Is there really a STEM shortage? And do we want to emulate China or Korea?

You have all heard the mantra that we don’t have enough young people studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and that is the reason that so many Americans are doing poorly.  If you agree with this call, this article in the New York Review of Books might make you think about the subject differently.

A few important points:

(1) The United States graduates way more engineers and scientists every year than can ever hope to get a job in their fields.

(2) As a result, large percentages of STEM graduates do not work in their chosen field

(3) As part of their profit-maximization strategy, tech giants like Microsoft nonetheless encourage this glut of STEM applicants while at the same time complaining that they need to hire foreigners on H1B visas, who earn on average about 57% of what a similarly-qualified American worker makes.

(4) While many, many American high school students fully plan to go into a STEM field in college, many are discouraged by poor teaching at the college level — even the instructors at elite STEM universities like CalTech get low marks from their students. And many of the instructors are, in fact, themselves temporary workers, neither full professors nor having any hope of tenure…

(5) The article also looks at Korean and Chinese school systems. It is true that they are producing tremendous test-takers and lots of engineers. But do we really want our children attending day and night classes every night until 10 pm, and what would we do with all of those unemployed future engineers anyway?

A few excerpts from the article, which reviews several books and documents:

“A 2014 study by the National Science Board found that of 19.5 million holders of degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, only 5.4 million were working in those fields, and a good question is what they do instead. The Center for Economic Policy and Research, tracing graduates from 2010 through 2014, discovered that 28 percent of engineers and 38 percent of computer scientists were either unemployed or holding jobs that did not need their training

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in its latest Occupational Outlook Handbook, forecasts that by 2022 the economy will have 22,700 nonacademic openings for physicists. Yet during the preceding decade 49,700 people will have graduated with physics degrees. The anomaly is that those urging students toward STEM studies are not pressing employers to ensure that the jobs will be there. And as we shall see, the employers often turn to foreign workers for the jobs they have to fill.

“Among the high school seniors who took the ACT and SAT tests last year, fully 23 percent said that they intended to major in mathematics, computer science, engineering, or a physical or natural science. And those contemplating programs related to health made up another 19 percent. But something evidently happens between their freshman and senior years. By graduation, the number of students who start in STEM fields falls by a third and in health by a half. In engineering, of every one hundred who start, only fifty-five make it to a degree.

Published in: on June 28, 2015 at 10:44 pm  Comments (3)  
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Is it inequity, or poverty, that causes the educational problems we see in the US?

Someone posted this question to me. I think it’s inequity, since poverty is a relative thing. Our ancestors who hunted and gathered 10,000 years ago in the cold or hot and dangerous oceans, rivers, jungles, steppes and meadows of the day, armed only with animal bones, sharpened sticks, rocks and nets they made themselves, mostly didn’t think of themselves as poor. Here in the US we can all see on TV video footage of the most opulent mansions and life-styles the world has ever seen, bar none (not even the Roman or Chinese empires!). If your family only earns a few thousand dollars per year, you are going to live in utter squalor, even though such an income 200 years ago would have seemed amazing.

I’m going to coin a slogan: “It’s the differences, stupid.”

If you see that some kids go to schools where they get to learn horseback riding, soccer, lacrosse, and clay sculpture after school, AND learn foreign languages and have actual physics or biology labs with up-to-date equipment with teachers who are trusted to choose what to learn and experiment with, and your school just gives you multiple-choice worksheets all day in math and reading, with none of that other extracurricular stuff and no classes outside of math, reading, basic science, and ‘social studies’ becomes more worksheets, you will feel like crap.  Especially since the never-ending revolving door of teachers who start with high hopes but then are beaten into submission to Test Prep Above All and following idiotic curricula written by folks who never taught is going to condemn you to bad teaching.

Education should be one of a whole raft of methods used by all parts of our government that is used to end poverty. However, our judicial and police systems seem to be bent on promoting poverty for some while promoting rule over the entire universe for others. I could give many examples, such as judges routinely suspending drivers licenses for not paying small fines the person can’t pay. Then they get more tickets for driving on a suspended license, and eventually in jail or many thousands in debt. While the rich are allowed to buy elections, hire lawyers to evade state, local and federal taxes and don’t go to jail for almost any fraud committed. On the rare instances that a billionaire fraudster does go to jail, then it’s at a nice place and when they get out, they then get to set up lucrative ‘foundations’ that prey on the poor. (Think Michael Milken)

One excellent proposal from Ras Baraka, the new Newark mayor, during his campaign is that school house other agencies that help fight the effects of poverty: have free, good dental and optical and medical clinics in evrery single school, as well as free cafeterias on weekends.

Why?

So kids won’t have to miss school if they have toothaches, can’t see, or need a shot or a medical test or a wound bandaged, or psychiatric help for those suffering from acute mental illness attacks – a substantial fraction of the kids in any high-poverty school anywhere in the USA.

Plus, many families and kids actually don’t have food to eat on weekends, snow days, and holidays. Also, if well done, it would let kids know that someone was looking out for them. I thought it sounded like a great idea. I hope he’s managed to put it into effect. Unfortunately, the elected officials of Newark have for over 10 years not been permitted to run their own schools. Instead, Kami Anderson, an administrator appointed by Governor Chris Christie, runs things. She refuses to go to any hearings or meetings in Newark, IIRC.

 

Marion Brady on How to Fix American Eduction

This is insanely brilliant. Brady explains quite clearly  how people like Bill Gates have really perverted everything about education in America by turning the entire motivation schemata upside down — and he also explains how to fix it in a very humane manner. Here is an excerpt:

Read the whole thing. and don’t let the title convince you it’s just a rant, because it’s not.

A part of this essay that I would like to highlight is how Brady thinks we educators (and other citizens) should be approaching the entire question of school:

There’s a now-familiar ancient Chinese proverb which, loosely translated, says, “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

When I made that radical switch, I began a search that continues, a search for experience-creating activities

   (a) so interesting, the teacher can leave the room and nobody notices,

   (b) so useful, the activity’s relevance is self-evident,

   (c) so complex, the smartest kid in the class is intellectually challenged,

    (d) so real-world, perceptions of who’s smartest constantly shift,

   (e) so theoretically sound, the systemically integrated nature of all knowledge is obvious,

    (f) so wide-ranging, the activities cover the core curriculum (and much more),

   (g) so varied, every critical thinking skill is exercised,

   (h) so scalable, concepts developed on a micro level adequately model macro phenomena

  , (j) so effective, when the activities themselves are forgotten, their benefits are fixed permanently in memory.

The raw material for creating a near-infinite number of activities that meet those nine criteria isn’t hard to find. It lies within the property boundaries of every school or randomly chosen slice of real life. Finding it is mostly a matter of looking at the too-familiar and the taken-for-granted until it becomes “strange enough” to see.

Entire URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/08/01/what-do-standardized-tests-actually-test/

which means this was published in the column of Valerie Strauss, at the Washington Post, who continues to be a great resource for all the rest of teachers and parents (not corporate executives). The only greater publicist for our cause that I know of is Diane Ravitch. I am glad that Valerie continues to be gainfully employed at WaPo even as her editorial writers consistently had a set of policies that were either at cross-purposes or diametrically opposed. I don’t know how she does it.

 

Unfortunately, Answer Sheet very seldom actually reaches the printed edition. It’s almost strictly online.

Then again, maybe that matters less, given publishing trends.

While obviously nothing is perfect I think that all of us members of the public who are concerned about schools* owe Valerie, whom’s I’ve never met in person, and the Washington Post itself, a debt for VS being able to continue being such a resource for so long!

 

 

Suggestions for Improving the Remake of Cosmos – A Different View of Giordano Bruno

If you haven’t looked at any news about the intersection of science and popular culture recently, you may have missed the fact that astronomer and popularizer of science Neal Degrasse Tyson  is starring as the replacement for the late astronomer and popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, in an updated remake of the series COSMOS, about, uh, the cosmos we live in.

(I got to see a preview of the film a week or so ago at the National Geographic HQ in DC; email notices were sent to probably every single amateur astronomy group in the US.)

I thought it was pretty good, and particularly liked the way that Tyson explained what the scientific method really is — using not a single word in the various definitions of “scientific method” that students are often expected to memorize in their middle-school science courses.

Unfortunately, even though I have a full set of the original Cosmos VHS tapes, I’ve only watched bits and pieces of the original. So I’m not one to compare them. Again, I liked it, and am looking forward to the rest of them.

But I do have some criticisms or comments about this remake:

1. Looking back, I think there were probably too many special effects, but I’m probably in the minority on this one.

2. I think that Rupert Murdoch and Fox “News” are despicable, and that they actively promote anti-scientific hogwash of all sorts. I was really surprised that the Fox network co-sponsored these shows. (I realize that fox ‘news’ and network are 2 different groups, but they have mostly common ownership, right?

3. I was surprised that they spent so much time on Giordano Bruno. I thought I remembered he was a minor, dissident priest burned at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition for believing that there were other solar systems with people in them, among (most likely) other heresies. In the first episode, Tyson points out that Bruno wasn’t a scientist and that his theories about other solar systems, while recently proved to be correct,  was merely a lucky guess.

So if Bruno wasn’t an astronomer or a scientist, then why spend so much time on him?

A Jesuit friend gave me additional background on Bruno; apparently he was very fond of making enemies. If you read the Wikipedia entry, you’ll probably find out that he had a famously prodigious memory, and that he made money teaching important and wealthy people how to memorize things.

My attention has also been drawn to another article, making suggestions about how they could have improved the episode, by putting in the person from whom Bruno may have originally learned about infinite space:  Thomas Digges.

Here’s why Digges’ ideas were important: if the earth is the center of the solar system, as it is in the Ptolemaic system, and everything rotates around the earth exactly once a day, then the stars simply can’t be spread out into infinite space, because their rotation would be faster and faster the farther away from the earth that they happened to be located, which didn’t make sense. So Ptolemy and Aristotle and the Roman Catholic Church believed the stars were all located on more or less of a sphere — one that was larger than the rest of the solar system, but not too far away, on a cosmic scale. So there couldn’t also be solar systems around those stars.

digges_universe-259x300

(zame source)

However, when Copernicus worked out the details of a sun-centered solar system, then it was just the earth that was spinning on its own axis once a day, and revolving aroudn the sun once a year, just as the other planets did in their turn. And with this new system, there was no need for the stars to be located along an invisible black sphere – they could certainly be other suns, and the universe could well be infinite, just like the mind of God .

The second article makes it clear that Digges, about whom I knew nothing at all, could have profitably been the cartoon hero of the first Cosmos episode.

The relationship between science religion gets interesting. While the Catholic church continues to condemn basic things like birth control or divorce, it has abandoned the idea that you can calculate the exact beginning of the universe by adding up all the phrases like this:”And Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth” — a method that is a lot less reliable than going out, taking cross-sections from old and young trees, comparing them and lining them up by comparing relative sizes to known climate events, and cross-referencing that with sediments in ponds and lakes, and to layers of ice in Greenland and other places. You know, doing it scientifically. Unfortunately for us, there still are some people who claim that the ONLY evidence they believe comes from certain sections of the Bible (but in fact they discount the rest).  Some of these people hold their hands over the ears of their children when they visit the Grand Canyon if an actual geologist is giving a talk explaining how the various layers of rock were laid down over the past few billion years. Fortunately, the Catholic Church has actual scientists and astronomers on staff. Even Galileo thought he was a good Roman Catholic Christian until his dying day…

universe-and-man-larger-300x253(apparently this drawing was made in the 19th century, hundreds of years after Diggs, Bruno, Galileo or Copernicus)

In any case, I’m skeptical of all accounts of the beginning of time — we just don’t have a tremendous amount of evidence. Yet. A case can certainly be made that there was a Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, and it seems to me quite clear that the Earth was formed over 4 billion years ago (we even have zircons and other rocks and minerals that seem to prove it), but what on earth caused that Big Bang? Are there other universes, as was illustrated in the movie? We can make a case for dark matter, but there might be other explanations for the effects that lead astronomers to believe that there is some sort of unknown, invisible substance in and around our galaxy that causes things to rotate in ways that they shouldn’t, otherwise.

(If you didn’t know, celebrated astronomer Vera Rubin, who lives in the DC area, was one of those who discovered those strange rotational speed anomalies back when I was a kid by taking very careful measurements of redshifts and blueshifts of stars orbiting in spiral galaxies. Last time I asked her, a couple of years ago, she said she thought it was entirely up in the air whether the best explanation for this phenomenon was dark matter or that we simply don’t understand the laws of gravitation fully in the first place.)

When certain cosmologists tell us precisely what happened “Between 10–43 second and 10–36 second after the Big Bang”,  we should keep in mind that we weren’t there to witness it. Sure, those accounts are in accord with a very complex physical model that right now is the most=accepted standard model. I won’t do a John Dobson and accuse those cosmologists of dishonesty; this is the best model we have right now, according to people who have studied his stuff very hard and very carefully. Is there actually ‘dark energy’? I am more skeptical about that. Perhaps; but the evidence is built on such a long string of extrapolations from very difficult observations and calculations that we should keep in mind that it very well may be that future observations with better instruments of some sort will change that model. In fact, every single time scientists have devised and used new instruments to look at and examine the universe (under our fingernails or up in the sky or in the center of the earth), all of humanityy learns new things that we never imagined could possibly be.

Who could have dreamed of paramecia, amoebas, viruses, or the genetic code of DNA before the microscope — at first very crude ones, but now of the electron or x-ray diffraction or scanning tunneling varieties? Each improved microscope showed us much more than the previous ones and are responsible for the fact that we no longer have a third of our newborn children dying of diseases before they reach their fifth birthday.

Galileo’s first, crude telescope showed us the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus,  the rings of Saturn, craters on the Moon, and clouds of stars in the Milky Way — all complete and utter surprises. The 60-inch and 100-inch and 200-inch telescopes at Mt. Wilson and Palomar first showed us that many of those mysterious ‘nebulae’ in the night sky were actually other galaxies, millions or billions of light-years away.

I’m sure all of this will be illustrated quite well in this series. I need to figure out how to record it — just changed to a cable service bundle after getting rid of separate DSL, telephone, and satellite dish services…

Read the articles and let me know what you think.

A Cold View of Jupiter

I helped out at a Think Tank at Maury Elementary School in DC by setting up a telescope I built and letting kids and parents and staff look at Jupiter.

me freezing at Maury Elementary

I am glad I was prepared with warm clothing, otherwise I would have had to give up, because it was not only cold (what, 15 degrees or so?) but also windy. That white stuff on the ground is snow. But it was quite clear, and Jupiter and its moons put on a nice, symmetrical show. It was a lot of fun for me, and it seemed to be a hit among kids and adults whose expressions of pleasure and amazement I should have recorded.

Jupiter was putting on a nice show as usual, with two moons on one side and two moons on the other.

This is a picture I stole from the ‘Hill Rag’ which shows a couple of female staff members checking out the view of Jupiter before the lines of kids and adults got going. I’m the bearded guy with the brown overalls in the back. The scope is a Dobsonian truss-tube alt-az-mounted Newtonian scope that I built, with a 12.5″-diameter f/5 mirror that I traded some glass for. I did NOT grind and polish this one, for a change. I did a good bit of the work at the amateur telescope-making workshop of the National Capital Astronomers, which I was representing.

Turns out that Maury ES is a bit over 3 miles directly south of my house in NE DC. (Appears to be a gentrifying public school.)

Towards the end of the evening, a kid informed me that I had frozen snot on my mustache!

Published in: on January 26, 2014 at 9:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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An Astronomer Looks at the Zodiac

Or, has your “sun sign” changed after 2000 years?

And did you know that the Zodiac has at least 15 constellations?

This is a little presentation I did last week on the Zodiac for something called the “Encyclopedia Show“. Out of eight ‘acts’ in this cabaret show on “The ZODIACalypse!!!”at a place called The Dunes in Columbia Heights in DC, there were two musical selections, a few poems, a stand-up comic, an interview with a professional astrologer, and some rants and skits.

Most of the presenters (but not all) seemed to be quite skeptical about the many claims made by proponents of, shall I say, ‘traditional’ astrology. At some point the organizers will post a video of the night’s affair, as they have for other ones. Past shows seem pretty good and I may come back to watch more of them, in the future.

My role was as straight man, I guess, narrating a little powerpoint presentation using slides I gathered from many places, including a bunch of beautiful images from NASA’s wonderful  Astronomy Picture of the Day and other places. I actually got a lot of laughs and applause, and a bunch of folks came up and told me they really enjoyed my part. Some of my fellow-astronomer friends came and didn’t regret it either.  It was actually a lot of fun.

Here is the link to the PPT itself on Google Drive. Feel free to use or modify it as you like, and enjoy. And here is a link to a YouTube video of my talk.

NOTE: I see that I got the terms “equatorial plane” and “ecliptic” confused in my talk. “Ecliptic” is the apparent path of the sun through the heavens, i.e. along the Zodiac. The equatorial plane of the Earth is just that, a projection of the Earth’s equator into space. (These two planes are different, as I correctly noted; they form an angle of about 23.4 degrees to each other.) My bad.

image

Here is a slide so you can cut to the chase: what is your sign, really?

traditional and modern zodiacJust for fun, I did a search of the sun-signs of the 44 US presidents. You would think they would all be rather similar, right? Nope. Look for yourself:

presidents and sun signsHowever, that had to be cut from my presentation because it was already too long.

I also wanted to show a short video by magician James Randi where he debunks astrology 100%, but it, too, had to be cut. Here is the link:

Published in: on January 21, 2014 at 6:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Trends in DC on the NAEP for 4th grade reading, black students only: regular DCPS, charter schools, and pre- and post-Rhee

Here is a graph showing how African-American 4th students have been doing over time in Washington DC public schools and charter schools. I have drawn a clear dividing line at year 2008, because the scores before that were under the influence of DC’s former school board and superintendents. After that time, DC has been under a chancellor answerable only to the mayor.

dc, dcps, dc charter, and national naep trends, 4th grade reading to 2013You may notice that the blue, black and purple lines separate after 2007. That’s because NAEP began reporting separate scores for DC’s regular public schools and for all publicly-supported schools, though not for the charter schools as a bloc. As a result, you have to do a little bit of linear algebra to calculate what the average scales were for the charter schools from 2009 onwards. (I used essentially the same equation that I did in the previous post. Please write me a note if you think I made an error.)

As usual, we can see that since the late 1990s and up until Rhee took over, the overall trend in all large cities, in the nation’s public schools, and in DC’s publicly-supported schools was upwards on this test. (Yes, I know, these are not scores that follow the same kids year after year, but for whatever reason, the group of kids answering these tests are in general getting more answers right every two years.) Before that, i.e. from 1992 to 1998, scores bounced around or went down.

After Rhee took over, those scores seem to have entered another bouncy period. In fact, in DCPS, the scores on this test in 2013 were only back up to the level of 2007. There is a clear demarcation between the scores in the charter schools (blue line) and the regular public schools. The line for the charter schools seems to follow the trend from 1998 to 2007.

If I knew nothing about the politics of EduDeform, I would wonder why the WaPo editorial board is claiming victory.

 

 

Has Educational Rhee-form succeeded or failed in Washington DC Public Schools?

Bottom line conclusion from my last bunch of posts (see #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6)

Mayoral control of schools in DC, aka Educational Deform à la Rhee, has been an expensive failure, and it was foisted on us under false pretenses.

How can I make that conclusion?

Very simple.

This Rhee-form has fulfilled none of its promises, even on its own terms.

Its backers (Gray, Rhee, Henderson, Duncan, Bloomberg et al) claim that it’s been a great success.

But if you look at the graphs, it is clear that if the regime of Rhee and Henderson is going in the right direction, then so was the previous DCPS regime under superintendents Janey and his predecessors.

Any good trends have continued mostly unchanged.

Remember that we were promised incredible gains in test scores? Compared with the ‘bad old days’ when teachers actually had the right to due process before being fired? And back when poor DC students still had recess and PE and art and music libraries? And compared to the evil era when their teachers weren’t required to waste nearly the entire year on scripted test-prep lessons?

None of those incredible gains show up in the data, any more than they did when Michelle Rhee wrote all those lies in her resume. (I mean, why does ANYBODY listen to a liar like that, or to Rob Ford, or to Michael Millken or Bernie Madoff or the CIA/EPA liar?)

Anybody claiming that the last six sets of NAEP  TUDA scores show brilliant success for educational Rhee-form is engaging in wishful thinking or lobbying.

What’s more, my previous posts (and those of several other researchers and commentators) have shown that there is essentially no correlation between Value-Added scores and anything else. So that’s a failure, even on its own terms: it predicts nothing, it doesn’t help teachers teach better, and is essentially a random-number generator that clearly has done nothing to improve educational outcomes in DCPS, even though it costs taxpayers many, many millions of dollars and consumes a tremendous amount of time – something teachers and other staff have far too little of.

Mayoral control  has lived up to exactly NONE of its promises of closing the achievement gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, or of improved testing outcomes for the students of the District of Columbia any better than did the pre-Rhee superintendent-and-school-board system.

Trends are almost exactly the same now as they were before Mayor Fenty got control of the schools and appointed that serial self-promoter, liar and distorter of facts, Michelle Rhee, as chancellor of DC public schools, where she led an assault on the system which has fired or forced out many thousands of teachers, producing a revolving door of constantly churning teachers who are in turn forced out or fired. What’s more, Rhee-form has turned over half the public school system to private operators with no accountability (some of them brazen criminals) and track record of success except by exclusion and undemocratic practices. Rhee-form has also subjected all students in DCPS to a stultifying test-prep regime where arts, music, social studies and recess are banned and principals themselves can be canned at any time and are under incredible pressure to cheat and get rid of teachers.

From everything I have seen, it is not at all difficult to be doing your job as a teacher just fine, and end up with a mysterious numerical score known as IVA based on some unexplained formula that gets them fired. People have confessed to me that they were wholly unable to teach at all because kids were figuratively running wild in their classrooms, yet they got great “Value-Added” scores anyway. Teachers who became National Board Certified, a tremendous accomplishment, told me of some years (but not others) getting IVA scores so low that it would put their job at risk.

Anybody claiming that the data trends before 2008 look different from the ones after 2008 is engaging in wishful thinking.

So, if Kaya Henderson and Vincent Gray and Arne Duncan claim that the current policies are causing recent gains, then they logically must conclude that the previous policies were producing the same results, and should have been continued as well.

It’s a big, expensive lie that has had real consequences.

Students are wasting nearly an entire school year under stultifying, scripted lessons preparing for an ever-lengthening regime of utterly stupid and poorly-prepared but highly secret standardized tests whose manufacturers are responsible to no-one except their billionaire CEOs. In fact, for the high-stakes tests, it’s considered cheating for the teachers even to analyze the tests after they are given, and results aren’t available until the end of summer, even though it’s a machine-scoreable test which in theory could have a good part of it be graded and fully tabulated in mere seconds… that is if the publishers actually knew what they were doing and weren’t busy lobbying among themselves as to what mathematical and sleight of hand tricks they would play with the data to make it come out the way that the politicians they want…

Latest NAEP Results

The NAEP is our only nation-wide, systematic, long-term test of what students in elementary, middle, and high school know how to do. The 2013 NAEP results were released yesterday. I have begun to do a bit of number-crunching and would like to share what I’ve found.

First of all, the increases in some of the scores in DC (my home town) are a continuation of a trend that has been going on since about 2000. As a result of those increases, DC’s fourth grade math students, while still dead last in the nation, have nearly caught up with MISSISSIPPI, the lowest-scoring state in the US.

You will have to strain your imagination to see any huge differences between the trends pre-Rhee and post-Rhee. (She was installed after testing was over in 2007.)

average scores in NAEP math 4th grade national by jurisdictions 1992-2013

Another important point is that we don’t know how much of these increases are due to improvements in regular public schools, in the charter schools, or in the private schools — data from all three groups of students are included.

And Gary Rubenstein does his usual excellent job, which you can see here

He looked at 4th grade AND 8th grade math and reading for DC and elsewhere. DC is still dead last in just about every respect, and has BY FAR the largest gap between the poor and the non-poor.

So, the Educational DEforms instituted by Rhee, Henderson, and their corporate masters have not produced the promised miracles.

Published in: on November 8, 2013 at 7:04 am  Comments (7)  
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Remember the book “Godel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid?” and Douglas Hofstadter and Artificial Intelligence? What they are doing now:

GEBcoverThis book was a sensation back in 1980.

It was an absolutely, amazingly brilliant work from a totally unknown first-time professor/author.

So much so that Scientific American’s Martin Gardner praised it to the skies, rightly so, pushing it to the best-seller book lists, and not because was yet another detective novel or a political rant or a ghostwritten memoir by someone rich and famous.

No, it was an well-written, highly entertaining book about the connections among mathematics, computer languages,  English and other ancient and modern human languages, DNA code, artificial intelligence, science, history, music,  what it means to be human and to think and do stuff. Brilliant, original ideas and clear, sparkling language on every beautifully-written page — with lots of illustrations and diagrams, too!!

The fact that the author’s father (Robert) shared the Nobel Prize in nuclear Physics in 1961 considerably upped the odds that Hofstadter would grow up in intellectual atmosphere that valued independent thinking rather than mindless obedience. According to this Atlantic review, his parents more than tolerated young Douglas’ tendency to go off on various tangents and delve into them deeply and thoroughly and even obsessively for some period of time, until he felt he had another hunch or tangent, which he would again jump into with both feet and all his weight. And all of it carefully and brilliantly documented.

Those documents, I discovered in reading this essay, became the book GEB.

He and the rest of the Artificial Intelligence community agree that they have gone in different directions since then.

AI today no longer tries to imitate the actions of the human brain, but they are doing some pretty amazing stuff with sheer computational speed and power.

Hofstadter thinks that may all be very nice, but that approach does not really help understand how humans think — how we make all those connections in our head in which we strip off 99% of the details about one thing and find one or two ways in which it relates to another thing, constantly and unexpectedly

[I gave some copies to some of my students; I wish I could have afforded to give away more. Instead, I developed lists of books on math and science and math field trips and tessellations and had kids read some of the books and do various projects that I though would illustrate some topic and develop pride and character and a belief that math of whatever sort I was teaching to them was actually worth something and useful in real life as well as pretty cool as an abstract creation of humanity…]

Douglas Hofsadter, the author of GEB is not working for Google or Apple or any other such company helping to develop complex computer  programs that do complex things either very well at least some of the time — because DH thinks they won’t lead to more understanding of human or animal intelligence. According to this review, DH has the greatest job in the world — he doesn’t have to teach classes. or  attend any meetings at all, or perform experiments. or write grant applications. For a number of years,. he took over the Mathematical Games that Martin Gardner used to write for SciAm, and renamed it “Metamagical Themas” – an anagram of the original name.

A few interesting quotes from the article: (The man who would teach machines to think…)

“Correct speech isn’t very interesting; it’s like a well-executed magic trick—effective because it obscures how it works. What Hofstadter is looking for is “a tip of the rabbit’s ear … a hint of a trap door.”

N ow, some quotes from Hofstadter himself, which I got from a collection of his quotes, and which remind me why I thopught his work was so brilliant in the first place:

Meaning lies as much

in the mind of the reader

as in the Haiku.

 “How gullible are you? Is your gullibility located in some “gullibility center” in your brain? Could a neurosurgeon reach in and perform some delicate operation to lower your gullibility, otherwise leaving you alone? If you believe this, you are pretty gullible, and should perhaps consider such an operation.”

 “Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law”

“Sometimes it seems as though each new step towards AI, rather than producing something which everyone agrees is real intelligence, merely reveals what real intelligence is not. ”

“In the end, we self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages are little miracles of self-reference.”

“I would like to understand things better, but I don’t want to understand them perfectly.”

“This idea that there is generality in the specific is of far-reaching importance.” 

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