Category Archives: word from elsewhere

NYT: Rostrum speaker Ben Shute, ” A New Generation of Farmers”

If our lawmakers decide that American farmers should hire only American workers, then we as a country have a lot more work to do than just enforcing rules against illegal labor. We need to set a national priority to encourage a new generation of young farmers, and we must adjust our system of agriculture to make farms into places where Americans want to work.

Read the full post from Benjamin Shute and further discussion on The New York Times website>>

Watch Benjamin Shute in a panel discussion with other Hudson Valley farmers during the 2011 Language and Thinking Program>>

The Primate Diaries: Frans de Waal on Political Apes, Science Communication, and Building a Cooperative Society

“It’s the animal in us,” we often hear when we’ve been bad. But why not when we’re good? This is the question that has driven Frans de Waal for the past 30 years. From his pioneering research on alliance formation in Chimpanzee Politics, to reconciliation behavior in Peacemaking Among Primates and Good Natured, to the implications for human life and thought in Primates and Philosophers, de Waal has been seeking to understand the roots of moral behavior in the most political of animals. The theme of his newest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, is the culmination of his work to date and presents a synthesis of the factors that account for cooperative behavior in the natural world. Many of the case studies he describes seem to defy the notion that nature is selfish or that humans alone are the only moral animal. In one moving example, an elderly chimpanzee female named Peony is incapacitated with arthritis and is unable to reach water. She is cared for by other members of her troop as they dip their own mouths into the stream and bring it back for her so she can drink.

Read the full article/interview in Scientific American>>

NYT: Do We Want to Be Supersize Humans?

Advances in technology and improvements in nutrition have produced remarkable physiological changes in the human body over a relatively short period.

Debate over the causes and implications of those changes has been raised anew by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert W. Fogel and his co-authors in a forthcoming book titled, “The Changing Body.” “In most if not quite all parts of the world,” they argue, “the size, shape and longevity of the human body have changed more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia.”

If the pattern holds and humans become taller, bigger and longer-living, will that always represent progress? What are the limits?

Read discussion by Frans de Waal, Daniel Lieberman and others in the New York Times>>

NYT: The Case for Cursive

Ms. Heck and a cousin leafed through their grandmother’s journal shortly after she died, but could barely read her cursive handwriting.

“It was kind of cryptic,” Ms. Heck said. She and the cousin tried to decipher it like one might a code, reading passages back and forth. “I’m not used to reading cursive or writing it myself.”

Read the full article from The New York Times>>

NYT: Plants Like Life Too

[….] Animals, on the other hand — and not just close evolutionary relations like chimps and gorillas, but species further afield, mammals like cows and pigs — can experience what pretty much anyone would agree is pain and suffering. If attacked, these animals will look agonized, scream, struggle and run as fast as they can. Obviously, if we don’t kill any of these animals to eat them, all that suffering is avoided.

Meanwhile, whether you pluck a leaf or slice a trunk, a plant neither grimaces nor cries out. Plants don’t seem to mind being killed, at least as far as we can see. But that may be exactly the difficulty.

Read the full article from The New York Times>>

NYT: Montaigne’s Moment

It’s been said — by Bakewell, with reservations, and others — that Montaigne was the first blogger. His favorite subject, as he often remarked, was himself (“I would rather be an expert on me than on Cicero”), and he meant to leave nothing out (“I am loath even to have thoughts which I cannot publish”). Some of his critics accused him of, in effect, oversharing, in the manner of a narcissistic Facebook status update. One was appalled that he should think it worthwhile to tell his readers which sort of wine he preferred. Montaigne also happened to mention that his penis was small. Two 17th-century theologians who were instrumental in getting his “Essais” placed on the Vatican’s index of prohibited books, where it stayed from 1676 to 1854, accused him of “a ridiculous vanity” and of showing too little shame for his vices.

Read the full article from the New York Times>>

Judith Butler: Who Owns Kafka?

http://www.dezeen.com/2008/06/16/franz-kafta-society-center-by-steven-holl-and-marcela-steinbachova/

Remember it was Kafka who wrote:

How on earth did anyone get the idea that people can communicate with one another by letter! Of a distant person one can think, and of a person who is near one can catch hold – all else goes beyond human strength. Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and fights against it and in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create a natural communication, the peace of souls, it has invented the railway, the motor car, the aeroplane. But it’s no longer any good, these are evidently inventions being made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the radiograph. The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish.

Read the full article from Judith Butler in the London Review of Books>>

NYT: A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans

A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans
by John Markoff

Not only do designers face ethical issues … but increasingly as skills that were once exclusively human are simulated by machines, their designers are faced with the challenge of rethinking what it means to be human. Read the full article from The New York Times>>

Update (2/16): Watson won.

Update (2/25): IBM Senior Software Engineer Adam Lally will lecture at Bard on Thursday March 3rd, 2011 at 3:30pm in the Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito ’60 Auditorium.

Adam Lally: IBM’s Watson deep question answering system defeated two all-time champions on the Jeopardy! quiz show this February. Winning at Jeopardy! is a difficult challenge for a computer because clues are expressed in complex natural language over an extremely broad domain of topics, and because questions must be answered with very high precision and in a very short amount of time. In this talk I will discuss these challenges and our approach to solving them, and give a short demonstration of Watson. I will also discuss how the underlying technology of Watson may be applied to important applications such as in health care.

Update (3/1): Watson loses to Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ)!

NYT: Online Courses, Still Lacking That Third Dimension

Online Courses, Still Lacking That Third Dimension
by Randall Stross

For at least 50 years, the computer has been experimentally employed as the unflaggingly patient, attentive teaching assistant. In 1960, the University of Illinois created Plato, pioneering courseware whose offerings would eventually span the elementary-school through college levels. It and its software successors have supplied individualized pacing, frequent quizzing and help that is tailored to each student’s needs. Computer-aided instruction, however, has lacked a human touch. Read the full article from The New York Times>>

Richard Powers: “What Is Artificial Intelligence?”

What Is Artificial Intelligence?
by Richard Powers
(reprinted from The New York Times online)

In the category “What Do You Know?”, for $1 million: This four-year-old upstart the size of a small R.V. has digested 200 million pages of data about everything in existence and it means to give a couple of the world’s quickest humans a run for their money at their own game.

The question: What is Watson?

I.B.M.’s groundbreaking question-answering system, running on roughly 2,500 parallel processor cores, each able to perform up to 33 billion operations a second, is playing a pair of “Jeopardy!” matches against the show’s top two living players, to be aired on Feb. 14, 15 and 16. Watson is I.B.M.’s latest self-styled Grand Challenge, a follow-up to the 1997 defeat by its computer Deep Blue of Garry Kasparov, the world’s reigning chess champion. (It’s remarkable how much of the digital revolution has been driven by games and entertainment.) Yes, the match is a grandstanding stunt, baldly calculated to capture the public’s imagination. But barring any humiliating stumble by the machine on national television, it should.

Consider the challenge: Watson will have to be ready to identify anything under the sun, answering all manner of coy, sly, slant, esoteric, ambiguous questions ranging from the “Rh factor” of Scarlett’s favorite Butler or the 19th-century painter whose name means “police officer” to the rhyme-time place where Pelé stores his ball or what you get when you cross a typical day in the life of the Beatles with a crazed zombie classic. And he (forgive me) will have to buzz in fast enough and with sufficient confidence to beat Ken Jennings, the holder of the longest unbroken “Jeopardy!” winning streak, and Brad Rutter, an undefeated champion and the game’s biggest money winner. The machine’s one great edge: Watson has no idea that he should be panicking.

Open-domain question answering has long been one of the great holy grails of artificial intelligence. It is considerably harder to formalize than chess. It goes well beyond what search engines like Google do when they comb data for keywords. Google can give you 300,000 page matches for a search of the terms “greyhound,” “origin” and “African country,” which you can then comb through at your leisure to find what you need.

Asked in what African country the greyhound originated, Watson can tell you in a couple of seconds that the authoritative consensus favors Egypt. But to stand a chance of defeating Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter, Watson will have to be able to beat them to the buzzer at least half the time and answer with something like 90 percent accuracy.

When I.B.M.’s David Ferrucci and his team of about 20 core researchers began their “Jeopardy!” quest in 2006, their state-of-the-art question-answering system could solve no more than 15 percent of questions from earlier shows. They fed their machine libraries full of documents — books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauri, databases, taxonomies, and even Bibles, movie scripts, novels and plays.

But the real breakthrough came with the extravagant addition of many multiple “expert” analyzers — more than 100 different techniques running concurrently to analyze natural language, appraise sources, propose hypotheses, merge the results and rank the top guesses. Answers, for Watson, are a statistical thing, a matter of frequency and likelihood. If, after a couple of seconds, the countless possibilities produced by the 100-some algorithms converge on a solution whose chances pass Watson’s threshold of confidence, it buzzes in.

This raises the question of whether Watson is really answering questions at all or is just noticing statistical correlations in vast amounts of data. But the mere act of building the machine has been a powerful exploration of just what we mean when we talk about knowing.

Who knows how Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter do it — puns cracked, ambiguities resolved, obscurities retrieved, links formed across every domain in creation, all in a few heartbeats. The feats of engineering involved in answering the smallest query about the world are beyond belief. But I.B.M. is betting a fair chunk of its reputation that 2011 will be the year that machines can play along at the game.

Does Watson stand a chance of winning? I would not stake my “Final Jeopardy!” nest egg on it. Not yet. Words are very rascals, and language may still be too slippery for it. But watching films of the machine in sparring matches against lesser human champions, I felt myself choking up at its heroic effort, the size of the undertaking, the centuries of accumulating groundwork, hope and ingenuity that have gone into this next step in the long human drama. I was most moved when the 100-plus parallel algorithms wiped out and the machine came up with some ridiculous answer, calling it out as if it might just be true, its cheerful synthesized voice sounding as vulnerable as that of any bewildered contestant.

It does not matter who will win this $1 million Valentine’s Day contest. We all know who will be champion, eventually. The real showdown is between us and our own future. Information is growing many times faster than anyone’s ability to manage it, and Watson may prove crucial in helping to turn all that noise into knowledge.

Dr. Ferrucci and company plan to sell the system to businesses in need of fast, expert answers drawn from an overwhelming pool of supporting data. The potential client list is endless. A private Watson will cost millions today and requires a room full of hardware. But if what Ray Kurzweil calls the Law of Accelerating Returns keeps holding, before too long, you’ll have an app for that.

Like so many of its precursors, Watson will make us better at some things, worse at others. (Recall Socrates’ warnings about the perils of that most destabilizing technology of all — writing.) Already we rely on Google to deliver to the top of the million-hit list just those pages we are most interested in, and we trust its concealed algorithms with a faith that would be difficult to explain to the smartest computer. Even if we might someday be able to ask some future Watson how fast and how badly we are cooking the earth, and even if it replied (based on the sum of all human knowledge) with 90 percent accuracy, would such an answer convert any of the already convinced or produce the political will we’ll need to survive the reply?

Still, history is the long process of outsourcing human ability in order to leverage more of it. We will concede this trivia game (after a very long run as champions), and find another in which, aided by our compounding prosthetics, we can excel in more powerful and ever more terrifying ways.

Should Watson win next week, the news will be everywhere. We’ll stand in awe of our latest magnificent machine, for a season or two. For a while, we’ll have exactly the gadget we need. Then we’ll get needy again, looking for a newer, stronger, longer lever, for the next larger world to move.

For “Final Jeopardy!”, the category is “Players”: This creature’s three-pound, 100-trillion-connection machine won’t ever stop looking for an answer.

The question: What is a human being?

Richard Powers is the author of the novel “Generosity: An Enhancement.”

Kevin Kelly talks about his recent book, What Technology Wants

from Faculty member Miranda Mellis:

From OpenCulture.com:

Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired magazine and former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog (now free online), published a new book this past October: What Technology Wants. Reviewing his own book on BoingBoing, Kelly summarizes a few key points. “Technology is the most powerful force on the planet.” In fact, humanity is a tool itself, and, like all living things, technology evolves, demonstrating certain unconscious “urges” and “wants” in the process. Technology cannot be held back. But we can try to optimize its benefits for human culture, even while potentially trying to limit the amount of technology in our own lives. It’s a heady book, and, perhaps fittingly, Kevin Kelly pulled through Google in November and distilled his new theory of technology in a 40 minute talk. Watch it above…

Bonus: You might also want to check out this conversation recorded at the New York Public Library. It features Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson (author of Where Good Ideas Come From) in conversation with Robert Krulwich, co-host of Radio Lab.

How Handwriting Trains the Brain

How Handwriting Trains the Brain
Forming Letters Is Key to Learning, Memory, Ideas

By Gwendolyn Bounds

Ask preschooler Zane Pike to write his name or the alphabet, then watch this 4-year-old’s stubborn side kick in. He spurns practice at school and tosses aside workbooks at home. But Angie Pike, Zane’s mom, persists, believing that handwriting is a building block to learning.

Wendy Bounds discusses the fading art of handwriting, pointing out that new research shows it can benefit children’s motor skills and their ability to compose ideas and achieve goals throughout life.

She’s right. Using advanced tools such as magnetic resonance imaging, researchers are finding that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea composition and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development.

It’s not just children who benefit. Adults studying new symbols, such as Chinese characters, might enhance recognition by writing the characters by hand, researchers say. Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age.

Studies suggest there’s real value in learning and maintaining this ancient skill, even as we increasingly communicate electronically via keyboards big and small. Indeed, technology often gets blamed for handwriting’s demise. But in an interesting twist, new software for touch-screen devices, such as the iPad, is starting to reinvigorate the practice.

Four-year-old Zane Pike used to toss aside his handwriting books. Now, the Cabot, Ark., preschooler is learning to write his letters using a smartphone application.

Most schools still include conventional handwriting instruction in their primary-grade curriculum, but today that amounts to just over an hour a week, according to Zaner-Bloser Inc., one of the nation’s largest handwriting-curriculum publishers. Even at institutions that make it a strong priority, such as the private Brearley School in New York City, “some parents say, ‘I can’t believe you are wasting a minute on this,'” says Linda Boldt, the school’s head of learning skills.

Recent research illustrates how writing by hand engages the brain in learning. During one study at Indiana University published this year, researchers invited children to man a “spaceship,” actually an MRI machine using a specialized scan called “functional” MRI that spots neural activity in the brain. The kids were shown letters before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction. In children who had practiced printing by hand, the neural activity was far more enhanced and “adult-like” than in those who had simply looked at letters.

“It seems there is something really important about manually manipulating and drawing out two-dimensional things we see all the time,” says Karin Harman James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University who led the study.
More

Adults may benefit similarly when learning a new graphically different language, such as Mandarin, or symbol systems for mathematics, music and chemistry, Dr. James says. For instance, in a 2008 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, adults were asked to distinguish between new characters and a mirror image of them after producing the characters using pen-and-paper writing and a computer keyboard. The result: For those writing by hand, there was stronger and longer-lasting recognition of the characters’ proper orientation, suggesting that the specific movements memorized when learning how to write aided the visual identification of graphic shapes.

Other research highlights the hand’s unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.

She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.

And one recent study of hers demonstrated that in grades two, four and six, children wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.

For research at Indiana University, children undergo specialized MRI brain scans that spot neurological activity.

Even in the digital age, people remain enthralled by handwriting for myriad reasons—the intimacy implied by a loved one’s script, or what the slant and shape of letters might reveal about personality. During actress Lindsay Lohan’s probation violation court appearance this summer, a swarm of handwriting experts proffered analysis of her blocky courtroom scribbling. “Projecting a false image” and “crossing boundaries,” concluded two on celebrity news and entertainment site hollywoodlife.com. Beyond identifying personality traits through handwriting, called graphology, some doctors treating neurological disorders say handwriting can be an early diagnostic tool.

“Some patients bring in journals from the years, and you can see dramatic change from when they were 55 and doing fine and now at 70,” says P. Murali Doraiswamy, a neuroscientist at Duke University. “As more people lose writing skills and migrate to the computer, retraining people in handwriting skills could be a useful cognitive exercise.”

In high schools, where laptops are increasingly used, handwriting still matters. In the essay section of SAT college-entrance exams, scorers unable to read a student’s writing can assign that portion an “illegible” score of 0.

Even legible handwriting that’s messy can have its own ramifications, says Steve Graham, professor of education at Vanderbilt University. He cites several studies indicating that good handwriting can take a generic classroom test score from the 50th percentile to the 84th percentile, while bad penmanship could tank it to the 16th. “There is a reader effect that is insidious,” Dr. Graham says. “People judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting.”

Handwriting-curriculum creators say they’re seeing renewed interest among parents looking to hone older children’s skills—or even their own penmanship. Nan Barchowsky, who developed the Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting method to ease transition from print-script to joined cursive letters, says she’s sold more than 1,500 copies of “Fix It … Write” in the past year.

Some high-tech allies also are giving the practice an unexpected boost through hand-held gadgets like smartphones and tablets. Dan Feather, a graphic designer and computer consultant in Nashville, Tenn., says he’s “never adapted well to the keypads on little devices.” Instead, he uses a $3.99 application called “WritePad” on his iPhone. It accepts handwriting input with a finger or stylus, then converts it to text for email, documents or Twitter updates.

And apps are helping Zane Pike—the 4-year-old who refused to practice his letters. The Cabot, Ark., boy won’t put down his mom’s iPhone, where she’s downloaded a $1.99 app called “abc PocketPhonics.” The program instructs Zane to draw letters with his finger or a stylus; correct movements earn him cheering pencils.

In children who had practiced writing by hand, the scans showed heightened brain activity in a key area, circled on the image at right, indicating learning took place.

“He thinks it’s a game,” says Angie Pike.

Similarly, kindergartners at Harford Day School in Bel Air, Md., are taught to write on paper but recently also began tracing letter shapes on the screen of an iPad using a handwriting app.

“Children will be using technology unlike I did, and it’s important for teachers to be familiar with it,” says Kay Crocker, the school’s lead kindergarten teacher. Regardless of the input method, she says, “You still need to be able to write, and someone needs to be able to read it.”

Read the original post from the wsj.com here>>