Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Make: Mathematics

:: OST annual meeting ::

I'm in a presentation by Scott Gray, O'Reilly School of Technology (OST), regarding his ground-breaking Make: Mathematics program.

The conceptual model is a cube with paired opposite faces representing Tools, Content and Learning Management. Opposite Tools is Making, opposite Content is Learning, and opposite Learning Management is Feedback.

In a past era, a "maker cube" was actually an apprenticeship, a hands-on, integrated approach to learning a trade, with mentoring. Assembly line education broke up this model to manage the exponential growth curves. With the advent of electronic communications, Scott thinks we're ready to restore the apprenticeship model in some areas.

Scott has an interesting story. He was born into a coal mining subculture in Appalachia. He was struggling academically in a mediocre school, until he encountered a college math teacher who helped him flip on the lights. He suddenly discovered his inner brilliance and went on to become a luminary in the distance education world, having grappled with many a STEM curriculum.

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity drove his curiosity in several dimensions.

The story behind OST has a lot to do with the University of Illinois in Champagne / Urbana. I'm still putting the puzzle pieces together in my own mind, as I get to meet the key people. Several have flown here for the annual meeting.

The late Jerry Uhl was the early pioneer in this picture and his curriculum writing is still a backbone of the Make: Math curriculum. I'd been tracking him through the Math Forum and knew of his stature. Many of the people at this meeting knew him personally, were among his closest friends and co-workers.

Make: Mathematics is designed to be sharable for a fee. The product allows professors to customize their own course content and syndicate it over the web, using Scott's team's cloud service. Wolfram has licensed Mathematica to run on their back end.

Students get to interact with a web page that's a lot like a Mathematica Notebook, implemented in HTML and JavaScript (Bruce has been coding the back end). UI enrollees get to actively author content in a personal sandbox, while switching between native Mathematica syntax and typeset views, provided by the server as images.

Hilbert has built in workflow that allows students to hand in work-in-progress to a teacher (e.g. Bruce), who then gets to make comments and hand it back. Color coded text areas distinguish between student and mentor comments. The team sought our feedback on the color scheme.

This is not simple-minded low end learning management system (LMS). Students have access to free form cells accepting Mathematica code. They can change code on the fly, look at 2D and 3D graphics with a slider that changes the viewpoint -- all in a web page (AJAX by Joel).

The mathfuture group should have some interest in this technology. "Learn Math by Making Math" (OST's motto) is a lot like "Make Math Your Own" (Maria's tag line).

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Wanderers 2011.02.15

Mark Frischmuth is giving us an update on developments around DemocracyLab. Brandon, also present, is a code warrior for the project. Expect more news soon.

Steve Holden is new in Portland. He has been helpful since hopping off the airplane. He solved the rear car door not unlocking problem (child proof feature, duh). The drains are flowing more smoothly than they have in months.

Steve is reassuring us that his peregrinations, frequent moves over the years, have not kept him from developing a sense of community. He doesn't think electronics are able to replace community however. We're a completely packed house tonight. Barbara, Patrick, Lew, Dick, David, Bill, Jon... Trish.

What is the open source philosophy? Its goal is to develop common resources and infrastructure which you're free to tweak, mess with. Costs may be driven down by sharing in the development of these assets.

Steve didn't want to make this a long talk. He gave us some biographical information, tried to locate himself on the geopolitical spectrum, made some thoughtful remarks, and then threw it open to discussion.

The discussion got into patents and copyrights, whether academic work is open source, what benefits one might get from contributing to open source projects. A lot of the people around the table have experience and connections in the open source ecosystem, so this was a fairly sophisticated discussion. We mentioned Apache a lot. I sat quietly, typing this blog post.


/*
* --------------------------------------------------------
* "THE BEER-WARE LICENSE" (Revision 42):
* Adam Ziolkowski and Leon Handreke
* wrote this file. As long as you retain this notice you can do
* whatever you want with this stuff. If we meet some day, and you
* think this stuff is worth it, you can buy us a beer in return.
* --------------------------------------------------------
*/

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Terry Talks

Terry Presents

Terry Bristol is sequestered with some of his friends, and visiting guest speaker Nancy Cartwright, to go through some of his philosophy of science banter. Terry Talks are not TED Talks, though we do have a camera going (the same tiny Canon that Glenn Stockton controlled when Nancy Cartwright lectured at the Schnitzer).

He's working on a book, somewhat like Mindwalk (Capra brothers) and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig) in that it weaves biography, real world characters (Stephen Hawking especially) into a kind of reverie on the history of "western" thinking (scare quotes because east met west quite awhile ago by now).

Terry has been fortunate to hang out with quite a few big name contemporaries, the guests he brings to Portland, Seattle, San Jose and other places (Portland is the hub of this activity, but does not define the outer boundary of his show). He also considers himself a serious philosopher in his own right. Given these two ingredients, it's not far-fetched to expect the kind of book that brings Terry's reverie into the foreground, against a backdrop of stellar figures.

I was quickly introduced to the assembly, by Terry, as a big wheel in the Bucky Fuller subdomain, and as a student of Rorty's at Princeton. The latter tagging was for Dr. Cartwright's benefit. The credential (studied with Rorty) got me a lot of cred with Dr. Haack when she was here, because she'd sparred with the guy, in print and in person.

Pragmatism is much on the table here, through Dewey, and Karl Popper especially. Wittgenstein is at "the far end of the fire poker" here, kept at arm's length for the purposes of this discussion. Bucky Fuller's thinking will only appear here, in my blogs (on-line journals).

Fuller's philosophy is somewhat unique in the "western" tradition in that it subtracts away any static all-encompassing "thing" that is "the universe". We experience Universe (Fuller assigns it a proper place name (532.18)) yet it's eternally aconceptual, a context for our systems, our partially overlapping time tunnels (scenarios) without being point-to-able as some "elephant" or "thing".

Terry's philosophy is somewhat similar in that he's skeptical that "a theory of everything" is a necessary goal of the sciences. He's content to let our systems stay special case. That may be the more pragmatic stance, I agree. When empirical theories become intrinsically intolerant of counter-cultures and complementary "insanity" they've likely reached the rigor mortis stage of some "empire", an endgame.

Anthropologically speaking, perhaps the urge for a totalistic TOE is the urge to build a Tower of Babel, with human cogitation at the apex. What seems to happen at the apex is thermodynamic noise, or is that pure signal? Systems tend to dissolve, in any case. Humanly contrived systems have a finite half-life, tend to meltdown at "the top" (another meaning of "trickle down").

Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript could be another puzzle piece here?

Terry's style is to speak quickly in a colloquial style. He says the word "thing" with high frequency, and might end a sentence with "da da da" (similar to "yada yada"), the sense being he's been over this turf so many times, it's somewhat a waste of time to say it again. If one hasn't bounced around in this namespace, it may sound like noise. Having been to several Terry Talks over the years, I feel on familiar ground.

On the pragmatic front, a service guy from Montag keeps coming back to fix our furnace. He has theories as to why it's not coming on. A rational tree structure diagrams the possibilities. The art of furnace maintenance may be subtle sometimes. Lets hope our experienced repair guy doesn't snap under pressure.

Nancy had an interesting necklace worth commenting upon. A large puzzle piece around her neck. I felt we'd won something important while geo-caching, couldn't say what exactly. A cosmic fish perhaps.

Nancy Ankorn was also present, meaning both XXs were named Nancy. The rest were XYs of high mental caliber and engaged in contradictory exchange. Both Nancys are quite up to co-managing in this guyish world in my judgement. Good seeing Bruce Adams, Mark Martin.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

PPUG 2011.02.08

Twas my distinct pleasure to introduce the chairman, Steve Holden, to a packed house at Urban Airship, PPUG's new meeting venue. Adam Lowry was acting in the role of host, with Eric Holscher, another UA MVP, delivering the majority of the evening's content with a truly excellent presentation (more below).

Steve is temporarily my house guest, like Lindsey but shorter term. He's already found a property to value in 97214, making his new business (The Open Bastion) bi-coastal. His other zip code is 11105.

Other news: upcoming conferences: OSCON, Pycon, OS Bridge. Talk proposals for this last one are still being accepted.

Dan Colish gave a talk on the ABC module, containing Abstract Base Classes. The name of this module may be construed as homage or at least a pun. Guido greatly appreciates his intellectual progenitors at CWI, as I learned at the EuroPython in Gothenberg. Python-the-language inherits from an older language named ABC.

Readthedocs
is a free and open source community service, implemented in Django. The project got started during a 48 hour dash (dart?), a longer version of the sprint. As a lightning talk is to a thunder talk, so is a sprint to a dash ("thunder talk" is not commonly so-defined as of this posting).

Eric was a veritable font of information about what's cool and hard at work in web services: Gunicorn, Nginx, Solr, Celery, Haystack and of course Sphinx, around which this django project is built.

Readthedocs
can host your materials through a docs prefix in your existing registered domains, while also providing subdomain access within their rtfd namespace. It supports themes, including an in-house theme that gives you a consistent user experience (ux). "Use a designer" counseled Eric, sharing important insights he'd gleaned.

I spent much of the pre-meeting chatting with Luke, following up on our conversation about computing in academia. Back then, I'd been pondering PSU's situation (Banner etc.), before diving head first into trucking for a spell.

We adjourned to Bailey's Taproom (see slides) where much chatter occurred. Jolly Michelle ran a tight meeting as usual, getting most of us to wear name tags (me included: Kirby Urner it said).

Fond greetings to all of you. Yes, I said Chipy was cooler, in terms of e-lists, but that was more just to galvanize (goose, elicit) more self improvement activities.

Friday, February 04, 2011

HNY 4708

Got Tara off to her debate meet, a road trip, student organized, parent supervised. I burned through much of the day in cyberspace, plane spotting or whatever I do, pretending I'm a Howard Rheingold or Amber Case (both cyber-anthropologists).

I was in a thread on mathfuture with Alexander Bogomolny, webmaster for Cut the Knot, a useful source over the years. I've linked to it from Bizmo Diaries.

Then I shot down to FNB on my Captain Amerika bike or maybe she's Bat Woman. She was happy to be closer to her love interest, the FNB trailer, retrieved from another Ville.

Walker played the Casio and sang as we gradually dispersed, with some soon heading north to monastic facilities and/or the San Juans.

Tara texted from the debate site. Emails with mom, regarding AFSC business, with Stallings re Consoletti.

Holden inbound.

I've been reading up on White Metal Rabbit lore per some Chinese mnemonics. I'm not sure any one culture has a monopoly on "memory palaces" though I could see where advances in spatial data management techniques would excite cross-cultural GUI development in mind's eye virtual modeling (a glass bead game (meme game)).

Humans learn from their peers pretty quickly.

Make your teachings worth propagating.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Wanderers 2011.2.1

Wanderers Presenter

Don's cell call reminded me of this interesting opportunity, to hear more stories from Asia from a woman recently returned. I took my leave of Food Not Bombs in the shelter, making sure I'd be seeing Cera again, before she disappears into some monastery or wherever she goes.

I peddled my bicycle through the darkness and winter cold, grateful for the flashing LED headlamp I'd finally won budget for (funds are tight in America, with Nick an hour on the bus each way to dialysis, barely able to walk, and with spinal difficulties). We've eliminated oil heat from the list of necessities. DSL is the priority.

Funds are very tight in Cambodia as well, forcing parents over the border into Thailand, perhaps to never see their children again. The child abandonment rate is very high, in part because of a recent holocaust and a missing generation. The need for orphanages is great, reminding me of Romania in some ways.

I learned a lot from Ms. Goldmann's presentation. She's a vivacious, intelligent and I expect effective fundraiser for her worthy projects. If only the Coffee Shops Network were further along, with its NGO-friendly games.

Ethical tourism is the new buzz word (right up their with eco-tourism), heard around Burma as well. Come with the intent to spend wisely, to have your visit help sponsor your causes.

Discretionary travel is a way to walk one's talk, on the model of a pilgrimage, an inward journey involving self reflection and meditations about purpose.

The flip side of traveling ethically is to encourage beneficiaries to not discriminate so blatantly against foreigners (in Cambodia, all foreigners are blanket "French").

For example, the current Cambodian airline (co-operated by Vietnam Airlines) actually advertises lower prices "for Cambodians only", meaning foreign nationals will automatically need to pay more.

This double standard makes humanitarian projects like Ms. Goldmann's unworkable, as NGOs depend on stretching dollars as far as they'd go as if a local were spending them. Having to pay "tourist prices" makes such undertakings unaffordable.

The orphanage in question is just outside of Batdambang, Cambodia's second largest city. Some speculate international tourism may route through a revitalized airport there, given the airport nearest Ankor Watt is too near, and the relics are starting to crumble thanks to jet engine vibrations just a mile away.

Ms. Goldmann has gone back and forth quite a few times and had many adventures to recount. Motorbikes are dangerous. Dustin's severe foot injury reminded me of Nirel's experience in India.

Our gathered Wanderers were much impressed and encouraged by Ms. Goldmann's kind and brave nature, as well as her extreme youth (she's 18). I was reminded of Jody (an orphan with experience working with orphanages), of my daughter, and of the goddess Tara herself, a compassionate archetype.

Speaking of Buddhism, even though the Cambodians are cash-poor, they know how to build epic-sized temples. Finding some kind of rapprochement between "the French" and their western education, and indigenous scholarship, would probably be of significant benefit to both sides. Californians revere Buddhist teachers and study Zen for college credit. Why pit east and west against one another, in dimensions where the most synergy might occur?

The orphanage itself is non-sectarian. Ms. Goldmann is Jewish and Dustin, her business partner, soon to become a Cambodian, does not plan his life around some belief in a deity. I think of my Jewish friend Alan Potkin as well, another respectful admirer of Asian cultures who has no interest in recruiting people away from Buddhist patterns of thought.

Buddhism is variously categorized as poly and/or non-theist, depending on which branch of scholarship one is following. A doctrine of rebirth somewhat obfuscates the line between mortal and immortal, meaning Bodhisattvas or saints might also be considered embodiments of eternal archetypes, more like in the Jungian model.