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“The ghost in the machine”*…

 

Pity (detail), by William Blake, c. 1795

How is it that mind and body manage to interact and affect each other if they are such different things? This question was pressed on Descartes in the spring of 1643 by a young woman of twenty-four, Elisabeth von der Pfalz, also known as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. When others raised such difficulties, Descartes tended to brush them aside. But he listened to the princess…

Anthony Gottlieb tells the remarkable story of the correspondence between René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—a debate about mind, soul, and immortality: “The Ghost and the Princess.”

* Gilbert Ryle (The Concept of Mind, in part a critique of Descartes’ mind-body dualism)

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As we try to get it together, we might that it was on this date in 1404 that King Henry IV signed into law the Act Against Multiplication– which forbade alchemists to use their knowledge to create precious metals… and effectively, thus, outlawed chemistry in England.  Since the time of Roger Bacon, alchemy had fascinated many in England.  The Act of Multipliers was passed by the Parliament, declaring the use of transmutation to “multiply” gold and silver to be felony, as a result of concern that an alchemist might succeed in his project– and thus bring ruin upon the state by debasing the national currency and/or furnishing boundless wealth to a designing tyrant, who would use it to enslave the country.  The Act was in force until 1689, when Robert Boyle and other members of the vanguard of the scientific revolution lobbied for its repeal.

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Written by LW

January 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Opium teaches only one thing, which is that aside from physical suffering, there is nothing real”*…

 

Opium’s history in the United States is as old as the nation itself. During the American Revolution, the Continental and British armies used opium to treat sick and wounded soldiers. Benjamin Franklin took opium late in life to cope with severe pain from a bladder stone. A doctor gave laudanum, a tincture of opium mixed with alcohol, to Alexander Hamilton after his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

By 1895, morphine and opium powders, like OxyContin and other prescription opioids today, had led to an addiction epidemic that affected roughly 1 in 200 Americans. Before 1900, the typical opiate addict in America was an upper-class or middle-class white woman. Today, doctors are re-learning lessons their predecessors learned more than a lifetime ago…

Doctors then, as now, overprescribed the painkiller to patients in need; and then, as now, government policy had a distinct bias.  Learn more at: “Inside the Story of America’s 19th-Century Opiate Addiction.”

* Andre Malraux

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As we moderate our intake, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Norman Rufus Colin Cohn; he was born on this date in 1915.  A historian of fanaticism, his remarkable The Pursuit of the Millennium, a tracing back of the mythologies associated with medieval apocalyptic movements that characterized– and ultimately marred– the revolutionary movements of the 20th century, was ranked as one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century in a survey conducted by The Times Literary Supplement.  He was a Fellow of the British Academy, an honor to which he was nominated by Isaiah Berlin.

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Written by LW

January 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

“When we achieved, and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew”*…

 

The term “technological unemployment” is from John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 lecture, “Economic possibilities for our grandchildren,” where he predicted that in the future, around 2030, the production problem would be solved and there would be enough for everyone, but machines (robots, he thought) would cause “technological unemployment.” There would be plenty to go around, but the means of getting a share in it, jobs, might be scarce.

We are not quite at 2030, but I believe we have reached the “Keynes point,” where indeed enough is produced by the economy, both physical and virtual, for all of us. (If total US household income of $8.495 trillion were shared by America’s 116 million households, each would earn $73,000, enough for a decent middle-class life.) And we have reached a point where technological unemployment is becoming a reality.

The problem in this new phase we’ve entered is not quite jobs, it is access to what’s produced. Jobs have been the main means of access for only 200 or 300 years. Before that, farm labor, small craft workshops, voluntary piecework, or inherited wealth provided access. Now access needs to change again.

However this happens, we have entered a different phase for the economy, a new era where production matters less and what matters more is access to that production: distribution, in other words—who gets what and how they get it.

We have entered the distributive era…

From a very provocative essay by a very wise man, Brian Arthur.  You can– and should– read it in its entirety at “Where is technology taking the economy?

See also: “Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution”*…

[Image above: source]

* T.E. Lawrence

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As we rethink the fundamentals, we might recall that it was on this date in 1994 that The Superhighway Summit was held at the University of California, Los Angeles’s Royce Hall.

It was the “first public conference bringing together all of the major industry, government and academic leaders in the field [and] also began the national dialogue about the Information Superhighway and its implications.” The conference was organized by Richard Frank of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and Jeffrey Cole and Geoffrey Cowan, the former co-directors of UCLA’s Center for Communication Policy.The keynote speaker was Vice President Al Gore who said:  “We have a dream for…an information superhighway that can save lives, create jobs and give every American, young and old, the chance for the best education available to anyone, anywhere.”

According to Cynthia Lee in UCLA Today: “The participants underscored the point that the major challenge of the Information Highway would lie in access or the ‘gap between those who will have access to it because they can afford to equip themselves with the latest electronic devices and those who can’t.’”  [source]

Vice President Gore at the Summit’s podium

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Written by LW

January 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”*…

 

If you wanted to hear the future in late May, 1968, you might have gone to Abbey Road to hear the Beatles record a new song of John Lennon’s—something called “Revolution.” Or you could have gone to the decidedly less fab midtown Hilton in Manhattan, where a thousand “leaders and future leaders,” ranging from the economist John Kenneth Galbraith to the peace activist Arthur Waskow, were invited to a conference by the Foreign Policy Association. For its fiftieth anniversary, the F.P.A. scheduled a three-day gathering of experts, asking them to gaze fifty years ahead. An accompanying book shared the conference’s far-off title: “Toward the Year 2018”…

More amazing than science fiction,” proclaims the cover, with jacket copy envisioning how “on a summer day in the year 2018, the three-dimensional television screen in your living room” flashes news of “anti-gravity belts,” “a man-made hurricane, launched at an enemy fleet, [that] devastates a neutral country,” and a “citizen’s pocket computer” that averts an air crash. “Will our children in 2018 still be wrestling,” it asks, “with racial problems, economic depressions, other Vietnams?”

Much of “Toward the Year 2018” might as well be science fiction today. With fourteen contributors, ranging from the weapons theorist Herman Kahn to the I.B.M. automation director Charles DeCarlo, penning essays on everything from “Space” to “Behavioral Technologies,” it’s not hard to find wild misses. The Stanford wonk Charles Scarlott predicts, exactly incorrectly, that nuclear breeder reactors will move to the fore of U.S. energy production while natural gas fades. (He concedes that natural gas might make a comeback—through atom-bomb-powered fracking.) The M.I.T. professor Ithiel de Sola Pool foresees an era of outright control of economies by nations—“They will select their levels of employment, of industrialization, of increase in GNP”—and then, for good measure, predicts “a massive loosening of inhibitions on all human impulses save that toward violence.” From the influential meteorologist Thomas F. Malone, we get the intriguing forecast of “the suppression of lightning”—most likely, he figures, “by the late 1980s.”

But for every amusingly wrong prediction, there’s one unnervingly close to the mark…

Those uncannily-accurate predictions, and their backstories, at “The 1968 book that tried to predict the world of 2018.”

* Søren Kierkegaard

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As we ponder posterity, we might send static-y birthday greetings to Robert Woodrow Wilson; he was born on this date in 1936.  An astronomer, he detected– with Bell Labs colleague Arno Penzias– cosmic microwave background radiation: “relic radiation”– that’s to say. the “sound “– of the Big Bang.  Their 1964 discovery earned them the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics.

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“A few scribbles on a blackboard… can change the course of human affairs”*…

 

What’s the most transformative piece of technology in U.S. classrooms? Smart boards? Laptops? In a 2000 paper on computers in education, Steven D. Krause argues that it’s one that’s been around for nearly two centuries: the blackboard. And he suggests that if we want to understand how teachers adopt technology, we might want to study its history.

To understand the impact of blackboards, Krause writes, we need to consider what schools were like before them. Around 1800, most U.S. schools were one-room log buildings with a fireplace at one end and a single window at the other. “Writing lessons” generally meant students working on their own, whittling goose-quill pens and copying out texts.

When the idea of chalkboards first arrived in the early nineteenth century, they came as a revelation to teachers and education experts. In 1841, one educator declared that the blackboard’s unknown inventor “deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not among the greatest benefactors of mankind.” Around the same time, another writer praised blackboards for “reflecting the workings, character and quality of the individual mind.”

It’s important to remember that school budgets and student-teacher ratios in the early nineteenth century would seem ludicrous to a modern school district. One teacher might be responsible for hundreds of students, with very little funding for supplies.

Krause writes that one prominent way of using the blackboard to improve education under these circumstances was known as the Lancasterian method, after British educator John Lancaster. Lancaster prescribed particular ways of physically arranging the classroom so that a teacher could work with a large group all at once…

The whole dusty story at “How blackboards transformed American education.”  Read Krause’s paper, “‘Among the Greatest Benefactors of Mankind’: What the Success of Chalkboards Tells Us about the Future of Computers in the Classroom,” here.

* Stanislaw Ulam

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As we clean the erasers, we might send repetitive-but-instructive birthday greetings to Edwin Ray Guthrie; he was born on this date in 1886.  A philosopher and mathematician by training, he became a leading behavioral psychologist, specializing in the psychology of learning and more specifically, in the role association plays in acquiring skills.  He’s probably best remembered for his belief that all learning is based on a stimulus- response association, instantiated in his Law of Contiguity, which held that “a combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement, will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement.”  Movements are, he argued, small stimulus- response combinations; these movements make up an act.  Thus, a learned behavior– an act that is consolidated by the learner so that it can be repeated– is, at its root, a series of movements.  Guthrie believed that what is learned are the movements (of which the behaviors are simply a result).

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“The future ain’t what it used to be”*…

 

People in the early 20th century were hopeful about the future innovation might bring. The technology that came out of World War I, and the growing potential brought by electricity (half of all U.S. homes had electric power by 1925) had many looking ahead to the coming century. Futurists of the early 1900s predicted an incredible boom in technology that would transform human lives for the better.

In fact, many of those predictions for the future in which we live weren’t far off, from the proliferation of automobiles and airplanes to the widespread transmission of information. Of course, the specifics of how those devices would work sometimes fell broad of the mark. Yet these predictions show us just how much our technology has progressed in just a century — and just how much further more innovation could take us…

Further to yesterday’s collection of charts that might serve as a dashboard for us as we look to 2018, a consideration of how 2018 looked to scientists, inventors/technologists, and forecasters in (and around) 1918: Does Life In 2018 Live up to What We Predicted a Century Ago?

* Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book, 1998 (though the phrase “the future isn’t what it used to be” was used in 1937 by Laura Riding and Robert Graves in English, and by Paul Valéry in French)

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As we take the long view, we might spare a thought for Kenneth Patchen; he died on this date in 1972.  A poet and novelist who experimented with form (most notably, with incorporating jazz into his readings), Patchen was widely ignored by the cultural establishment in his lifetime; but (with his close friend Kenneth Rexroth) became an inspiration for the young poets–  Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and others– who became known as the Beat Generation.  In 1968, near the end of his life, The Collected Poems of Kenneth Patchen was published– and Patchen was embraced by the Establishment. The New York TImes called the book “a remarkable volume,” comparing Patchen’s work to that of Blake, Whitman, Crane, Lawrence, and even to the Bible.  In another review, the poet David Meltzer called Patchen “one of America’s great poet-prophets” and called his body of work “visionary art for our time and for Eternity.”

The lions of fire
Shall have their hunting in this black land

Their teeth shall tear at your soft throats
Their claws kill

O the lions of fire shall awake
And the valleys steam with their fury

Because you have turned your faces from God
Because you have spread your filth everywhere.

– from “The Lions of Fire Shall Have Their Hunting”  The Teeth of the Lion (1942)

Allen Ginsberg (left) and Kenneth Patchen (right) backstage at the Living Theatre where Patchen was performing with Charlie Mingus, New York City 1959. Photo copyright © Harry Redl 1959, 2000.

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Written by LW

January 8, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Yet in opinions look not always back, / Your wake is nothing, mind the coming track”*…

 

One of ten trends to watch in 2018

From North Korea’s nuclear tests to global refugee flows, the rise or fall in numbers signals where the world may be headed in 2018. To help visualize what’s on the horizon, CFR [Council on Foreign Relations] editors asked ten of our experts to highlight the charts and graphs to keep an eye on in the coming year…

Ten charts and the short essays that explain their importance to our future:  “Visualizing 2018: The Essential Graphics.”

* Yet in opinions look not always back,
Your wake is nothing, mind the coming track;
Leave what you’ve done for what you have to do;
Don’t be “consistent,” but be simply true.
― Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

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As we monitor the gauges, we might send underwhelming birthday greetings to Millard Fillmore; he was born on this date in 1800.  The last member of the Whig Party to serve as President, he was a Congressional Representative from New York who was elected to the Vice Presidency in 1848 on Zachary Taylor’s ticket.  When Taylor died in 1850, Fillmore became the second V.P. to assume the presidency between elections.

Fillmore’s signature accomplishment was the passage of the Compromise of 1850 passed, a bargain that led to a brief truce in the battle over slavery– a package of legislation so ill-conceived (it contained the Fugitive Slave Act) and unpopular that Fillmore failed to get his own party’s nomination for President in the election of 1852, which he sat out.  Unwilling to follow Lincoln into the new Republican Party, he got the endorsement of the nativist Know Nothing Party (dba, the American Party) four years later, and finished third in the 1856 election.

Matthew Brady’s photo of Fillmore

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