Sunday, December 11, 2011

Do We Need A SETI For the Human Mind?

The Swedish author Henning Mankell has written a reflection on the nearly forgotten art of listening, which is published in today's New York Times. His piece comes only a couple of days after Maureen Dowd's column Silence is Golden, which discusses Michel Hazanavicius' new movie The Artist, and laments "'the loss of silence,' once as natural as the sky and air." Mankell suggests that African storytelling is less linear than the European, and stands ready

"to burst onto the world scene — much as South American literature did some years ago when Gabriel García Márquez and others led a tumultuous and highly emotional revolt against ingrained truth. Soon an African literary outpouring will offer a new perspective on the human condition. The Mozambican author Mia Couto has, for example, created an African magic realism that mixes written language with the great oral traditions of Africa." 
Mankell contrasts that with our mostly linear Western literature.
"That’s not the case in Africa. Here, instead of linear narrative, there is unrestrained and exuberant storytelling that skips back and forth in time and blends together past and present. Someone who may have died long ago can intervene without any fuss in a conversation between two people who are very much alive. Just as an example."   
This reminds me of a review I read in 1986 of Timothy Mo's novel An Insular Possession, where the reviewer claimed that Chinese literature was like a lake, while Western literature was like a river. It was a beautiful allegory, but I suspect that it had something to do with the fact that I never read the book. Like so many other books I have bought over the years, it just stands there squeezed in between strangers on a shelf, sometimes making me feel guilty, often reminding me of how short life is.

But back to listening. Maybe we need a SETI for the human mind in this age of mostly mindless chatter and widespread sharing of the inconsequential and mundane.

Sometimes, when something big and sad happens, we gather for a moment of silence. But there is no silence. You can always hear the (lack of) silence. The noise is always there and technology has made us humans capable to produce more noise than ever. If the superstring theory is right - and the world consists of vibrations of tiny supersymmetric strings - then it might end (somehow) not with a bang, but with an overload of microwave emissions that causes the music of existence to stop.

Hans Sandberg


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Computers and the Near Future of Education

New York Times published an impressive special issue of Science Times today, dedicated to The Future of Computing. One of the columns discusses the role of technology in improving U.S. education. Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education is written by Daphne Koller, a professor at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She highlights the Khan Academy, and Stanford's recent experiment with placing three computer science courses online, which attracted 300,000 non-credit students.

Lee Fang, an investigative reporter and blogger, presents a radically different and much more skeptical perspective on online education in a very interesting essay for The Nation magazine. How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools

NYT Columnist Gail Collins also discussed online education in her recent column Virtually Educated.

Add to that the fact that the information divide in the U.S. (see Susan Crawford's essay in the NYT Sunday Review) is starting to look like a virtual Grand Canyon, and the whole discussion about online education becomes deeply troubling.

What to do?

"We can hardly stop the adoption of mobile Internet and mobile devices, and they will revolutionize all aspects of education and learning, but what we can do is to help frame the development and create access ramps for those socially and economically disadvantaged. As the delivery of education becomes more and more fragmented, the need for standards and a reasonable amount of fair and independent evaluation becomes critical.

Monday, December 5, 2011

On the Rim of the Information Chasm

The New Digital Divide

Ayn Rand and her followers would dance on the rim of the Grand (information) Canyon, celebrating their privileged status, claiming it was all due to their cleverness and uninhibited drive for individual success. They wouldn't even bother looking down into the chasm. Behind the mores of today's conservatives is fear of falling, not fear of flying.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dithering On the Brink Of Disaster

The tepid stimulus package got us out of the hole that Bush-Cheney dug, but we have since been dithering on the bring of disaster thanks to protracted Republican intransigency and Presidential naïveté.

The Bush-Obama unemployment story so far