Friday, April 29, 2011

What's So Great About The "Cloud"?

 The cloud is what will pull our PC's in to the Post-PC Age*; giving seamless integration to all our data in our our increasingly mobile centric lifestyles across multiple forms of devices (e.g. Desktop, Phone, Tablet, Automobile, TV).

In a previous post about the Post-PC age, I was reflecting on the prophetic foresight of Apple. In retrospect we can clearly see Apple set out on their current path at least as far back as the first iPod in 2001. Apple saw the technology in the pipeline and build a vision for a mobile future. The last decade has been patient and incremental steps, heralding in the increasingly mobile landscape that we live in today.


This "lifeline" which links the two platforms now has a name: iCloud

This will be cloud computing demystified for the average user. In typical Apple fashion, it will "just work", seamlessly pooling all of your digital content together across devices.

We can already see the usefulness of the cloud manifesting itself on a micro level on Apples platforms:
  • AirPlay is a relatively new feature for iOS. It is a way to "throw" media content from any mobile device to a nearby video/audio output devices.
  • AirDrop is a newly announced feature coming on OSX Lion. The feature will be a seamless file sharing method, "throwing" any content between nearby devices.
We are on the verge revolutionary leap into seamless integration between mobile iOS 5 and OSX Lion, but on a macro level that will not be limited by proximity (enabled by that massive data center Apple has been building).

Overtime, iCloud will expand in scale, scope, and capability.

On a closely related tangent, I also believe Lion will be the last iteration of "OSX". Lion is a stop gap, before the full unveiling of unified platform for our modern mobile age.

As a new mobile and integrated future dawns, OSX as a traditional immobile and autonomous platform (surrounded by fragmented devices) of the PC Age will fade into the anneals of history.

By the next major OS release, all of Apples devices are going to be rolled into one seamless experience. That's not to say iDevices and Mac's will perform the same functions. On the contrary, they will still perform vital and differentiated roles in our lives, but the paradigm division between the two will be invisible.

Today it is a common routine to bounce back and forth between PC's and mobile devices (sometimes juggling both at the same time), they are often seen as two different platforms, not complementary platforms.

Tomorrow this transition between devices will be intuitive and seamless, not only in the ability to access all your data, but just as importantly in how you access you data.

And it all began with the elegant and intuitive liberation of 1,000 songs from your computer so you could put them "in your pocket".


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Like Stars on Earth

This is the English title of one of our favorite movies. Taare Zameen Par is the original Hindi title.

Yes, that means it's Bollywood. And no, stop cringing. Yes, you absolutely must give it a chance.

This movie will have you laughing so hard you will cry, then in tears of heartbreak, quickly followed by the variety produced out of joy, only to be repeat the cycle before your eye ever have a chance to dry.

By the end of the movie your heart is so immersed in the story you won't even care why you are crying anymore (These simultaneous tears of joy and heartbreak seems to be a trademark of Aamir Khan, as this is exactly I describe his more recent movie 3 Idiots).

The story of Like Stars on Earth explores the life of eight year old Ishaan, as he struggles through dyslexia to meet the standards that his family and society expect of him (Yet another similarity to 3 Idiots, in which we see this basic formula applied to young adults in college).


Even now as I write this post, after watching the trailer I confessed to Elena my surprise at tears forming even though we have watched the movie 5 times. She laughed from the couch, quickly followed by "me too!"

If you are a teacher, a social worker, a mentor, a parent, work with children in any capacity, ever happen to just be around children, or were ever a child yourself - you must watch Like Stars on Earth. At the very least it will break your heart with a deeper understanding and compassion for the children in your life. It might even give new insight on struggles from your own childhood.

I was reminded of this movie after reading an essay titled "The Uniqueness of Individual Perception" by Roger Whitehouse. It is another brilliant essay from the Information Design anthology. A lot of thought provoking insight into the vast spectrum of human perception, with a eye on vision in particular.

There is a quote from Whitehouse's conclusion in the vein of my recent series on education, especially in regard to the "Henry Ford School of the Future" model which dominates most of our schools today.
"It is tragic when dyslexic children are made to feel stupid, defective, and inferior just because we are uncomfortable with the idea of allowing our "standards" of performance to be bent enough to include them" (Information Design Pg 128).
It's one thing to understand this statement in your head, but a whole other to feel the tragedy in your heart. Watching Like Stars on Earth will break your heart under the weight of this tragedy.

I can count on one hand the movies I would recommend to one of any age, race, gender, culture, religion, or socio-economic status. Like Stars on Earth is one of them, placing it proudly among the best of Pixar.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ever Want to be a Computer Hacker?

Do you, as I do, answer that question with a resounding "YES!...only, like, everyday since I was 8!"

Now all you have to do is follow this link, click "Hack!", and start mashing your keyboard (Via i09).

You'll be the envy of all your nerdy friends.

Not a day passes when I don't dream of opening the command-line terminal on a computer and start hacking.

If only I was still in college. I would sit in the front row of class, bust out my laptop with this on fullscreen, and pound away.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Henry Fords School of the Future

...is now our schools of today. Spoiler - That's not a good thing.

I have been geeking out on Information Design - how humans effectively understand and relate to the information around them. This has stimulated a lot of my thoughts on learning.

One of the more stimulating and intriguing voices I have found on Information Design is Mike Cooley (I even tracked down an old copy of the only book he ever published back in 1980; "Architect or Bee? The Human/Technology Relationship")

In an essay he wrote more recently titled Human Centered Design, Cooley looks at the impact of the industrial revolution in shaping how we understand ourselves and our modern paradigm on education.

...the educational system in general - and universities in particular - still seem determined to pursue teaching forms based on factory models. When Henry Ford donated a hundred million dollars to an institution he called the School of the Future, he said, "I have manufactured cars long enough to the point where I have got the desire to manufacture people. The catchword of the day is standardization"...
Even Ford's use of the word "standardization" is prophetic of our current fiasco with standardized testing in the public education system.

Cooley further deconstruct the factory model quagmire:
...More recently, I have described methods of organizing universities as factories within which the students are referred to as commodities, the examinations as quality control procedures, graduation as delivery, and the professors as operators. They have a Frank Worlf algorithm (computer-based) to work out the rate at which professors are "producing". The factory model is now all-pervasive. It conditions and distorts every aspect of life in the technologically advanced nations. I am not sure if it was every true in the Shakespearean sense that all the world's a stage, but it is certainly true that at the close of the 20th century all the word's a factory - and all of nature that surrounds us is inert material for it's remorseless production line. (Information Design Pg 72; my emphasis) 
Chilling.

It's fascinating to think that less than a century ago, when "the machine" was still in a very rudimentary form, we were content, even proud, to think of ourselves as highly advanced machines (something along the lines of "machines might do manual labor better then us, but we still have the brains of the show"). Now that machines out class both our brawn and now in many ways our brains; it seems ludicrous, even scary, to think of ourselves as being machine-like.

The fact that the school and workplace are largely shaped by this paradigm is a huge source of many of our feelings of inadequacy and frustration (we are expected to be something that we feel utterly incapable of being).

It only seems natural that we would be disgusted by that antiqued "factory model" analogy, rejecting the idea that humans are machine-like; which leads to a reliance on standardized testing to ensure quality control in our schools and the relentless demand for efficiency in the workplace.

While the "human as machine" and "school as factory" analogy might have threads of truth, it has not aged well alongside the rapid advancements we have seen in the machine the last half a century. Now more than ever it impresses on the individual an impossible mold (to be consistent with the analogy by using manufacturing imagery).

It's high time to work our way into a new paradigm that more accurately understands the human condition.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why You Must Listen to Mumford & Sons

Reason #9 - Thistle and Weeds


By now, the songs more or less interpret themselves because we have enough context from the previous tracks. I'll provide some lite commentary on the lyrics below, giving context from other songs in the album which speak to similiar themes.

Thistle and Weeds
By Mumford and Sons

In the opening 2 versus we see a very common theme from the album - a raw confrontation with the realities of pain, doubt, confusion, despair, and isolation in life.

Spare me your judgements and spare me your dreams,
Cause recently mine have been tearing my seams,
I sit alone in this winter clarity which clouds my mind,
Alone in the wind and the rain you left me,
It's getting dark darling, too dark to see,
And I'm on my knees, and your faith in shreds, it seems.

Corrupted by the simple sniff of riches blown,
I know you have felt much more love than you've shown,
And I'm on my knees and the water creeps to my chest.

In the next verse one gets the sense that, to some extent, all of this suffering is a result of ones own choices - on chooses to wander in the thistle and weeds of life. In contrast, there is choice of good seed - a design or an alignment to life, a good and right way humanity was made to live (From the title track Sight No More).

Also, make special note of the call to "look over your hill". Generally speaking it's an encouragement to look past the current hardship and suffering to a future where things are better. We will be given much deeper context to this in the remaining tracks on the album.

But plant your hope with good seeds,
Don't cover yourself with thistle and weeds,
Rain down, rain down on me,
Look over your hills and be still,
The sky above us shoots to kill,
Rain down, rain down on me.

Now we arrive at the most chilling part of the song. It is a cry of defiance, a resistance to succumbing to the thistle and weeds of this world. This battle cry is very evocative of the refrain in The Cave.

But I will hold on
I will hold on hope

There's more to life than the physical. A wholeness to life springs forth when one chooses to submits to Truth and abides in the Order of creation.

I begged you to hear me, there's more than flesh and bones,
Let the dead bury their dead, they will come out in droves,
But take the spade from my hands and fill in the holes, you've made.

But plant your hope with good seeds,
Don't cover yourself with thistle and weeds,
Rain down, rain down on me.

Explore the others Reasons Why You Must Listen to Mumford and Sons:

Reason #1: Sigh No More
Reason #2: The Cave
Reason #3: Winter Winds
Reason #4: Roll Away Your Stone
Reason #5: White Blank Page
Reason #6: I Gave You All
Reason #7: Little Lion Man
Reason #8: Timshel

Monday, April 18, 2011

Changing Education Paradigms

I've been asking a lot of questions about learning lately. This has led to my own crackpot theories and reflections on research studies.

Learning inevitably leads to the lightening rod issue of education.

Much of the dissonance in this discussion is the result of ambiguous definitions on a foundational level of what it even means to learn. That's leaves us a long way from general consensus on how learning occurs and why it's important for our society - and yet we argue endlessly about how the education system should work and how to test it's effectiveness.

I can't help but return to an animated video that I saw last year.

Sir Ken Robinson first sets the stage, by making sense of how our modern education system assumed it's current form. He continues to with some very provocative (in its presentation and it's ideas) critiques on why we need to, and suggestions on how we can, move forward:



I was pleased to see there is a whole series of these video up now, furnished to all netizens by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce...
"...a cradle of enlightenment thinking and a force for social progress.  Our approach is multi-disciplinary, politically independent and combines cutting edge research and policy development with practical action. " (TheRSA.org)
This is one organization from across the pond I will be following quite closely, might even rival Top Gear.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Swap Bounty

I participated in my first book swap last night. A marvelous occasion. 

Can you spot any trends in the demographics that were present at the book swap based on the stack I brought home?



There was a huge Douglas Coupland fan present. My wife and I grabbed two of the three that he brought. Coupland is a new discovery for us, and we both can't wait to dive in.

There was also a father and son who appealed much to my sci-fi disposition. I have been wanting to read Starship Troopers for the last year (ever since I heard the book is completely different then the movie). All the better, I scored two Heinlein novels.

I had brought my extra copy of Dostoevky's short stories. Someone else brought The Gambler. Apparently anyone who actually reads Dostoevsky have an unspoken magnetism. As soon as the Swap began, the first two books picked up were each others Dostoevky's.

The other two books in the stack are Dickens A Christmas Carol and Jesus in the Margins.

Now I just have to cancel all my holds at the library.

Why do a Book Swap?

Despite how psyched I am about the books I scored, the best part of the group was seeing everyone open up and share their interests and opinions. It's a great way to begin new friendships, build deeper relationships with long time acquaintances, and discover shared interest and new insight about those closest to you. 

The fact that everyone walks away with a handful of new books and great recommendations is icing on the cake. 

Who to invite to a Book Swap?

Think of a few friends that you have geeked out on literature with. That friend who shares your interest in some obscure genre of fiction, the history buff, the life long student, or the the pop-fiction-ophile.   And then tell each of them to bring a friend or two. 

5-15 people is a good range to achieve breadth is selection of books while still keeping the intimacy high.

How to organize a Book Swap?

1) What to Bring: A snack to share and at least 3 books to swap. Preferably these are books that you have read and can recommend, but they should at least be relatively good books in good condition.
2) Prelude: When guests arrive - books remain in bags/boxes out of sight. Begin with some socializing (don't talk about the books brought) and snacking (15-30 minutes)
3) Introduction: Go around the group giving each person a chance to introduce and explain the books they brought (What is the hook, Why you liked it, How it impacted you... occasionally some history on When you read it makes things interesting.)
4) Swap: Spread out all the books on a table (or floor) and proceed to pick as many books as you brought. There doesn't need to be structure to this, but it doesn't hurt to remind people to be respectful and keeps things slow*.
5) Conclusion: Hang around to eat and talk some more. The spontaneous conversations that follow are an exhilarating rush of favorite authors, influential works, and great recommendations. 

*Some basic etiquette would be to pick up one book at a time, once your committed to keeping it, look around to see what others are picking up and chat with those around you before picking up your next book.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Worn Out"

An eerie fast-forward deterioration of objects in a stop-motion video:

Via Core77

Perfect accompaniment to my first post on this blog almost 5 years ago:
"I challenge you to name one thing in our world that provides true, pure, lasting happiness. 
I cannot imagine a life where everything I love and put my hope in is of this world. It is only a matter of time before it is broken, before disappointment settles in, before it is outdated, before it gets old, scratched, devastated, ruined, shattered, or dies. 
Where does that leave you?"

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Raw Resources of the Mind

We intuitively know there is something entirely different between memorizing vocab words and researching a persuasive essay. But does it make sense to vaguely refer to both of these processes as "learning"?

As I've wrestled to answer this question I came up with the following analogy to better understand the holistic role of learning in the human experience:
  • Knowledge is the sum total of raw resources that exist in the system. Much of it is growing on the surface, or rushing through the rivers, even more is buried under the mountainsides.
  • Comprehending is the gathering, excavation, and mining of the raw resources - the process of perception and acquisition of the raw resources by an individual.
  • Learning is a discovery process of the resource's properties, it's relationship to other resources, and imagining its potential. It is the refinement, processing, and synthesis of the raw resource towards being something more useful.
  • Wisdom is attained as a result of the repeated mining and refining processes; the finished product is a relevant and useful contribution to the system.
As I developed this analogy I found it extremely valuable to distinguish between comprehending and learning as two different processes. Previously, my own common usage of the word "learning" lumped the two processes indistinguishably together. But defining processes clearly allows us to talk about and understand them better; it allows us to be more precise and purposeful in our actions.

Let's get back to the example in my introduction. I Initially found myself wanting to describe memorizing vocab words as a "lower form of learning", while researching a persuasive essay is a "higher form of learning". I find this to be unsatisfying at best and severely misleading at worst - it implies that eventually one does, or should graduate from the lower level to the higher level of learning. However, that does not accurately understand the human experience.

One needs the perception and acquisition process of comprehending as much as one needs the refining and synthesising process of learning. They are cyclical, if not simultaneous, processes that requires attention to both.
Are the terms I used in the analogy correct? I'm definitely not confident enough to call it perfect.

For what it's worth, here are some explanations, opinions, and apprehensions I have with the analogy...

On my epistemological assumption concerning Knowledge:

Before I go any further, you should know I barely even know how to pronounce the word epistemological, but I've been dieing for a chance to use it. Now, back to the point...

I'm defining knowledge as being something that someone has (it's internal) or does not have (it's external); concerning truth, information, experiences, and concepts. The sum total of knowledge exists whether one has it or not - it is something to be perceived and acquired.

On the many synonyms of Comprehension:

The verbs comprehending, knowing, and understanding all seem very synonymous. So my choice of comprehending was based largely on what "feels" right, not on well researched logic.
To reiterate the point, the process of knowing/comprehending/understanding through sensory perception is the internalizing of the knowledge that exists externally (or in the analogy, "the acquisition of the raw resources"). I chose comprehension out of those three simply because I thought it sounds best.

"Knowing knowledge" is clunky.

Understanding seems too "blah".

Purely artistic liberty.

On the generic usage of the word Learning:

I'd be open to an argument that the general process (from knowledge to wisdom) is learning. If you want me to agree, you will have to provide me with an equally satisfying word to replace "learning" in the 3rd bullet point.

On Wisdom:

I'll be honest, I think I nailed the 4th bullet. I haven't even touched the phrasing since I first brainstormed the analogy last week.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Amygdala and Aha! Moments

Practicing to Learn was a reflective response to the following study I read on the amygdala.

The amygdala in the brain is not commonly associated with learning, rather it's primary role has been understood as the center of processing and memory of emotions.

However, a study done at New York University revealed otherwise. It appears that the amygdala plays a profound role in the metaphorical light bulb which shines in the moment of sudden "Aha!" insight.
"'Our results demonstrate, for the first time, that the amygdala is important for creating long-term memories - not only when the information learned is explicitly emotional, but also when there is a sudden reorganization of information in our brain, for example, involving a sudden shift in perception,' says Ludmer. 'It might somehow evaluate the event, 'deciding' whether it is significant and therefore worthy of preservation.'" (via Physorg)
This understanding of Aha! moments, being a sudden reorganization of information in the brain that effectively creates long-term memories, resonates with how I understand my own growth in learning. After that pivotal event, school became less about rote memorization of facts and more about a steady stream of Aha! moments.

That's not to say each and every class, every single day becomes a euphoric experience of joyful learning. The human condition is far too complicated and messy for it to be that simple. Though I did notice the craft of a good teacher became more apparent and appreciated. And inversely, my predisposed interest in a subject became much less important to how much value I found in a class. 
 
The following is my big take away from this study:
  • If new information doesn't reorganize existing information, it won't have a place.
  • If new information doesn't have a place, it won't be remembered.
  • And if new information isn't remembered, it will never have potential to be applied.

Going forward, I'll be thinking a lot about how to create opportunities for Aha! moments with children. 

If we can equip an individual to pursue Aha! moments within the context of life, school becomes simultaneously meaningful and peripheral (not a means to an end, but a meaningful, appreciated, and valuable opportunity for growth in and of itself).

Friday, April 08, 2011

In Search of a Holistic Definition of Learning

The simplest of terms seem to be the hardest to define. I have been searching for a holistic definition of what it means to learn. "Holistic" being how the term relates to other elements of the human experience (e.g knowledge, comprehension, wisdom).

The scent is not an easy one to follow; common dictionary definitions are useless.

I've spent the last week sifting through the many analogous and ambiguous terms that have all been baked indistinguishably into a mushy casserole.

Here are some of the paradoxical questions I have been wrestling through:
  • What is the difference between comprehending, understanding, and learning? I'd say the first two are synonyms, but the 3rd is something altogether different.
  • You can't learn without thinking, but can you think without learning? Yes, only if you agree with my definition of what it means to think. But I don't even know if I agree with my definition.
  • Is knowing, comprehending, and learning different? You can have knowledge, understanding, or even wisdom, but you can't have "learning".
  • We know you can't have wisdom without knowledge, and you can have knowledge without wisdom, but can you have knowledge without learning? I think so.
  • You can know how to learn, but can you learn how to know? Still not sure on that one.
  • Is teaching someone knowledge or a skill different than teaching someone to learn? Absolutely
Am I asking the wrong questions? You have better answers? I'd love to hear your perspective.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Practicing to Learn

Persistant pattering of rain, ambient roar of the heater, the constant grey gloomy glow struggles to pentrate inside the window panes. A typical classroom environment in high school - high school in Portland Oregon.

It was my junior year at Sam Barlow High School. I knew the routine well after a few months of AP U.S. History; write like mad to capture every name and date that rapidly fired from the teachers mouth. Then pray that 80% of the notes I was able to scribble (75% was legible, of which hopefully half would stick in my short term memory) would be the right data to pass the next test.

Stressful. Mind-numbing. Passive. Boring. Meaningless.

But a conversation triggered an epiphany.

I don't remember the exact circumstances of the conversation; just that it was outside of an academic setting and I wasn't able to recall the significance of historical events that I knew had been covered in class. I do vividly remember this created a deep sense of personal frustration. I was investing so much time and energy in school but had so little to show for it in application. Whatever I had been doing surely wasn't learning, even if I was getting A's.

This was the catalyst.

On this day I showed up to class and found the lone left handed chair. Instead of picking up my pencil and hunkering down for a session of frantic dictation, I laid down my pencil and sat back with my arms crossed and a grin on my face.

This was an act of defiance.

But I wasn't giving up on the class. I was defying the premise that I was a mere machine being programmed with data which I was expected to recall on a test to demonstrate I in fact a functional machine. Instead, I committed to actively synthesis the information as it was given to me. I was going to actively listen, think, connect the dots of cause and effect, and question answers.

Everything was transformed.

The fact that I didn't get cramps in my hand anymore was only the beginning of my new found enjoyment of the class. The cause and effect began to make sense.  Eventually I began to anticipate outcomes based on differing values and theories about the human system, affirming my reasoning when I was right and sharping it when I was wrong. The exhilarating "Ah Ha!" moments became more frequent, even addicting.

Relaxing. Stimulating. Active. Exciting. Meaningful.



The fruit was twofold. Outside of the classroom the information became increasingly relevant and applicable to the world around me. Inside the classroom I was no longer as stressed for exams, and studying was no longer "anxious cramming". I would show up the day of the test confident because I had a deeper understanding of the subject matter, not just superficial comprehension and memorization of the material.

I was for the first time practicing to learn - something all together different than acquiring knowledge through comprehension and memorization. It didn't take long for this to pour over into all of my coursework (math, english, science) and eventually every aspect of my life.

School became simultaneously meaningful yet peripheral - not solely a means to an end, but a valuable opportunity for growth in and of itself.