The education innovation dilemma

by Sarah Firisen

Many years ago, I returned to my old high school for a visit with friends who were classmates back in the ’80s. Exploring the school and marveling over what had changed and what remained exactly the same, we ventured into the language lab. The room smelled exactly the same as it had in 1983, and it took me right back to those days of incredibly boring language lessons and sitting in that room with headphones on repeating monotonous phrases. 

I took French for seven years in middle and high school, Latin for five, and German for two. Language classes were always my educational Achilles heel. Those seven years enabled me to speak the most halting, grammatically painful, badly accented French when we visited on vacation, and I’ve always wished I spoke it better. 

I’m now planning to visit Paris in January with my daughters, Sasha, 18, Anya, 21, and Anya’s boyfriend, Liam. Growing up in the U.S., they all learned Spanish in school rather than the de rigor in the UK, French. My daughters never showed much more linguistic aptitude than I did in school. In preparation for our trip, Anya suggested that we all download Duolingo, a language learning app. Read more »

On the Road: Among the non-Humans

by Bill Murray

Cogito Ergo Sum? Welcome to the party. There’s a lot more going on out there than we sometimes think: Cephalopods memorize, learn, invent, and play; indeed, they acquire information about the outside world while still in their eggs. • The small, flowering thale, or mouse-ear cress, can detect the vibrations caused by caterpillars munching on it and so release oils and chemicals to repel the insects. • The fruit fly Drosophila shows evidence of depression if it gets too hot. • Plants discern the difference between blue and red light, and use this information to know which direction to grow. They differentiate between the dimming scarlet light of sunset and the brightening orange light of sunrise, to determine when to flower. • Pigs comprehend symbolic language, plan for the future and discern the intentions of others. They bore easily and show a clear preference for novelty. • When researchers arranged oat flakes in the geographical pattern of cities around Tokyo, slime mold constructed nutrient channeling tubes that closely mimicked Tokyo’s metro rail. • Some plants can feel you touching them. • Cuvier’s beaked whales can  dive to 10,000 feet and stay there, at tremendous pressure, for up to two hours. In 2020 scientists recorded a Cuvier’s beaked whale staying below the water for 3 hours 42 minutes. • The nearly blind star-nosed mole, the world’s fastest eater, can find and gobble down an insect or worm in a quarter of a second. It hunts by bopping its star against the soil as quickly as possible, touching 10 or 12 different places in a single second. • The 10 centimeter long cleaner wrasse, a reef fish, has joined great apes, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, Eurasian magpies and a particular Asian elephant in exhibiting self-awareness. Read more »

Sonic Transportation: It shook me, the light!

by Bill Benzon

ASC, “altered states of consciousness” – I don’t know when the term was first coined, but I became aware of it late in the 1960s. I took it as referring primarily to states of mind induced by psychoactive drugs, such as marijuana, mescaline, and LSD, and to states induced by meditative practice. It presupposes “ordinary consciousness,” which is hardly a single thing when you consider that one can ordinarily be daydreaming, working a math problem, eating a meal, perhaps a good meal, perhaps one that is merely tolerable, hiking in the woods, and so forth, for a long and various list of activities, all of them ordinary.bright sun

Music is one of those activities, one I treasure a great deal. I my experience states of musical consciousness can be quite various, some tending toward the ordinary other rather extraordinary. When I was eleven or twelve I read the this is Jean-Baptiste Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet, originally published in mid-nineteenth century France, and variously edited and reprinted since then. Arban is expressing his hopes for the instrument:

There are other things of so elevated and subtle a nature that neither speech nor writing can clearly explain them. They are felt, they are conceived, but they are not to be explained; and yet these things constitute the elevated style, the grande ecole, which it is my ambition to institute for the cornet, even as they already exist for singing and the various kinds of instruments.

What was he talking about? What does he mean by “grande ecole”? I doubt that I sought out an English translation. Whatever it was, it seemed important, albeit mysterious. Perhaps even, important because mysterious.

Does this grande ecole involve an altered state of consciousness?

Rock and Roll

During the early 1970s, while I was working on a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, I played with a rock band called St. Matthew Passion. We modeled ourselves on Blood, Sweat, and Tears and on Chicago, bands that blended elements of jazz with rock. Thus, in addition to a four-piece rhythm section (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums) we had three horns: sax, trumpet (me), and trombone. Read more »

Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 21

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

At MIT outside the Economics Department there was one scholar, whose several lectures I have attended was Noam Chomsky. I knew of him as a pioneer in modern linguistic theory, but his fame in the outside world is as America’s topmost dissenter (his position is somewhat like what used to be that of Bertrand Russell in Britain, a towering figure in his own subject philosophy, but his fame outside was that of Britain’s leading dissenter).

Chomsky in his lectures used to tirelessly blast the framework of American imperial policy, the capitalist military-industrial complex, the corporate-controlled media machinery for manufacturing consent, and the near-complete lack of control of common people over economic policy. I often agreed with the main thrust of his lectures, but the question that nagged me, but never could ask him in the surging crowd of his admirers around, was about the feasibility of the socio-political alternatives he might have in mind.

In some of his writings his constructive ideas seem close to old-style left-libertarian or anarcho-syndicalist views; in one place he describes his ideological position as revolving around “nourishing the libertarian and creative character of the human being”. What little I have read of this positive side of his ideological position has left me somewhat unconvinced; I have wondered if he has fully applied his mind to the various problems that arise in the real world beyond the anarchist or left-libertarian utopia. Read more »

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Wisława Szymborska: Advice for Writers

Joanna Kavenna in Literary Review:

Inverting the old cliché, Christopher Hitchens said, ‘Everyone has a book in them and that, in most cases, is where it should stay.’ The journalist and satirist Karl Kraus agreed: journalists, especially, should never write novels. This was self-satire, partly. Yet there are writers who can barely go to the shops without publishing a voluminous account immediately afterwards. At the other end of this unscientific spectrum are writers who destroy their work, either because they think it’s rubbish (Joyce, Stevenson, etc) or because they’ve become recently convinced it was written by the Devil (Gogol). Some people doubt themselves far too much, others not remotely enough.

With some or none of this in mind, the Polish author Wisława Szymborska, who died in 2012, destroyed 90 per cent of her writing. Despite that (or maybe because of it), she won the Nobel Prize in 1996 for ‘poetry that … allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality’. I have no idea what that means either.

More here.

The Webb Space Telescope Will Rewrite Cosmic History. If It Works.

Natalie Wolchover in Quanta:

To look back in time at the cosmos’s infancy and witness the first stars flicker on, you must first grind a mirror as big as a house. Its surface must be so smooth that, if the mirror were the scale of a continent, it would feature no hill or valley greater than ankle height. Only a mirror so huge and smooth can collect and focus the faint light coming from the farthest galaxies in the sky — light that left its source long ago and therefore shows the galaxies as they appeared in the ancient past, when the universe was young. The very faintest, farthest galaxies we would see still in the process of being born, when mysterious forces conspired in the dark and the first crops of stars started to shine.

But to read that early chapter in the universe’s history — to learn the nature of those first, probably gargantuan stars, to learn about the invisible matter whose gravity coaxed them into being, and about the roles of magnetism and turbulence, and how enormous black holes grew and worked their way into galaxies’ centers — an exceptional mirror is not nearly enough.

More here.

John Rawls’s doctrine of fairness

Olúfémi O. Táíwò in The Nation:

With its doctrine of fairness, A Theory of Justice transformed political philosophy. The English historian Peter Laslett had described the field as “dead” in 1956; with Rawls’s book that changed almost overnight. Now philosophers were arguing about the nature of Rawlsian principles and their implications—and for that matter were once again interested in matters of political and economic justice. Rawls’s terms became lingua franca: Many considered how his arguments, focused mostly on domestic or national issues of justice, might be applied to questions of international justice as well. Others sought to extend his theory’s set of political principles, while still others probed the limits of Rawls’s epistemology and the narrowness of his focus on individuals. A decade after A Theory of Justice appeared, Forrester notes, 2,512 books and articles had been published engaging with its central claims.

Rawls’s liberal theory of justice as fairness has continued to define the shape and trajectory of political philosophy and liberalism writ large to this day.

More here.

Master’s Degrees Are the Second Biggest Scam in Higher Education

Jordan Weissmann in Slate:

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a troubling exposé on the crushing debt burdens that students accumulate while pursuing master’s degrees at elite universities in fields like drama and film, where the job prospects are limited and the chances of making enough to repay their debt are slim. Because it focused on MFA programs at Ivy League schools—one subject accumulated around $300,000 in loans pursuing screenwriting—the article rocketed around the creative class on Twitter. But it also pointed to a more fundamental, troubling development in the world of higher education: For colleges and universities, master’s degrees have essentially become an enormous moneymaking scheme, wherein the line between for-profit and nonprofit education has been utterly blurred. There are, of course, good programs as well as bad ones, but when you scope out, there is clearly a systemic problem.

More here.

Jerrold Rosenbaum: Are Psychedelics an Effective Treatment for Mood Disorders?

From Harvard Magazine:

Nancy Kathryn Walecki: So first of all, most people probably think of psychedelics in the context of the 1960s countercultural movements, when they were being used recreationally. So is using psychedelic drugs in psychiatric treatment a new idea?

Jerrold Rosenbaum: No, it’s not a new idea. The discovery of the psychoactive properties of psychedelics goes pretty far back. The iconic molecule LSD was synthesized by scientists, Albert Hofmann in 1938, working for Sandoz. And it was really due to a inadvertent contact with the substance—he hadn’t determined what it would be good for—that he actually absorbed some and had these remarkable experiences, visual and perceptual changes, and he knew he had something interesting. There was a fair amount of research going on with LSD really into the 60s as a serious exploration of what it might mean for patients with psychiatric disorders. And it was explored as a model of psychosis, as a potential treatment for psychotic disorders, and there was some recognition that it might play a role in treating addictive disorders. And so, serious scientists really in the early 60s at our National Institutes of Health, were looking at these LSD and related substances. The patent life for LSD ended and Sandoz stopped making it, but it turns out to be a pretty easy compound to manufacture. And so, home labs came into existence and LSD made its way into non-medical use and non-research use, and there was a fair amount of interest in the experience that LSD generated and it became sort of a hallmark of, as you pointed out, the counterculture population, particularly with disaffected youth in the 60s, triggered by political events, the Vietnam War and other frustrations with society. And, as you know, a Harvard professor or Harvard faculty member, Timothy Leary, was enthusiastic and was encouraging people to use it, that the reality or the alternative experience from day-to-day reality that these substances afforded was viewed as preferred. And so he encouraged people to tune-in turn-on, dropout, and many did, setting up alternative lifestyles. But it was also associated with the protest movement against the Vietnam War.

More here.

When You Can’t Change the World, Change Your Feelings

Arthur C. Brooks in The Atlantic:

Everyone—even the most privileged among us—has circumstances they would like to change in their life. As the early sixth-century Roman philosopher Boethius put it, “One has abundant riches, but is shamed by his ignoble birth. Another is conspicuous for his nobility, but through the embarrassments of poverty would prefer to be obscure. A third, richly endowed with both, laments the loneliness of an unwedded life.”

…Sometimes, changing your circumstances is difficult but absolutely necessary, such as in cases of abuse or violence. And sometimes, changing your circumstances is fairly easy: If you are lethargic every morning, start going to bed earlier. But in the gray areas in between, fighting against reality can be impossible, or incredibly inefficient. Maybe you have been diagnosed with a chronic illness for which there are no promising treatment options. Perhaps your romantic partner has left you against your wishes and cannot be persuaded otherwise. Maybe you have a job you like but a manager you don’t, and no one will give you a new boss.

In these sorts of situations, changing how you feel can actually be much easier than changing your physical reality, even if it seems unnatural. Your emotions can seem out of your control at the best of times, and even more so during a crisis—which is exactly when changing them would give you the greatest benefit. That can be blamed in part on biology. Negative emotions such as anger and fear activate the amygdala, which increases vigilance toward threats and improves your ability to detect and avoid danger. In other words, stress makes you fight, flee, or freeze—not think, What would a prudent reaction be at this moment? Let’s consider the options. This makes good evolutionary sense: Half a million years ago, taking time to manage your emotions would have made you a tiger’s lunch.

More here.

Sunday Poem

The Last Day of November

My wife is at her spinning wheel. She
first cleans, dries, and combs the fleece,
then dies the wool. She will spin yarn to make

a shawl, stocking cap, socks. She disappears
into her gentle quiet. I am a third of the way
through reading four books, but I don’t want

to read any of them. I want what I know you
want: to be happy, actually happy, to love
in a happy world. Today there was yet another

school shooting. Some students felt it coming.
Three kids who thought they were grown up,
dead. One more thought likely to die, did. The

others will live. The news dares to say recover.
Tonight we played Christmas carols for the first
time this season. Yes, ’tis the season. This morning

surgeons at three different hospitals awakened
assuming yet another routine day of rounds and
operations. When they were seventeen, did they

Read more »

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Lawrence Weiner (1942–2021)

more at Artforum:

Lawrence Weiner, a towering figure in the Conceptual art movement arising in the 1960s and who profoundly altered the landscape of American art, died December 2 at the age of seventy-nine. Known for his text-based installations incorporating evocative or descriptive phrases and sentence fragments, typically presented in bold capital letters accompanied by graphic accents and occupying unusual sites and surfaces, Weiner rose to prominence among a cohort that included Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Sol LeWitt. A firm believer that an idea alone could constitute an artwork, he established a practice that stood out for its consistent embodiment of his famous 1968 “Declaration of Intent”:

The artist may construct the piece.
The piece may be fabricated.
The piece need not be built.
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

more here.

Mandy Patinkin on Stephen Sondheim

Leo Robson at The New Statesman:

“Stephen’s story is well documented, the pain of it. Now here he was writing a beautiful song for the mother and wanting to write the son’s part. I had a relationship with my mother that I don’t think was as difficult, it had a little more grace, but it was challenging nonetheless. Stephen and I came to the conclusion that we never made the connection in the way we were searching for it. We kept passing by each other like ships in the night. A few days later, he hands me my part of the mother’s song. He’d taken our conversation and poeticised it. I got to be a teeny tiny part of what he was trying to say for this character. He wrote the most beautiful love song of two human beings trying to reach each other. That was the highlight of my entire professional life.”

more here.

Competition Is Not the Cure

Brian Callaci in The Boston Review:

A little less than a decade ago, after spending several years as a union staffer helping workers organize in low-wage industries, I was assigned to conduct research in support of fast food workers on strike for a $15 minimum wage and a union. It was exciting; workers were making bold demands on some of the most powerful corporations in the country, including a wage increase to double the current level of the Federal minimum wage. Too bold, in fact, for many. Democratic policymakers balked at $15. And with rare exceptions, the entire academic economics profession was opposed. Economists argued that if we forced employers to pay higher wages, they would simply hire fewer workers. A famous liberal economist even wrote a New York Times op-ed opposing $15. However, the Fight for $15 largely sidestepped the debates, so important to economists, about whether higher minimum wages would result in zero or nonzero job loss. Instead, it articulated a social vision of worker rights: workers had the right to the dignity of a living wage—their living in poverty was intolerable in a rich society.

Then a funny thing happened. Ignoring the experts, cities started passing $15 hourly minimum wage ordinances, and the economic sky didn’t fall. Unemployment didn’t skyrocket, or even rise perceptibly. The economists were wrong. Intellectually honest if initially mistaken, economists looked for theories that would better reflect reality, and a previously out-of-fashion theory known as “monopsony” became the new reigning conventional wisdom.

More here.

A Century of Disappointment: Reappraising Neoliberalism

Yulia Gromova interviews Quinn Slobodian in Strelka:

Yulia Gromova: The founding fathers of neoliberalism—Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and others, as you describe in your book, have created the basis for today’s global world order. They laid the foundation for institutions including the European Union and the World Trade Organization (WTO). What was particular about the Geneva School of neoliberalism?

Quinn Slobodian: What occurred to me was that capitalism hadn’t really had to deal with democracy until the twentieth century. It could reproduce itself and all of its inequalities by simply keeping some people out of the political picture, and denying them a voice in the political process.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the world was in colonial status. The parts of the world that were in the metropole—the center of the empire, or had independence like the United States or Latin American countries—did not have anything close to universal suffrage. Women in every case were still denied the right to vote—allowing women to vote happened experimentally within the Paris Commune in the 1870s, but was quickly withdrawn and was only rolled out in exceptional cases more after the First World War. And in places like France, not until the Second World War.

So, the core question for Vienna school neoliberals in the 1920s and 1930s was first of all how to expand the voice within rich Western populations to include people without property and women. And then how to expand it beyond Europe to the former colonial countries of Asia, Africa, and parts of Latin America. And how to do that while preserving a system which has been proven to produce jaw-dropping inequalities between populations and parts of the world.

The first problem that they saw was decolonization. The dissolution of the Habsburg Empire after the First World War accompanied the end of the Russian and Ottoman Empires. It was the triumph of the nationality principle for the first time. That also came along with a certain idea of self-determination and popular sovereignty at the national level, which was more asserted than practiced until after the First World War.

More here.