Friday, June 28, 2013

The Beauty of Mushrooms

Amazing time-lapse film of emerging nature - mainly mushrooms, but also some plants and pine cones - from Louie Schwartzberg. He writes: "This is an excerpt from the 3D documentary feature about Paul Stamets, renowned mycologist, author and visionary, on how mushrooms can save the world."

Related Posts: Diaper Mushrooms

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rethinking Kafka

I like Kafka, having read everything he wrote in or immediately after college, although it’s been a few years since I've cracked any of his books. My impression of his writing is that it consisted of very logical depictions of fugue-like states, where byzantine bureaucracies, anxiety, and the capricious powers of aloof and often distant figures (the government in The Trial and The Castle, father figures in many of his shorter stories) rule the day. The stories are filled with powerful dream-like symbolism, but - probably because a good chunk of his writings were unfinished (and certainly unpublished) at his death - fizzle out rather than have a traditional ending.

For these and other reasons, Joseph Epstein argues that he’s overrated, that he’s simply a remnant of his time and place – essentially that “[he] reads like Freud fictionalized. Freud’s reputation is now quite properly in radical decline; Kafka’s, somehow, lives on. Without belief in Freud, Kafka’s stories lose their weight and authority." I don't really buy this. I certainly am not a Freudian, and don't know anything about 19th century Prague, but regardless still got a lot out of his writings. I think one reason Kafka's works have thrived is that they are general and vague enough to let people impress upon them their own thoughts and options. And - of course - he quite accurately depicts the absurdity of the modern bureaucratic state (most powerfully in The Trial). However, Epstein makes an excellent point when  he criticizes Kafka’s propensity for writing dreams with bad endings:
“Kafka felt that his talent was “for portraying my dream-like inner life.” But dreams, however gripping they can be, are aesthetically unsatisfying, especially in their endings. Kafka himself did not find the ending of “The Metamorphosis,” his greatest story, satisfying, and it isn’t. Perhaps for the same reason, he was unable to complete his novels: dreams, especially nightmares, want for artistic endings.”
Again, part of this may be that he quite simply died before he could finish them, but I don't think so. The Castle in particular just fades away with no clear hint of what the ending might be. And there are many passages that, while adding to the overall mood of the whole, simply wander along with vague intentions. Of course, this may be the point:
Kafka created “obscure lucidity,” Erich Heller wrote in his book on Kafka. “His is an art more poignantly and disturbingly obscure,” he added, “than literature has ever known.” One thinks one grasps Kafka’s meaning, but does one, really? All seems so clear, yet is it, truly? A famous aphorism of Kafka’s reads: “Hiding places there are innumerable, escape is only one, but possibilities of escape, again, are as many as hiding places.” Another runs: “A cage went in search of a bird.”
 As with Kafka’s aphorisms, so with his brief parables. The parables, Walter Benjamin wrote, are “never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings.”
In this sense, some of Kafka's writings are like listening to someone else describe their dreams - interesting to a point, but so filled with personal meaning that they will remain forever inscrutable. I certainly didn't know what half of what I read meant - particularly in the novels - but then i'm comfortable (and sometimes even seek out) ambiguity in my art. 

Anyways, it's always good to question your assumptions about things, so Epstein's article is a fun read. What do you think about Kafka? Overrated? Genius? Somewhere in between?

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

A supercell near Booker, Texas from Mike Olbinski on Vimeo.

This supercell storm captured by Mike Olbinski is spectacularly eerie and beautiful at the same time.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Living With the Results of Other People's Thinking

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.  Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.  Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice.  And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.  They somehow already know what you truly want to become.  Everything else is secondary."

 – Steve Jobs

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Octopi Time!

 I remain, as always, fascinated by octopi. Listen to this:
So there is a lot going on in the arms, but the connections between arms and brain are apparently restricted to a narrow channel. ...
If you were an octopus, distinctions [in moving your limbs] would be blurred. Your arms would move in a way that is a mix of the centrally and peripherally controlled. To some extent you would guide them, and to some extent you would just watch them go.
Which explains the absolutely eerie way in which they move combined with the intelligence in their eyes. Well, that and the lack of bones.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Trusting the Government to Do the Right Thing

“If [the Ministries] seem unreasonably perverse, recall that in the present-day United States, few have any problem with a war-making apparatus named "the Department of Defense,' any more than we have saying "Department of Justice" with a straight face, despite well-documented abuses of human  and constitutional rights by its most formidable arm, the FBI. Our nominally free news media are required to present "balanced" coverage, in which every "truth" is immediately neutered by an equal and opposite one. Every day public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia and outright lying, all of which is benevolently termed "spin," as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry-go-round. We know better than what they tell us, yet hope otherwise. We believe and doubt at the same time--it seems a condition of political thought in a modern superstate to be permanently of at least two minds on most issues. Needless to say, this is of inestimable use to those in power who wish to remain there, preferably forever.”
- Thomas Pynchon, from the Introduction to George Orwell’s 1984, p. xii-xiii
As Pynchon warns me against, I'm of two minds regarding the recent revelations about the government's collection of its citizens' electronic communications. One one hand, as soon as the Patriot Act was passed in the furor after 9/11, it was blatantly obvious that our government would collect - and eventually abuse - this type of information. And this lack of a basic assumption of privacy leaves a bad taste in my mouth - it feels like our government assumes the worst about its citizens. On the other hand, i'm sympathetic to the argument that scanning communications metadata is a relatively easy way to effectively combat terrorism. David Simon makes perhaps the best defense of this effort:
Privacy is in decline around the world, largely because technology and big data have matured to the point where it is easy to create a net that monitors many daily interactions. Sometimes the data is valuable for commerce — witness those Facebook ads for Italian shoes that my wife must endure — and sometimes for law enforcement and national security. But be honest, most of us are grudging participants in this dynamic. We want the cell phones. We like the internet. We don’t want to sit in the slow lane at the Harbor Tunnel toll plaza.
The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. And it forever will, to a greater and greater extent. And therefore, the present-day question can’t seriously be this: Should law enforcement in the legitimate pursuit of criminal activity pretend that such data does not exist. The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is unsupervised.
But the supervision is is the rub. Congress has told us that both the Version data collection and the PRISM program (background here) are being sufficiently monitored for abuses (although even some of them may have been kept in the dark), but forgive me if the words of a collection of hypocritical money-grubbing politicians doesn't exactly comfort me. (And yes, i'm aware that we elected these politicians. Doesn't make me feel any better.) In a nutshell, the governmental argument for the continued collection of all of this information is a "trust us, we're using it to make you safe, and nothing else". Tell that to me when a future politician who feels he's above the law - a Nixon or Dick Cheney - gets a hold of PRISM.

To put this in perspective, put aside PRISM for a moment and read this post on TPM on just how powerful communications metadata can be: 
...modern phone records have the capacity to record your location down to the square meter. These modern data are essentially a thorough record of the daily activities of almost all of us — where we are, and who we interact with. (See this article for a beautiful, chilling, but totally standard example of down-to-the-meter data records:
Scary stuff. And the cat is already out of the bag - as Simon sez, we're not going to stop using the internet or our cell phones, so all of this information is already out there. But to me there's a difference between a private company collecting this data vs. the government. To begin with, we make a conscious decision to give a private company our data when we use their services - we don't have that option with the government. More importantly, the worst result I could imagine from a corporation's misuse of this information would be a compromised credit card, which the government could potentially compile secret files that could follow you the rest of your life - or spark your arrest. Don't think it can happen? Just look at how many of our citizens we put behind bars!

So I'm thinking about our society's trade off between liberty and protection, which currently feels like ol' Ben Franklin called it: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." We've really debated our anti-terrorist actions, because this is the first time we've even begun to see exactly how our government sees fit to protect us. It's entirely possible that once we know all about PRISM and the FISA court and all of the other NSA anti-terrorism data collection efforts, we'll see that there are sufficient protections and actively decide to continue them. However, knowing what we know about the potential damage caused by malign or even incompetent governmental employees, I'm wary. Still, I'm looking forward to learning more, and holding Obama to his claim that he wants to have the debate.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Meanwhile, on Mars...

The red planet used to have drinkable water!
A picture is emerging of ancient Mars in which neutral water existed at multiple locations, quite possibly raining down from the sky. Over the course of millions of years, Mars has gotten progressively drier and colder, resulting in highly concentrated pockets of acidic water.
Another interesting fact:
Though it was only designed for a 90-day mission, Opportunity is now approaching its 3,400th day of operation. It arrived on Mars over nine years ago on January 25, 2004. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Newsflash: Hockey is Exciting

The Bruins/Penguins game on Friday night was intense - as exciting as a 1-0 game you'll ever see. The most amazing part of it was the scrum that occurred during the last two minutes of the game. It had it all - Rask making some saves despite losing his stick, a miss on an open net, whiffed shots... but the highlight for me is at 56 seconds remaining when Chara blocks a shot with his HAND and still makes plays afterwards.

There's literally nothing more exciting than playoff hockey. And it continues on Wednesday with Boston vs. Chicago. Go Bruins!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Future of Reading for Learning

In the Instructional Design community, there’s been a lot of talk about Content as a Service (CaaS) as a method of enhancing Reading for Learning (as opposed to reading for pleasure). The idea is that removing text from formal constraints such as bound books or white papers – divorcing content from form, in other words – lets us provide avenues for collaboration. In short, you give people the opportunity to collaborate and add value to the text – personal reactions, connections with the material, the ability to have your questions answered outside of class, etc.  As David Grebow puts it:
“Add an app [to an eBook] that has been developed to help you learn. … It almost magically knows you. You are connected to your fellow students and even students who have already taken the course. Your notes, highlights, and questions are all collected in one place. The eTextbook is there to help you learn. The app and the content are providing Content as a Service. It’s the dream of Relationship Centered Learning!”
CaaS is an way of acknowledging that our knowledge is constantly changing. By providing students and teachers the ability to continually react to and complement the original text, you provide a dynamic level of engaging interaction to the book that helps it keep up with current thinking while also helping people learn in the manner unique to them.

Of course, simply providing students collaborative applications will not ensure that they get used. The apps need to be well-designed so that they complement the text, not overwhelm it. In addition, an efficient, easily searchable way of storing all of this collaborative data seems essential to its success. But none of these are insurmountable problems.  My suspicion is that a successful CaaS book would need two things:
  1. An original text that is truly engaging. IMO, too many scholarly text are filled with needless jargon that make them all but inaccessible to the reader that isn't immersed in the field. Teach while telling stories, add suspense to the narrative, and don’t be afraid of sensational details. Reconnect with your inner storyteller and construct your text in a way that keeps the reader engaged.
  2. Presenting collaborative data in an organized way that compliments but doesn't overwhelm the original text. I picture some kind of dashboard where the main portion of the screen is devoted to the book, while a side menu includes sub-windows that potentially includes a chat to other students, search engine (for hard words and learning more about details), and a place for notes (and accessing not only your note history but the notes of everyone else that read the book).
CaaS for textbooks seems like it's a great idea. I'd love to see how effectively it drives knowledge transfer in practice. Ideally, it would closely match William Germano's poetic vision for collaboration in scholarly works:
I’m advocating for a riskier, less tidy mode of scholarly production, but not for sloppiness. I’m convinced, though, that the scholarly book that keeps you awake at night thinking through ideas and possibilities unarticulated in the text itself is the book worth reading. It may be that the best form a book can take—even an academic book—is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry for which the reader’s own intelligence can alone provide the unwritten chapters.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Tomorrow's Harvest

I’m a big fan of the ambient grooves of Boards of Canada, so news of their impending album Tomorrow’s Harvest is very exciting. Neil Krug's video for “Reach for the Dead” is embedded above, as found through NPR's All Songs Considered.