Archive for September, 2008

The Times: Are They A-Changin?

Via Gene Expression, an interesting look at trend-lines in academia. What is interesting is that he searched not Google but J-STOR…which is perhaps a more accurate indicator of the presence of the relevant ideas in the academic world.

I searched the archives of JSTOR, which houses a cornucopia of academic journals, for certain keywords that appear in the full text of an article or review (since sometimes the big ideas appear in books rather than journals). This provides an estimate of how popular the idea is — not only the true believers, but their opponents too, will use the term. Once no one believes it anymore, then the adherents, opponents, and neutral spectators will have less occasion to use the term. I excluded data from 2003 onward because most JSTOR journals don’t deposit their articles in JSTOR until 3 to 5 years after the original publication. Still, most of the declines are visible even as of 2002.

The search terms included terms such as social construction, marxism, hegemony, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and feminism. The data reveal some interesting trends, as this example shows:

His point is that, in the academic world at least, ideas that are the hallmark of the progressive folks seems to be in decline.

It’s easy to fossilize your picture of the world from your formative years of 15 to 24, but things change. If you turned off the radio in the mid-late ’90s, you missed four years of great rock and rap music that came out from 2003 to 2006 (although now you can keep it off again). If you write off dating a 21 year-old grad student on the assumption that they’re mostly angry feminist hags, you’re missing out. And if you’d rather socialize with people your own age because younger people are too immature to have an intelligent discussion — ask yourself when the last time was that you didn’t have to dance around all kinds of topics with Gen-X or Baby Boomer peers because of the moronic beliefs they’ve been infected with since their young adult years? Try talking to a college student about human evolution — they’re pretty open-minded. My almost-30 housemate, by comparison, was eager to hear that what I’m studying would show that there’s no master race after all. What a loser.


Saving the World, One Text Message at a Time

A while back, I commented on the text-message generation. But this story caught my attention.

I have long understood that the cell phone/text message iteration of our culture is more broadly implemented in places other than our United States….indeed, countries like Japan and the European collection generally have more phone technology and use that phone technology more widely than we Americans do.

Examples (from the link above):

If you live in the United States it can be difficult to understand the role mobile phone technology plays across the globe. Here, you may use your phone for calls and messaging, perhaps for some computing lite, but likely little more. In Senegal, however, farmers are using phones to track crop prices, in Japan, writers are SMSing whole novels, and in Sweden, they’re texting to apply for instant loans. An app that lets you kill time on the subway, this is not.

Within a year and a half, half the world will use cellphones, predict analysts, and with the bulk of new users emerging from developing nations, the question of what phones can do for their owners has never before had such potentially world-changing answers.

Enter Nokia and Dean Kamen.

Kamen has recently completed a field test of two inventions that he hopes will change the world. Both are based on Stirling engine technology: one is a water purifier, the other an electrical generator. “Cancer, diabetes, all those diseases, that’s 50 percent,” says Kamen. “The other 50 percent of all disease is caused by bad water. Getting clean water to people would knock out 50 percent of all disease.”

Each purifier and generator provides enough power and water for a village; but, with one million villages in India alone, deployment is a challenge. In the past, Kamen has worked with multinational companies to launch his inventions, but the top-down approach of a big company doesn’t mesh well with the million-village scale of this project.

The developing world has a high number of cell phones per capita — the counterpoint to having very little in the way of landlines — and the idea is that software running on Nokia’s platform could be used to network and control a village’s small-scale power and water supply.

Hence the contest. Kamen is hoping to tap the expertise of mobile software developers — for instance, the three million of them enrolled in Nokia’s “Forum Nokia” community — to provide the infrastructural glue that will help get his inventions to the people who need them. Like Tim O’Reilly, Kamen hopes that developers, properly motivated, will pour some of their efforts into projects that help the world instead of endless widget toys and games.

It’s an inspiring idea.

Then there’s the revelation (already understood by pollsters) that 12% of the US population is available only through their cell phone, and that number is going to continue to go up.

Imagine a culture where everyone is available through their mobile phone/device/pda, and that important personal activities are able to accomplished via text-messaging (or whatever it evolves into), as the first link states. Mortgage applications, loan applications, voting, shopping, school, all processes and institutions that require a physical presence, a physical location, block and mortar. A truly mobile society, connected to each other not by roads and physical addresses but by ip addresses. Available all the time, from anywhere in the world.

Could it be?

Killing Babies

Cross posted at Agricola

In this morning’s statistics class, when Professor J*#^% asked someone for a value, a student answered with “.4” The response prompted the professor to note that he (and most statisticians) likes values taken to at least three places… .4257 being a much preferred answer to .4.

The incident prompted him to tell us a brief story about precision.

Seems that our professor was in a Differential Equations class way back when. The class was discussing the results of a test when one student protested a 10 point deduction for placing a minus (-) in a section of his answer when none was called for. The (since deceased) professor responded with this:

Son, I was in school with a boy that eventually went on to become a pharmacist. He was pretty good, too. Well, one day, a customer came to him with a prescription, and he set right to work on filling that prescription. He performed the necessary calculations, measured out the correct proportions, and mixed that prescription for the customer. Only thing was, he put a minus (-) in his equation that shouldn’t have been there. The customer took that prescription home and gave it to her baby. The baby died. I took those ten points off your grade because I don’t want you killing any babies.

So, Professor J*#^% and his classmates embraced their professor’s sage advice. From that moment forward, whenever they compared grades, the question became: “How did you do?” and the answer was: “Oh, I killed two babies” or “Killed one baby”, or on a really bad test, “Killed 4 babies”.

Now, whether you, dear reader, are appalled or not, rest assured that every one us in that statistics class knows (forever) the value of precision.

My First Experiment

Last week, I attended my very first lab in Biology. Or, the first one since 1968, if you want to be technical about things. In that introductory lab, the instructor laid out the rules and procedures that MUST be followed for the rest of the semester. One of those rules is that ‘open-toe’ shoes are not allowed. She went around the room and looked at our feet, noting the number of flip-flops in attendance. She stated very clearly that anyone showing up in flip-flops would be sent out and not allowed to return until properly shod.

There are 25 students in this lab, about equally distributed between the sexes.

Yesterday was our first real lab. Sure enough, students entereing the lab and shod with flip-flops were turned around. After two turnarounds, I began counting.

The results, 0 girls turned around. 9 guys turned around.

What does that say? Stay tuned for my hypothesis and predictions…..

HTML/CSS/XHTML (Behind the Curtain)

As a blogger, the terms above have long been familiar, but never really understood. For sure, as a user of Blogger and TypePad and WordPress I’ve had to learn a tiny bit of HTML just so I could link to the output of other bloggers. But anchor tags were about as technical as I got.

So, this semester’s load includes a class called “Internet Development”, wherein we will learn the details of html, css, xhtml, and a few other goodies like javascript that should make us functional operators and creators of websites.

One of the benefits of WordPress, Blogger, and Typepad is that non-techies (like me) can create professional looking blogs without having to master the technical details. But, like many others, I’m sure, as I have gone along there has developed a yearning for a more individualistic blog. This class will allow me that opportunity.

But, more importantly, peeking behind the curtain serves to demystify the huge world of the internet. One can appreciate the levels of sophistication of design, the simplicity of the structure of html and css, and the foresight of the masters who have created the guidelines for operating in this new world.

“Life’s hard, son. It’s harder when you’re stupid.” — The Duke.

Education is a companion which no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy, no enemy can alienate,no despotism can enslave. At home, a friend, abroad, an introduction, in solitude a solace and in society an ornament.It chastens vice, it guides virtue, it gives at once grace and government to genius. Without it, what is man? A splendid slave, a reasoning savage. - Joseph Addison
The term informavore (also spelled informivore) characterizes an organism that consumes information. It is meant to be a description of human behavior in modern information society, in comparison to omnivore, as a description of humans consuming food. George A. Miller [1] coined the term in 1983 as an analogy to how organisms survive by consuming negative entropy (as suggested by Erwin Schrödinger [2]). Miller states, "Just as the body survives by ingesting negative entropy, so the mind survives by ingesting information. In a very general sense, all higher organisms are informavores." - Wikipedia

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