Everything You Need To Know About Everything In 12 Hours

Big Ideas is an online course from Floating University. The university assembled experts in 12 fields, ranging from economics to art to psychology to physics, to explains everything a non-professional needs to know about a topic in 60 minutes.

All the video lectures are available online for free. Better yet: all the lectures have been transcribed so that you can read them. The only thing you’d have to pay for are the supplemental readings.

Big Ideas at Floating University

(via MetaFilter)

Who Makes More: A McDonalds Manager Or a Skilled Machinist?

Adam Davidson writes for the New York Times:

Throughout the campaign, President Obama lamented the so-called skills gap and referenced a study claiming that nearly 80 percent of manufacturers have jobs they can’t fill. Mitt Romney made similar claims. The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that there are roughly 600,000 jobs available for whoever has the right set of advanced skills.

Eric Isbister, the C.E.O. of GenMet, a metal-fabricating manufacturer outside Milwaukee, told me that he would hire as many skilled workers as show up at his door. Last year, he received 1,051 applications and found only 25 people who were qualified. He hired all of them, but soon had to fire 15. Part of Isbister’s pickiness, he says, comes from an avoidance of workers with experience in a “union-type job.” Isbister, after all, doesn’t abide by strict work rules and $30-an-hour salaries. At GenMet, the starting pay is $10 an hour. Those with an associate degree can make $15, which can rise to $18 an hour after several years of good performance. From what I understand, a new shift manager at a nearby McDonald’s can earn around $14 an hour.

The secret behind this skills gap is that it’s not a skills gap at all. I spoke to several other factory managers who also confessed that they had a hard time recruiting in-demand workers for $10-an-hour jobs. “It’s hard not to break out laughing,” says Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, referring to manufacturers complaining about the shortage of skilled workers. “If there’s a skill shortage, there has to be rises in wages,” he says. “It’s basic economics.” After all, according to supply and demand, a shortage of workers with valuable skills should push wages up. Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of skilled jobs has fallen and so have their wages.

Full Story: New York Times: Skills Don’t Pay the Bills

Good comment from someone on Hacker News:

I think it is important to note that the fast-food jobs with comparable pay are low level managerial positions, not entry level ones. You can start working for minimum wage at a fast-food job without any previous experience and/or skills. These jobs require very little training, and allow employees to add value almost immediately (and well before promotion to the $15-$20 an hour positions).

Contrast this to the skilled manufacturing jobs which require up front experience. Though many blue collar fields offer entry-level positions with on the job training, apprenticeships, and opportunity for advancement, this doesn’t appear to be common practice in manufacturing. Why not? I think the main reason is that it is very hard for a low skill worker to add value to a manufacturing company. There aren’t any comparable entry-level positions that allow the employee to learn while still being productive.

Because of this, hiring an unskilled employee for the purpose of training them is a huge risk, since it requires a significant investment. And since this industry is already very unstable with razor-thin margins, it’s not something many employers seem willing to do, which is unfortunate.

So maybe the solution is coming up with better training programs, so that manufacturers can hire new employees without taking on such large risks?

Other commenters discuss the paths from low-skilled labor to high skilled careers within a company that have been followed in the past. Are those days truly gone?

Previously: Even (Relatively) Low-Skilled Jobs Are Going Unfilled

Students Turning Away From College And Toward Apprenticeships?

I don’t know if this is common enough to call a trend, but it does sound interesting:

“I was planning on getting a degree in international relations, but with financial aid and how difficult it is to pay for college and everything,” she says. “So when Siemens came along and gave me the offer, it was too good of an opportunity to just let it go.

With college costs rising and student debt mounting, a group of college-prep kids in Charlotte are opting for an alternative route: European-style apprenticeships.

Siemens hired her and five other apprentices last year. These days, Espinal works on the factory floor.

“Running a machine, learning about programs, how to set up a machine for a program, also learning how to use tools and learning how to read blueprints,” she says.

NPR: A Different Road To Work, Bypassing College Dreams

XKCD Creator Randall Munroe On Making Physics Fun

XKCD creator Randall Munroe on his work, including his new What If? series.

First things first: Why did you create What If?

It actually started with a class. MIT has a weekend program where volunteers can teach classes to groups of high school students on any subject you want. I had a friend who was doing it, and it sounded really cool — so I signed up to teach a class about energy, which I always thought was interesting, but which is a slippery idea to define. I was really getting into the nuts and bolts of what energy is, and it was a lot of fun — but when I started to get into the normal lecture part of the class, it felt kind of dry, and I could tell the kids weren’t super into it. And then we got to a part where I brought up an example — I think it was Yoda in Star Wars. And they got really excited about that. And then they started throwing out more questions about different movies — like, “When the Eye of Sauron exploded at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and knocked people over from this far away, can we tell how big a blast that was?” They got really excited about that — and I had a lot more fun doing it than I did just teaching the regular material.

So I spent the second half of the class just solving problems like that in front of them. And then I was like, “That was really fun. I want to keep doing it.”

Full Story: The Atlantic: A Conversation With Randall Munroe, the Creator of XKCD

Khan Academy Now Includes Interactive Programming Tutorials

I covered the Khan Academy’s new interactive programming tutorials for Wired:

Since 2006 the Khan Academy, named for its founder Salman Khan, has provided free video lectures on subjects such as mathematics, biology and history. As we’ve reported before Khan garnered praise from the likes of Bill Gates (whose foundation invested $1.5 million in the site), but other have been more critical of the lecture-driven approach. Thus far the site has only included prerecorded lectures that offered no feedback or interaction.

That’s changing today with Khan Academy’s new computer science section.

The tutorials are interactive and live entirely in the browser. Instead of a video, each lesson contains a pane on the left side for students to enter code and a pane on the right that displays the output. The first lesson walks students through the process of writing code that will draw a face in the right pane. After learning to generate graphics, students work up to animation and eventually to games, such as a Pac-Man clone.

Rather than have students write code and then run it to see if it works, the results of changes are displayed in the right pane immediately, providing immediate feedback. The lessons also include tips for solving common beginner problems.

Wired: Coders Get Instant Gratification With Khan Academy Programming


Ending the Tyranny of the Lecture

Author Teaches Kids to Code Without Computers

Academia vs. the Private Sector for Science Jobs

I write often about the need for more STEM education in order to match graduates with actual jobs, but the reality is that the “S” part of the acronym doesn’t necessarily have a lot of openings. At least not in academia. Julianne Dalcanton writes:

Recent reports and articles have generated a lot of buzz about the difficulty of finding employment in the sciences. These articles mirror the anxieties of the young astronomy community with whom I am most familiar. Scientists are not stupid and are pretty good with data, so they can look at the number of graduate students, the number of postdoctoral positions, and the number of faculty ads, and correctly assess that the odds of winding up with a long-term academic position are not good.

However, difficulty finding a “long term academic position” is not the same thing as difficulty finding a job. Buried in those same articles is the fact that the unemployment rate for physicists (which likely mirrors that of astronomers) is between 1-2%. In contrast, the lab-based biologists and chemists (which are the focus of the articles) are not finding employment at all, or if they do, it’s frequently in a position that makes no use of their technical skills.

Cosmic Variance: Subtleties of the Crappy Job Market for Scientists

In other words, science graduates are facing many of the same problems that Phds in the humanities face. Dalcanton goes on to note that many physics and astronomy majors are finding lucartive careers in the private sector, paritcularly in the technology industry. Ashlee Vance wrote about this phenomena for Business Week last year. I agree that it’s sad that so many smart people are ending up devoting their careers to figuring out how to get people to click ads, but as I wrote last year there’s an interesting upside: lots and lots of open source big data tools.

Earlier this year David Graeber wrote about why science and technology seemed stalled compared to our science fictional imaginations and quotes astrophysicist Jonathan Katz:

You will spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors, you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems… It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work.

In other words, you might be better off in the private sector wrangling click stream data than you would be grinding out proposals to do essentially nothing in academia. Le sigh.

Texas GOP Opposes Teaching Critical Thinking Skills?

The Republican Party of Texas put the following into its 2012 platform:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.


Contacted by TPM on Thursday, Republican Party of Texas (RPT) Communications Director Chris Elam said the “critical thinking skills” language made it into the platform by mistake.

“[The chairman of the Education Subcommittee] indicated that it was an oversight of the committee, that the plank should not have included ‘critical thinking skills’ after ‘values clarification,’” Elam said. “And it was not the intent of the subcommittee to present a plank that would have indicated that the RPT in any way opposed the development of critical thinking skills.”

Elam said the members of the subcommittee “regret” the oversight, but because the mistake was part of the platform approved by the convention, “it cannot be corrected until the next state convention in 2014.”

Full Story: Texas GOP’s 2012 Platform Opposes Teaching Of ‘Critical Thinking Skills’

(hat tip: Trevor)

Even (Relatively) Low-Skilled Jobs Are Going Unfilled

The New York Times reports:

“Companies all over are having a difficult time recruiting the kind of people they’re looking for,” said Robert Funk, chairman and chief executive of Express Employment Professionals, a national staffing firm based in Oklahoma City that helped some 335,000 people land jobs last year. “We currently have 18,000 open job orders we can’t fill.”

But why the difficulties? We keep hearing about high skilled, high tech positions like computer programming and petroleum engineering going unfilled, but how could it be that more “humdrum” jobs aren’t getting filled? Later paragraphs in the story give us some clues.

Although the people quoted blame the shortage of truck drivers on the fact that it’s unglamorous and you have to pass a drug test, I think these details give us a pretty big clue:

That challenge is magnified because insurance companies typically require drivers to have up to two years of experience driving a truck before they will cover them, Mr. Hoag said. While larger companies can afford to train drivers, Mr. Hoag said he relied on Craigslist and a Minneapolis recruiter to find them — but the recruiter, he said, “is struggling to find people, too.”

How are people supposed to get two years of experience if no one will insure them without two years of experience? How do employers expect to find “qualified” truckers if they’re not willing to spend money on training? Trucking is a lonely, often miserable job but I’m sure there are millions of unemployed Americans who can pass a drug test and would love the opportunity to support their families on a trucker’s wage.

There’s apparently a shortage of machine operators as well:

Mr. Greenblatt currently has five openings for machine operators, positions that don’t require college degrees but pay, on average, about $60,000. What candidates do need are skills like the ability to operate a computer, read a blueprint and use a caliper. [...]

“My operators are in constant contact with our customers, so they need to be able to articulate through e-mail,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “But you’d be surprised at how many people can’t do that. I can’t have them e-mailing Boeing or Pfizer if their grammar is terrible.”

You can chalk some of this up to writing, even if it’s just e-mail, being really hard. But this is an indictment of the education system. Why do we have so few people who can respond to customer e-mails?

Full Story:The New York Times: A Sea of Job-Seekers, but Some Companies Aren’t Getting Any Bites

5 Careers Expected to Have Shortages in the Next Decade

Author Teaches Kids to Code Without Computers

I wrote this for Wired:

By day, Bueno is a Facebook engineer. He helps hone software on the servers underpinning the world’s largest social network. But he moonlights as a children’s author. His first book is called Lauren Ipsum, and it’s a fairy tale that seeks to introduce children — as young as five or as old as 12 — to the concepts of computer science.

But this isn’t done with code. It’s done with metaphors. In one scene, the titular character, Laurie Ipsum, teaches a mechanical turtle to draw a perfect circle using simple instructions in the form of a poem. “I wanted to write a book not on how to program, but how to think like a programmer,” Bueno tells Wired.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Facebook Engineer Turns 5-Year-Olds Into Hackers

See Also

My ReadWriteWeb interview with Douglas Rushkoff on why you should learn to program.

Digital Cut-Ups: Teaching Creative Writing with Programming.

My interview with mathpunk Tom Henderson on innumeracy and more.

ProPublica Investigates Alleged Forensics Certification Mill ACFEI

For the last two years, ProPublica and PBS “Frontline,” in concert with other news organizations, have looked in-depth at death investigation in America, finding a pervasive lack of national standards that begins in the autopsy room and ends in court.

Expert witnesses routinely sway trial verdicts with testimony about fingerprints, ballistics, hair and fiber analysis and more, but there are no national standards to measure their competency or ensure that what they say is valid. A landmark 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences called this lack of standards one of the most pressing problems facing the criminal justice system.

Over the last two decades, ACFEI has emerged as one of the largest forensic credentialing organizations in the country.

Among its members are top names in science and law, from Henry Lee, the renowned criminalist, to John Douglas, the former FBI profiler and bestselling author. Dr. Cyril Wecht, a prominent forensic pathologist and frequent TV commentator on high-profile crimes, chairs the group’s executive advisory board.

But ACFEI also has given its stamp of approval to far less celebrated characters. It welcomed Seymour Schlager, whose credentials were mailed to the prison where he was incarcerated for attempted murder. Zoe D. Katz – the name of a house cat enrolled by her owner in 2002 to show how easy it was to become certified by ACFEI — was issued credentials, too. More recently, Dr. Steven Hayne, a Mississippi pathologist whose testimony helped to convict two innocent men of murder, has used his ACFEI credential to bolster his status as an expert witness.

ProPublica: No Forensic Background? No Problem

Remember as you read this that people are being put to death, or put in prison for decades, because of the testimony of forensic experts.

See also:

This post rounds up a lot of past coverage of Hayne and the situation in Mississippi.

Combine bad forensics with the psychology of false confessions and what do you get? A recipe for sending innocent people to prison.

© 2014 Technoccult

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑