Thursday, February 11, 2010

Algorithms for Algernon

OK, this is a long one, mostly scattered thoughts written on a snow day, after reading The Mayor of Casterbridge for the last time. It's mostly for me. If you want to come along for the ride, bring a steaming Thermos of coffee.

People degrade themselves all the time in order to make machines seem smart. Before the 2008 stock-market crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before the bank makes bad loans; we ask teachers to teach to standardized tests. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species' bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology good, but every manifestation of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous.

Jaron Lanie, Harper's Magazine, February, 2010

I find it fascinating that as information becomes cheaper, we worship it more.


There's value in owning things in your mind, as opposed to relying on social networks or Google or Wikipedia. The brain does not work in programmed algorithms. We screw up. Ideas mutate. We make leaps and bounds that often fail, but occasionally resonate.

There's value in owning things in your mind. You cannot connect ideas, or things (thank you, Dr. Williams), lying loose all over the place. You can only shuffle file cards so fast, you can only link so many web pages before losing the gist.

We are privileged to have sensations, neural connections to this world, and a brain to know it, so far as it can be known. The machine is the product of an imperfect animal. If there is perfection, it lies outside the machine.

In Thomas Hardy's time, scythes and hay-rakes and mattocks ruled the countryside. No electricity, no phones, and social networks were formed at pubs. The economy of Casterbridge depended on the earth--livestock, corn, wheat, and all the labor and tools that went into reaping what our land can grant us.

Despite our conceits, our algorithms, our nanosecond technology, the gifts of the true economy have not changed. We still reap what we sow. We still eat and shit, we still woo and reproduce, we still depend on others. That the others are now strangers and driven by profit and not love has changed us, for now.

Bacteria communicate with each other. They have different signals for those of their own kind, and share universal signals with other clans/species.

Squids "talk" through light. Humans "talk" through smell.

Nothing can replicate the utter joy and sorrow I felt seeing the eerie dying glow of a comb jelly on a warm August beach, so contrary to what I know that I could not see it for what it was. Until my imagination exceeds the possibilities around me, I'll trust my thoughts, my clan's stories, our collective, flawed understanding of a world that exists before I plunge into the grid that frames a limited, knowable world.

(And I will add the story of the "talking" bacteria....)

I see bright senior high school students struggle with basic tasks subsumed by the network. Seniors who cannot look words up in a dictionary. Seniors who "know" calculus, but cannot solve simple arithmetic problems.

These are among the kids that will easily pass the state exam.

I suspect (or rather hypothesize) that most folks in charge of detailing curriculum at higher levels do not grasp science. Or perhaps they grasp science but are under unprecedented pressure from the Feds to ignore what they know and develop something that results in more money.

I get that real biologists need to speak a common language, a professional language, to communicate cogently and efficiently to fellow professionals. I get that kids need a basic understanding of the language of science to grasp (and critically assess) the technical leaps and bounds now more dependent on profit than promise.

Most of my students, however, need to grasp how science works. We are creating a generation of children who look cute spouting off big words and phrases, yet do not wonder why a light goes on when you hit a switch.

We need to cultivate wonder.

Our former Superintendent told the teachers, publicly, that it does not matter what we think about NCLB, it's the law, and we must comply. Had he said that 8% of our budget depends on Federal funding, and that the district has weighed its options and decided that imposing certain tasks, odious (and ultimately useless) as they may be, matters more than the value of real education, well, I'd have more respect for his decision.

Mr. Digesere was a music teacher before he was superintendent. Lucille Davies, our prior Commissioner of Education, is a lawyer whose teaching experience was as a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) teacher at her local parish. Bret Schundler, the new guy, cut his teeth over at Salomon Brothers, and most recently was COO of The King's College, so at least he's rubbed shoulders with educators.

Don't get me started on Arne....

All believe in the algorithms, believe in the standardized test, believe in an infinitely growing economy if only we can find the right algorithm. Pick any wonk in control of education policy today, and you'll get the same results. Growth. Standards. Competition. Economy.

I'd bet a 6 pack of my best home-brewed mead that none of them could explain respiration or photosynthesis or meiosis, or even half the things dictated by the 2009 state standards. (I would really like to hold on to my 2008 blueberry melomel--only 20 bottles left--but I've no doubt they're safe with this offer.)

If you're a bit stir crazy today, go out and find a tree. Trace its branches. Imagine the wind, the light, the forces that shaped that tree.

No two trees have exactly the same branch pattern--the tree's branch pattern tells a story of seeking light, or bending to wind, of battles with bugs and fungi and and perhaps lightning or a child's tree fort.

Two acorns with identical DNA will produce two very different oak trees--trees are designed to respond to their environment. Each new branch arises from a complex combination of triggers. Each tree is unique.

Humans and trees share a common ancestor. We have errant children--one of the joys and frustrations of a functioning classroom. I need the to pass the state exam, and I want them to learn science.

We are going to learn the hard way that the true economy is based on life, on the dirt we walk on, on life itself. I plan to keep on teaching science. It's what I'm paid to do.
I am going to a conference March 1, sponsored by the New Jersey Dep't of Education. I am dragging along a fellow biology teacher, almost as cranky as me, to Module D: Aligning Biology Curriculum to the End-of-Course Assessment. (I have no idea what "Module D" means, but it sounds, um, serious....)

Read the title of the workshop--we have put the cart before the horse, an analogy that no longer works in a universe of bytes instead of bits. We are expected to align the course to fit a limited exam that must fit within a class period or two.

If I had to test my lambs on whether they grasped anything new this year, I'd give them a few pill bugs, access to the various pieces of equipment in the classroom, and ask them to learn something about their behavior. I'd expect them to develop hypotheses, and set up replicable experiments. I'd hope they can examine evidence. And most of all, I hope that when they're done, they realize how little they can know about a pill bug trapped in a Petri dish, how little they know about anything.

I'd furtively trail them as they walked home--and if one lifted up a rock to find another pill bug, they pass.


Tom Hoffman said...

mmm... mead.

Unknown said...

I love this post!

Today on Twitter I wrote that "social networks are not new. They used to be called front porches."

The fact that I used Twitter to tell people this thought suggests I am a hypocrite or perhaps I am still a Luddite and the common space we share is digital. The latter makes me a hypocrite and the former makes me a rebel (Or is it the other way around? I can never keep those straight and I'm not sure I need Google to correct me, either)

My children (at home) will grow up to see life cycles. My son wept when we had to chop down a tree. He's at an age of animism and on some level, I don't want him to ever grow out of it, just expand it a bit more to allow for paradox.

A child last year told me that she believes trees can talk, but that they speak so slowly that you can only hear them if you're completely still. She says their conversations last years and we're like a house fly to them. She told me that she didn't believe a person could respect humanity until we had a more humble view of it.

I give my students credit for being better scientists than I was at their age. The danger in white noise is that it feels comfortable and normal. The salvation of this is in the fact that rebellion often means abandoning the comfort for questions. Last week a student wrote a great little essay on why 2012 won't be a disaster.

So, like you, I'm meandering around, writing this as much for me as for you. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

doyle said...

Dear Tom,

I have Paul Goodman's stories sitting on the dining room table, and I was just pondering grace and such, and now a brief (but pithy) comment from the same man who shared Mr. Goodman's words.

Not sure how to get it to you, but if you're ever in the Cape May area, even if it's just to catch a ferry to Delaware, I can toss a bottle or two your way. (They're small bottles.)

The blueberry will likely be all drunk up by June, but I've got an early peach melomel bubbling away in the kitchen right now that smells like it's going to be a good one.

All depends on whether the mead faerie blesses it....

doyle said...

Dear John,

Once again I may have been influenced by your words--I saw your comment about the front porch. To be fair, though, Thomas Hardy's 19th century worldview is similar to Tom Johnson's Adventures in Pencil Integration.

I had thrown a line about the Bible with its flaws reflecting its human wisdom (along with its--paradoxically--strong ties to the natural world); the closest thing to cycles and paganism now is found within church walls.

The child who listens to trees deserves to be heard. I wonder if she'll still believe trees can talk when she's a grandmother. We need more grandmothers who can hear the trees.

Unknown said...

One of the most refreshing versions I've read of the New Testament used the original Greek words (The Unvarnished New Testament). Spirit was "breath." Heaven was "clouds." It didn't become less spiritual for me, but quite the opposite. The Gospels became so much more relevant.

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