Tuesday, October 11, 2011

School Bullying - There IS an EASY fix

School bullying has becoming a near obsession to the point of Anderson Cooper making a national campaign against it and CNN reporting endlessly on it along with other media. There is reason for it if children lose their lives to it.

However, to a person raised outside the US it is surprising that for all the research on victims and aggressors, mea culpas by talking heads and school administrators the dynamics and the solution are so difficult to understand.  I can already hear the chorus of dissent and dismissal for lack of complicated paradigms and formal research papers.

Nonetheless there is a simple remedy that could be tested at minimal or no cost with virtually no lead time.  It is probably too simple to be credible to many, but let's look at it just in case.


Most would agree that bullying, in its many manifestations, reflects a fight for social dominance and status within a group and may be acted out by individuals or groups.  I will leave it to researchers of primates to explain why humans have such a need. I accept that we do to varying degrees and give various displays of it.

The first notable thing to a newcomer to this land (40 years ago) that enters a US middle school or high school is the strong social dynamics of popularity. In American schools popularity is the all absorbing priority of students except for those contrarians that on purpose reject it and create alternative counter cultural groups with varying degrees of alienation.  Popularity can be built by many means from the jersey of an athlete-jock to the pom-poms of a cheerleader to the wallet of a big spender and by the kid that has easy access to the family's medicine  or bar cabinet.  Looks and clothes and the right vehicle (including the one a parent drives them to school in) are key components to the social climb.

So, just as for everything in society, there are the haves and the have-nots.  As in any group from social and sport clubs, to greek houses, to trade unions to military elites, exclusion and limitation of membership is the means to increase the value of the membership and its benefits for those accepted: thus hazing rituals, separate and exclusive gatherings, country club fees, special handshakes, etc.

In schools the same group dynamics evolve and are fed by differences in economic means, athletic skill, gift for jokesterism, access to drugs and transportation.  Group membership is further amplified and managed by social media tools, cell phones, etc.  as tools of inclusion, exclusion and social attack.

The Fix

To that same newcomer that went to school abroad in a country where students attend from 8am to 1pm, then go home, never eat lunch at school, and study on their own in he afternoons, the fix is obvious.  School group dynamics are driven not only, but heavily by the ability of kids to group (read include exclude others) at lunch time.  In the cafeteria and in the school yard the whole population can see who belongs where and with whom building the necessary envy, desire for membership, superiority by exclusion. Just as for primates violence, psychological or physical,  enforce the group membership and relative dominance.

So an easy fix is to test in schools is to break up or weaken the cycle of group creation and control by  inclusion/exclusion: Require students to sit at assigned (randomly drawn and periodically rotated) seats at every opportunity in classes in cafeterias,  auditoriums, etc.

Forced one on one contact is not as desirable as voluntary contact, but it would teach tolerance for societal rules (for sure and also need) and eventually tolerance for people that one would have not chosen to come in contact with.  Initially such school requirement would be most unpopular, but discovering that people outside a chosen group are not dorks or geeks or dumb or poor or useless would eventually prevail.

Similarly, school uniforms have for ages demonstrated their ability to unify a student body by minimizing  aesthetic and economic differences.

This whole idea is probably anathema to a population and culture that for the last 50 to 100 years has been schooled in the American way of school cafeterias and schoolyards.  But there is reason for optimism: school uniforms have started making a come back in many public schools, with great results, for similar reasons a despite the best efforts of vested interests intent in commercializing our children into ever changing fashion objects (sidebar: Anderson Cooper and CNN  might research how many countries that score above the US in middle and high school achievement require uniforms in their schools - care to bet?).

This is only a small step that probably would take some years to have serious impact on the culture, but rivers change course according to one small grain of sand being displaced one way or another. This is one grain that would require very little to test.

Marco Messina


Monday, February 7, 2011

A National Disgrace

I just confronted yet another instance of how the US is losing the war for innovation, green technologies, sustainability and energy independence to countries like India and China despite the fact that the inventions put in play are American Inventions.   See Smart Planet - China to develop a greener nuclear reactor

How can that happen?  The usual suspects could be fingered: disrespect for science and engineering, focus on easy answers, industrial vested interests, etc.  I propose that perhaps the worst is "Failure To Communicate" and this is the most blatant example I ever found.


During the Manhattan Project a process to use nuclear materials (nuclear cycle was identified that could generate nuclear power but was not good enough for the explosive reaction needded for nuclear bombs.  Given the objective of the Manhattan Project, it was naturally sidelined.

During the 1950's and 1960's the "less efficient" process was revived, as an option for peaceful power generation. in what became known as the Thorium Nuclear Reactor. It was demonstrated capable to avoid all the most negative aspects of a high pressure nuclear reactor (e.g. meltdown, explosion, highly 1000-years radioactive waste, etc.), but gained little attention.

From the 1970's until today nuclear power developed evermore the popularity of "the turd in the punchbowl" for a variety of legitimate and other reasons.

Today it appears that the media and the voters would prefer confronting an ice age with candles than considering nuclear power generation in the US.  But what if there were an option that avoids many or all of the risks, costs less, produces more and was already tested sixty years ago?

Well,  for that option to go anywhere we'd have to publicize it so that voters would come to understand it, develop confidence in it, accept it and allow construction of this  "new" variety of nuclear plant.

The national tragedy

As it happens, that option appears to exist in the Thorium Nuclear Reactor (TNR)

  • The TNR was designed and tested in the US in the 1960's

  • Our TNR technology is now being test deployed by India and China

  • In the future, when it becomes fully commercial, we will buy it from India and China just as we buy oil from Canada and OPEC today

How can it happen?

Smart Planet reports these facts (hats off to them for reporting at all)


at the bottom of their report there is also a video surely intended to help the reader better understand the process and the inherent opportunity.

The combination of the report and that video is the disgrace I am talking about.  It is the clearest example of scientists' and science reporters' inability to effectively communicate and make a good case even when all facts appear to be in their favor:

  • The video is 16 minutes long.  Challenge yourself to listen to the end.  It will become a blur, but you'll get key relevant pieces any way.

  • Is the audio in the video speeded up to suit the internet attention span?  Hard to tell.  If it is, shame on the editor, if it is the speakers's natural pace, shame on them.

  • Did all the presenters speak at the same time?  I doubt it.  Shame on the editor.

  • The message is clearly educational about the advantages of the TNR, but you would not know it. The positive technical  details are buried in an alphabet soup and cacophony that hides it all.

  • The speakers in the video, one guesses, are knowledgeable presenters at professional conferences, but sound like drug advertisements disclaiming potential side effects.

  • Comments such as  "no one knows anything about TNR any more because all the original scientists are dieing" would dissuade any politician from going to bat for this technology.

In 1993 Michael Crichton took the media to task (speech at the National PressClub) warning that superficiality and lack of quality in reporting would eventually have disastrous consequences for the media, which undoubtedly it is having.

I suggest that by framing important issues poorly, sloppy, if well intentioned, reporting can have more disastrous consequences than no reporting at all.  We all depend on the media to make informed decisions, to support or obstruct national policies.  On a subject as urgent as the one above, and not particularly popular with the populace, the damage may well exceed the benefit.

When that happens an opportunity the voters and for the nation to stay in the lead is wasted.  India and China move ahead and we are left to wonder why.  As Crichton said, there are no easy answers, but surely bad information or badly framed information will lead us to lousy outcomes.

And that is a national tragedy.