Friday, July 29, 2011

Innovation and Discovery

The merchants of Sumeria invented fiduciary instruments on clay tablets 3000 years before the first coin was struck.  Coins, philosophy, and democracy were invented all at the same time in the Hellenic hinterland of Middle Eastern civilization.  It is often the case that new ideas and the new cultural activities that spring from them come from the frontiers, not the centers.  Those centers are vital, analogous to the heart and brain of a person.  But we explore with our fingertips ...
The Chronicle of Higher Education online for July 24 featured news about a robotic retrieval system for archive storage installed at the University of Chicago.  The University of Chicago is an important school.  Like Harvard, MIT, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, UNC Chapel Hill, Berkeley, Stanford, and a dozen others, it has instant name recognition.  However, the first automated retrieval system was installed at Cal State Northridge in 1991.  I benefited from ours at Eastern Michigan University. 
“The ARC was built as part of the new Bruce T. Halle Library in 1998 at a cost of $1.6 million...Eastern was the second university in the U.S. to install an industrial strength inventory control system adapted for library use ... ” (ARC Handout; courtesy of Keith Stanger, Information Services Librarian.)
Like Cal State Northridge (36,000 students), EMU (24,000 students) is a midrange school, not special, not famous for scientific research or football.   Yet, at least in my case, EMU did deliver world class education.  
I made the mistake of blowing through criminology with a lot of community college credits.  We have an “articulation agreement” between Washtenaw Community College and Eastern Michigan University. As a grad student, one summer, I met an undergrad whose feet never touched the ground running through two short summer terms toward a bachelor’s.  He missed a lot.  I would have, too, but as a graduate, I had Gregg Barak for crim theory and then for global crime.  An expert dialectician, he can argue any side of any topic; and we did that.  He loves facts and has no patience for unfounded opinions.  Long having enjoyed tenure, he has had the freedom to write textbooks which influence the next generation of criminologists.
I also profited from having Young S. Kim for the undergrad class in social science research.  Dr. Kim assigned two peer-reviewed articles each class and he encouraged us to read them carefully, even to check the arithmetic.  Kim and Barak are co-authors with Judge Donald Shelton on the only statistically rigorous studies of the so-called “CSI Effect.”
Majoring in criminology, I had a lot of sociology classes.  As an undergraduate and graduate, I benefited from Prof. Ronald Mark Westrum, a pioneer in complex organizations, along with Charles Perrow of Yale.  Ron Westrum was my prof for complex orgs, undergrad seminar, technology in society, and social problems.  For him, I wrote papers on the FBI as a complex organization, the history of coinage as a technology of commerce, and the benefits of healthy aging, among five or six others.  
I first enrolled as a freshman in 1967.  I never stopped going to school.  I enjoy learning, of course, but working in information systems since 1977, I had to ride the leading edge in computer programming with repeated classes in languages and applications, from BASIC to Java, and accounting to robotics.  When I came to EMU, I transferred in 180 credits from the College of Charleston, Case-Western Reserve, Cleveland State, Lansing Community College, New Mexico State, and Washtenaw.  Big and small, I’ve seen them all.  I feel sorry for kids who forego the opportunity to profit from small classes, and close interaction with the actual professor whose name appears in the catalog for that class, rather than being tutored by a grad student who lacks not just lifetime experience, but deep academic experience.  
When I enrolled at the College of Charleston, I was assigned Mark van Doren’s Liberal Education. Back then, C of C was a small four-year school with 450 enrolled.  One of our professors for European history was Gy├Ârgy Heltai who worked in the government of Hungary after WWII and was arrested, imprisoned and tortured in a Stalinist purge.  The professor of classics, Alexander Lenard, published his Latin translation of Winnie-the-Pooh.  My professor for chemistry, Carl Lykes, spent his summers at the Savannah River Nuclear Power Plant.  It was just a little old college, nothing special, but a place where world class intellectuals shared their working lives with any interested student.  
Over the years, I have had the “coasters” and “dodgers” excoriated in the recent report to the University of Texas by consultant Rick O’Donnell.  But I also benefited from “stars” and “pioneers.”  Like the invention of coinage, philosophy, and democracy, or the lightbulb, airplane, and computer, excellent education is drawn to the cultural centers, but it may not begin there.  
As Plato is famous for his Cave and Republic, F. A. Hayek’s stamp is “spontaneous order.”  Ludwig von Mises warned of “planned chaos.”  Certainly, I plan to be on a bus by 3:30 PM and be picked up by a taxicab at a transit center at 4:30 PM.  I have some control over those events only because the providers have known intentions of their own  which bring me at least one unplanned order of events.  It certainly works better than going to a government office, filling out some forms, and requesting two modes of transport for a personal motive.  When the Washington planners talk of high-speed rail, they do not think of Mike Marotta’s transient desires... or yours...  
Discovery, invention, and innovation cannot be planned.  Some schools have been successful with their robotic library retrieval systems.  But I know that the system does have failures - Perrow calls them “normal accidents” - and when the robot goes down, no one gets any books until a service technician shows up.  You can plan your actions; you cannot plan their consequences.
I usually blow off Chronicle articles.  I read this one.  And it worked out in an unplanned way.  As soon as I saw the headline, I planned to write this post.  The serendipity came toward the conclusion.   
The case for keeping print within reach is more complex than fuzzy rhetoric about the joy of serendipitous browsing. The research habits of Adrian Johns, a history professor at Chicago, give you a sense of why.Mr. Johns specializes in the history of the book; his recent work, Piracy, traces the intellectual-property wars from Gutenberg to Bill Gates. When a reporter visited his bright, fifth-floor office re­cently, the bespectacled British historian had just returned from a trip to Glasgow. He was interested in Robert Andrew Macfie, a 19th-century sugar magnate and member of Parliament who ran the first big campaign to abolish intellectual-property rights. A lot of Macfie material hasn't been digitized: pamphlets, election manifestos, correspondence. Much probably never will be, because there's little economic incentive.
Now I know about Robert Andrew Macfie.  

Objective Intellectual Property Law
Copy Rights and Wrongs
Open Secrets

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