Saturday, May 26, 2012

Barter-based schools

A group called "Trade School" is encouraging people to organize classroom instruction as part of a barter system. They are providing organizational advice and software to enable such schools. Based on this interview at Shareable, it looks like it is driven by an ideology of inclusiveness that is somewhat (but not completely) hostile to markets.

Based on my quick evaluation of the system, it seems like it could be a good set-up for hobbyists, but not for high-productivity education. The potential to teach high value skills is limited both by the complexity of organizing payment by barter, and particularly the difficulty of getting instructors to make substantial time commitments when their only compensation is barter (e.g. I'm not going to pay the rent through barter). Still, I think it will be a nice addition to a community's culture, and this will help introduce/maintain some diversity of educational systems, allowing for the possibility to develop into something larger.

via Slashdot.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Can we choose to stay human?

Does the presentation of martial arts training in movies provide an illustration of fundamental attitudes towards human nature? Michah Watson ponders this question at Public Discourse, where he examines "Neo vs. the Karate kid". This is an interesting, contemplative essay -- the best side of Public Discourse.  Watson uses the instant-learning in The Matrix as an illustration of the "Baconian" ideal of mastery over nature, and contrasts that with the "Aristotelian" model of apprenticeship illustrated in The Karate Kid, where character and relationships are given priority over power.

Watson clearly prefers the "Aristotelian" vision over the "Baconian" one, which isn't surprising for an essay at the communitarian Christian Public Discourse. This essay triggered my sentimentality, but before long I was drawn back to the real world. An item in the news illustrated the futility of Watson's wistfulness: the relentless advance of military neuroscience. Watson admitted that Bacon's desire for mastery over nature was in many ways reasonable, give the high mortality rate of Bacon's time. However, Watson tries to argue that this consideration is no longer relevant in modern society where natural ills have been controlled to the point that the drive for enhancing our powers is somewhat frivolous, and we can afford to take our foot off the pedal (so to speak).

Watson's oversight is that the drive for enhancement does not originate from natural threats, but from competition. Human competition (whether military or economic) can consign a person to misery and death just as surely as natural threats can. Therefore, there is no point at which we can relax -- we will always be driven to further self enhancement.

People like Watson may assert that we can still choose to live as a human, and place limits on how much we are willing to change ourselves in order to increase our powers, but perhaps a more accurate description is that we can still choose to die as a human. Life will be defined by those who survive, and given the human traits of innovation and competition, I don't think that any sort of stability is possible for human nature, short of developing some communist utopia.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Software assitance for teaching statistics

Further progress in propagating expertise without tying up existing expertise (i.e. increasing the supply while decreasing the demand): 

Report: Robots stack up to human professors in teaching Intro Stats | Inside Higher Ed

Without diminishing learning outcomes, automated teaching software can reduce the amount of time professors spend with students and could substantially reduce the cost of instruction, according to new research.
In experiments at six public universities, students assigned randomly to statistics courses that relied heavily on “machine-guided learning” software -- with reduced face time with instructors -- did just as well, in less time, as their counterparts in traditional, instructor-centric versions of the courses. This largely held true regardless of the race, gender, age, enrollment status and family background of the students.
The study comes at a time when “smart” teaching software is being increasingly included in conversations about redrawing the economics of higher education. Recent investments by high-profile universities in “massively open online courses,” or MOOCs, has elevated the notion that technology has reached a tipping point: with the right design, an online education platform, under the direction of a single professor, might be capable of delivering meaningful education to hundreds of thousands of students at once.
The new research from the nonprofit organization Ithaka was seeking to prove the viability of a less expansive application of “machine-guided learning” than the new MOOCs are attempting -- though one that nevertheless could have real implications for the costs of higher education.
The study, called “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities,” involved students taking introductory statistics courses at six (unnamed) public universities. A total of 605 students were randomly assigned to take the course in a “hybrid” format: they met in person with their instructors for one hour a week; otherwise, they worked through lessons and exercises using an artificially intelligent learning platform developed by learning scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative.
Researchers compared these students against their peers in the traditional-format courses, for which students met with a live instructor for three hours per week, using several measuring sticks: whether they passed the course, their performance on a standardized test (the Comprehensive Assessment of Statistics), and the final exam for the course, which was the same for both sections of the course at each of the universities.
 via Monkey Cage

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A dystopian scenario

Resistance to totalitarian societies is a popular theme of adventure stories (e.g. Wicked, the Matrix, the Hunger Games, Harry Potter, a Scanner Darkly), and I always appreciate it when a writer can concoct a new yet believable totalitarian system. Given the pace of change in our society, there should be no shortage of fodder for imagining new totalitarian systems for literature. While I'm no writer of fiction, I may have come across a particularly gripping scenario for the rise of a totalitarian system, so I want to toss it out there for others to consider.

The strength (or perhaps the weakness) is that it is linked to real world events happening right next door...

The drug war seems to be incubating a police state in Mexico. In some respects, this doesn't make Mexico any different from the US or many other Western countries where new technologies are being combined with old crusades to threaten our freedom. The interesting aspect of Mexico's system is that even as the state is grabbing these powers in the name of combating the drug cartels, those same cartels are infiltrating the state. The end result could very well be a nacro-police state. The culture of such a society would be scary in its own fascinating way. I feel like it could be much more totalitarian than other prospective narco-states such as Afghanistan, or Panama under Noriega. It would be a larger state, with a more urbanized population. To top it off, it would be right on the border with the US... it seems like the US-Mexico border would be a great focus for a story.

Yeah, just a thought...

The difference between wealth and freedom

Caleb Stegall at Front Porch Republic pulls up a good quote from Ivan Illich illustrating how consumer wealth is no substitute for freedom:

People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others. Prisoners in rich countries often have access to more things and services than members of their families, but they have no say in how things are to be made and cannot decide what to do with them. Their punishment consists in being deprived of what I shall call “conviviality.” They are degraded to the status of mere consumers.

First They Came for the Horses | Front Porch Republic

Note: This is not meant to imply that the main loss of freedom for prisoners is in how they relate to objects. This is only secondary to their isolation from their community and the regimentation of their times. And of course, that is only considering the "official" hardships of prison life, not the threat of violence from other prisoners and guards.