As if concerns about the rising disparity between the haves and have-nots in the developed countries of the world, and most especially in those countries that led the industrial revolution, the U.K. and the U.S.A., were not enough, now comes a piece by Norm Augustine in Forbes magazine which adds to the anxiety: “America Is Losing Its Edge in Innovation.” Essentially Augustine observes that while we still train much of the world’s scientists and engineers, they are no longer choosing to remain in the U.S.A. and work here. The result is that their application of their knowledge is happening elsewhere. Augustine blames American culture, i.e., parents especially, and educational institutions for not making it clear that science and engineering are great lives to lead. Along the way, he uses some interesting, if not particularly coherent, statistics:
- U.S. consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the U.S. government devotes to energy R&D.
- In 2009, for the first time, over half of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies.
- China has replaced the U.S. as the world’s number one high-technology exporter.
- Between 1996 and 1999, 157 new drugs were approved in the U.S. Ten years later, that number had dropped to 74.
- The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. #48 in quality of math and science education.
I’m with you, Mr. Augustine, that we have allowed, I don’t know, bankers and lawyers — and athletes — to become the praetorians of American capitalism, but I don’t think its education’s fault. I think the problem is much more complex and knotted and it’s going to take the kind of serious long-view thinking that there doesn’t seem much interest in embracing at the moment. As a folklorist, I feel like much of my job is to take good notes and try to describe all this as best I can, in hopes of beginning to understand it over the next decade. As a citizen, I’m kind of okay with America “losing its edge,” if by edge we mean domination. I would rather see our fine country decline a bit, retreat from imposition of empire by might, and re-emerge as a world power in ideas and production of things that matter. As a parent, and someone looking at retirement twenty or so years from now, I don’t like that I think it’s exactly during that span of time that my chance to save money for myself and my family is going to be most tested.
This one minute video produced by BMW is a nice introduction to the work of Theo Janssen who is both an engineer and an artist. He builds kinetic sculptures that “live” on the Danish Strand beach. They capture their energy from the wind and use it to live on the dynamic strip of land between the sea itself and the dry sand of the beach. At the end of the video, the Youtube UI presents you with a host of other possible selections. Click around or you can visit Janssen’s website Strandbeest.
[Fake Steve Jobs](http://www.fakesteve.net/) is a bit off my usual path, but thanks to one of those odd trails of links, I ended up at Dan Lyons’ ventriloquist act. FSJ is good for poking fun at Steve, but he is also good at poking fun at the larger tech industry. In his most recent post, he does an amazing job of not only pillorying AT&T for complaining about, of all things, pesky users who actually want to use their phones for crazy things like making phone calls and the 3G network for wacky things like moving data around, but also of pillorying corporate America in general which really does seem to have fallen into something of a malaise in the MBA era. (The re-thinking of the MBA by no less than its home, the Harvard Business School, is something for another time.)
Here’s the best two paragraphs from his [pretend dialogue with AT&T](http://www.fakesteve.net/2009/12/a-not-so-brief-chat-with-randall-stephenson-of-att.html):
> While I’m ranting, let me ask you something, Randall. At the risk of sounding like Glenn Beck Jr. — what the fuck has gone wrong with our country? Used to be, we were innovators. We were leaders. We were builders. We were engineers. We were the best and brightest. We were the kind of guys who, if they were running the biggest mobile network in the U.S., would say it’s not enough to be the biggest, we also want to be the best, and once they got to be the best, they’d say, How can we get even better? What can we do to be the best in the whole fucking world? What can we do that would blow people’s fucking minds? They wouldn’t have sat around wondering about ways to fuck over people who loved their product. But then something happened. Guys like you took over the phone company and all you cared about was milking profit and paying off assholes in Congress to fuck over anyone who came along with a better idea, because even though it might be great for consumers it would mean you and your lazy pals would have to get off your asses and start working again in order to keep up.
> And not just you. Look at Big Three automakers. Same deal. Lazy, fat, slow, stupid, from the top to the bottom — everyone focused on just getting what they can in the short run and who cares what kind of piece of shit product we’re putting out. Then somehow along the way the evil motherfuckers on Wall Street got involved and became everyone’s enabler, devoting all their energy and brainpower to breaking things up and parceling them out and selling them off in pieces and then putting them back together again, and it was all about taking all this great shit that our predecessors had built and “unlocking value” which really meant finding ways to leech out whatever bit of money they could get in the short run and let the future be damned. It was all just one big swindle, and the only kind of engineering that matters anymore is financial engineering.
Tell it, Fake Steve Jobs. Tell it.