December 21, 2013

NSA Violations Undermine the US Abroad: Is this Obama's Legacy?

After the American Century
This is the 400th blog entry for After the American Century.

More revelations about the NSA's snooping are being discussed in the world press, and it is increasingly clear that the NSA has undermined US relations with allies. How much distrust it has created cannot be quantified, but every Danish person I have discussed this with dislikes what the NSA is doing, including colleagues, teenagers, pensioners, students, neighbors, and taxi drivers. All can see that some spying is needed for national security, but hoovering up all the data available seems not just expensive, not just overkill, not just excessive, but the actions of a rather paranoid international bully.  Sorry, my American readers, but this is the bad news the domestic press is not saying too much about.

Because the underlying reputation of the United States in the world has been adversely affected, news is beginning to appear about American businesses losing contracts abroad because of fears of NSA surveillance, fears that trade secrets are being stolen, fears that negotiations and bidding on lucrative contracts are being spied on, and so on. Many foreign businesses want to avoid saving data on US systems, because of these fears. Some estimates suggest that the IT industry alone may lose $180 billion in foreign business because of the NSA revelations. Little wonder that the largest technology companies wrote an open letter to President Obama protesting the NSA's over-reach.

Likewise, many ordinary people abroad wish they could stop using American-owned sites, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest, because the newspapers have confirmed that all these corporations are compromised. In the end, it matters little whether they intentionally shared date with the NSA or were hacked by the NSA. The lack of privacy is more than disturbing; it is driving a wedge of distrust between the US and the rest of the world.

The average person assumes that if the German Prime Minister is not safe from NSA snooping, if the Israeli Defense Minister is not safe, if the diplomats of the EU are not safe, then of course no one else is safe either. The assurances that  information gathered is not shared with other government agencies rings rather hollow. After all, Mr. Snowdon was able to obtain huge amounts of information about all sorts of things. There appear to be thousands of others with the same security clearance. Have none of these men and women ties to other US government agencies? Are all of them able to resist pressure to help out a friend in another government agency? Are none of them corrupt? Who can seriously believe that the federal access to information is limited to NSA?

Unhappily, this ongoing scandal may become what President Obama is remembered for. On the one hand, he spent hundreds of billions on a global paranoia project to gather more information on more people than ever before in history. On the other hand, he did not allocate sufficient funds or find sufficient expertise to put Obamacare into working order. This is bad leadership.

The conclusion I reached in June still seems valid. Then I wrote that "The problems of the Obama Administration are to a considerable degree of its own making. Presidential second terms are often difficult, and this one seems to be no exception. Think of Lyndon Johnson after his re-election, when antiwar protests dogged his every step. Think of Richard Nixon's second term, engulfed by Watergate. Think of Reagan's second term, and Irangate. Think of Bill Clinton's scandal-ridden second term and the attempted impeachment. And finally, think of George W. Bush's second term, when his approval ratings sank below 25%. Since 1963, not one  president found a way to escape controversy and unpopularity in a second term. Obama unfortunately seems headed toward a similar fate." President Obama's popularity rating has sunk by more than ten points since this time last year. Recent second-term presidents have often had ratings around 50% at the end of their fifth year. Obama's rating is 43% according to CBS, but only 40% according to Gallup.

What an irony it will be if the American economic recovery is compromised by the NSA and Obama's slow correction of its excesses. How ironic that a president who began his term with tremendous good will abroad has squandered it.

The sad spectacle seems to justify the title of this Blog itself. The American Century perhaps could be dated from 1918, when the US emerged from World War I as the wealthiest power, with the world's largest industrial plant. The US reached the apogee of its economic power in the early Cold War, but its hegemonic position has gradually eroded as a percentage of the world's economy since then. To some extent this was unavoidable, as other nations industrialized and digitized. But there is also a purely internal decline into dysfunctionality that is not primarily due to external foes. No outside power eviscerated public education. No foreign government forced the US to have unworkable immigration laws. No international agency failed to monitor and control its banks. No nefarious outsiders are responsible for the foolish tax policies of the Bush years or the problems created by the "sequester." No outsiders force Americans to purchase ever more weapons for personal use. These egregious and unnecessary errors are just part of a catalog of mistakes that would drag down any nation, if persisted in long enough. The United States seems intent on undermining and defeating itself. The excesses of the NSA are part of that pattern.

December 05, 2013

Education: Pisa Test Results, 2012

After the American Century   

Pisa rankings have been developed, based on extensive testing in 65 countries.  Students at age 15 were tested in math, reading and science. When taking all three tests scores into account, the first forty nations are ranked as shown in the list below. Note that the first three scores are for cities, not nations. Impressive as they are, they cannot easily be compared to entire countries. South Korea and Japan have high scores for a much larger sample, including a cross-section of the entire population.

In general, the top twenty are improving, in some cases remarkably. But most of those with composite scores below 1520 are not improving or only improving a little. Geographically, Asia leads, followed by Eastern Europe, and then Western Europe plus New Zealand and Australia. Well below the middle one finds the United States. There is a dismal tie between Latin America and the Moslem World for the weakest showing. The real last place may be somewhere in Africa, which was not included in the study.

                                                        score in 2009        improvement
1. Shanghai                   1783             1731                     52
Above 1600
2. Singapore                  1666            1630                    - 36
3. Hong Kong               1661             1637                   - 24
4. South Korea             1628              1623                   -  5
5. Japan                        1621              1588                    33
6. Taiwan                     1606               1558                    48
Above 1550
7. Finland                     1588               1631                  - 43
8. Estonia                     1578               1541                    37
9. Liechtenstein           1576                1555                    21
10. Macau-China         1568               1523                    45
11. Canada                   1566               1580                    14
12. Switzerland            1565               1552                    13
13. Poland                    1562               1503                    59
14. Netherlands            1556               1556                    no change
Above 1500
15. Vietnam                  1547                n.a.                     
16. Germany                 1546               1530                   16
17. Ireland                    1534                1489                   45
18. Australia                 1534                1556                   22
19. New Zealand          1528                1559                   21
20. Belgium                  1519                1528                  - 9
21. United Kingdom     1507                1500                    7
22. Czech Republic       1500                1473                  27
23. Austria                     1502                1503                   1
Above 1475
24. France                       1499              1491                    8
25. Slovenia                    1496              1496                   no change
26. Denmark                   1494              1497                   -3
27. Norway                     1488              1501                  -13
28. Latvia                        1482                n.a. 
29. United States             1476              1489                 -13
From 1422-1469
30. Italy                          1469
31. Luxembourg             1468
32. Spain                        1468
33. Portugal                    1464
34. Hungary                   1459
35. Lithuania                  1455
36. Iceland                     1454
37. Croatia                     1447
38. Sweden                    1446                1486                 - 40
39. Russia                      1443
40. Israel                        1422

Latin America (selected scores)
Chile                            1309
Costa Rica                   1277
Mexico                        1252
Uruguay                      1236
Brazil                          1206
Argentina                    1190
Colombia                    1178
Peru                            1125  (last place in all categories)

Moslem World (selected scores)
Turkey                        1386
Unit. Arab Emirates   1324
Tunisia                        1190
Jordan                         1188
Qatar                          1148
Indonesia                    1153 (next to last place overall)

With the notable exception of Finland (which declined from a high position), the Nordic nations made a poor showing. They have collectively fallen toward the bottom of the league table. If their decline continues, within another decade one of them might be relegated and formed to move en masse to Argentina.

Decline in education may well be a predictor for a decline in economic development a generation later.

November 25, 2013

The Bay Song Book (1640) Auctioned for a record-breaking $14.2 million

After the American Century 

On 26 November Sotheby's auctioned off a copy of The Bay Psalm Book, which was the first book published in what became the United States of America, in 1640. The timing of the sale two days before Thanksgiving seemed well-chosen, as most Americans associate that holiday with the first settlers of Massachusetts. (However, the first such Thanksgiving dinner was celebrated by the Pilgrims in Plymouth, not the Puritans who produced the book, but only landed in Boston in 1630.) 

To produce this book, the Puritans had to purchase a printing press and paper in London, at a time when they might have spent money on horses, millstones, or other practical necessities.This was just ten years after they first arrived and founded Boston, and four years after they established Harvard, to train clergy.

The Bay Song Book was a new, metrical translation of the psalms. The Puritan settlers included a number of scholars who knew both Hebrew and Greek, and they were determined to have a translation that was close to the original texts. The book also expressed their sense of the unpredictability of God. For example, at one point their translation ran:

The Lord will come and He will not
Keep silent and speak out.

Later generations found such passages contradictory, but they are impressive when sung to the melody provided by the Psalm Book.

The book at Sotheby's auction fetched a higher price than any other American book, ever, and more than even a Gutenberg Bible. The most expensive US book, previously, was John James Audubon's Birds of America, which sold for $11.5 million. This high value is not due to the psalm book's quality as an example of the printer's art, for there were many small errors in the first edition. Nor was the Bay Psalm Book considered particularly valuable in the first years after it was printed. Rather, it was constantly in use, and most copies of the first edition were literally worn out. 

As a result, only 11 of 1700 copies from the first edition still exist, and almost all of these are in major libraries that will never sell them. Quite possibly, the one sold by Boston's Old South Church (which has another copy that it will keep), will be the last one ever sold at public auction, unless, of course, someone discovers one more in their attic. If you find one, do not toss it in the trash, no matter how battered, because this copy sold for $14.2 million. 

November 09, 2013

Technology: The Machine in the Garden, 50th Anniversary

 After the American Century

Remarks at MIT celebrating the fiftieth anniversary 
of the publication of
Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden


I first heard about The Machine in the Garden when a freshman at Amherst College in 1964. I saw it reviewed in the local newspaper, and I went out and bought a copy in hard cover, as a Christmas present for my father. He was interested in the history of technology, but I was not, or so I thought. I did not consider reading it myself, until I had a course with Leo Marx the following year. 

Amherst prides itself on a low student-faculty ratio and small classes. But Professor Marx’s survey of American literature was so popular that he taught in the largest lecture room on campus. About 150 students took the course every year, which meant that about half of all the Amherst student body chose to take it. He lectured on the Puritans, natural depravity, attempts to define "what is an American" from Crévecoeur onwards, the pastoral dream of America, the madness of Ahab in Moby Dick, Thoreau's theory of civil disobedience, and Whitman's barbaric yawp heard over the rooftops of the world. For those of us taking the course, this literature often seemed to be a meta-commentary on our times. The generals in the Pentagon were our Ahabs, the leaders of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements our Thoreaus, and Bob Dylan was our version of Whitman’s barbaric yawp. Our best hope, it seemed, was to survive the coming apocalypse as the Ishmaels of our generation. This was not the thrust of Professor Marx's course, I hasten to add, which was a most inspiring and coherent set of lectures on nineteenth century literature.  I then bought a second copy of The Machine in the Garden, by then in paperback. Reading it, I could hear Leo’s wonderfully engaging voice, which at times has an almost hypnotic quality when he reads from and explicates literature. The survey course made such an impression that his seminars were oversubscribed, and I was one of the lucky 20 who managed to get into one of them.

When each Amherst class graduated, the custom was to select a faculty member as an honorary member of the class. Shortly before graduation the faculty member selected gave a final lecture to the entire class in the College chapel. My class of 1968 selected Leo Marx, and he lectured on technology in American society, with considerable reference to Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Human Development, which had appeared the previous year. I cannot claim to recall his argument in detail, but it linked the themes of  The Machine in the Garden with sociology and philosophy, notably Martin Heidigger’s understanding that the essence of technology lies in the mind not the machine. The tensions analyzed in The Machine and the Garden were not new, but had emerged in antiquity, as with Mumford’s example was the building of the pyramids. Classical references were also in Leo’s book, notably his discussion of the emergence of the pastoral genre in ancient Greece and Rome and its re-emergence in early modern Britain.

Let me draw a few conclusions based on these Amherst years. Before its publication, Leo’s book developed to some degree through his teaching. Many close readings of particular authors were presented and no doubt refined in front of his students before the volume itself appeared. Through the process of teaching, it seems, Leo found compelling ways to make his argument. The ideas themselves had first been nurtured at Harvard in the 1940s, where he studied with F O Matthiessen and Perry Miller, and where he was Henry Nash Smith’s TA. But he reworked his dissertation for over a decade. He was not forced to rush into print in order to gain tenure, as is the unhappy practice today. This is a great book partly because it was closely linked to teaching and because its author was able to give it time. 

My copy of The Machine in the Garden went with me to the University of Minnesota, where Leo had once taught, and where Alan Trachtenberg [who spoke just before I did] was one of his students. His former colleagues recalled him fondly, particularly Barney Bowron, who taught me much about late nineteenth century American literature. The Machine in the Garden was highly regarded at the Center for American Studies, and I found it useful not only in courses but also in framing my PhD thesis. Only in graduate school did I fully understand that this book was quite interdisciplinary. At Amherst the combination of history, literature, fine art, and the social sciences had seemed quite natural, but at Minnesota the faculty at these departments did not always share a commitment to interdisciplinarity. Notably, the New Criticism was still strong in the English Department, and I found that I had to defend the “myth and symbol” approach and to find arguments for the practice of American Studies itself.  To my surprise, I discovered many arguments along these lines in The Machine in the Garden, in paragraphs that had not seemed so important when I was an undergraduate. I more fully understood its importance in shaping the development of the field of American Studies. It offered a model for how to combine sweeping analysis with close readings of texts, including literature, political speeches, government reports, and much more. It was genuinely interdisciplinary, drawing on classics, history, psychology, philosophy, popular culture, and  fine art, even as it kept the main focus on literature.

By the middle 1970s when I was out of graduate school, academic fashions were changing rapidly. The field of American Studies was going through a transformation that emphasized social history more than literature and that focused on racial injustice, class tensions, and gender inequality.  These matters were not excluded from the American Studies I had known at Amherst, and it has always seemed to me that they were very much part of the tradition of American Studies that Leo represented. Nevertheless, each academic generation seems to establish itself by attacking those who went before. The so-called “myth and symbol school,” which in fact never formally existed or identified itself by that name, came under attack. This is not the place to rehearse the debates of the 1970s and 1980s. Suffice it to say that while it is true that the book might have included such writers as Willa Cather or Ralph Ellison, their addition would not have undermined or compromised the argument, but rather showed its strengths. There is an enormous difference between leaving someting out because it does not fit a line of argument and leaving something out because not all of American literature can be discussed in a single book. In any case, The Machine in the Garden has outlasted its critics, most of whom  are little remembered today except by specialists. It remains in pint, and people continue to cite it today. It is so well-known that other books refer to it in their very titles. In 1994 appeared, The Garden in the Machine (Princeton), in 2004 The Machine in Neptune’s Garden (Watson Science), and in 2001 The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place.  The journalist Joel Garreau has written an essay, "The Machine, the Garden, and Paradise" (1991). There is also a gothic/darkwave musical duo who call themselves “The Machine in the Garden”. No doubt there are more examples.

Throughout my academic life both Leo and his book have preceded me. When I went to Spain on a Fulbright, I found that Leo had been there lecturing the year before, and The Machine in the Garden  was a celebrated work. When I went for a year to The Netherlands, I found that he was friends with several people there, and that he had apparently lectured at all their universities. He had also spent a Fulbright himself in Britain, and he was well-known in Germany. Furthermore, Leo spent enough of his childhood in France to speak that language. It is difficult to find a European professor of American literature who has not read The Machine in the Garden. I could give many more examples, but one final one. A month ago I sat down at a random table in an airport restaurant waiting for my flight. At the next table a Finnish woman was talking about a lecture she was going to give in Stockholm about ecology and literature. It turned out that one of the first books cited in her paper was The Machine in the Garden.

When I bought that first edition for my father fifty years ago, I could never have imagined how much it would come to mean for me, for American Studies, and for the history of technology. As environmental concerns become more urgent, it is also being rediscovered by a new generation of scholars in other fields. It remains useful in my research and teaching. A colleague at the University of Texas told me that the new graduate students are quite interested in it. One of my classmates from Amherst, Gordon Radley who has a high position at Lucas Films, tells me that The Machine in the Garden has been influential in the formation of some of their motion pictures. If a comprehensive study were done of this book's influence, many more such stories would come to light.

After half a century of prominence, The Machine in the Garden has become an important part of  American culture. It is one of those rare books that is, at the same time, a primary source and a secondary source.  We read it both as one of the highest achievements of American Studies in its first two decades, and as a compelling meditation on the place of technology in American society. 

November 02, 2013

Education: Danish Universities Need to Learn from the International Competition

After the American Century

The Danish Ministry of Research, which funds university education, is determined to "reform." To do so, it has appointed a committee to make proposals about how to improve the universities. Unfortunately, while each member of this committee is probably a reasonable choice, the group as a whole lacks breadth and international perspective. The committee does not have a single humanist and even more remarkably, not a single scientist. One member of the committee comes from the University of Bergen, but given that Norwegian universities resemble those in Denmark, this does not make the committee very international.

According the the London Times' ranking, neither Norway nor Denmark has even one university in the world's top 116. The top Danish university is the engineering school, ranked 117, and the top Norwegian institution is Oslo, ranked 185. All such surveys in recent years have concluded that the best universities in the world are in the United States, Britain, and Australia, and there is a sharp difference between those in the top twenty or so and the next twenty. Universities ranked lower than 100 are all far behind the world's elite.

One might think the Danish government would put at least one person from the world's elite institutions on the committee. There are Danes abroad who work at these top institutions. There are also expatriates living in Denmark who received their education at such schools. But none of this expertise will be on the committee. Of course, members of the committee have visited some of these elite schools, but a visit, even one lasting a semester, will not provide the same kind of insight as studying for a degree in such a place, much less being a permanent part of the faculty.

The committee is narrow in yet another way: most of them are closely associated with Copenhagen University (currently ranked 150) and they live in the same part of Denmark. (There are some who view Copenhagen as a fossilized institution because it hires much of its faculty from its own graduates.) Three of the five Danish universities are not represented at all.

No one on this committee has the daily experience of being at one of the world's best universities, and as a group they are not likely to think outside the narrow, claustrophobic and insular box administered in Copenhagen. They will likely write a report to the liking of the Minister, who has strong views, but himself does not have enough education to be hired for an entry level position by any university. That said, he is streets ahead of the political clowns who preceded him.

If a major corporation wanted to research a problem, it would not create such a homogeneous group, with no scientists, no humanities, almost no one from outside Copenhagen, and no one from the world's best institutions.
Denmark invests  a good deal in education. However, it has a problem balancing quantity and quality. It wishes to educate a high proportion of people at university, and none of them charge tuition. This makes it quite expensive. At the same time, in these egalitarian societies there is a resistance to either establishing hierarchies or to rejecting candidates. The desire for democratization of higher education tends to water down quality, because no one likes to set up barriers to entry.

Denmark has five universities and one technical university. All are public institutions, all faculty work to the same wage scale, and students receive the same amount in scholarship funding. This egalitarian approach has much in its favor, of course, but it does not necessarily push either faculty or students to do their best. The state rewards universities for quantity production of candidates, departments receive money each time a student passes an exam or completes a degree. Whether the student has a high or low grade point average makes no difference.

In almost all educational systems, the most talented students usually do well, and the occasional genius is not really produced by the system. Getting the other 90% of the students to learn is the challenge. And here, egalitarianism and the monetary incentives to admit and pass as many as possible have encouraged Danish institutions to lower standards.

For example, in Denmark receiving a BA, no matter how poor the grades, entitles a student to go on to an MA, regardless of talent, motivation, or achievement. Automatic admission to graduate studies is hardly the norm at the world's best universities. Admitting all BAs to study for the MA is a wasteful and pointlessly egalitarian approach to education. If students knew that they had to do well at the BA level in order to go on to the MA, both undergraduate and the graduate education would be improved. And this would not cost the state more money, but less.

At the level of individual courses the Danish system is also lax. There is no requirement that students attend classes, and they do not even need to be inside the country during term. I have had students go abroad for weeks in the middle of term or miss the first week to go skiing. Since class participation cannot be counted at all in determining grades, students need not give oral presentations, nor can teachers give mid-term exams that count toward the final grade. In most courses, grades are determined entirely by a paper or exam at the end of term.  Contrast this with any of the top universities in the United States, where class participation counts and teachers have considerable freedom in developing and using various means of assessment. In Denmark, if a student seldom comes and never says anything, it has no consequences.  Passivity is therefore widespread.

Furthermore, Danish students have the right to re-examination if they fail at no cost, and they  can take any exam three times, even if they did nothing but turn in a blank sheet of paper on the first and second attempts.  If they fail three times, they can petition for the right to retake the exam (or turn in the paper) a fourth time. Contrast this with top universities around the world, which often do not have re-examination at all but tell students to retake the course, or charge a fee for a second (and usually final) attempt to pass a course.

When Danish students take a term abroad in Britain or the United States, they all come back saying that they had to work much harder there. None fail their courses either, because they know that they cannot take those exams over again.

Danish universities also have problems in the way faculty are recruited, retrained, and rewarded,  and they could learn much from the international competition. There are foreigners like myself who have been in Denmark for years, who understand alternative systems, and who could make constructive suggestions for improvements. However, my experience is that no one listens to such suggestions. Danes seem congenitally unable to hear comments from outsiders.

In short, if the Danes really want to improve their universities, they do not need to spend vast additional sums of money. But they do need to learn from the best practices at the best universities. They need to demand from students attendance, participation, and real attempts to complete courses. They need to set better norms for behavior and set higher standards for admission to the MA. They need to open the PhD to more students and learn how to make use of PhDs in the broader labor market.

These are just some of the things that Danish universities could change to raise their international ranking. It is unfortunate that their system is so centralized and so controlled by bureaucrats, especially since most of the staff of the Ministry itself do not even have a PhD much less any teaching experience or academic publications. It seems unlikely that any new ideas will emerge from the Ministry.  One can only hope that somehow its homogeneous committee will develop an international perspective. 

November 01, 2013

Education: Literacy - OECD World Rankings puts US at bottom

After the American Century

The OECD has tested 166,000 people and ranked nations according to their levels of literacy.  Among persons aged 16 to 24 the results are surprising. The United States is only ranked 20th out of 22, while Finland is in the first position.  It would appear that the Bush "no child left behind" program might have been renamed "a whole system left behind."

How much difference is there between the top and the bottom? Japan is second and Italy twenty-first. The OECD concluded that a Japanese high-school graduate has literacy skills comparable to an Italian university graduate. This would strongly suggest that the distance between Finland (1) and the US (20) or  Britain (18) is just as alarmingly great.

It is also somewhat surprising to see a wider spread in the rankings of the Nordic nations than is usual in such studies, with Sweden at 7, Denmark 13, and resource-rich and debt-free Norway at 16. Why  should Denmark and Norway fall behind former Soviet bloc nations such as Estonia (5), Poland (8),  the Czech Republic (9), and the Slovak Republic (12)?

Literacy, aged 16-24
1 Finland
2 Japan
3 South Korea
4 Netherlands
5 Estonia
6 Australia
7 Sweden
8 Poland
9 Czech Republic
10 Germany
11 Austria
12 Slovak Republic
13 Denmark
14 France
15 Canada
16 Norway
17 Ireland
18 Spain
19 England/N Ireland
20 United States
21 Italy
22 Cyprus

The OECD also compiled a similar table for all adults. Many countries are almost at the same rank in both tables, especially at the top, notably Finland, Japan, and the Netherlands. A comparison also reveals that compared to the older generation the younger people are falling behind in Canada, Norway and the United States. In contrast, youth has improved on their parents and grandparents in South Korea, France, and Spain.

Literacy, all adults
1 Japan
2 Finland
3 Netherlands
4 Sweden
5 Australia
6 Norway
7 Estonia
8 Slovak Republic
9 Flanders (Belgium)
10 Canada
11 Czech Republic
12 Denmark
13 South Korea
14 England/N Ireland
15 Germany
16 United States
17 Austria
18 Poland
19 Ireland
20 France
21 Spain
22 Italy

Literacy is a fundamental indicator for the ability to get and hold a good job, and it correlates well with lifetime income. Poor literacy in a nation harms its competitiveness.

October 27, 2013

Education: World University Rankings, 2013: US at the top

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                         

The 2013 world university rankings from The Times resemble the list for years past, with some slight movement  up and down. The same universities are in the top ten as two years ago, though in a slightly different order. and there are no major changes in the top twenty, except that Duke has moved up from 22 to 17, while University College, London, has fallen from 17 to 21. The top 20 are, with the single exception of the technical university in Zurich, exclusively in Britain and North America. According to The Times, twenty-two of the top thirty universities and thirty of the top fifty, are in the United States. Britain is also strongly represented in the top fifty, with the rest of Europe dominant in the rankings between fifty and one hundred.

The highest ranking universities in Asia are Tokyo (23) and Singapore (26). The highest ranked in the EU outside Britain are the Karolinska Institute in Sweden (36) and the University of Munich (55).  The only African University ranked in the top 200 is the University of Cape Town (126). No university in all of Latin America is in the top 200, and only three are in the top 400.

University                   score              ranking, 2011-12

  1. Cal Tech               94.9                1
  2. Harvard                93.9                2
  3. Oxford                  93.9                4
  4. Stanford                93.8                3
  5. MIT                      93.0                7
  6. Princeton              92.7                5
  7. Cambridge            92.3                6
  8. Berkeley               89.9               10
  9. Chicago                87.8                 9
  10. Imperial College  87.5                 8
  11. Yale                      87.4                11
  12. UCLA                  86.3                13
  13. Columbia              85.2               12
  14. ETH Zurich          84.5               15
  15. Johns Hopkins      83.7               14
  16. Pennsylvania        81.0               16
  17. Duke                     79.3               22
  18. Michigan              79.2               18
  19. Cornell                  79.1               20
  20. Toronto                 78.3               19

The point spread between the top ten universities is only 7.4. Evidently, these ten are all on a very high plane. The fall in the next ten is larger, 9.1, and for the following ten it is 7.2.  After that, however, the differences between universities are smaller, and if graphed would show a flattening line. Between ranking 30 and 50 the fall is only 6.6, and from 50 to 100 it is but a little more than 10. 

Aside from looking at location, one can say that there are about 20 universities in a class by themselves, and about 30 more are quite strong and conceivably could move up, followed by 50 strong universities. After the first hundred it levels off. The scores of universities ranked between 100 and 200 drop less than the difference between numbers 1 and 10. 

The Times also ranks universities from 200 to 400, but does not issue scores, presumably because they are clustered so tightly together. Instead, groups of 25 are listed together.  To see the complete list and other information, click here.

October 25, 2013

Technology: Instability of the (supposedly secure) Danish e-boks Document and Message System

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                          

In the United States the current IT fiasco story is about the Obama-Care website that is not working to expectations, to say the least. In Denmark, a comprehensive system of vital information that has been up and (sort-of) running for several years has also run into serious problems this week.

In theory, the electronic exchange of information is making the whole world more efficient, allowing people to save time in their everyday transactions. However. I have spent the last hour trying to get into my official electronic mail box, or "e-boks." This is not the usual e-mail system, but a more secure one set up with support from the Danish state. Getting in requires not just an identity number and one code, but two codes. The mail there is about taxes, refunds, fees, fines, car inspection, insurance premiums, salaries, bank accounts, and the like. All residents and citizens must use the system, and we must use it for an increasing number of things.

There is just one problem. At the moment it does not work. I am unable even to view the log-in page, which, after quite a long wait trying to load it, displays the following message:

Reloading the page does not change a thing. Try it several times, and all of my three browsers freeze up entirely.  (Several days after publishing this post, on November 2 such problems were acknowledged and discussed in the leading Danish paper, Politiken.)

The magnificent security system that is on this inaccessible page is called "NEM-ID" which roughly translates as "Easy ID." Of course it is not easy. This system has given me continual problems from the start, several years ago. It was not designed with Apple computers in mind, and the original instructions for its use contained errors. If one followed these instructions literally. an Apple user could not log in. In the last year or so improvements have been made, however, and I was able to use it. Until this week.

I now get two sorts of messages about this dysfunctional system. The first comes from the newspapers and radio. They inform me that the software is outdated and insecure. It apparently has a number of holes that can be (i.e. they are being) used by hackers to steal information. They are  almost certainly stealing money too, since the system is linked to all the Danish banks. Apparently this is not a problem that can be solved centrally. Rather, users are supposed to upgrade their own software. However, precisely what software? How to avoid downloading something that makes the problem worse, or even aids hackers? Indeed, how to avoid inadvertently turning to a false "help" website that was set up by hackers? From what I can see from reading other web pages, the new java script that must be installed requires that I buy a new operating system, which in turn demands a 64-bit processor. In short, I suddenly need to buy a new computer. The one I have is only two years old and works quite well. Alternately, I can try to do all these financial transactions using my Iphone, which is less an a year old. But this involves downloading many documents, transferring them to my computer, and only then reading them. Opening an envelop was much easier.

The second set of messages arrives in my ordinary email almost every day. They tell me that another important piece of information has arrived in my e-box, which I can only see using my "NEM-ID." I am told that each document is important, and that I need to read it soon. This week my bank, employer, and one insurance company have sent documents.

In theory, help is available when the system breaks down. However, one cannot even open the home page to find out where to write or call. Meanwhile, electronic thieves apparently can get in and out of the system in seconds.

This breakdown is making life less secure and less efficient, wasting time, and driving up electricity bills. The sudden, desperately needed upgrade of the official web page apparently means that I will be denied access until I purchase a new computer. Meanwhile, the criminals are clearly becoming more efficient, and they save time in their pilfering. This was not exactly the intended result of installing, and requiring everyone in Denmark to use, e-boks and Nem-ID.

Where is the frictionless high-speed communication of the supposed future? It's enough to make me long for ancient times, about a decade ago, when information came by letter and telephone calls reached a knowledge person, rather than a robotic system.

None of this surprises me as a historian of technology. The utopian expectations attached to new machines and processes have continually been undercut by actual results. There were people, including the Wright Brothers, who thought airplanes made war so potentially devastating that it would be unthinkable. Weapons expected to abolish war and usher in permanent peace include the submarine, the torpedo, land mines, poison gas, missiles, and laser guns. In the 1950s automated production was expected to reduce the work week to less than 30 hours and allow people to retire much earlier.

Over and over, politicians have believed exaggerated claims for new technological systems and put them into operation, only to discover that they have unintended consequences. The Danish government has imposed on its citizens a permanent new expense (rapid upgrades of computers, printers, and software) and forced them to use a system that is unstable and insecure. There seems to be no Plan B, or backup system when it fails. I cannot obtain the digital documents sent to me in any other way. The new system is also strongly favored by the banks, which have closed many branches in recent years, while imposing large fees for face-to-face services.

The new system is convenient and it saves money for the government, corporations, and banks, but it imposes new problems and expenses on the population as a whole. If it were secure and worked as well as the water or electrical distribution system, then the trade-off would be worthwhile. But it does not work that consistently and it must be tinkered with continually.

It is likely that one day this electronic system full of financial information will crash or suffer a cyber attack. Massive electrical blackouts have occurred, and most technological systems do fail once in a while. (I wrote a history of electrical failures called When the Lights Went Out.) There is no reason to believe that the Danish e-boks and Nem-ID will be immune.

October 19, 2013

Are the Republicans a Broken Party?

After the American Century                                                                                                          

In the wake of the default, consider the divisions in the Republican Party, which does not seem to understand that holding a majority in the House of Representatives entails real responsibilities. 

The Republicans of 2013 appear incoherent. The Tea Party wing is fervent, but manifestly ignorant about finance or international diplomacy. It is also deeply undemocratic, in that they do not accept the idea that in a democracy the majority rules. They may have a good idea or two, but I have not yet heard them, nor anything like a coherent economic plan or foreign policy. They know much more what they are against than what they are for. They seem driven by emotion, with a weak knowledge of US history, especially Constitutional history. The true-believers in this wing of the party are often from south of the Mason-Dixon line, especially from rural areas and small towns. They appear to be descendants of the Dixiecrats who used to divide the Democrats over some of the same issues.

There are other Republicans who cling to the values of their party from an earlier era, and these moderates prevented the nation from defaulting on its debt. Such Republican leaders as Nixon, Rockefeller, Ford, and the elder Bush would not have contemplated shutting down the government. But the moderates of today are not strong numerically. They do not seem united or forceful as a group. They worry about getting re-elected in primary elections where the Tea Party tends to turn out the vote. These moderate Republicans are primarily found in urban areas, especially in the North and Midwest. 

Many demographic trends are against the Republicans. Compared to the Democrats, their supporters are fewer, older, and white. They attract only about 30% of the Hispanic vote and little more than 40% of the female vote. They receive only 10-15% of the Black vote, if that. To get elected, they must win decisively among white voters, who are a declining percentage of the total population.

No political analysis of the Republicans is complete without noting that they receive contributions from many in the oil business, from the medical and pharmaceutical industries, and from financiers. Republican money does not support alternative energies, consumer protection, bank regulation, pollution controls, or welfare programs. (Democrats have somewhat more support from scientists and the IT industries, and they tend to support all of the above.)

If the Republicans were to win the White House in 2016 (it seems unlikely now, but three years is a long time in politics), then their internal divisions would likely be even more manifest. With power comes the need to agree on policies and to act, something the Republican House has not been good at. On the other hand, if they lose the presidency in 2016, then internal divisions will continue to fester, driving away many voters. 

What the Republicans desperately need, as they know themselves, is someone like Ronald Reagan, who can unify the party and appeal to the broader electorate. There may be no such figure at the moment, except, perhaps, the popular retiring Mayor of New York. The Tea Party might not like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but he is a dark horse who could attract centrist voters. In 2016 he will be 74 years old, perhaps too old to run. If he does run, he will be too moderate for the Tea Party faction which has shown little pragmatism in backing primary candidates. In the absence of such a messiah, the Republicans seem doomed to internal battles and increasing incoherence.