The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The psychohistorian on the op-ed page

I cite Isaac Asimov’s influence on Paul Krugman a lot, but this is the most complete articulation of it I’ve yet seen—from the New Yorker profile:

Krugman explained that he’d become an economist because of science fiction. When he was a boy, he’d read Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy and become obsessed with the central character, Hari Seldon. Seldon was a “psychohistorian”—a scientist with such a precise understanding of the mechanics of society that he could predict the course of events thousands of years into the future and save mankind from centuries of barbarism. He couldn’t predict individual behavior—that was too hard—but it didn’t matter, because history was determined not by individuals but by laws and hidden forces. “If you read other genres of fiction, you can learn about the way people are and the way society is,” Krugman said to the audience, “but you don’t get very much thinking about why are things the way they are, or what might make them different. What would happen if?”



March Madness for nerds

Ah! The Morning News has posted its Tournament of Books bracket. There’s a lot of math on that page, and it’s okay if you space out or just go re-read the OkCupid blog instead. Because the important thing is the bracket, presented as a downloadable PDF at the bottom of the page, which tells us that:

  • Snarkmarket favorite Molly Young is in the first round, reading Snarkmarket favorite The Anthologist and some other book.
  • Snarkmarket favorite Jason Kottke does not face this pressure, clear on the other side of the bracket.

I predict that: Molly Young will choose The Anthologist; Jason Kottke will choose between The Lacuna and Let the Great World Spin; the final showdown will be between The Anthologist and Let the Great World Spin; and The Anthologist will prevail.

Yes: my method here is about as rigorous as it is with the non-nerd March Madness. (Wow, scope out that 2004 post. Who wrote that?)

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A different take on too much information

The anecdote Kevin Drum excerpts in this post was the single most fascinating exchange recounted in the terrific documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. This is what Ellsberg told Henry Kissinger when he was asked for advice on the Vietnam War:

“Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

“I’ve had a number of these myself, and I’ve known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

Read the rest of the quote for a sort of terrifying description of the rest of the process.

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I'm talkin' about your momma

Well, NPR is:

The average Farmville user is a 43-year-old woman. More women than men are “avid” users of social games like Farmville. Women are more likely to play these games online with their relatives and real-world friends than men. Two-thirds of these social gamers play at least once a day. One in four spend money playing them.

All Facebook’s Application Statistics show that Farmville will soon have more than 80 million active users on Facebook — 31 million of those will be playing Farmville daily…

This new data challenges some preconceived notions about just who is actually playing games online. The image of the nerdy, male, mid-thirties recluse, playing shooting games over the internet with fellow nerdy, male, mid-thirties recluses on the other side of the world might be forever shattered.

The craziest statistic? Of the 200 million people who log into Facebook each day, 15 percent of them are playing Farmville.

And now we know that one of them might very well be your Mom.



Alphanumeric soup

Every so often, Twitter feels less like a service I use than a place where I hang out — and one of the users that I feel like I would love to hang out with (in that sort of detatched, ambient way one does in, say, a college dorm or TA office) is Tom Henderson, aka @mathpunk. At some point in the not-too-distant past, I found him or he found me. Yesterday, I was delighted to be pointed (also via Twitter, but not by Tom) to an interview he gave where he sketches a bit of what he’s about:

Many students want teachers to “show me the steps.”

They want a sequence of steps that they can perform that will give them an answer. This is not unreasonable; they know that their performance on exams, and therefore their performance on the All-Seeing Grade Point Average, is largely determined by being able to Do The Steps.

But “The Steps” are cargo cult mathematics.

The Steps are seeing the sorts of symbols that count as “right”, and trying to replicate that dance of steps. It turns out that the easiest thing in the world is to look at a student’s work, and tell the difference between “Knows what’s going on, made mistakes and dozed off” vs. “Can memorize steps, has no idea what’s going on.”

Now, the way that I explain mathematics, it sort of looks like I’m torturing the poor bastards. I handwave. I refer to certain groupings of symbols as “Alphabet soup” and write it down as a wild scribble with one or two symbols around it.

Because I’m trying to avoid showing The Steps and instead show them enough of The Idea that they can reconstruct what the steps MUST be.

Many students want to know the formulas, so that they can float them on top of their short-term memory, ace the exam, and then skim them off. Why do they want to know that?

Probably because, for their entire mathematical careers, math has been a sequence of Steps, and if they get them wrong, they get red pen, bad grades, No No No Look What You Did. Plus, bonus, there is no apparent relevance of these algorithms other than To Get The Answer.

What’s wrong with math education in the US? What’s wrong is, Whatever it is that makes my students uninterested in learning any more math than is required to minimize feeling stupid.

So that we’re clear, lots of my students are totally awakened to the interesting weirdnesses of mathematics. But, it takes some doing, and I can’t do it by myself. Hence the podcasts and the lunatic twitter stream and the plans for TV shows and online games and godknowswhat else.

I’m trying to get across that if you are highly motivating, if you have a high degree of fire and “Fuck yeah!” and “What, that’s impossible, but true!”, you can get students to express interest in theorems named after dead Hungarians.

I also love this idea, which seems important and true (particularly re: mathematics and its models):

Let me tell you a theory about math knowledge. A mathematical concept can be expressed in symbols (algebra), in pictures (geometry and diagrams), verbally, and numerically. This is a common theory; my additional spin is that math knowledge also exists as a performative concept. Like, the way that I direct the attention of the students (“If you ignore this alphabet soup for a minute, you can see it’s really just a product of two things…”) Or, the way I will use physicality. Like, the other week, I climbed onto the chair and then onto the desk while I was trying to explain slope.

ANYway, the theory goes that you don’t understand a mathematical concept until you understand it in TWO modalities. I do very well with visual knowledge, so my notes of understanding are full of color and pictures and mindmaps and arrows linking concepts, and I highlight the holy hell out of math books. However, I don’t believe I KNOW a concept until I can explain it verbally, because I can barely understand anything if someone just talks it at me.

First swipe is through my best modality, second swipe is through my worst modality. The whole “learning style” thing may be overstated, but it remains true that getting students to understand things in a variety of modalities seems like the way to go.

Maybe they don’t get the picture. So you ask them many verbal questions. (Questions, not explanations, 99% of the time.)

Check it out.

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Adaptive Melancholy

If it makes us less likely to eat or dance or drink or screw, and sometimes makes us kill ourselves, then why do people get depressed?

This radical idea — the scientists were suggesting that depressive disorder came with a net mental benefit — has a long intellectual history. Aristotle was there first, stating in the fourth century B.C. “that all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease”…

But Andrews and Thomson weren’t interested in ancient aphorisms or poetic apologias. Their daunting challenge was to show how rumination might lead to improved outcomes, especially when it comes to solving life’s most difficult dilemmas. Their first speculations focused on the core features of depression, like the inability of depressed subjects to experience pleasure or their lack of interest in food, sex and social interactions. According to Andrews and Thomson, these awful symptoms came with a productive side effect, because they reduced the possibility of becoming distracted from the pressing problem.

The capacity for intense focus, they note, relies in large part on a brain area called the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), which is located a few inches behind the forehead. While this area has been associated with a wide variety of mental talents, like conceptual knowledge and verb conjugation, it seems to be especially important for maintaining attention. Experiments show that neurons in the VLPFC must fire continuously to keep us on task so that we don’t become sidetracked by irrelevant information. Furthermore, deficits in the VLPFC have been associated with attention-deficit disorder.

Several studies found an increase in brain activity (as measured indirectly by blood flow) in the VLPFC of depressed patients. Most recently, a paper to be published next month by neuroscientists in China found a spike in “functional connectivity” between the lateral prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain in depressed patients, with more severe depressions leading to more prefrontal activity. One explanation for this finding is that the hyperactive VLPFC underlies rumination, allowing people to stay focused on their problem. (Andrews and Thomson argue that this relentless fixation also explains the cognitive deficits of depressed subjects, as they are too busy thinking about their real-life problems to bother with an artificial lab exercise; their VLPFC can’t be bothered to care.) Human attention is a scarce resource — the neural effects of depression make sure the resource is efficiently allocated.

But the reliance on the VLPFC doesn’t just lead us to fixate on our depressing situation; it also leads to an extremely analytical style of thinking. That’s because rumination is largely rooted in working memory, a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to “work” with all the information stuck in consciousness. When people rely on working memory — and it doesn’t matter if they’re doing long division or contemplating a relationship gone wrong — they tend to think in a more deliberate fashion, breaking down their complex problems into their simpler parts.

The bad news is that this deliberate thought process is slow, tiresome and prone to distraction; the prefrontal cortex soon grows exhausted and gives out. Andrews and Thomson see depression as a way of bolstering our feeble analytical skills, making it easier to pay continuous attention to a difficult dilemma. The downcast mood and activation of the VLPFC are part of a “coordinated system” that, Andrews and Thomson say, exists “for the specific purpose of effectively analyzing the complex life problem that triggered the depression.” If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless ruminations — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.

Radiohead – No Surprises
by popefucker

Unconsciously Screamin'

One of my favorite moments in Annabel Scheme is the party thrown by a mysterious musician known as “The Beekeeper”:

If you had electronic eyes and night vision—I had both—you would have seen slips of paper passing from person to person. On each slip was a phone number. Each one was different, and there were a dozen circulating in the crowd. Each wandered and blinked like a firefly as kids used their phones, torch-like, to illuminate the number, then passed it on. Here and there, then everywhere, they were dialing numbers, switching their phones to speaker-mode and pushing them up into the air like trophies.

The buzzing was coming from the phones. It was a low, rhythmic drone. At first you couldn’t hear much, but apparently, if you put enough phones on speaker all at once, it starts to get loud.

Really loud.

So that was the trick: There were no speakers because the crowd was the speaker. The bees did not sound so far-off now.

Scheme clenched her teeth. “This is hurting my face.”

Suddenly it stopped. The graveyard fell silent. It was a field of pale arms thrust to the sky, swaying like seaweed. Kids were bouncing silently on the balls of their feet. Waiting.

Then there was a count-off, a tat tat tat tat and then the music started and it was everywhere, megawatts of power flowing out of every palm and pocket. There was no focal point, so bodies were pointed in every direction, ricocheting and chain-reacting. Kids were losing it, jumping up and down, colliding and cuddling in the dark grass.

The music had a clear beat, but it was warped and scratchy, like someone was tuning a giant radio. Snatches of singing would ring out for a moment, then decohere. There was a trumpet that pealed from somewhere very far away…

The music was coming together as kids followed their ears. If your phone was buzzing with bass, you joined the bunched-up sub-woofer section. If it was sending high notes sizzling into the air, you joined the line that snaked around the crowd’s perimeter. The music worked its pattern on the crowd. It was both amazingly high-tech and totally pagan.

The first question I had after reading this was — I wonder if Robin knows about Zaireeka, the Parking Lot Experiments, or the other stuff that The Flaming Lips tried in the late 1990s?

I still don’t know. But I was reminded of that perplexity today reading this interview with Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson that’s all about the amazingly high-tech and totally pagan crap that the Lips tried before exploding with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. Complete with YouTube videos, several of which were new to me.

If you were taken with either (Scheme or the Lips), try both.


The Rumplestiltskin Effect

Ask MetaFilter commenters agree: Knowing someone’s name because his boss forces him to wear a name tag does not constitute permission to use that name. Having settled on the consensus that addressing name-tagged employees by their first names is creepy, the commenters attempt to tease out why. Judging by the comments, your age might influence how much you agree with their consensus.


Good-bye to all that

I read Marc Bousquet’s recent post on the academic labor market with chagrin and recognition:

Today, [only] 1/4 of faculty are tenured or in the tenure stream. Less if you address pervasive undercounting of nontenurable faculty, teaching by staff employees and graduate students. The trend line points steeply down.

All of the under- or un- employed scientists with doctorates could be employed overnight if more science, and more science education, was done by persons holding the PhD. Instead, we do science and science education with persons who are studying for the PhD, or who gave up on studying for the PhD simply because they can work cheaper than persons who actually hold the doctorate.

If the percentage of faculty working in the tenure stream were anywhere near what it was at the high point of US scientific and technical dominance, we’d actually have a vast, sucking undersupply of persons with the PhD. Hell, just one large state system could absorb most of the so-called surplus doctorates in a few years–and as I’ve already noted, taking students out of the workforce and working toward full employment for faculty would be an actual stimulus plan.

But what do we do to try to fix the system? Michael Drout maps some of the options (all bad):

This situation cannot be fixed as long as there exists the mismatch of the number of people who want to be professors with the number of paid positions to be a professor.

There is no solution that can solve this problem, just as there is no solution to solve the ‘problem’ of the number of people who want to be famous authors, movie actors, rock stars or professional athletes being far greater than the number of job openings for authors, actors, rock stars and athletes.

Making it easier to get tenure once hired does not solve the problem, it only pushes the decision back from the tenure process (where the candidate is known and has a six-year track record) to the hiring process (where the candidate is less known and has only a grad school record).

The desire to make it easier to get tenure once someone is hired may seem kind to the particular person (whom you know as an individual), but it is unfair to the many, many other people who would like that job, who may be more qualified, but who haven’t had a chance, possibly because they were passed over in the hiring, possibly because they entered the job market a few years later, etc. So by reducing the requirements for tenure–whatever they are–you are doing an injustice to all of these people.

Reducing the number of Ph.D.s awarded, a proposal mooted frequently (usually by people who already have Ph.D.s; people applying to grad school who want to get Ph.D.s. are usually less keen on the idea) does not solve the problem, it only pushes the decision process back from the hiring process to the graduate school entrance process, where the candidate has even less of a track record.

I began graduate school in 2001, during a global recession, and finished in 2009, in the middle of another one. I dangled on the job market twice (pre- and post-diss completion), with no luck. There’s clearly greater pressures than ever for undergraduates to complete their education, and pay more money to do it, but that has never (and it appears will never) translated to an increased demand for more non-casual faculty. I’m thirty years old — a husband and father. I barely survived a terrible accident this year. I can’t wait any more. It’s time to walk away.


A lovely shade of #F8E7E1

Thinking for a Living. I feel guilty about it (why?) but I like the curated product page best.

Okay, this page is pretty great, too.