Archive for June, 2010

Categories, Links, and Tags

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Both Heli Nurmi and MCMorgan have commented on the CritLit2010 week 4 reading from Clay Shirky Shirky: Ontology is Overrated — Categories, Links, and Tags.

I can’t help feeling that the idea that search based on content and tags will replace heirarchical categories is in one sense overstated, but in another sense doesn’t go far enough. (more…)

Selfish Altruism

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

‘Psychological Altruism’ is just a special case of ‘Biological Altruism’ and the “gene” for either is the most selfish of all.

Of course the concept of genes for actual characteristics all being in one-to-one correspondence with discrete sequences of DNA is simplistic, and the “gene” for something as complicated as a behaviour pattern may involve those for many different proteins along with related expression-controlling sequences, but no matter how it works, any hereditary tendency towards “altruistic” behaviour is one which is prepared to sacrifice the rest of its host’s genome in order to enhance the number of its own duplicates that are carried forward by co-specifics of the sacrificed host (even ones who are outside its host’s immediate family so less likely to share other parts of the host’s genome).

Not only this, but the wily and misnamed “altruistic gene” has often also evolved links to behaviours (manifest in humans in concepts like “morality”, “fairness” and “religion”) which ensure that the benefits of the altruistic gene actually are *not* shared with co-specifics of the host who lack that particular “gene”! (Such hosts may take risks with their own lives and relatives for the benefit of their non-related “moral peers” and/or to punish the “immoral” – possibly even including members of their own family)

Psychological vs. Biological Altruism is the latest topic at PholosophyTalk.

[Note added Aug 10: Tim Dean at ‘Ockham’s Beard’ makes an interesting connection between the genetics of morality and of the immune system.]

Does the Internet Make You Smarter?

Friday, June 11th, 2010

I was led to this by a #CritLit2010 Tweet from Ruth Howard.

In it Clay Shirky responds to Nick Carr and others who worry that “the internet is making us dumber”. But I think to some extent Shirky misidentifies the concerns of the “dumber” camp (and certainly says nothing about making us smarter) although he does  address some important issues.

Carr and his ilk worry about the impact of web-based media on our reading habits and attention spans, and although I think that the evidence they cite is questionable I can’t really deny that their concerns about a potential issue may be legitimate.

Shirky looks instead at the concerns about quailty of content being drowned in a flood of garbage, which are also commonly expressed but not really as “the case for digitally-driven stupidity”.[1]

What I think is most useful in Shirky’s article is his claim that we will address the abundance issue by “invent(ing) cultural norms that do for the Internet’s abundance what the intellectuals of the 17th century did for print”. This is already happening (via “like this” buttons, “people who bought this also bought that” recommendations, and other reputation management schemes) but Shirky is right to draw attention to it as something that still needs work.

(June 13): Stephen Pinker does a better job of addressing the actual question of effects on intelligence.

Update (Aug 13) the Globe and Mail published a comparative review by Anthony Williams of Carr and Shirky’s books on July 16, and also, on Aug 4, republished (from LA Times) ‘The Digital Alarmists Are Wrong’ by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

Collateral Murder

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Arrest over leaked video of US gunship attack – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). The video really is shocking – especially since nothing I could see (except the camera) looked remotely like a weapon to me.  But the former soldier who has spoken out against attacking the rescue truck actually defends the original shooting. He appears to accept the identification of weapons in the group and also claims that his team did find some on the ground when they arrived (but doesn’t say how many).

It would be useful to the US military if they could support these claims (and/or show that the victims were in a well announced no-entry combat zone). Since they haven’t done that my guess is they can’t – and so the charge of murder still stands.

A Mindful Beauty – Math and Poetry

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

I have nothing to add to this, just want to keep the link.

Brain Scans as Lie Detectors

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

BBC News – Brain scans being misused as lie detectors, experts say.

And of course those who claim to interpret the scans will also call themselves experts. (Which leads us off to another conversation entirely)

I am troubled by the confounding of privacy and accuracy concerns here. Frankly if lie detection were actually possible I’d be strongly in favour of it and “privacy” be damned! And I suspect that some of the scepticism is exaggerated by those who just don’t like the idea and so want it not to work. But I am also pretty confident that for now they are right and that it will be a long time before any method of lie detection is ever proved to be reliable enough to use as evidence in court.

We do of course need to be sceptical but is there any more need to legislate against the practice than against the use of chicken entrails to evaluate a job candidate? In both cases perhaps the technology shouldn’t be forbidden but until evidence is provided that it actually does work any evidence of its use should be taken as valid grounds for a civil suit re unfair practices.

Patterns of Change – Calculus as a Critical Literacy

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Stephen Downes’ introductory blog posting for the second week of the Critical Literacies Online Course ( CritLit2010 ) deals mainly with how we describe change, and in fact it would (with some minor edits) be the basis of a good motivational piece for the introduction to a calculus course.

This prompts me to make a suggestion that may well lead to howls of protest. Namely that not only should calculus remain as the mathematical topic through which all mathematics students must pass, but that it should in fact be considered as a Critical Literacy for everyone – without which no person can be considered to be properly, or even minimally, educated.

Certainly there are even mathematicians who would disagree. Many feel that various kinds of discrete mathematics are more appropriate to a digital age,  others favour geometry and the study of symmetry as motivation for group theory and abstract algebra, and so on.  All of these do have value, and it might well be argued that a survey of all areas of mathematics is also something that everyone should have some exposure to.  But actually I believe that none of them is critical, and that while a global appreciation of mathematics is as important to a well-rounded education as an appreciation of literature or art, none of these is in fact a fundamental component of basic functional literacy. Calculus, on  the other hand, is crucial.

To what? To having any capacity for understanding the questions, let alone the answers, to any of the key problems facing our survival as a species. All of these key problems have to do with rates of change – whether it is economic, environmental, or political.

Many who have struggled with calculus may think that it was just a bunch of abstract formulas and procedures that couldn’t possibly be useful, and in one part of this they are right. Memorizing the formulas and procedures is not useful.  This has nothing to do with the fact that computers can now do that work for us, and in fact it has always been true. Anyone who understands how change works doesn’t actually need the “Product Rule”, and the same applies to almost everything else students think they need to memorize. Calculus is not these things and never has been. What it is is the language we need for describing the various kinds of change that Stephen is talking about – and for understanding the long term consequences of different kinds of change patterns.

Without a commonly understood language of change, political debate about things like energy supply and global warming is pointless. And that language is calculus.

50 (Not Exactly Honest) Ways to Be Persuasive

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

This “review” by Alex Moskalyuk of Goldstein,  Martinand and Cialdini’s Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive is rather more of a summary athan a review – and by being so it demonstrates both why reading books isn’t necessarily all it’s cut out to be, and why including links in web pages is not a bad idea.

It may be that the book amplifies on how to implement each technique, and if so and if I was interested in actually going into sales then the book might be useful to me. But all I really care about is not getting tricked, and for that the brief summaries provided by Moskalyuk are in most cases all I need to “get the point”. (In fact much of what is published in books these days deserves little more than scanning so I don’t agree with those that complain about the web as encouraging that as opposed to “deeper” reading.)

But in some of the cases where I might be inclined to doubt the “research” quoted, a link to where I could check it out would have been most useful, and for that matter a well designed e-version of the book would probbaly better serve both my needs and those of the wannabe salespeople.

Critical Literacies Online Course

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Stephen Downes and Rita Kop are running an online course on  Critical Literacies ( CritLit2010 ). This appears to be partly an experiment in the open-format self-defining student-driven connectivist type of course pioneered over the past couple of years by Downes and George Siemens.

The main focus of the curent course apears to be identifying and discussing a number of basic skills needed to be effective in the modern world. (I say “appears to be” only because I guess it’s in the nature of such a course that the emphasis evolves according to the needs and actions of the participants.)

In its first week the course focused on the topic of ‘Cognition’ and the readings dealt with some ideas related to ‘Critical Thinking’, including its history and struggle towards recognition as an actual independent discipline, as well as some items which should perhaps be included in any Critical Thinking program – namely a look at the process of peer review and various faulty but persistent patterns of mind that can confound our critical faculty (and which are promoted as tools of  “persuasion” in one of the readings – which I expect is being presented to us as a cautionary tale).

In this second week the theme is ‘Change’ – both how to describe it and how to deal with it.  Stephen’s introductory blog posting deals mainly with how we describe change and in fact it would (with some minor edits) be the basis of a good motivational piece for the introduction to a calculus course, and the other proposed readings deal with various skills needed to deal with change – such as the concept of ‘capacity building’

Stephen’s piece in particular makes me wonder about those who are inclined to regret the dominant role of calculus in the undergraduate mathematics curriculum.  For although there are undoubtedly many other important themes in mathematics I do believe that an understanding of the language and concepts of calculus is so important for anyone who wants to have anything useful to say about many of the issues that face us today to public life that it deserves to be listed as a Critical Literacy in its own right.

In fact I think this last point is important enough for me to say it again.

Why People Hate Mathematics and Atheists

Friday, June 4th, 2010

Jason Green’s response to the readings for Week 1 of the Downes&Kop Critical Literacies course concludes with the question  “how does one think critically without it coming across as a baseline of distrust?”

I actually think that a “baseline of distrust” is appropriate, but that social harmony often demands that the level of distrust not be fully expressed. This phenomenon (of people taking offense at any hesitation to accept their assertions and beliefs uncritically) is presumably related to the importance of trust in building a social network but ironically we appear to have evolved a need to be trusted that exceeds our need to be trust-worthy.

One of the puzzles of life as a mathematician is how proud many people are of their incompetence in the discipline, but perhaps it really is a social advantage – after all the one who can claim to have “never been any good at math” is less likely to bring the threat of unequivocal exposure of error which all of us in the field have to live with (and suffer repeatedly), but which most others would rather, it seems, avoid by various kinds of waffling, ambiguity, and evasion.

Perhaps the same psychology motivates those who accuse the so-called “new atheists” of stridency and belligerence where I only see bluntness (and perhaps admittedly a bit of smugness as well).

In my comment to Jason’s post, I suggest that “perhaps the key in such cases is not to deny the validity of a proposed conclusion, but just to provide enough feedback to allow the proponent to re-consider”.

Delinkification causes Frustration

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Nicholas Carr’s  ‘Experiments in delinkification’ includes (and depends for its rationale on) the following statement: “People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form”.

But this deserves (needs!) at least a footnote (and a hyperlink would have been much better!).

The phrase “studies show” always sets off alarm bells in my mind because it doesn’t take much cleverness to design a “study” which will “show” just about anything. Regarding the issue in question, it would be easy to make up a document in which links are obstructive, but it seems that Carr has just demonstrated by example that it is equally possible to make one in which the absence of links is even more so (since I will not have been able to “comprehend” his post until I have had a chance to look at the sample documents used in those “studies”).

And when Carr says “The link is . . . a more violent form of a footnote” I agree instead with Crawford Killian who says that ” I increasingly find footnotes in print text to be ‘more violent’: those tiny little superscript numbers tell me the real information is buried in the back of the book, but I’m too lazy to keep flipping back and forth. If I did flip to the back of the book, I’d find a reference to an unobtainable book or article—or to a URL that I would have to painstakingly type in to my computer.”

Killian concludes in the end that “-wherever the hell he wants to put his links. Nicholas Carr is a guy worth knowing”, and that may be true, but I stand by my earlier opinion on the value of this antiweb stuff.