Editor’s Note: Heroes, Villains and Tech Laggards

Loosely connected thoughts on the good, the bad and the inept

June, 2014

I recently read “Flash Boys,” Michael Lewis’ account of how Wall Street has stolen from you, me and our 401ks. I was astonished by the sophisticated corruption, and about how many people and companies thought it was OK to cheat customers and strangers alike.

I’ve read several of Lewis’ books and other accounts of Wall Street, so I should not have been surprised. Thankfully, Lewis maintains my faith in human decency by describing a small group of heroes, many of them immigrants and outsiders, who fought back. A well-told expose that is both distressing and heartening.

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We don’t have cable, so my family is just now watching the final season of “Breaking Bad.” A powerful drama about a chemistry teacher who cooks meth to pay his medical bills and slowly descends into evil.

Make no mistake: Walter White is a monster, but for four and a half seasons, the show perpetuates your empathy for White in many ways, including rarely showing the addicts and addicts’ families that are his most numerous victims. We cheer when White kills monsters even greater than himself, but don’t see the other 99 percent of his casualties.

It’s a common artistic technique I first noticed as a teenager watching “Star Wars.” All imperial stormtroopers wore helmets and uniforms that turned them into nonpersons. When the heroes zapped them, there was no emotional baggage for the audience. Only if you take off the helmets did you see they were all some mother’s son killed by our heroes.

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You’re used to hearing reports about how American youths rank poorly in math compared with those in other developed nations. Like me, you might have comforted yourself with the assumption that foreign kids simply ingest math with rote learning, and that America’s kids are still No. 1 at problem solving. Sorry to burst that bubble, but a study called the OECD Skills Outlook 2013 puts our young people dead last on both.

It’s a 462-page report based on surveys of 166,000 adults, so there is plenty to digest, but I found two glaring lowlights.

The mean score in math skills – what the report called “numeracy” – for America’s 16- to 24-year-olds was 240, last among the 22 developed countries and four regions surveyed, behind such intellectual powerhouses as Cyprus and Italy. The average score was 269.4, with Finland on top at 284.8. Japan, Korea and the Netherlands also had scores above 280.

The report also placed U.S. youth last in “problem solving in technology-rich environments.” The report defined that as “using digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks.” Sounds like important skills for the 21st Century.

We have plenty of catching up to do, both morally and technically.

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Author:

Steve Petranik