Archive for May 18, 2012

Paper Airplane Record

May 18, 2012 Leave a comment

The front page feature article in today’s Wall Street Journal raises a provocative question: should the world record in paper airplane flight distance be held by the individual who can design, build, and throw a paper airplane the farthest, or should designer-thrower duos be eligible as well? This is not an abstract question. At the end of February, designer John Collins teamed with former Cal quarterback Joe Ayoob to build and sail a plane 226 feet and 10 inches, breaking the record of 207 feet, 4 inches set in 2003 by then-fifteen-year-old Stephen Krieger.

This would be a good time for me to note that I know Stephen. He is a recent graduate from the math department at the university. I never had him in a class, but a few summers ago he was one of the teaching assistant/counselors in the summer program I help run for talented high school students. At the opening orientation, as part of the counselor introductions, a surprising fact was revealed about each one. Stephen’s fact: he was the Guinness World Record holder for paper airplane flight.

Who knew there even was such a category? Though I suppose it’s natural enough. More to the point, given the hundreds of millions (billions?) of paper airplane throwers in the world, I couldn’t believe that the record holder was a colleague.

No more.

Stephen, ever the good sport, was on hand for the record-breaking throw. From the WSJ article:

Stephen Kreiger had lived through many attempts to overtake his world record for flight. But he watched with resignation in February as a challenger prepared to unseat him using an unorthodox strategy.

Mr. Kreiger had held since 2003 the Guinness World Record for throwing a paper airplane the farthest. He had won it at age 15, after a summer’s preparing by toning his throwing arm.

But here was 51-year-old John Collins at the end of the empty Air Force hangar in Sacramento, Calif., preparing for the flight of a newly folded plane he had designed, having not worked out at all.

And his plane was in the hands of a ringer: a large 27-year-old man with a buff arm.

The stand-in, Joe Ayoob, wound up and rifled the plane in a long, towering arch that came as little surprise: Mr. Ayoob, as a University of California-Berkeley quarterback, logged more than 1,700 passing yards in 2005.

“Competitive paper airplane flying had always been, in my mind, what can one person do with one piece of paper,” says Mr. Kreiger, a 23-year-old engineer. Using a ringer, he says, is problematic: “I don’t really think that’s the spirit of the competition.”

Guinness World Records NA Inc. thought otherwise. Mr. Ayoob’s throw, immortalized on YouTube, sailed 226 feet and 10 inches, breaking Mr. Kreiger’s record of 207 feet, 4 inches. Guinness in March named him and Mr. Collins the record holders.

A Guinness spokeswoman says there was no internal debate about giving Mr. Collins credit. But some paper-plane purists are still aflutter.

Paper-plane enthusiasts have traditionally seen theirs as an individual sport. The question now: Is Mr. Collins’s ringer a bad precedent, or has he ushered in a new era in which designers can focus on better paper folds instead of muscle tone?

It is serious business for paper-plane people, who compete with intensity in a discipline otherwise mostly seen as a hobby for kids or classroom slackers.

Categories: Sports

The Business of Universities

May 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Thomas Frank has an interesting piece in the May issue of Harper’s on soaring college tuition, the concomitant increase in student debt loads, and the money-making financial model of universities. The article is behind a paywall, so I can’t link to it, though a small excerpt from near the end is freely available.

Unfortunately, Frank doesn’t provide evidence to back up his repeated jabs at universities as profit centers. The article is more sketch than in-depth study. Here’s a representative passage, which follows his observation that universities rely on their status as charitable institutions to defend their behavior:

Charitable institutions do not exploit the labor of their charges, nor do they relentlessly bid down their wages, as universities do with grad students and new Ph.D.’s who take on much of the teaching. They don’t run their endowments as you would a hedge fund (or, as is often the case, invest them directly in such concerns). They don’t take kickbacks to steer kids into the toothy mouths of expensive private lenders. They don’t sell their souls for seats on corporate boards or research grants from tobacco companies or a Division I title. They don’t replace scholarly leaders with armies of professional managers who proceed to fiddle with the curriculum, funnel resources to business schools, and strive for supremacy as (in the winning words of one expert on the subject) “one among many industries that pursue intellectual properties.” These are the deeds of profit-maximizing entities. The fact that universities don’t have shareholders and don’t pay exorbitant bonuses to top officers is merely a matter of organizational detail.

Talk about painting with a broad brush! I’d say he overdoes it there. But universities, public as well as private, do need to be out there full time chasing the money, whether from federal agencies, foundations, or individuals. That’s what gets the buildings built, the research equipment bought, the famous faculty hired or retained, the new programs started.

I read somewhere years ago — I wish I remember where, and this was more in the context of the Harvards of the world than universities in general — that if one imagines universities raise money in order to educate students, than one has the model exactly backwards. No, they educate students in order to raise money. Some of those students, some day, will be the source of major gifts. Educate them and the money will come.

Here’s another passage, from the excerpt available on-line:

Massive indebtedness changes a person, maybe even more than a college education does, and it’s reasonable to suspect that the politicos who have allowed the tuition disaster to take its course know this. To saddle young people with enormous, inescapable debt—total student debt is now more than one trillion dollars—is ultimately to transform them into profit­-maximizing machines. I mean, working as a schoolteacher or an editorial assistant at a publishing house isn’t going to help you chip away at that forty grand you owe. You can’t get out of it by bankruptcy, either. And our political leaders, lost in a fantasy of punitive individualism, certainly won’t propose the bailout measures they could take to rescue the young from the crushing burden.

I like that “punitive individualism” phrase as a description of our Republican Party’s attitude toward the unemployed, those with underwater mortgages, the sick. Blame the victims.

The article ends with a remark by Nicholas Merzoeff, a professor at NYU: “I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.”

I don’t find myself feeling that way about my job, but maybe I’m naive, or perhaps the difference lies in the significantly lower (though sharply rising) tuition we charge at the University of Washington compared to NYU.

Nor do I share Frank’s level of outrage. But higher education is changing, at the least in the expectations set for it by students, parents, and legislators, and not for the better. What stands out is the growing emphasis on universities as job-training institutions. After paying all that tuition, students expect jobs, and we somehow must magically ensure it, a hopeless task in the current economic climate. That’s where the damage is really done — the combination of large debt and job scarcity.

As long as I’m on this theme, I’ve been intending to read Andrew Delbanco’s book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, which was published two months ago. He’s one of the finest writers on higher education that I know (and also a college classmate). I did read Anthony Grafton’s review of it in The New York Review of Books. Early on, Grafton sets out a fundamental paradox, with which I’ll conclude this post:

The belief that college matters deeply is both implicit and ubiquitous. It dominates upper-middle-class and upper-class family strategies, it wins buyers for magazines that offer pointless and inaccurate university ratings, it generates income for college counselors, and it sustains alumni loyalty (genetics is destiny, a fellow professor told me thirty years ago, as we thought about which colleges our children might attend and realized that we might have sealed their possibilities by our own choices). Most important, it impels tens of thousands of students and their families to spend vast amounts of money every year.

The belief that college matters very little is also ubiquitous: it echoes through the dingy mansions of American public discourse. We hear such a belief when Rick Santorum criticizes President Obama for trying to ensure that as many Americans as possible should attend college, and denounces universities as snobbish institutions, divorced from reality and focused on indoctrinating the young with left-wing dogmas; when the billionaire businessman Peter Thiel offers prizes for top-ranked students willing to drop out of college and try to succeed as entrepreneurs; when writers argue that the college premium in wages is overrated and the American concern with selective admissions rests on erroneous beliefs about the practical value of higher education. These people are all, in their various ways, arguing that higher education has become a strange ghost world, whose practices and beliefs are foreign to those of most ordinary Americans, and whose benefits, intellectual or practical, may be few.

Categories: Economics, Education