Is American Youth Wasted? – 4

What’s the matter with kids today? Or should the question be, “What’s the matter with their elders?”

[With apologies to Bye Bye Birdie]

Compared to their parents and elders, kids are early adaptors. That’s life.

The newest music, the newest dances, the newest whatever. Something to give them a feeling of independence from the authority figures who’ve been directing their entire lives. Would we rather breed robots who goose-step to their parents’ drum – or individuals who, if we’re lucky, will respect our experience and opinions, but won’t agree with us on everything?

In the 50’s and 60’s telephones preceded rock-n-roll – but they both came together when Conrad Birdie went off to serve his country.

Today – it’s social media. As soon as their parents began using Facebook, kids moved on to other media.

When schools began banning cell phones from classrooms, teens began using ringtones at frequency levels their teachers couldn’t hear. As we age, most humans lose the ability to hear higher frequency sounds. The irony here? The ring tone was originally developed for Welsh retailers to repel the teenagers hanging around their stores. The thought was that it would drive them away while not bothering paying adult customers. [This got a fair amount of media coverage in 2006.]

More recently, in 2014, the FBI published – to much ridicule – a hopelessly “square” guide to Twitter Slang. If they’d stuck to “just the facts” they’d probably have been better off.

Tomorrow – who knows? Basically, it’ll be something new and beyond the comprehension and everyday use of their parents.

Kids are curious.

Let’s encourage curiosity, not crush it with the expectation that the next generation follow us with unquestioning religious fervor.

Is the American educational system stomping on the curiosity that leads to paradigm-busting creativity?

Where would we be without drop-outs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Mark Zuckerberg? Outside of the computer field, we have David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue Airways, Whole Foods’ John Mackey and Ted Turner. The list goes on.

Years ago, Thomas Kuhn quoted Max Plank, in what I’d been [incorrectly] taught was “Kuhn’s Paradigm” – “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Let’s not take our country’s future to the grave with us.


Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers. Quoted in Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions 1970

6 Comments on “Is American Youth Wasted? – 4

  1. I think the American culture is becoming used to constant change, and the younger folks are doing just fine. Here’s a recent email exchange I had with a nephew (who is studying physics at Vanderbilt University) about a physicist building a supercomputer out of PlayStation 3s …

    My nephew’s response:
    Obviously I’m not the first to say this, but what a clever idea. This really goes to show that the next generation of scientists will have to have rigorous knowledge of computing and computer science, beyond their chosen scientific fields of study. It has occurred to me that computer science will probably be in the future, and honestly already should be, a large part of all STEM major curriculum.

    I’m also surprised that it had such a small presence in, at least my own, high school experience. I guess cost will always be the issue, but this is as good a testimony as any that cost can be overcome with a little ingenuity. Perhaps the latter trait is becoming exceedingly rare at high levels in public education’s governing bodies. Regardless, the success of this method will hopefully get things going in the right direction as far as the integration of computer science to other scientific disciplines.

    Thanks for the article,


    On Fri, Jan 2, 2015 at 12:06 PM, Michael Lindsay wrote:
    Hi Michael,

    Have you heard about building supercomputers out of PlayStation 3s? Look at what this black hole physicist did!

    -Uncle Mike

    Text, if link doesn’t work…

    Physicist builds supercomputer out of PlayStation 3s
    New York Times December 28, 2014

    This spring, Gaurav Khanna noticed that the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth physics department was more crowded than usual. Why, he wondered, were so many students suddenly so interested in science?

    It wasn’t a thirst for knowledge, it turns out. News of Khanna’s success in building a supercomputer using only PlayStation 3 video game consoles had spread quickly; the students, a lot of them gamers, just wanted to gape at the sight of nearly 200 consoles stacked on one another.

    “It caused quite a stir around here,” Khanna said.

    A black hole physicist and associate director of the university’s Center for Scientific Computing and Visualization Research, Khanna first networked 16 PlayStation 3 consoles in 2007 to help model black hole collisions.

    His research is focused on finding and studying gravitational waves, vibrations that ripple through space-time. The waves, first predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, form after a particularly violent astrophysical event, like two black holes smashing together. Because black holes cannot be observed through telescopes, Khanna uses supercomputers to create simulations of these collisions.

    Save money, think big

    Supercomputers have become an increasingly important tool for scientists and engineers, who rely on them to crunch large numbers and solve calculations too large for one processor to attempt. According to Khanna, a supercomputer performs at least 10 times as well as a single desktop computer. He refers to supercomputers as the “third pillar” of science, behind theory and experimentation.

    “Science has become expensive,” he said. “There’s simply not that much money going around, either at the university or the federal level. Supercomputing allows scientists to make up for the resources they don’t have.”

    Making a supercomputer requires a large number of processors – standard desktops, laptops or the like – and a way to network them. Khanna picked the PlayStation 3 for its viability and cost, $250 to $300 in stores. Unlike other game consoles, the PlayStation 3 allows users to install a preferred operating system, making it attractive to programmers and developers. (The latest model, the PlayStation 4, does not have this feature.)

    “Gaming had grown into a huge market,” Khanna said. “There’s a huge push for performance, meaning you can buy low-cost, high-performance hardware very easily. I could go out and buy 100 PlayStation 3 consoles at my neighborhood Best Buy, if I wanted.”

    That is just what Khanna did, though on a smaller scale.

    Because the National Science Foundation, which funds much of Khanna’s research, might not have viewed the bulk buying of video game consoles as a responsible use of grant money, he reached out to Sony Computer Entertainment America, the company behind the PlayStation 3.

    Sony donated four consoles to the experiment. Khanna’s university paid for eight, and Khanna bought four more. He then installed the Linux operating system on all 16 consoles, plugged them into the Internet and booted up the supercomputer.

    Lior Burko, an associate professor of physics at Georgia Gwinnett College and a past collaborator with Khanna, praised the idea as an “ingenious” way to get the function of a supercomputer without the prohibitive expense.

    “Dr. Khanna was able to combine his two fields of expertise, namely general relativity and computer science, to invent something new that allowed for not just a neat new machine, but also scientific progress that otherwise might have taken many more years to achieve,” Burko said.

    In 2009, Khanna published a paper in the journal Parallel and Distributed Computing and Systems demonstrating the cell processor of the PlayStation 3 was able to speed up scientific calculations over a traditional computer processor by a factor of nearly 10.

    The first results of simulations made using the PlayStation 3 supercomputer, detailing the behavior of gravitational waves arising from rotating black holes, were published the same year in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

    The Air Force is interested

    Khanna’s observations caught the attention of the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., whose scientists were investigating PlayStation 3 processors.

    In 2010, the lab built its own PlayStation 3 supercomputer using 1,716 consoles to conduct radar image processing for urban surveillance. “Our PS3 supercomputer is capable of processing the complex computations required to create a detailed image of an entire city from radar data,” said Mark Barnell, the director of high performance computing at the Air Force Research Laboratory.

    The lab later entered into a cooperative research-and-development agreement with Khanna’s team, donating 176 PlayStation 3 consoles.

    His team linked the consoles, housing them in a refrigerated shipping container designed to carry milk. The resulting supercomputer, Khanna said, had the computational power of nearly 3,000 laptop or desktop processors, and cost only $75,000 to make – about a tenth the cost of a comparable supercomputer made using traditional parts.

    Khanna has since published two more papers on black hole collisions with results from simulations on the PlayStation 3 supercomputer. Later this year, 220 more consoles from the Air Force lab will arrive.

    While the plan is to use the consoles to perform more involved and accurate simulations of black hole systems, Khanna has invited colleagues from other departments to use the supercomputer for their own projects.

    An engineering team, for example, has signed on to conduct simulations that will help design better windmill blades and ocean wave energy converters, and the university’s math department would like to use the supercomputer as a tool to attract students into areas like computational math and science.

    But the PlayStation 3 supercomputer isn’t suited to all scientific applications. Its biggest limitation is memory: The consoles have very little compared with traditional supercomputers, meaning they cannot handle large-scale calculations. One alternative is to switch to an even better processor, like PC graphics cards.

    These are also low-cost and extremely powerful – each card is the equivalent of 20 PlayStation 3 consoles in terms of performance.

    “The next supercomputer we’re going to build will probably be made entirely of these cards,” Khanna said. “It won’t work for everything, but it will certainly cover a large set of scientific and engineering applications, especially if we keep improving on it.”

  2. Advice From ‘America’s Worst Mom
    NY Times
    January 19, 2015
    Lenore Skenazy, a New York City mother of two, earned the sobriquet “America’s Worst Mom” after reporting in a newspaper column that she had allowed her younger son, then 9, to ride the subway alone.

    The damning criticism she endured, including a threat of arrest for child endangerment, intensified her desire to encourage anxious parents to give their children the freedom they need to develop the self-confidence and resilience to cope effectively with life’s many challenges.

    One result was the publication in 2009 of her book “Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry).” A second result is the Free Range Kids Project and a 13-part series, starting Thursday on Discovery Life Channel, called “World’s Worst Mom.” In it, Ms. Skenazy intervenes to rescue bubble-wrapped kids from their overprotective parents by guiding the children safely through a sequence of once-forbidden activities and showing their anxious parents how well the children perform and how proud they are of what they accomplished.

    The term “helicopter parents” applies to far more than those who hover relentlessly over their children’s academic and musical development. As depicted in the first episode of the series, it applies to 10-year-old Sam’s very loving mother who wouldn’t let him ride a bike (“she’s afraid I’ll fall and get hurt”), cut up his own meat (“Mom thinks I’ll cut my fingers off”), or play “rough sports” like skating. The plea from a stressed-out, thwarted Sam: “I just want to do things by myself.”

    In an interview, Ms. Skenazy said, “Having been brainwashed by all the stories we hear, there’s a prevailing fear that any time you’re not directly supervising your child, you’re putting the child in danger.” The widespread publicity now given to crimes has created an exaggerated fear of the dangers children face if left to navigate and play on their own.

    Yet, according to Peter Gray, a research psychologist at Boston College, “the actual rate of strangers abducting or molesting children is very small. It’s more likely to happen at the hands of a relative or family friend. The statistics show no increase in childhood dangers. If anything, there’s been a decrease.”

    Experts say there is no more crime against children by strangers today — and probably significantly less — than when I was growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, a time when I walked to school alone and played outdoors with friends unsupervised by adults. “The world is not perfect — it never was — but we used to trust our children in it, and they learned to be resourceful,” Ms. Skenazy said. “The message these anxious parents are giving to their children is ‘I love you, but I don’t believe in you. I don’t believe you’re as competent as I am.’ ”

    Dr. Gray, author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life,” said in an interview, “If children are not allowed to take routine risks, they’ll be less likely to be able to handle real risks when they do occur.”

    Case in point: His college’s counseling office has seen a doubling in the rate of emergency calls in the last five years, “mainly for problems kids used to solve on their own,” like being called a bad name by a roommate or finding a mouse in the room. “Students are prepared academically, but they’re not prepared to deal with day-to-day life, which comes from a lack of opportunity to deal with ordinary problems,” Dr. Gray said. “Over the past 60 years, there’s been a huge change, well documented by social scientists, in the hours a day children play outdoors — less than half as much as parents did at their children’s ages,” he said.

    In decades past, children made up their own games and acquired important life skills in the process. “In pickup games,” Dr. Gray said, “children make the rules, negotiate, and figure out what’s fair to keep everyone happy. They develop creativity, empathy and the ability to read the minds of other players, instead of having adults make the rules and solve all the problems.”

    Dr. Gray links the astronomical rise in childhood depression and anxiety disorders, which are five to eight times more common than they were in the 1950s, to the decline in free play among young children. “Young people today are less likely to have a sense of control over their own lives and more likely to feel they are the victims of circumstances, which is predictive of anxiety and depression,” he said.

    There are also physical consequences to restricting children’s outdoor play because there are no adults available to supervise it. Children today spend many more hours indoors than in years past, which in part accounts for the rise in childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Many elementary schools have even canceled recess, believing it is time better spent cramming children’s heads with facts and figures.

    “Childhood should be a time of freedom and play, not building a résumé for college,” Dr. Gray said.

    As Ms. Skenazy put it, “if parents truly believe children must be supervised every second of the day, then they can’t walk to school, play in the park, or wake up Saturday morning, get on their bikes and go have an adventure.”

    Some 2,000 families were screened by the Discovery Life Channel to find 13 families crippled by anxiety yet willing to have an intervention. “The parents weren’t easy pushovers,” Ms. Skenazy said. “Some were very unhappy to see me at first. But once pride in what their children achieved replaced their fears, they were ecstatic — relaxed and happy instead of crippled with fear.”

    Ms. Skenazy spent four days with each family, introducing a different challenge each day. Sam learned to cut cheese and slice a tomato with a sharp knife and then made sandwiches for his parents. He also learned to ride a two-wheeler.

    “I don’t guarantee I’ll take away all their worry, just give them the confidence to loosen the reins on their kids,” she said. “Kids need roots and wings. Parents give them roots. I give them wings.”

    • It’s a shame that we feel a need to organize what used to be organic. The more that our society lives in a protective bubble, the less it can handle life in the real world outside the bubble.

        • Never saw it, so I’ll have to just trust you on it. [Are we organizing classes in trust for kids, too?]

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