Functional Form

Avoiding side-effects since 2004.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Resist the Slide

I posted this originally on Whatstheexperiment, but not being sure of that young blog's potential readership, I decided to duplicate it here.

I hate Microsoft PowerPoint. If I had the sociological evidence I would say it is ruining our entire academic system, but I can say this: It's played a big role in ruining my education. As the slides click by and the class's eyes glaze over, I can't help but wonder, "Is this progress?" I guess the professors use it because they think it makes teaching easier. They can explain the inner workings of a complex idea without having to draw it on the chalkboard. Their notes are displayed for all to see, so that everyone can follow along and download the slides after class... no more note-taking. But for me, this is missing the point. In illustrating an idea on the blackboard, the professor's mind must fully reenact every idea expressed; they must construct a logical flow, one idea following another, with each image they draw and idea they articulate related to the next. It's a difficult task. It takes a lot of preparation, and writing on the blackboard is slow, so figures and examples must be carefully chosen and explained. Yet the difficulties of these "analog" activities are not due to a lack of technology, but to limitations inherent in the learning process itself. The bottleneck is not in the speed at which information can be scrawled on the board but the speed at which that information can be absorbed by students. Do we actually believe that students can learn faster than the experts that are teaching them can write? The articulation of raw data into knowledge, the presentation of ideas in a form optimized for human reception, is the essence of lecture. There's never been a shortage of the resources provided in these slideshows, of graphs and diagrams and laundry-listed theorems. Just open any textbook and you will find endless pages of such information, formatted and explained far more professionally than any amateur slide presentation. But it's all static. You can't follow along as these theorems are proven step by step. Inflating this same static information to fill a classroom wall and pointing at it with a laser beam doesn't solve this problem. With the illusion of structure provided by the ordering of slides, it's easy for the professor to believe that real material is being covered, but an idea displayed all too often fails to result in an idea relayed. The mechanized torrent gives my lectures a rapid pace but a strangely shallow quality, like skimming a novel the night before it's due. They become lifeless and painfully boring, further intensifying the disconnect. It may run counter to our buzzword-enamored academic culture, but this is one beleaguered college senior with a desperate appeal: Get technology out of the classroom. Next time I want to learn by reading, I prefer to turn the pages myself.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Militant Ignorance

It's hard to imagine that people think this way:
"If you don't like what's going on in this country, then leave."
I was born here. I have as much a right to live here as you do, and I will stay here as long as I want saying whatever I want.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Share to the Future

Many of my problems with my society is its fixation on a single metaphor as an explanation for all human activity. Incentive. According to these theorists, my movements occur only where two lines intersect on a graph. But what works for sacks of soybeans is being over-applied as a model for our social behavior. Surely we can't really believe that artists only paint, that jazz musicians only play, and that actors only pretend because they are motivated by money. Would anyone with any taste really want to partake of culture produced in pursuit of that goal? Music is not a record, it's the experience of player and audience. Writing is not a printed book, but the ideas conveyed by the ink. Though we may confuse art with the physical objects on which it is distributed, we must remember that acts of self expression are not widgets. There is nothing produced or consumed. The industries that currently oligopolize distribution channels and waste our electromagnetic spectrum on their analog commercials don't add value to our culture. They parasitize it. We let them steal from our rights to share with one another because once upon a time we needed them to make us records and ship them to our malls. But if any recording can be copied infinitely and sent anywhere instantly at zero marginal cost, what's the sanity in banning sharing to promote companies whose role is supposedly the copying and distribution of music?. I went to a jazz concert tonight due to interest cultivated by music I supposedly stole, even though no one lost their copy as a result of my enjoyment. Without the network, I'd never had gotten interested in jazz. So if you ask me if talented artists suffer if record companies aren't allowed to restrict our freedom, I say it's quite the opposite situation. Only the hand-picked darlings of the industry currently make millions, and their songs are carefully crafted to appeal to the lowest common denominator that will efficiently move product off of limited store shelf-space. Variety isn't economical for the industry, and the hit-driven economy that is its alternative represents the Wal-Martization of music, in which sophistication and creativity are drowned out of the artificially-narrowed channels that are crowded with "what sells". Sharing isn't the end of music. On the contrary, music is sharing. Broadcast culture allowed the few to dictate the tastes of the many because there was only so much radio spectrum for the primitive analog systems to divide, but with digital technologies, these technical limitations are no longer a concern. Information is something that we can all broadcast, we can all manufacture. Sharing is merely the end of an industry. Good riddance.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Letter to Senator

Dear Senator Boxer:

I am writing you to express my strong opposition to the patenting of software. I beg you to consider the deleterious effects of patents in this very unique domain, both to business and freedom of individual software developers to create and share their work. Software is not like any other innovative pursuit to which patents have been applied in the past... it is much less a form of engineering than an art. Software represents a new kind of social activity in an era of increasing ubiquity for digital information, and it is rapidly becoming the tool of freedom seekers around the world. I heard you today on NPR, and I believe that you care about the cause of freedom. Please take a look at this issue. Note that the EU parliament is currently in debate over this subject, and it is very likely that Europe will reject the application of patents to software, giving the European market an edge over the US, where patents will stifle innovation. We must reform our intellectual property system to sanely approach the new intellectual realities brought on by revolutionary new technologies. Note what happened to Europe following the adoption of mechanized printing. Digital sharing of information represents a change in the nature of intellectual exchange, and it carries similar implications for our future. Please help ensure that America meets that future with open arms rather than stifling it. Thanks.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

You're In Atari Biatch!

I was introduced to a really interesting and potentially addicting game this evening. Go. It's so open-ended and yet really strategic... way more interesting to me than Chess has ever been, just because it feels like there's a lot more room for creativity. Annie Mermaid and I played at a little coffee shop in Santa Monica called the Unurban Cafe, which had a really cool crowd. I think I will be going there more often... beginner night with the Santa Monica Go Club is on Tuesdays.

I started on my mountains of backlogged EE 457 homework tonight, which involves programming in MIPS assembly code. I am just getting the hang of it, since the only assembly I've ever done is for the Motorola 68000, and that was a while ago. It's amazing using such an imperative style after the pure expressive nature of all the Lisp programming I have been doing lately... it's like the opposite end of the spectrum, and I thank God that compilers take care of it in most every practical situation. But still, it's reasonably amusing as a small game. I hope they let me turn in all of this homework late.