Monday, July 07, 2008

science transcends "normal" (alan kay)

Read the comments on these posts from Mark Guzdial, mainly for the extensive comments by Alan Kay about the failures of the university system to achieve the education required for future social progress in science and computer science (reasons outlined in selected quotes below)

Prediction and invention: object-oriented v. functional
Recap:Prediction and invention: object-oriented v. functional
Neil Postman wrote a number of essays lamenting the huge change in universities -- which have pretty rapidly shifted from being the definers of "what higher education means" to vendors serving customers. He pointed out how ludicrous it could be to have uneducated people demanding courses and rejecting others, largely driven by perceptions of what would help with future jobs as opposed to future abilities to think well and with perspective (Kay)

... the present "normals" are much more arbitrary and accidental constructs than most people think (Kay)

vocational pressure today from students is greater than before (Guzdial)

we need educated adults not skilled children, quotes Jefferson:
"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education." -- Jefferson (Kay)
The 1-8 and now K-12 system has quite broken down, and the universities are well on their way to breaking (Kay)

Science is a pretty good model ... The first level has to admit any and all ideas for consideration (to avoid dogma and becoming just another belief system). But the dues for "free and open" are that science has built the strongest system of critical thinking in human history to make the next level threshold for "worthy ideas" as high as possible (Kay)

"needs" are not the same as "wants" (Kay)

Because of the whacky way our brains work, the pooled diverse human opinions for a hundred thousand years on the planet don't get above threshold compared to the invention of better thinking and discerning with the advent of real science only 400 years ago. This invention was very rare in human history, and it is so far away from normal ken that it is dangerously fragile, and actually invisible to most people even today (Kay)

it would be unthinkable for a physicist not to either know what Newton did, or be incurious about what Newton did. But I found in visiting and giving talks at many conferences, universities and businesses in 2004 that most computer people I talked to (including the academics) were both hazy and incurious about what Doug Engelbart did. A few thought he might have invented the mouse, some were aware of hyperlinking -- but astoundingly, I could not find anyone who actually knew about Engelbart's ideas (Kay)

Another part of the problem has to do with the psychology of being a programmer (I worked my way through college as one) and it's mostly about *coping* (with someone else's computer, OS, programming language, problem, techniques and architectures, etc.). I did just that until I got into an ARPA grad school by complete accident and into a culture that was as "anti-cope" as one could imagine -- they were quite happy to invent everything they needed, and to build from scratch everything they needed, including every gate of the HW if necessary, and every bit of the SW (Kay)

... the biologists absolutely did not dilute their field by devolving into an "air guitar" pop culture. (Having an unforgiving Nature as the ultimate critic really helps here. Computing, being a synthetic design oriented field is not governed strongly by Nature and is all too prone to mindless fads and enthusiasms.) (Kay)

... my main observations in this thread were about the incuriousity, not of the general public, nor of pop computer wanabees, but of folks with PhDs in universities "professing" CS (Kay)

if Neil (Postman) were alive and going to write another book along these lines today, he would title it "Distracting Ourselves To Death", and would focus on the difficulties for serious thought in an age of over-information and under-content (Kay)

... it is possible for students to spend their entire undergrad career doing nothing but learning parts of the Linux world -- or parts of the web world -- or parts of the Java world, etc. All of these have millions of lines of code and all are in use and in play. ... They could easily miss most or even all of the big ideas in computing in their efforts to cope-and-join with what already exists. (Kay)

As Susan Sontag once remarked, "All understanding begins with our not accepting the world as it appears." And, conversely, the lack of understanding that we see so much of through history and our own time in no small part is caused by people accepting the world as it appears (Kay)


artichoke said...

This is wonderful thinking Bill ... I loved the "air guitar" analogy and wished it had been mine ... and as for the Susan Sontag link Kay quote

As Susan Sontag once remarked, "All understanding begins with our not accepting the world as it appears." And, conversely, the lack of understanding that we see so much of through history and our own time in no small part is caused by people accepting the world as it appears (Kay)

It made me want to start up another blog to explore the idea ... "not accepting" captures so much of what makes me restless and at the same time so much of what makes me happy - now I know why

Bill Kerr said...

thanks arti

re "air guitar", check out mark miller's recent blog, the culture of air guitar I really enjoyed the videos, the south park video about "air guitar" was hilarious -- and there is a link also to another miller blog about “introduction of the book”, which contains another excellent video which I ended up showing to our long suffering tekkies on the help desk at school

alan kay's message about science is a good model did influence me to go back to middle school science and maths teaching rather than spend my time teaching year 9s basic computing skills - ie. computers held so much promise but have ended up being used poorly, to only a fraction of their potential, most of the time in schools