Monday, June 24, 2013

MoAR #25: inter alia, the human kind of asymmetry.

well, it's been 25 of these roundups. my guess, as before, is that you readers can probably do your own news searches, and with greater effectiveness to fit your own tastes.

that said, i'll still be posting articles i find interesting, but just not in roundup form anymore.

1. not the isomorphism that i expected, but ..

.. apparently some processes are universal, whether organic or digital:
"On the surface, ants and the Internet don't seem to have much in common. But two Stanford researchers have discovered that a species of harvester ants determine how many foragers to send out of the nest in much the same way that Internet protocols discover how much bandwidth is available for the transfer of data."

~ from "Stanford researchers discover the 'anternet'"

2. the 'flame' kind of war

when i read this excerpt, the first thing which came to mind was:

why is this even a question? we haven't stopped teaching spelling, grammar, and vocabulary to students, just because they now have word processors, right?
The standard algorithms should be avoided because, reformists claim, mastering them is a merely mechanical exercise that threatens individual growth. The idea is that competence with algorithms can be substituted for by the use of calculators, and reformists often call for training students in the use of calculators as early as first or second grade.
That the use of standard algorithms isn’t merely mechanical is not by itself a reason to teach them. It is important to teach them because, as we already noted, they are also the most elegant and powerful methods for specific operations. This means that they are our best representations of connections among mathematical concepts.

~ from "The Faulty Logic of the ‘Math Wars’" @nyt
admittedly, though, a lot of times i just opine when i feel like it, and drop things when i don't ..
These professors maintain that college-level work requires ready and effortless competence with the standard algorithms and that the student who needs to ponder fractions — or is dependent on a calculator — is simply not prepared for college math. They express outrage and bafflement that so much American math education policy is set by people with no special knowledge of the discipline.
to be honest, i don't know who really is in charge of mathematics educational policy, but i strongly suspect that most college faculty opt out of any involvement with it. call it a professional opportunity cost: unless you rake in a lot of external funding from it, there's not a lot of incentive to work on educational problems instead of research ones.

3. wait .. what?

there are plenty of shocking items of news in the world lately, like:
This year, a pilot scheme was introduced to enforce the rules.
When students at the No.3 high school in Zhongxiang arrived to sit their exams this month, they were dismayed to find that they would be supervised by 54 randomly selected external invigilators.
By late afternoon, the invigilators were trapped as students pelted the windows with rocks. Outside, more than 2000 people had gathered, smashing cars and chanting: ''We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.''
The protesters claim cheating is endemic in China and that sitting the exams without help puts their children at a disadvantage.

~ from "Chinese students and families fight for the right to cheat their exams" @smh
the last excerpt warrants interpretation; i think the protest is specific to why their city was chosen for enforcement, instead of other cities. the article goes on to point out that last year, the education department received 99 identical exam papers .. but then again, there's no comparison as to how other cities' stats stack up.

imagine, for example, if other cities had been recorded at 500+ identical copies.

considering the population of certain cities in china, that's no longer a large number of students;
as a result, without additional data i wouldn't rule out political favoritism yet ..

nonetheless, this kind of news is alarming. i've heard that eastern culture favors the group over the individual, and that the socioeconomic inequity in india and china is huge, but .. really?

well, moving towards a more abstract direction ..
The researchers are trying to avoid a situation where we outsmart ourselves, and create a system that can in turn invent its own technologies, which could "steamroll" humanity – not because it’s evil, but simply because we couldn’t foresee the long-term ramifications of how we programmed it.
"Think how it might be to compete for resources with the dominant species," Price says. "Take gorillas, for example – the reason they’re becoming extinct isn’t because humans are actively hostile towards them, but because we control the environment in a way that suits us, but is detrimental to their survival.

~ from "The men trying to save us from the machines" @pcpro
considering how well we understand turιng machines yet still face computer crashes regularly, in this day and age, this might not be a bad approach in general. it would be rather .. depressing if all of humanity were swept away, due to a computer glitch!

to a lesser, more realistic extent: the access and operations for my savings and checking accounts are probably automated within some banking computer system. if enough errors pile up, then .. [cringes].

4. to humans, does time lack symmetry?

i would have thought that we humans are good at accounting for symmetry. then again, i'd probably also fall prey to this ..
But when asked to predict what their personalities and tastes would be like in 10 years, people of all ages consistently played down the potential changes ahead.
Thus, the typical 20-year-old woman’s predictions for her next decade were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s. This sort of discrepancy persisted among respondents all the way into their 60s.

~ from "Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be" @nyt
the main mechanism might be memory, which resides clearly in the past, not the present, and is arguably inherently faulty.

anyway, towards a more familiar setting .. here's a thought that makes sense, but never came to mind when i was teaching:
You would think that since you have been a student and survived you would be able to recognize their misconceptions and guide them to enlightenment. But even if you could remember what it was like to be a student, that moment for you was characterized by a similar hit-and-run-don’t-leave-a-calling-card confusion.

Everybody gets hit by the bus, everybody gets knocked out, everybody survives, but nobody remembers what they got hit by. So you can’t tell them what to watch out for. Teachers can’t understand their students’ confusion even though they once experienced the exact same confusion!

~ from "Teach Like You Don’t Know" @desmondrawls
a good point, but the comparison (i.e. hit-&-run) as well as the phenomenon seems a bit forced. it's not like the act of learning is some version of achilles and the tortoise, right!

maybe the point is the instability of learning. everything is fine for students, as long as they're following diligently and carefully .. but once they trip up, their confusion can be utter confusion. /-:

5. lastly, a bit about online education.

i know that i've ranted on and on about MOOCs a lot, but this is the first article that mentions any behind-the-scenes kind of details:
So, what hasn’t gone as planned? Certainly some things do not translate from a traditional classroom course to a MOOC. Our team realized quickly that we needed to do a better job cross-linking material on the course site. For example, if we mention the syllabus, we must link to it. Some students, we have learned, want a great deal of guidance.
We also underestimated the misunderstandings that can arise from idiomatic and discipline-specific language. We began the course by asking students to complete a Personal Benchmark Statement, only to discover that we needed to provide a definition of “benchmark.” A longer glossary of terms became a featured part of our site.

~ from "Inside a MOOC in Progress" @the_chronicle
interesting: in terms of the latter gaffe, in a multivariable calculus class it once took me a week to realise that i'd been calling a $\partial$ a 'del' without actually having told the class of the pronunciation.

(for the record, it was one very brave student who asked in the middle of class; subsequently a collective 'oh' erupted through the lecture hall.)

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