular baths, sending one's underwear was the one trustworthy way of authenticating a message.
I have been thinking about issues of trust and trustworthiness lately. The University of Minnesota tries to close a long established institution, the General College, defending this move as necessary within a larger vision of higher education in Minnesota, backed by the authority of the University leadership. The General College claims its own authority, in response. The Roman Catholic Church institutes suicidal personnel policies, excluding prime candidates for ordination and leadership, on the authority of the Pope. Parishes, responding to these edicts, claim the authority of their local, established traditions.
As I try to sort through all of this, I think about the value of seeing people speak, up close. When you see people talk, you can make a guess about where what they are saying is coming from in them, about how sure they are, about how much thought has gone into what they are saying. It's different from reading a statement; statements can be crafted endlessly and borrowed from other people. But speaking is one's own thing, and it is very hard to speak without supplying vast amounts of information.
For the last couple of days, I have been attempting to document the value of the University General College by asking many people to explain, in 7-10 minutes, why the College matters to them. It's an enlightening project, one I would recommend as a preliminary to any major policy decision.
We have lost the nomad's nose, but we still have eyes and ears.