Sunday, December 21, 2014

One tourist in three is a pilgrim, 330M annually

"Pilgrimage is not merely ancillary to the modern spiritual existence," writes Bruce Feiler in The New York Times:
In an age of doubt and shifting beliefs, people are no longer willing to blindly accept the beliefs of their ancestors. They are insisting instead on choosing their own beliefs. A pilgrimage can be a central part of this effort.
He goes on to assert that "religious identity is more fluid these days" and that taking a pilgrimage is one facet of choosing a religious identity rather than simply continuing in your parents' religious tradition. "Half of Americans have changed their religion at least once; one in four is in an interfaith marriage."

Suffering and deprivation seem to be important components of many pilgrimages. A pilgrimage is not a vacation. When you take a vacation, even to a foreign land, you intend to return to your station in life with a sense of renewal. When you go on a pilgrimage you intend to change your station in life. Changing your station in life is not easy and pleasant:
Often the food is bad, the accommodations uncomfortable, the weather unpleasant. Traveling in congested places, with little sleep and upset stomachs, is taxing...To go on a pilgrimage is to enter a heightened place where emotions soar, but sometimes dip.
To change your station in life you have to break things. Once things are broken, you can put them together. And if the things being broken are your ties and attachments, then the YOU that puts them together is a new self, or the core around which one can be built:
It’s that feeling of taking control over one’s life that most affected the pilgrims I met. So much of religion as it’s been practiced for centuries has been largely passive. People receive a faith from their parents; they are herded into institutions they have no role in choosing; they spend much of their spiritual lives sitting inactively in buildings being lectured at from on high.

A pilgrimage reverses all of that. At its core, it’s a gesture of action. In a world in which more and more things are artificial and ephemeral, a sacred journey gives the pilgrim the chance to experience something both physical and real. And it provides seekers with an opportunity they may never have had: to confront their doubts and decide for themselves what they really believe.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sampling the Space

This is a more or less neutral version of what came out of the camera. Since it's one of my shaky-cam photos there's no point in trying to develop the photo so it looks like what I was when I took the picture. What I saw was lights at night. What I did was shake the camera on a long exposure. So this is what the camera saw, more or less:


These other photos sample the space of Photoshop possibilities. Actually, it's a somewhat smaller space than what Photoshop affords, but I don't know how to specify that smaller space except by presenting a sample of the images in it.

20141113-_IGP9565 FHLG

20141113-_IGP9565 FHL VTYDiv HS EQSmth CRV HS EQdodge

Christmas Music

There is the bag of music that exists in my mind as Christmas Music. All the turns run together, some more frequently than others, in a big lump, like a ball of yarn:
Oh Little Town of Three Kings Roasting Frosty the Red-Nosed White Christmas Wonderland Deck the Halls Silent Night Feliz Merry Gentlemen Hark the Messiah Favorite Things Joy to the World.
What’s interesting is that it’s a fairly closed group of tunes and, for the most part, it only floats through my mind during the Christmas season. If for whatever reason one of these tunes should occur to me at some other time of year, then the rest will come trailing along. You pull on one thread from the ball, and you get all the yarn.

The seasonal nature of the music, of course, is not something I’ve invented. It’s a fact of life in America, and has been for some time. Not so long after Thanksgiving those songs start showing up on the radio, on television, and on the streets. And they attract near everything into the same ball of seasonal yarn.

There’s nothing else quite so, so pervasive. There are other holidays, ones important enough to get a day or two off from work: Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Labor Day, 4th of July, Easter, and so forth. But Christmas is the only one that’s so pervasive.

I suppose that’s because it somehow – there’s a history here and I’m sure you can find it on the web – tied up with gift giving. If you’re going to give gifts, then you have to have gifts to give. Most likely you’ll purchase those gifts. So Christmas is good for business.

It’s the only holiday like that. And so it gets a bad rap for being commercialized. It’s not a real holiday. It’s a fake holiday captive capitalist greed and graft. The complaints too are now traditional. It’s part of the same ball of yarn. And why not?

It’s that time of year. In a few days we’ll all pull on the yarn and then ball will unravel. Relax. Because on January 1st you’re going to start gathering it up again.

Round and round and round.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Evolution in the Universe: It's Physics

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said.

England’s theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations.
And this:
“He is making me think that the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp,” said Carl Franck, a biological physicist at Cornell University, in an email. “I’m particularly impressed by this notion when one considers systems as small as chemical circuits involving a few biomolecules.”

Friday Fotos: Night Watch




Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pedagogical Affordance and Entrepreneurial Action: A Framework for Thinking about Connected Learning

This working paper consists of a series of posts written for an online workshop in connected learning: Connected Courses. It was conducted in the Fall of 2014 and was sponsored by the DML Hub, as part of the MacArthur Foundation, and the University of California Humanities Research Institute. Course URL:

  • Introduction: Pedagogical Affordance, Entrepreneurial Action?
  • Vygotsky Tutorial
  • Pedagogical Styles 1: Coaching and Midwifery
  • Pedagogical Styles 2: Lectures, and beyond…
  • Learning to Learn and Co-learning, NOW
  • Co-learning Models: Meta-Cognition, Democratic Schools, and Entrepreneurs
  • Pedagogical Styles 3: Courses I have taught (or taken)
  • “VICTORY IS MINE!” – Active engagement with computing in connected learning
  • Connected from Birth: You, Your Double, and Cyberspace
  • Education, not just for the young
  • Pedagogical Styles 4: Cognitive Demands and Interpersonal Dynamics
  • Appendix: Interdisciplinarity is the Utopian Dream of an academic culture whose time is rapidly running out

Introduction: Pedagogical Affordance, Entrepreneurial Action?

With roots extending into the final decades of the previous millennium, online learning has begun blossoming at the beginning of this one. These efforts are fueled by the romance of invention and discovery, the idealism of making knowledge widely available at low or even no cost to students, and the practical desire to achieve dramatic reduction in the per unit cost of instruction. Online learning is here to stay.

This working paper began as a series of posts to an online workshop: Connected Courses: Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed. The workshop is interested in a particular kind of online learning, co-learning, where much of the learning takes place in interactions among the students rather than in the interaction between the instructor and students, one by one. It quickly became obvious, however, that co-learning has been most extensively explored in certain kinds of courses, courses involving media and writing where the emphasis is on students building presentations of one sort or another rather than on describing, analyzing, and describing things.

The question arises, then, of how far can co-learning techniques be extended to other kinds of courses. Could classical mechanics be taught in this way? What about the economics of the ante-bellum South? Ultimately, the only way we’ll know is to try and see what happens.

But such exploration is best undertaken in the context of a framework for thinking about how instruction and learning are organized. That’s what these posts are about.

Jeff Bezos – Man in Space

Henry Blodget interviews Jeff Bezos for Business Insider:
HB: In addition to everything else we’ve talked about, you make rockets. You want to go into space. This is a proclivity that you share with fellow billionaires such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson. First of all, what is it about space that captivates you? Second, what are you doing that’s different? Third, just talk about how hard it is when you saw Richard have an accident that has set everybody back a long time. Talk about space. What’s the vision there?

JB: First of all, and most fundamentally, you don’t get to choose your passions. Your passions choose you. For whatever reason, when I was 5 years old, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. I was imprinted with this passion for space and for exploration. I think it’s important. I could come up with lots of rational reasons why it’s important, and I really do believe them.

I think it’s probably a survival skill that we’re curious and like to explore. Our ancestors, who were incurious and failed to explore, probably didn’t live as long as the ones who were looking over the next mountain range to see if there were more sources of food and better climates and so on and so on.

We are really evolved to be pioneers. For good reason. New worlds have a way of — you can’t predict how or why or when — but new worlds have a way of saving old worlds. That’s how it should be. We need the frontier. We need the people moving out into space.

My vision is, I want to see millions of people living and working in space. I think it’s important. I also just love it. I love change. I love technology. I love the engineers we have. They’re brilliant. We have about 350 people there. We’re building a vertical takeoff, vertical landing vehicle. It takes off like a regular rocket, and it lands on its tail like a Buck Rogers rocket.

The initial mission is space tourism. We’re also designing an orbital vehicle. We just won a contract to provide the new engines for the new version of the Atlas 5, which is the most successful launch vehicle in history. That’s a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture. That vehicle uses Russian engines, and because of all the things that are happening in Ukraine and so on, that supply of engines has become less certain, so they want to switch away from a Russian-made engine and they chose [us] to provide that engine. It’s a very exciting endeavor. Great team. They’re just doing a wonderful job, and it’s fun.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Triple Flash


Rereading Goethe’s Faust 4: Going Through My Notes

As the subtitle suggests, this doesn’t have much of anything to do with Faust, but I’m throwing it here anyhow. On the one hand, it has to do with thinking about where I am in life as I embark on my 68th year – my 67th birthday was a couple of weeks ago (December 7). And that’s why I’m rereading the text. Faust changed direction late in (his fictional) life, and that’s what I’m doing, with graffiti as a vehicle for that.

Or at least trying to.

* * * * *

What I hadn’t realized – or at any rate, I have no memory of having once know it – is that Goethe worked on this text his whole adult life. He started it as young man and finished it in his old age. Given that, I’d think a look at whatever manuscripts we’ve got would be fascinating. And one thing I’m thinking is that Faust’s change of life-direction surely must reflect Goethe’s own change in direction as he matured. Part II, after all, is his addition to the basic legend, which otherwise ends badly for Faust.

Why would I think that? Well, I’ve argued that Shakespeare’s late romances reflect a change in his outlook as he matured (in At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare's Greatest Creation?). If Shakespeare can do it, why then so could Goethe. And I’ve just read that Oedipus at Colonus is the product of Sophocles’ old age. Makes sense. This is a play, after all, in which Oedipus is valued for what he’s gone through in life, not tossed out in the wild as he was in Oedipus the King.

Sophocles: 497/496 to 406/405 BCE
Antigone: 441 BCE
Oedipus the King: 429 BCE
Oedipus at Colonus: 405-6? BCE

* * * * *

But what has this to do with me going through my notes this morning? I’ve been going through my files on cultural evolution and thinking about bringing my current set of posts – on the direction of cultural evolution – to a close. That will bring a certain closure to the work I’ve been doing throughout my career. Just what kind of closure, that’s tricky, and it’s a secondary matter at this point. I can get around to that in a later post.

For now, suffice it to say, it will bring closure. And a bit of redefinition, too. I’ve always thought of myself as a literary critic with a bunch of other interests. My degree, after all, is in English Lit, though I wrote this strange dissertation full of this other stuff from the cognitive sciences and comparative psychology – a lot of what has come to be called evolutionary psychology in the last two or three decades. It was a literary text, “Kubla Khan”, that set me on my initial lines of inquiry and, though my undergraduate degree is in Philosophy, for all practical purposes, literature became the focus of my undergraduate studies.

Literature could do that because, in those days (the 1960s), it was evolving toward a general study of human life and everything. Literary scholars had come to annex a pile of other disciplines and put them to work in service of literature – philosophy, history, psychology (mainly psychoanalysis), sociology/political science/economics (mostly Marxism of a humanistic sort, loosely conceived). If you wanted to make sense of it all – a Faustian quest which I certainly had as an undergraduate and even perhaps as a graduate student – then literature is what you ended up studying.

The Four-Fold Way through an Undergraduate Education

From my notes about a decade ago:

Though I haven’t really thought it through, it seems to me that a proper undergraduate education ought to give equal emphasis to four components:

1. Expression – Where we have the arts, music and dance, poetry, etc., and physical education.

2. General Education – Where students get a general view of how the world works, from physics through natural and human history.

3. Something Practical – Specialized education in something that would allow the student to earn a living.

4. Some Intellectual Specialization – Where the student can dig-in to something that particularly interests them.

On 1 and 4, some students would naturally gravitate toward an expressive discipline, e.g. fine arts painting. But they really ought to developed some specialized knowledge in an intellectual discipline, whether it’s one relevant to painting (like perceptual psychology) or not (such as microeconomics). And a student who naturally gravitates to a specialization in Medieval European history needs to develop expressive abilities as well.

And so one through all four.

I have the vague sense that this is descended a conversation I had with David Hays some years before that.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Scapegoating the American Way

I’ve got a new post up at 3 Quarks Daily, Free-Floating Anxiety, Teens, and Security Theatre. It continues with the same theme I explored in my previous 3QD post, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. That isn’t what I was planning when I began thinking about the post in the middle of last week, but that’s what popped up Sunday morning when I started working on it.

Over the previous week I’d been blogging about danah boyd’s study of teens and the internet, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP 2014). It seemed to me that she was developing an argument that intersected with the argument about displaced aggression and anxiety that I have derived from Talcott Parsons (“Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World,” 1947). On the one hand, teens have more or less been “forced” online by irrational restrictions placed on their movements on the physical world (and over-scheduling, a different phenomenon) and that adult fears about sexual predation online were exaggerated at the same time people weren’t sufficiently attentive to the real sources of sexual predation.

So, I decided to write a post that links boyd’s observations to mine on nationalist aggression and racism. In the current post I refine my statement of Parsons’ argument and use the American response to 9/11 as an example. On the one hand the nation has undertaken two destructive and expensive wars, that have failed to achieve their announced object, the elimination of terrorism, and at the same time we’ve created the Transportation Security Agency to conduct largely pointless searches of passengers boarding aircraft.

Vacuum Activity and Scapegoating

These actions strike me as being akin to what ethologists call vacuum activity: “innate, fixed action patterns of animal behaviour that are performed in the absence of the external stimuli (releaser) that normally elicit them. This type of abnormal behaviour shows that a key stimulus is not always needed to produce an activity.” In this case the issue isn’t so much the lack of an appropriate stimulus but the inability, for some reason, to identify the source of one’s aggressive impulses while at the same time feeling the need to act on them. So one chooses a convenient or culturally targeted object whether or not it is causally appropriate.

My point of course is that the possibility of such irrational action has a basis in our biology. In a sense that’s just a specific version of the truism that all behavior has some kind of biological basis; we are, after all, biological beings. But the behavioral patterns I’m examining aren’t widely appreciated, perhaps because we would prefer to continue our irrational behavior rather than dealing with real issues. In the context of such denial it is useful to point out that, really, this is how animals (can) behave. It’s not at all farfetched.



Monday, December 15, 2014

Pedagogical Styles 4: Cognitive Demands and Interpersonal Dynamics

I figure this will be my last post before wrapping the series, writing an introduction, and putting them all together in a PDF.

The important point is that I’ve changed my sense of what pedagogical parameters are. I started out thinking that they would be affordances or demands of subject matter that constrain how that subject matter can be packaged into courses. That’s what I had my attention on in the three posts on pedagogical styles:
Thus, whether or not co-teaching is a practical pedagogical regime depends on the nature of the subject matter. And to some extent that’s certainly true. But in thinking these things through I’ve realized that we have to treat the interpersonal dynamics to students and teacher as an independent source of variation.

So the situation is more complex than I had imagined it to be. Surprise, surprise!

Dependent and Independent Variables

Let’s put this in terms of social science research design. Courses are being taught and you have some theory about how that goes. To test that theory you need to identify independent variables and dependent variables. Your theory then tells you that, given a certain configuration of one or more independent variables you’ll find a certain configuration of one or more dependent variables.

What that means is that, if the subject matter has certain affordances X1 and Y3 that it will be taught, say, as a lecture course. Correspondingly, if the subject matter has affordances X2 and Y1 then it will be taught, say, as a one-on-one tutorial. You then examine an appropriate selection of actual courses and see if that’s how things fall out.

What I’ve realized, though, is that cognitive affordances and interpersonal dynamics are, to some extent, independent of one another. This means that whatever the cognitive demands of a particular subject matter may be, one can independently have different conceptions of the proper relationship between teacher and student and student and student.

This independence was there in that initial post on coaching and midwifery. Learning how to play a musical instrument is very different from learning philosophy. Both can be taught one-on-one through coaching. But both can be taught one-to-many through lecture.

It should be obvious that philosophy can be taught one-to-many through lecture, because, after all, that’s how many philosophy courses are in fact taught. Very few philosophy students have their own personal Socrates, though advanced graduate training at its best may be a bit like that. Similarly, instrumental learning can be taught one-to-many through lecture, though this may not be so obvious. I’ve never actually attended a lecture of that sort. But I’ve watched master classes, where a hand full of students and one teacher when through their paces on stage. And the mass of music lessons online at, for example, YouTube operates like this.

So, it can be done. Still, the one-on-one philosophy tutorial is very different from a one-to-many philosophy lecture, and the same with learning a musical instrument. I note further that lecture courses in philosophy are generally accompanied by smaller discussion sections and also have the option of individual tutoring during office hours. Thus the actual instruction given is mixed-mode.

What this means is that I’m not going to be able to write a nice neat “wrap-up” post. Nor, for that matter, had I intended to do so. But I had intended to argue something like, “well, we’ve got this three or four distinct affordances and florg and wrap seem amenable to co-learning while krink and slam resist it.

I’m not going to be able to do that. But, having stated the issue, I will play around just a bit more.

Cultural Beings, the Ontology of Culture, and a Return to Books and Blues

I haven't forgotten my on-going series of posts on the direction of cultural evolution; you know, the one that started with Matt Jockers' Macroanalysis? But I've been busy with other things. Here's another post to add to that pile. I’m not yet burned out on culture, but lordy lordy I’m gettin’ there. But there’s a few more ideas I’ve got to get out there before I can hang up these particular shoes. If only for awhile.
* * * * *

What do I mean by cultural beings? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. Let’s start by being conservative about it – though just what “conservative” means amid this kind of intellectual craziness is a curious question – let’s say that novels, like those Jockers considered, are cultural beings. So are musical performances, like those driving American culture; they’re also cultural beings. Cultural beings are things like THAT, but note that THAT ranges over culture in general and not merely so-called high culture. After all, most of Jockers’ novels and most of those musical performances are not high cultural phenomena. Many are distinctly low and vulgar, while others are merely middlebrow.

I am using “cultural being” as a term of art. It designates not merely the cultural artifact, whether it is a long narrative imprinted in a codex, a musical composition inscribed on score paper, or even a performance merely floating in the air and then gone forever, except for memories of it. Those physical things are just packages or envelopes, other terms of art I’m hereby proposing. And those packages or envelopes “contain” coordinators, the cultural analog to biological genes.

When we read texts or listen to (even participate in) performances, the coordinator packages elicit phantasms in the mind/brain. It is the phantasm that gives pleasure, and so leads to a desire for repetition, or not, in which case the package that elicited it is forgotten. Those phantasms belong to cultural beings as well. If you will, the package of coordinators is the body of a cultural being while the phantasm is its soul.

The Ontology of Culture

When I talk about the ontology of culture, then, I mean these entities and the relations between them: cultural beings, packages or envelopes, coordinators, and phantasms. The relations between them are complex and subtle and I don’t pretend to grasp them, though I’ve been writing and thinking about the at least since my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, if not longer.

The overall relationship among them, however, is given by the evolutionary dynamic of blind variation and selective retention:
The evolution of cultural beings proceeds by blind variation among coordinators and selective retention of phantasms.
But what does it mean to retain a phantasm? Phantasms are (collective) mental events. They come and they go. How can they be retained?

They can’t. But they can be remembered and if the memory is compelling, one can re-create the phantasm. How do you do that? You re-experience the package of coordinators that gave rise to the phantasm in the first place. And so we have this modified formulation:
The evolution of cultural beings proceeds by blind variation among coordinators and selective retention of packages or envelopes.
Will that work? Will it do the job? I don’t know. I just thought it up.

Let us remember, however, that phantasms are the cultural analog to the biological phenotype. And what is retained in biological evolution is not the individual phenotypes. They all die and the matter of which they were composed rots. What’s retained is the phenotypic scheme, the Bauplan that emerges from a developmental process regulated by the genotype.

With that in mind, let’s move on.