Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods plans approved

tl;dr: I testify in support of the plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods and the Planning Board approves it (note: correlation is not causation), Inner Arbor haters gonna hate, and Brad Canfield of Merriweather shocks me.

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend and testify at the Howard County Planning Board meeting last night at which the Board unanimously approved site development plan SDP-14-073 [PDF] for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, the project otherwise known as the Inner Arbor plan. Here’s a lightly-edited copy of my testimony:

Good evening. I’m speaking in support of SDP-14-073. I previously submitted written testimony to the Board; tonight I want to comment some more on the plan.

I did not closely follow the Board’s consideration of the final development plan, but since then I’ve read the documents relating to its decision. I believe the Board made the right call in putting conditions on its approval of that plan. It’s just common sense: We need a park design that works with the natural landscape rather than against it, and one that’s well integrated with Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Almost a year ago I attended the pre-submission meeting for the Inner Arbor plan. At that time I saw a plan that retained elements present in the final development plan but also fully addressed the Board’s conditions. It featured an extensive pathway system that followed the lay of the land and minimized tree removal, an imaginative alternative to the existing Merriweather fence, and attractive and well-sited shared-use structures.

That design, with some refinements, is in the site development plan you’re considering tonight. It’s a very attractive design, a design that’s much better than I would have expected given the previous history of proposed projects for Symphony Woods.

The design in SDP-14-073 incorporates the elements of the final development plan except for the fountain, which the Inner Arbor Trust now proposes be built on the Merriweather property. I understand the reasons for siting the fountain there as part of the Merriweather/Symphony Woods integration. At the same time I understand why this change might disappoint people for whom constructing a fountain was the primary attraction of the original plan for Symphony Woods.

However I believe that the goal of this multi-year effort is not to put a fountain in Symphony Woods. The fountain is simply one part of an overall effort to provide a “unique cultural and community amenity” for downtown Columbia, to quote from the Board’s previous decision. I believe that SDP-14-073 together with the proposed Merriweather Post Pavilion enhancements will meet that goal. The Board challenged CA to meet the conditions associated with its approval of the final development plan, and create a great park for downtown Columbia. The Inner Arbor Trust has more than met that challenge. I strongly urge the Board to approve SDP-14-073. Thank you.

The Planning Board meeting on November 6 saw proponents of the plan slightly outnumbering opponents;1 in comparison, last night’s meeting was a landslide, with 16 people in favor and three people speaking in opposition. Of course this won’t put a rest to the controversy. In an earlier post I compared Inner Arbor opponents to “Obamacare” opponents in their exploitation of the issue as a way to stoke outrage among their base. I don’t expect the Planning Board’s decision will change that dynamic at all. As with the Affordable Care Act, I’m sure the opposition will continue to pursue any and all means to sabotage the development of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, with yet more contrived legal arguments (thanks go to Bill Woodcock for highlighting the latest example), complaints about the process, accusations of defiling Jim Rouse’s legacy, and dire warnings of a “disaster of biblical proportions”. (I’m only half kidding about the last one; one person testifying last night used language that was almost that extreme.)

However the analogy to the Affordable Care Act fails in a major way: We’re not talking here about a complicated government program where it’s almost comically easy to raise fear, uncertainty, and doubt among those who haven’t closely followed the issue. It’s a park, with pictures (lots and lots of pictures [187MB PDF]). It’s pretty easy to understand, and you either like it or you don’t. As it happens, all of the members of the general public I’ve talked to (for example, at Wine in the Woods) have liked it a lot. Now that the plan is approved and construction on phase 1 can start, more people will be able to see for themselves what Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods is all about, and I think we’ll find that that experience is repeated.

Finally, before this next phase of the Inner Arbor project begins and Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods starts to take shape, some (I hope) last comments on what went on before. In my year of blogging about the Inner Arbor plan and the associated controversy I have been variously enlightened, delighted, amused, critical, and indignant. However I have never been shocked until last night, while listening to the testimony of Brad Canfield, director of operations at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Assuming I’m correctly recollecting his remarks, in talking about the integration of Merriweather and Symphony Woods he mentioned that Cy Paumier and the original design team had never taken the time to talk to people at Merriweather, except for one phone call a few months after the Columbia Association had rejected the original park design in favor of the Inner Arbor concept.

I quite honestly find that to be mind-boggling. On the one hand you have Merriweather Post Pavilion, the most well-known and best-loved feature of Columbia to the world at large, and a key element in making Howard County an attractive place for businesses and residents. (I believe it was Dick Story who last night noted that while other jurisdictions promoting economic development have universities to help them stand out from the crowd, Howard County has Merriweather.) On the other hand you have Symphony Woods, a largely under-used property whose main function over the past 40+ years has been to serve as a surrounding environment and gateway to Merriweather. If a design team working on a plan for Symphony Woods seemingly doesn’t show any interest whatsoever in working with the Merriweather Post Pavilion operators to figure out ways they could mutually enhance the combination of properties, that speaks volumes to me about that team’s insularity, misplaced priorities, and inability to create a design worthy of what downtown Columbia could become.

Thank goodness there were other people more in touch with the realities of present-day Columbia and Howard County, people who were willing to go out of their way to imagine a better future for Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods, and did the work and took the risks to start us on a path to making that future a reality. Thank you, everyone, I’m excited to see where we go from here.


1. The numbers were a bit off because some people nominally listed as opposing the plan didn’t actually speak about the plan itself, but instead complained about various aspects of how the plan came to be (for example, that CA didn’t put the design out to competitive bid).

I support the plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods

tl;dr: Dear Planning Board: I support SDP-14-073, the site development plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, and you should too. (signed) Frank

As previously noted by Bill Woodcock and Julia McCready, tonight (Thursday, November 6 at 7 pm) is the meeting [PDF] of the Howard County Planning Board to consider (among other things) SDP-14-073, the site development plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, otherwise known as the Inner Arbor plan, as submitted by the Inner Arbor Trust. I hope to be able to be at the meeting to express my support of the plan, but just in case I’m not able to do that I also submitted written testimony to the Planning Board earlier today, as follows:

To the members of the Howard County Planning Board:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on SDP-14-073, the site development plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods. As a longtime independent observer of the work of the Inner Arbor Trust I believe that SDP-14-073 provides a complete and detailed blueprint for a beautiful and functional cultural park. This blueprint more than fulfills the vision and requirements laid out in the Downtown Columbia Plan and the neighborhood design guidelines. In particular SDP-14-073 represents a considerable advance over the final development plan FDP-DC-MSW-1 previously reviewed by the Planning Board. The plan respects the natural landscape of the site and its status as a special place within downtown Columbia, and the various park features display a consistent degree of design excellence, as attested to by the unanimous approval of the Design Advisory Panel and the comments made by its members.

With respect to the conditions put on approval of FDP-DC-MSW-1 by the Planning Board, SDP- 14-073 meets not only the letter of those conditions but their spirit as well. Not only does the plan minimize tree removal through careful siting of the various park features, it provides an extensive system of meandering paths on which visitors can fully enjoy the natural setting of those features. In sum, the plan works with the landscape, not against it.

SDP-14-073 also shows the result of the requested coordination regarding integration of the park and its features with Merriweather Post Pavilion, making the overall Merriweather-Symphony Woods neighborhood the “unique cultural and community amenity” referred to in the previous Planning Board decision. The Chrysalis shared-use amphitheater proposed for Phase 1 will provide a suitable second venue to Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Butterfly guest services building is well-sited to serve visitors to both the pavilion and the Chrysalis (and displays an architectural excellence not found in the existing Merriweather outbuildings), and the Caterpillar “living berm” is an imaginative solution to the problem of controlling access to Merriweather Post Pavilion during events while providing access to the pavilion property during other times.

I’ve previously blogged about the parking situation at Merriweather Post Pavilion. [See here and here.] I agree with the DPZ staff that the parking arrangements proposed with SDP-14-073 are adequate for the various uses detailed. Although some may be concerned about increased traffic and parking needs associated with the development of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, those concerns cannot be fully addressed in the context of the park itself, since to a large degree they arise from joint uses with Merriweather Post Pavilion. In that regard I recommend the Planning Board carefully review parking proposals submitted with any development plans for the rest of the Merriweather-Symphony Woods neighborhood and (especially) for the Crescent neighborhood.

In conclusion, I strongly urge the Planning Board to approve SDP-14-073, including both phases 1 and 2 and the subsequent phases 3 through 7, subject to further review as noted. I also urge the Planning Board to adopt the DPZ staff recommendation and allow the access drive from the Merriweather VIP Lot to the Chrysalis amphitheater to extend below the southeastern boundary specified in the final development plan. Among other things, mandating an alternate routing would be inconsistent with the previous Planning Board conditions relating to minimizing tree removal. Finally, I urge the Planning Board to refrain from putting any conditions on the site development plan, now or in the future, where such conditions might compromise the integrity of the park design or otherwise result in the park not fulfilling its promise as a unique and valuable cultural and community amenity for the residents of Columbia and Howard County.

Frank Hecker
Ellicott City, Maryland

Thank you Tom Coale

tl;dr: Tom Coale deserves our thanks for showing us the best aspects of politics, in a world in which we so often see the worst.

Dear Tom,

True to your nature, I see you’ve already blogged about the election results yesterday and given us your thoughts on what was a hard-fought but ultimately unsuccessful effort in District 9B. I can’t let your post go without one of my own. I don’t for a moment regret my endorsement of you, and in particular I don’t regret the investment I made in your campaign through my donations. I felt they were an excellent investment in a campaign that by all indications was professionally run, focused on issues that matter to the people of Ellicott City, positive in all its aspects, and (most important) featured a candidate who was tireless in reaching out to his potential constituents, listening to their opinions, and promoting a practical vision for governing.

Please pardon me while I go a bit meta (in my usual way): As you may or may not know, a lot of libertarians and conservatives are enamored of public choice theory and its use of economic theories to explain why politicians behave as they do. Which is fine as far as it goes, but they often go on to use this as a stick with which to beat advocates of government action, claiming that public choice theory conclusively proves that all politicians are motivated only by their own self-interest, and thus can never and will never act so as to promote the public good. This, to be frank, is a crock of crap. It’s simply the flip side of the argument many progressives make, that market failures prove that capitalism doesn’t work as advertised, and ultimately is nothing but selfishness and greed incarnate.

What is true is that both democracy and capitalism work best when practiced by people whose personalities and experiences predispose them to have concerns for others beyond themselves and their “tribes”. Motivated in many ways by self-interest they may be (who would ever run for public office without a fair amount of ambition to provide a spur?), but there are lots of politicians (of all parties) who clearly are moved by a sense of civic duty and genuinely seek to improve the well-being of their constituents (just as there are many businesspeople for whom money is not the be-all and end-all, and who genuinely seek to improve the well-being of their customers). We in Howard County are blessed to have more than our fair share of such politicians, of whom you are one. I appreciate all that you have done for this county thus far, and look forward to seeing the fruits of whatever civic activities you may choose to undertake in the future. Thank you again, and the best of luck in your post-campaign life.

Your supporter and fellow blogger,

Frank

Making Howard County government data of value to us all

tl;dr: Before Howard County’s next county executive goes off on a high-profile “open government data” initiative, they (and we) should think more about what such a project can and can’t do, and how best to make it successful.

Among their other policy proposals, both candidates for Howard County Executive have proposed new initiatives to make data about the workings of county government more available to residents. Allan Kittleman has promoted what he calls “HoCoStat”, a “platform to hold government accountable” that “will link data to long-term impacts” and “measure … response and process times for various government functions.” Courtney Watson’s corresponding initiative doesn’t have a catchy name, but her “open government” vision includes a promise to “leverage technology to improve and maintain government transparency, efficiency and communication” by creating “an intuitive and interactive web portal that provides public access to information in usable and searchable formats”.

As someone who’s written my share of data-heavy blog posts you might expect that I’d be wildly cheering these plans on from the sidelines. However as someone who’s also seen my share of technology hype cycles, of which “big data” is only the latest, I also feel compelled to throw a little cold water on at least some aspects of these proposals. To be specific:

Yes, open government, big data, and related topics are hot and sexy. But in the end the goal of Howard County government is to making Howard County a better place to live for its residents. In that respect providing access to government data (and in particular building high-profile web portals, dashboards, and so on, to display that data) is a means, not an end. This applies more generally to accountability, transparency, and all those other nice things candidates are promising and activists are demanding. We shouldn’t confuse process with products: Transparency is nice, but transparency in and of itself is arguably useless.

Second, as James Howard noted in a recent post, Howard County isn’t really big enough for big data. To take but one example, systems like those created in New York City, Baltimore, and so on, are often touted as enabling better law enforcement, for example by identifying detailed geographic patterns in particular types of crimes. But those large cities have lots of crimes, enough that any patterns in the data stand a good chance of being significant. Given the generally small number of crimes in Howard County, it’s quite possible that a lot of the patterns in county crime data simply represent statistical noise and don’t add a lot of information beyond what Howard County police already know based on their lived experience. That’s certainly true for very low-frequency crimes like murder. In 2013 there were only four homicides in Howard County, and I personally knew three of the victims. Is there any significance to that fact? None whatsoever—it’s simply random coincidence at work.

Next, data without context is not that useful, and may be actively harmful. A good example is school test scores. As Julia McCready recently pointed out, it’s unclear that school test scores are actually useful for identifying “good” schools versus “bad” schools. It’s quite possible that test scores for a given school are simply reflecting the characteristics of the students who go to that school, and not whether that school is better than others in educating students. A system that doesn’t provide context for data is a system whose data is likely to be misinterpreted and misused.

Related to the previous point, data without (policy) experimentation is also not all that useful. Data in and of itself isn’t necessarily that informative about what policies should be implemented, because it doesn’t necessarily indicate which underlying factors are driving the results we see, and how we migh achieve better results. Determining that typically requires actually making some policy changes to see what happens, and doing so in a controlled manner that permits some statistically valid conclusions to be drawn. (See for example Jim Manzi’s book Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society.) But making policy changes is hard enough in the first place; doing randomized controlled trials of different policy options (especially when one option in a proper trial is “do nothing”) is even more difficult. (It’s the same phenomenon as with drug trials: No one wants to be in the group taking the placebo.)

Finally, all the data in the world won’t necessarily change people’s minds about what policies to adopt. People of all political persuasions are quite capable of holding on to their opinions and political positions no matter what the data indicates (and note that I myself can be as susceptible to this as anyone). Smart people in particular (the kind of people who like to visit data portals and are arguing for their creation) are really good at finding reasons to doubt what the data appears to be telling us. So if in the end we switch from arguing about policies to arguing about data and methodologies, have we really achieved anything?

Despite all I’ve written above I’m not a total skeptic about the possibility of Howard County doing more to provide access to government data. I’d just like the county government and in particular the new County Executive to embark on this task with a proper sense of humility. In particular I have the following recommendations:

First, start simple, start small, underpromise and over deliver. Do we really need to spend potentially millions of taxpayer dollars on a high-profile system that’s at a relatively high risk of failing to meet its goals? Why not incrementally extend existing efforts? For example, there’s already a site data.howardcountymd.gov. Does anyone use it? If not, why not? Could this site be relatively inexpensively improved to make it more valuable and attractive to Howard County residents? Could data already provided by other county agencies be consolidated onto this existing site?

Next, for many if not most cases I suggest that the county provide only data, and let the private and nonprofit sector add value to it. A lot of the data generated by Howard County government is of interest to relatively small groups of people. Why bother spending a lot of time and money creating a fancy data portal just for those groups? Just give them the raw data, in as simple a form as possible, for example as so-called “comma-separated values” or CSV-formatted files that can be loaded into any desktop spreadsheet program or open source statistical package. Then let those groups decide how best to analyze the data and prepare it for public dissemination. If the county wants to do more, “teach people to fish”: work with the Howard County Library System, Howard Community College, and local volunteers to organize classes for businesses, nonprofit organizations, and local activists in how to use common “data science” tools and how to build data-driven web sites.

If the county does want to provide its own system, please, please, please don’t do so under an arrangement that gives an outside contractor a measure of control over the data, how it’s distributed, and what can be done with it. If the county releases data then that data should be available to everyone, in a form everyone can use, and for whatever purposes people want to make use of it.

Related to the previous point, treat providing data to the public as a core government function, to be budgeted as such, and not as an adjunct task for which an agency needs to pursue “cost recovery” or even (heaven forbid) tries to make a profit center. It is not the business of government to be “in business”, especially in an era when the marginal cost of disseminating raw data products via the Internet is so low. Budget for collecting the data and preparing it for public release at no charge, not for implementing complicated schemes by which access to data can be controlled and sold.

Government data ultimately belongs to all of us, a public resource for all to use, and government itself is not necessarily best equipped to analyze, present, and build on that data. Let’s have Howard County government data be made available to all in a way that makes the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars and leverages the creative energies of the multitude of organizations and individuals in the private and civic sectors. I think that’s an approach that anyone can get behind, no matter their political affiliation.

A public service announcement

tl;dr: Vote for Tom Coale for Maryland House of Delegates, District 9B.

Before I publish my main post for today, a brief public service announcement: If you live in District 9B and haven’t yet voted, please consider giving Tom Coale your vote for Delegate. For the most part this is a nonpartisan blog, and I have a pretty strict policy of not endorsing candidates for office, even for nonpartisan positions like those on the Board of Education. The only exception I’ve ever made (and likely ever will make) is for Tom. I think he would make a great representative for the people of Ellicott City; my only regret is that I live across US 40 from District 9B and can’t vote for him. (Although if Tom wins this election and performs at the level I think he’s capable of, I think in future I and a lot of other people will in fact get our chance to elect him to something else.)

TV worth watching: Manhattan

Picture of Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman)

Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman), physicist protagonists of the WGN America television series “Manhattan”

tl;dr: Manhattan is a quality TV show about the people racing to build an atomic bomb and their families. It’s well worth watching, but you’ll enjoy it more if you remember you’re not tuned to the History Channel.

Sometimes people say that a particular TV show is “the best thing you’re not watching”. With respect to Manhattan the second part of this is certainly true; the show’s ratings are pretty low, even in this age of niche shows and fragmented audiences. The first part I can’t definitively speak for, since I don’t watch a lot of TV, but in general I like Manhattan and definitely recommend you check it out—hence this blog post.

Briefly, Manhattan is a (very heavily) fictionalized telling of the race to create the first atomic bomb, focusing on the scientific community at Los Alamos, New Mexico. It’s about the actual Manhattan project in the same sense that the movie MASH was about the real-life Korean War—just as MASH used an early-1950s setting to explore 1960s Vietnam-era attitudes, Manhattan is an effort to search for the roots of the post-9/11 “war on terror” and its subsequent fallout (Guantanamo Bay, Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, and so on) in the secret World War II-era scientific and engineering efforts that led to the creation of the national security establishment and the military-industrial complex.1

Picture of the Los Alamos entrance on the set of Manhattan

The entrance to the Los Alamos “tech area” on the WGN America television series Manhattan

It’s a pretty weighty premise for a TV show, and the scientific nature of a lot of the plot is a further barrier for prospective viewers just looking for an hour’s entertainment. (For example, one of the major plot points hinges on the fact that the element plutonium used in atomic weapons has multiple isotopes, one of which, P-240, undergoes spontaneous fission much more readily than the more common isotope P-239.2) The show is produced by the fledging network WGN America, apparently in an attempt to establish itself as a serious player in the “prestige television” market, similar to what Mad Men did for AMC.

Unfortunately 1940s physicists are not as relatable to most people as 1960s advertising executives, which may help account the low ratings. When I started writing this post I didn’t know whether WGN America was willing to subsidize the show any further, and I thought I’d be writing an obituary rather than a recommendation. Happily WGNA recently decided to renew the show for a second season.

So, why should you watch Manhattan? First, the historical and scientific background is genuinely interesting, especially for a former physics major like me but I think potentially for others as well. We all know how this show ends (with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) but the path to working atomic weapons was long and fraught with difficulties—for a while it was unclear whether it was even possible to build a working bomb. Manhattan, like almost all TV shows and movies, takes some liberties with the actual scientific facts, but the core of the story is real, and the key problems that the protagonists face are the same problems that their real-life counterparts strove to overcome.

Following on from the previous point, it’s great to see fictional characters who (no matter their personal foibles) are intelligent and competent—people you can actually believe could solve major technical problems. (Even the non-physicist characters are generally pretty smart people; with perhaps one or two exceptions no one comes off as an idiot.) It’s a refreshing change from TV shows and movies where scientists are played as overly-confident villians or comedic ivory-tower types. (As an prime example of the latter I give you The Big Bang Theory, a show that I found to be utterly unwatchable the one time I tried to watch it.)

Cast of "Manhattan" in character

The cast of “Manhattan”, including Ashley Zuckerman and Rachel Brosnahan (left and second from left) as Charlie and Abby Isaacs, and John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams (fifth and sixth from left) as Frank and Liza Winter.

Finally, the cast (of mostly unknowns, at least to me) is almost uniformly excellent. The actors portraying the main protagonists do a particularly good job in my opinion, but really pretty much everyone in the main cast is spot-on. They’re helped out by the writing; I can think of only a few instances where the combination of writing and actor came off as somewhat cartoonish.

Manhttan is by no means a perfect show. A lot of people commenting on the Facebook page take issue with the ”soap opera” aspects of the show. Some of this is attributable to the desire of the show’s creators to highlight the human drama inherent in being uprooted from normal life and plopped in the middle of a jerry-built secret city in the middle of the New Mexico desert, especially for spouses and children left behind while the (mostly) men-folk went off to “the Hill” to toil on tasks they couldn’t talk about when they came back home for the night.

Some of it is also due to trying to keep viewers from fuzzing out during the science-y parts, in anticipation of some juicy action and intrigue to follow. As one example, there have been two deaths by gunshot thus far, which is one more than occurred during the entire history of the Manhattan project, an enterprise that employed 130,000 people at its height.

Another issue is that Manhattan (like many other TV series and movies) often anachronistically projects back into a former time the attitudes and issues of the present-day. For example, as noted above a premise of the show in exploring the roots of present-day secrecy in the race to build an atomic bomb. But in fact the real-life scientists in Los Alamos apparently weren’t quite as oppressed by security concerns as the fictional scientists on the show, and for the most part behaved as scientists typically do in terms of sharing information and cooperating amongst themselves. (That would change, but not until after World War II when the Cold War began in earnest.)

The show also touches on various social issues, pretty much all of which get the standard “Hollywood liberal” treatment. Again, there’s a partial excuse for this, since the scientists at Los Alamos were part of an American intelligentsia that even in the 1940s was pretty socially liberal, but it sometimes comes across as a bit didactic.3

These issues keep Manhattan from being truly great in my opinion, but it’s still one of the better shows I’ve seen in the past few years. Tonight is the season finale (at 10 pm Eastern on WGN America, channels 29 and 568 on FiOS TV in Howard County), but if you’re like me you can catch it on Hulu at your convenience.

For those interested in reading more about the show, unfortunately unlike many other “prestige” shows Manhattan hasn’t gotten a lot of attention on pop-culture sites. The best sources for commentrary and recaps are at science writer Jennifer Oulette’s “Cocktail Party Physics” blog, the “Science Fact vs. Fiction” section on the web site of Popular Mechanics magazine, and on the web site of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit seeking to preserve historical sites and records associated with the Manhattan project. (The latter is a worthy project to which I recently donated.) The Los Alamos Historical Society also has some interesting material contrasting the show’s vision of Los Alamos compared to the real thing.

If you do decide to try out Manhattan I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, and if so we can look forward together to the second season.


1. See for example this interview with the show’s creator, Sam Shaw: “What I discovered … is that the birth of the atomic bomb … was also really the birth of the military-industrial complex, the birth of the American security apparatus. It’s the birth of secrecy at a national level as it exists right now.”

The Manhattan project was actually just one component of this birth. Others included the creation and large-scale deployment of radar, the British project to break the German Enigma code–itself to be explored in the upcoming movie The Imitation Game—and the parallel creation of the National Security Agency and other agencies that today make up what insiders call “the IC” (“intelligence community”).

2. I was a physics major, spent a semester in college working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (one of the three main Manhattan Project sites), and have seen a working nuclear reactor up close and personal. But even I didn’t know (or had forgotten) about the plutonium isotope problem.

3. One social issue that Manhattan devotes some time to, anti-Semitism, was in fact a pretty big factor during that period. (For example, the future Nobel prize-winner Richard Feynman, who worked at Los Alamos during the war, attended university at MIT because his first choice, Columbia, had a Jewish quota in place.) One of the best episodes of the show thus far, “The Second Coming” (episode 8), dealt in part with what it meant to be a American Jew during World War II.

Online competency-based education

Following up from my previous post on my experience with Coursera, here are a few links of interest (mostly) relating to online education, with a focus on “competency-based education”, i.e., education directed specifically at teaching people to become competent at one or more tasks or disciplines:

Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution” (Michelle Weise and Clayton Christensen). Clayton Christensen is famous for his theory of “disruptive innovation”, which I think is useful not so much as a proven theory but rather as a way to structure plausible narratives about business success or failure. When Christensen fails in his predictions it’s usually because he doesn’t pay attention to things that don’t fit neatly into his preferred narratives. For example, he and co-author Michael Horn previously hyped for-profit education companies and failed to see that for many of them actually educating students was not the point. Rather those companies identified a “head I win, tails you lose” business proposition in “chasing Title IV money [i.e., government-subsidized student loans] in a federal financial aid system ripe for gaming”. This represents a second try by Christensen and his associates to forecast the future of post-secondary education.

The MOOC Misstep and the Open Education Infrastructure” (David Wiley). One of Clayton Christensen’s blind spots is that he tends to overlook what’s going on in the area of not for profit endeavors. In his blog “Iterating toward Openness” David Wiley covers the general area of open educational resources (or OER); this post is a good introduction to his thinking.

Web Literacy Map (Mozilla project). A real-world example of the sort of competency-based open education initiative that Wiley’s promoting. See also the Open Badges project, a Mozilla-sponsored initiative to create an open infrastructure for granting and publishing credentials.

A Smart Way to Skip College in Pursuit of a Job (Eduardo Porter for the New York Times). “Nanodegrees” are online education provider Udacity’s own take on competency-based education, created in cooperation with major employers.

Missing Links: How Coding Bootcamps Are Doing What Higher Ed and Recruiting Can’t” (Robert McGuire for SkilledUp). You may be beginning to see a trend here: A lot of the action in competency-based training is around software development, data science, and related fields. That’s because there’s high demand for skilled employees in certain fields and a lack of truly-focused traditional educational offerings to meet that demand. A related trend: Sites like SkilledUp that are trying to be become trusted guides to these new-style offerings.

Last but not least, here are some other people’s reviews of the Johns Hopkins Data Science Specialization courses on Coursera that I’m currently taking:

From a local point of view these changes (if indeed they continue and are amplified) are not likely to affect high-end universities like Johns Hopkins; they’ll survive based on their ability to select the most talented applicants and plug them into a set of networks that will maximize their chances of success.1 The question is rather how they’ll affect institutions like Howard Community College that serve a broader student population that’s looking to acquire job-relevant skills.


1. Note that from this point of view online offerings like the John Hopkins Data Science Specialization help to promote the institution and identify potential applicants. In fact, just this week I received an email from the Bloomberg School of Public Health inviting me to attend one of their “virtual info sessions” for people considering applying.