Review of I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter – Part 2

Part 1

The toilet flush is one of the simplest and common feedback mechanisms that we find. There is a float which rises with the water level which controls the inflow of water. After a certain height is reached the water inflow is stopped. Do we attribute intentionality to the water flush? We usually do not. And this is the theme that Hofstadter explores in Chapter 4 Loops, Goals and Loopholes.

But what kinds of systems have feedback, have goals, have desires? Does a soccer ball rolling down a grassy hill “want” to get to the bottom? 52

We anthropomorphize objects and impart them our human attributes. Adding a “purpose” or a “goals” to any system is considering it from a teleological perspective. Teleology is the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes. Considering examples of variations on this theme, we can say that answer to the above question is not clear cut. There are no black-and-white answers but are judgment calls. We tend to move towards the idea of teleology and intention for a system when the feedback mechanisms are not directly perceptible.

Among other examples, Hofstadter considers plants which in normal time will appear to be static and without any “goals”. But a time-lapse of the same would show that they have “goals” and “intentions” and use strategies to achieve them.

The question is whether such systems, despite their lack of brains, are nonetheless imbued with goals and desires. Do they have hopes and aspirations? Do they have dreads and dreams? Beliefs and griefs? 53

The claim is made that presence of a feedback loop in a system, triggers in us a response which shifts the description from a goalless level of mechanics to a goal-oriented level of some cognitive mechanism. Things have the desire to move!

So far we have considered basic feedback loops. Now we move onto a more complex idea of a positive feedback loop. In a positive feedback loop, a part of the output of the system goes into increasing the output by a certain factor. With each iteration the output increases, which causes the next output to increase even more. A small change in input can cascade into a very large change (exponential) in output.

Perhaps the most common example of a positive feedback loop is the unpleasant, high pitch sound one hears in an auditorium or a meeting. This happens when a microphone gains some of its output as an input and produces an ever increasing pitch and volume of the input sound. An example is given below:

Now one can imagine that due to the exponential nature of growth, any little disturbance in such a system might lead to a sound which will eventually destroy everything.

In theory, then, the softest whisper would soon grow to a roar, which would continue growing without limit, first rendering everyone in the auditorium deaf, shortly thereafter violently shaking the building’s rafters till it collapsed upon the now-deaf audience, and then, only a few loops later, vibrating the planet apart and finishing up by annihilating the entire universe. What is specious about this apocalyptic scenario?

But this is a fallacious argument. The first fallacy is the physical nature of the setup and the amplifier in our scheme of things. If the roof falls, it will destroy the amplifier too! The second case is the nature of the amplifier, it doesn’t amplify in an unlimited way. After a certain gain, due to the physical design, the amplification becomes equal to unity and the system stabilizes at its natural frequency. It so happens that the natural high frequency of an audio amplifier is close to a high pitch scream. This is achieved by the system tends to go towards that pitch in series of rapid iterations. These are the screeching high pitch oscillations that we hear. It seems the systems “wanted” to go there, the stable point of its existence. Thus we see that

Similarly, we can also “see” visual feedback loops, when the output of a camera is given back to the camera. This can be most easily setup by pointing the camera towards a screen which is showing a live output of the camera. The cover image of the book is one such image, captured during Hofstadter’s “experiments” with the visual feedback system. One of the difference, in this case, is that the camera is not an amplifying device, it just transmits. Yet the pictures it produces are bizarre and beautiful. Seeing images of video feedback gives one a sense of mystery and wonder. There is some inherent beauty in it, yet it seems un-natural to watch.

Feedback — making a system turn back or twist back on itself, thus forming some kind of mystically taboo loop — seems to be dangerous, seems to be tempting fate, perhaps even to be intrinsically wrong, whatever that might mean. 57

Shifting gears, we get a Hofstadter’s introduction to Gödel when he was fourteen. What intrigued him was the thought that one could have an entire book about a single book. The book was Nagel and Newman’s Gödel’s Proof, published in 1958. Hofstadter wrote the introduction to the new imprint in 2001. He was fascinated by footnote on formal use of quotation marks.

So here was a book talking about how language can talk about itself talking about itself (etc.), and about how reasoning can reason about itself (etc.). I was hooked! I still didn’t have a clue what Gödel’s theorem was, but I knew I had to read this book. 58

This is something that happens to me too. Some time back (almost a decade now) I had posted about books attracting me. Perhaps it happens to many people.

We next look at famous Russel’s Paradox. One of the examples derived from it is Barber’s Paradox

The barber is the “one who shaves all those, and those only, who do not shave themselves.” The question is, does the barber shave himself? [.]

There is also a loop here and there is contradiction too.

This loophole (the word fits perfectly here) was based on the notion of “the set of all sets that don’t contain themselves”, a notion that was legitimate in set theory, but that turned out to be deeply self-contradictory. 60

Russell tried to overcome this by formally re-defining the concepts of sets to save this, but it didn’t work out well. Rather it became too complex, though built on solid, atomic (in the mathematical sense) ideas.

In Principia Mathematica, there was to be no twisting-back of sets on themselves, no turning-back of language upon itself.  61

But why is self-reference considered problematic? Here Hofstadter quotes from his column Metamagical Themas (an anagram of Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games) in Scientific American on Self-Referential sentences. But all were not receptive to the idea, some of the readers were sceptical about the utility of self-reference and denied any meaningful output of such activities.

In the next chapter On Video Feedback we explore the theme of video of video feedback and Hofstadter’s experiments with it. He explores and explains many of the images which were made by adding slight things in the image, fox example, truncated corridor, endless corridor, helical corridor etc. The common element in all these video feedback is the repeating of the primary image in scaled down fashion till the resolution of the screen can support (theoretically infinite). During one the experiments, he covers the lens and then removes his hands. During this, the movement of his hand is captured and forms an endless image which is moving, even when the hand is removed. This action has formed a loop and is feeding itself in a cyclic setup.

A faithful image of something changing will itself necessarily keep changing! 67

A similar phenomenon is that of dogs barking in sync. Some dog somewhere, starts to bark for something that is passing near it. Now, other dogs pick up and start barking too. And the chain goes on. Once setup, it doesn’t matter what was the reason for the first dog to bar, it may have gone away. But the chain of barking sustains itself. During one the flights, I have seen this happen with small babies. There were about 5-6 babies on the flight. It so happened that one of them started to cry for some reason. Then the rest joined in one-by-one. Perhaps the others were crying because the heard another one cry. And the event became self-sustaining. This went on for quite some time.

This is one of the core idea of an emergent phenomenon, once

In general, an emergent phenomenons omehow emerges quite naturally and automatically from rigid rules operating at a lower, more basic level, but exactly how that emergence happens is not at all clear to the observer. 68

The video explorations led to some fantastic images, many of which are reproduced in color in the central pages of the book. In the last part of the chapter, Hofstadter drives towards one of the central themes which we will explore in the remaining book. The idea is that strange and robust (self-sustaining) structures can emerge from the process of looping.

Once a pattern is onthe screen, then all that is needed to justify its staying up there is George Mallory’s classic quip about why he felt compelled to scale Mount Everest: “Because it’s there!” When loops are involved, circular justifications are the name of the game. 70

Some of the images I myself have collected are shown below:

The locking-in gives rise to abstract phenomena at higher levels.

In short, there are surprising new structures that looping gives rise to that constitute a new level of reality that could in principle be deduced from the basic loop and its detailed properties, but that in practice have a different kind of “life of their own” and that demand — at least when it comes to extremely finite, simplicity-seeking, new level of description that transcend the basic level out of which they emerge. 71

Whether we will be able to actually do it, or want to do it is another question. This reminds me of the saying: In theory, there is no different in theory and practice, in practice there is.

Here are a few more:

 

Millions of Computers for Millions of Children

Yesterday ( it should be now read “a couple of years back”)while giving a talk, I was asked this rhetorical question (not verbatim, but close):

“What did you say was the sample size of your study?”

“Two. This was a case study.”

“So, considering that the activity that you have designed requires a computer and expeyes (a hardware for collecting data). How can you scale it up to schools which have millions of children?”

It seems that the person who was asking the question, for lack of any other question asked this. In seminars and academic institutes, there are always people like this, who will ask the question for sake of it. Just to make their presence felt. Anyways, it was good for me. I was expecting that this question would be asked. And I was very happy that it was asked.

The short answer that I gave was:

“You give a million computers to a million children!”

one-computer-per-child

Some people thought, this was a rhetoric answer to a rhetoric question, which incidentally was also humorous, as it also generated a lot of laughter, but this was not the case. In this post, I would like to elaborate on the short answer that I gave.

Of course, most of these ideas have come from reading and hearing Seymour Papert (who has recently demised, the article was started before that, but due to my lethargy never seen completion). The memes have been transferred, and now I am trying to make sense and adapt them to my own experience. And I would like to assert again that reading Papert has been an immensely rewarding and enriching experience for me. His are perhaps few books which I do not mind reading again and again. I like his writing style of giving parables to explain points in his arguments because the points he wants to make do not need a backbone of statistics to survive. Here also I will give a hypothetical example (derived from Papert) to explain what I meant.

The technological tools that children are using now mainly in the traditional school system are the pencil and the book. In this case, almost all educationalists would agree that every child would require to have one pencil to write and book for study. Even then there are some children who do use computers, some because their parents have them, some because the school has them, some have both. Now we consider a time 50 years back. Computers were almost non-existent, as we know them now. Computers were one of the most complicated and expensive technological artefacts that humans produced. But the enormous amount of money and efforts were put in the miniaturization of computers. So finally now we have computers that have become devices that we now know. In the last 50 years, the computer technology has grown exponentially, while the prices for the memory and computing power that one gets are falling, their usage.

Consider a classroom of 50 years back. Though there were computers they were something to be wondered about, something like very very expensive toys. The computers were not mature enough that children could handle them. In the classroom, the only available technological artefacts were used. The technology in the classroom was the pencil
and the printed book and a notebook to write with the pencil and of course, there was the blackboard.

Wait, you might be thinking we are in a digital age technology by default means computers, be it in your smart-phone, laptop or a desktop or at least a projector for god’s sake. But here I would like you to think about somethings which are very deeply embedded in our cultural psyche. The very fact that many things which we take for granted are
all technologies. For example, the writing instruments that you have to be it a pencil or a chalk are all technologies. But most of us don’t think of them as such because they are so common and most of us have had our experience with them. The mystery is lost. As the Arthur C. Clarke once said about technology and magic as his Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So deeply embedded this image is that we define it as the normal for our learners to be able to use this technology. Rather the entire edifice of our educational system rests on it. For example, your educational achievement is more or less based on the fact how much you can “write” in a limited time, from memory. And this we call assessment, examination and the like. Also the written text, from the time of Gutenberg, has more
or less complete hold over our intellectual activities. The text formed the basis of our discourse and analysis of the world. Why do children use to write with a pencil on piece of paper in order to learn. The drill typically starts with the children trying to
recreate elegant fonts in some shape or form which is decipherable for the teacher. You have to write “A” 500 times to get it right, ok? How would you write words when you cannot write alphabets? How would write sentences when you cannot write words? How will you write examinations if you cannot write sentences?

Is it the only way in which we can learn language? If we observe this in detail we see that only reason we ask them to write “a” 500 times in a notebook is because it comes from an era when there was no other technology to write. And this is the same learner who can converse well and answer questions, but yet we need them to write it down with their hands. It was the only possible solution. And generations of humans were trained using this method. So much so that most of us still think this is the only method for education. Any deviation from hand-written text is seen as a abomination. But typing on a computer provides us, and especially, young learners with cognitive offloading of immense task of holding a writing instrument and shaping an alphabet, a word, a sentence out of it. Children learn to type much much faster than they learn to write with a pen. And what is even more important is that the written text is in electronic form, which can be revised and shared with their peers and teachers. In hand written text there is no question of revision, the original takes too much effort to produce so there is no question of revising it.

one-pencil-per-child

Considering the amount of cognitive load the child has to undergo to produce decipherable alphabets, words and sentences in order to “write”, a thing which he can perfectly do orally, are the results worth the effort? Are there any studies which show that this is an efficient method? Yet is used everywhere without exceptions and we accept it meekly without challenge because this is how it was done in the past and someone in the past must have had good reason to use this hence, we should also use this. Papert calls this as “QWERTY Phenomena”. Somethings just get culturally embedded because the are
suited for an bygone era, the are like relics in the current era. And writing with pencil and paper is just one of them.

Now consider the question that was asked at the beginning of the post. Replace the computer with a pencil. The question then becomes,

“So, considering that the activity that you have designed requires a
pencil and a notebook. How can you scale it up to schools which have
millions of children?”

one-pencil-per-1000-child-cyan

Suddenly question seems rather bizzare and at the same time sotrivial. Of course you might say but the pencil and notebook is so much cheaper than the computer. Yes. It. Is. But if you consider that a well designed laptop like OLPC, can serve a learners for 5-6 years and can remain with them through the schooling years. Then calculations show the investment that we seek is rather modest. In general when something becomes more
common, it also becomes cheaper. Mobile phones provide an excellent proof for this argument. And it is not happening in some first world country but in our own. What has promoted a rapid growth in the number of mobile users? How do tariff plans compare
from 15 years back to now? How come something which was something exclusive for the rich and the famous, just a few years back, is now so common? It is hard to find a person without a phone these days. Even people who do not have access to electricity have a
phone, they get it charged from some place else. Now if some sociologist would have done some study regarding usefulness of mobile phones for communication, perhaps 20 years earlier, they might have had some statistics to show, but critics would have said,

“but the cost is too prohibitive; this is perhaps ok for a case study you seriously
think all (or most) of the people can have this; and people who cannot
read and write will be able to use this; people do not have
electricity and food to eat and you want to give them mobile phone?”

But look at where we are, because people found contextual and personal value in using a mobile, it became their personal assistant in communicating with others, an inherent human trait, they got it. With proliferation of the mobiles, the cost of hardware came down, the cost of tariffs came down, almost everyone could afford one now.

It is sensationalist to compare a pencil and laptop in terms of cost, but when you consider the kinds of learning that can happen over a computer there is simple no match. They are not different in degree but in kind. Note that I have used “can happen” instead of will happen. This is for a reason, a laptop can be used in a variety of ways in learning. Some of the ways can be subversive, disruptive of the traditional education system, and redefine radically the ways our children learn. But in most cases its subversion is tamed and is made submissive to the existing educational system. And computers are made to do what a teacher or a textbook will do in a traditional context. So it is blunted and made part of a system which the computer has the potential to alter radically.

Some people then cite “research studies” done with “computers”. These studies will typically groups “with” computers and “without” computers. Some tasks are given and then there are pre and post tests. They are looking at the submissive action set in a highly conservative educational system. Even if such studies show the use of computers in a positive light, all these studies are missing the point. They are just flogging a dead horse. The point that computers when used in the right way, the constructionist way, can change the way we learn in a fundamental way. There are many studies which “prove” the counter-point. That computers don’t improve “learning”. Typically children will have limited access both in terms of time and sharing it with more people. One computer shared by three people, one hour in a week. Even then children learn, with computers if
used correctly. Continuing with out example of the pencil, consider this: one pencil shared among three children, once a week! Seems absurd isn’t it? But this is what typically happens in the schools, children are not allowed to develop a personal relationship with one of the most powerful learning ideas that they can have access to. Access is limited and in most cases uninformed involving trivialisation of the learning ideas that can redefine learning.

one-computer-per-1000-child

Designing computer interface

Computers and related devices have to be designed with an understanding that
people with specific tasks in mind will want to use them in a way that is seamless with respect to their everyday work. To do this, those who design these systems need to know how to think in terms of the eventual users’ tasks and how to translate that knowledge into an executable system. But there is a problem with trying to teach the notion of designing computers for people. All designers are people and, most probably, they are users as well. Isn’t it therefore intuitive to design for the user? Why does it need to be taught when we all know what a good interface looks like?

Human Computer Interface

Lists with LaTeX

While writing documents one needs lists. Usually the lists are either numbered or with bullet. The standard enumerate option in LaTeX by default provides Arabic-Hindu numbers for the list.

The standard syntax is as under:

\begin{enumerate}
\item First item
\item Second item
.
.
\end{enumerate}

This will produce a list with Arabic-Hindu numbers with the items at each head.

In case one wanted a list with bullets, we can use the itemize environment.

\begin{itemize}
\item First item
\item Second item
.
.
\end{itemize}

This will produce a list with with bullets
There is yet another environment description which can take user supplied options for list headings.
For example:

\begin{description}
\item[First] First item
\item[Second] Second item
.
.
\end{description}

In this case the descriptors in square brackets after the \item will be used as the item titles. So when I required any alphabetical list, I used to make list in the description environment and put the alphabets/ descriptors manually.

So far so good.

Recently I had to make a list with Roman numerals instead of Arabic ones. The list was fairly long so manual option seemed to be a very un-LaTeX kind of thing to do. Just a little googling and I found a treasury of options that can be used with the standard enumerate environment. This was the enumitem package.

The package provides various options for the enumerate environment like label and its formatting, style, alignment,  indent, vertical and horizontal spacing etc.

The label options that are available are \alph, \Alph, \arabic, \roman and \Roman,
These can be intialised by using

\begin{enumerate}[label=\emph{\alph*})]

After this the regular \item will produce list with alphabets, numbers or roman numerals.

Please see the documentation for more details.

Suppose you have a list which is split in many parts. You can use resume function to continue with numbering left off in the last part of the list. The resume function can be named and you can have different lists to resume.

Kindle, Lego and E-Books

What do you do when Digital Restrictions Management prevents you from doing a lot of things on your own device. I do not know if we can even say it is a device we own, as the company offering books to us can revoke the books at will, without asking you. This was infamously and ironically seen in the removal of Nineteen Eighty Four from Kindle devices without their owners permission.

This is what RMS has to say about Kindle and its practices by Amazon:

“This malicious device designed to attack the traditional freedoms of readers: There’s the freedom to acquire a book anonymously, paying cash — impossible with the Kindle for all well-known recent books. There’s the freedom to give, lend, or sell a book to anyone you wish — blocked by DRM and unjust licenses. Then there’s the freedom to keep a book — denied by a back door for remote deletion of books.”Richard Stallman

So what do you do against such mal-practices and devices operations which are defective by design?

Since these companies do all in their power to prevent users from taking any stuff out, using all hi-fi programming, what can one do about them?

Here is one low tech solution! And one fine use of Lego Mindstorms!

via DIY kindle scanner

Also if you are rather old-fashioned, and even lower tech solution would be to simply one can just make a carbon-copy of the Kindle e-book from a copier or scanner, thanks to their E ink technology, it is as good as a printed book.

Undownloading

So, it seems that ebook users need to add a new word to their vocabulary: “undownloading” — what happens when you leave the authorized zone in which you may read the ebooks you paid for, and cross into the digital badlands where they are taken away like illicit items at customs. If you are lucky, you will get them back when you return to your home patch — by un-undownloading them.

via Techdirt

Added.

Consider this was a physical book, you would be fined for smuggling books that you have legitimately brought or your books taken under protective custody by someone, after all they contain the most dangerous things known to humans – ideas!

 

Open Access Manifesto

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it
for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published
over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked
up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the
most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to
publishers like Reed Elsevier. 

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought
valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but
instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow
anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only
apply to things published in the future.  Everything up until now will have been
lost. 

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work
of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at
Google to read them?  Providing scientific articles to those at elite
universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It's
outrageous and unacceptable. 

"I agree," many say, "but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights,
they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly
legal - there's nothing we can do to stop them." But there is something we can,
something that's already being done: we can fight back. 

Those with access to these resources - students, librarians, scientists - you
have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while
the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not - indeed, morally, you
cannot - keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with
the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download
requests for friends. 

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have
been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information
locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends. 

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It's called
stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral
equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't
immoral - it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to
let a friend make a copy. 

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they
operate require it - their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the
politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the
exclusive power to decide who can make copies. 

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light
and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to
this private theft of public culture. 

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share
them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to
the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to
download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need
to fight for Guerilla Open Access. 

With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message
opposing the privatization of knowledge - we'll make it a thing of the past.
Will you join us? 

Aaron Swartz

July 2008, Eremo, Italy

via | Open Access Manifesto

On Privacy…

Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.

Too many wrongly characterize the debate as “security versus privacy.” The real choice is liberty versus control. Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that’s why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide.

via The Eternal Value of Privacy.

I will not allow them to chill me

“We want to show the world that we are innovators. We want to show the world that cloud storage has a right to exist. And, of course, when you launch something like this, you can expect some controversy. The content industry is going to react really emotionally about this. The US government will probably try and destroy the new business … you’ve got to stand up against that, and fight that, and I’m doing that … I will not allow them to chill me.”

via Kim Dotcom | guardian

Aaron Was a Criminal and So Are You

Make no mistake, Aaron was a criminal and, despite popular belief, there was no prosecutorial overreach. The US Attorney who oversaw his prosecution described her office’s actions as “appropriate” and, according to the law, she was telling the truth. The job of prosecutors is to bully and intimidate suspects, using the threat of some of the world’s harshest sentencing laws into plea bargaining for a shorter sentence in exchange for an admission of guilt. This is American “justice;” our current system of severe sentencing and mandatory minimums gives prosecutors overwhelming power – power that was once in the hands of judges and juries – to the point that today less than 5% of criminal cases are resolved by a jury (3% in federal cases).

via Common Dreams.

RIP Aaron Swartz.

 

Sharing knowledge and learning collaboratively at schools

(This article was written for a college magazine.)

We have a vision for a better society in which the values of sharing and collaborating knowledge and technical know-how form an integral part. There are two aspects to this issue. One is why it should be done, and given the current social structure how it can be done. Though the why question is as important as the how one in this article we will try to focus more on how it can be done with aid of proper technology and what are the possible implications of this intervention to the citizens of the future.

The current education system does little to promote and impart the ideas of sharing knowledge with peers to the students who will be the future citizens. In our educational system it is more like each-one-for-oneself; if you help your peers you will be at a loss in the future. Another aspect is that the educational system by its nature is consumerist. By consumerist we mean that the schools system treat the students more like consumers, who are then passively fed in what has already been produced by others. There is no or little scope left for students to produce or construct anything meaningful. So the platform/technology which will address these issues should have the following qualities:

  • It should be based on principles of Free Software (see http://gnu.org/education).
  • It should allow for collaboration / sharing of knowledge.
  • It should allow for active, meaningful and collaborative production / construction contexts, through which students will learn.
  • It should give immediate feedback to the student, not the delayed one (year end) which the current school system has. This is essential as it makes children reflective about the work that they are doing.

Learning in the context of constructing some tangible thing is a philosophy of education proposed by Seymour Papert, called constructionism. Constructionist learning is inspired by the constructivist theory that individual learners construct mental models to understand the world around them. However, constructionism holds that learning can happen most effectively when people are also active in making tangible objects in the real world. A closely related term that you might have heard is that of constructivism, but there are differences though.

The potential for transforming classrooms in a revolutionary way is present in the constructionist way of learning, which the existing CBTs (computer based tutorials) do not challenge but reinforce. The advances in technology have made it possible now to implement constructionist ways of learning to masses. So where are the examples of this?

The Sugar learning platform  is just one such example which is specifically developed keeping in mind the above considerations. But the idea of constructionist learning is not limited only to using computers. displayed. The very idea of the platform is centered around the idea of constructionism. Though initially developed for OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) Project, now it can run on almost all computers. Learning in an environment where sharing knowledge is an inherent principle rather than an added externality provides the students with a whole new way of learning. Each activity on Sugar is designed keeping in mind the collaborative, construction context and immediate feedback principles.

The Sugar platform provides construction contexts from different areas to learn collaboratively like language, mathematics, science, drawing, music, games, programming, photography, audio and video recording among other things. For each of this activity can be done collaboratively by the students and can be shared with others. This also provides students to make meaningful connections between different concepts. In this context we have seen a strong urge in the children to share the knowledge and activities that they have with others, but in the current school system there is no or little provision for this. Sharing of activities provides context for feedback from peers, which in turn is fruitful in improving learning. Thus we see that the tools and time is ripe for changing our perspective towards education for a more inclusive and better society, whose core values are sharing of knowledge and collaboration.

There are pilot projects of Sugar running at many places across India, one is the Khairat Project which is running successfully for past 4 years at a primary tribal school of first generation learners near Mumbai, another one is at Merces School near Panaji in state of Goa.

RMS on Success

“Success” is not our goal; we’re not here to win a race, we are here to win freedom. I didn’t write GCC with the idea of making a “better” C compiler. I wrote it so there would be a freedom-respecting C compiler, and while I was at it, I did the best job I knew how. We didn’t develop GNU to have a “better” operating system than Unix; we developed it so we could have a freedom-respecting operating system. It’s the same today.

via RMS Answers Your Questions – Slashdot

Reading in e-book era

Reading without surveillance, publishing without after-the-fact censorship, owning books without having to account for your ongoing use of them: these are rights that are older than copyright. They predate publishing. They are fundamentals that every bookseller, every publisher, every distributor, every reader, should desire. They are foundational to a free press and to a free society. If you sell an ebook reader is designed to allow Kafkaesque repossessions, you are a fool if you expect anything but Kafkaesque repossessions in their future. We’ve been fighting over book-bans since the time of Martin Luther and before. There is no excuse for being surprised when your attractive nuisance attracts nuisances.

via Boing Boing.

I agree completely.Though cases like these are going to become more common, unless we switch to a technology which we can see that is Free as in Freedom. Governments and corporates are going to use this technology against the people who are using it. It will create profiles of “dangerous” people who are reading revolutionary material, for example. It will go unchecked if we just are using the technology without questioning it.

Also see RMS’s view on this topic.

What Wikipedia is not… then what it is?

Although anyone can be an editor, there are community processes and standards that make Wikipedia neither an anarchy, democracy, nor bureaucracy.

via What Wikipedia is Not

Disclaimer: Let me make some things clear, I am not against Wikipedia, or its policies. I am (great) admirer and (very heavy) user, and (very little) contributor to the wonderful platform, which aims to provide free knowledge to everyone. In this post I am just trying to collect thoughts that I have about the Wikipedia’s social system and its relation to the society at large.

Then what is wikipedia? Is it a feudal system, which they do not mention in the list above? Although there are people who are called bureaucrats, they say it is not a bureaucracy, I think they mean it in the traditional sense of the wor(l)d (pun intended).

But for a new person, who is trying to edit the first article, there is too much of bureaucracy (read rules), involved, and it may not be a pleasant experience at all, especially for the so called technologically-challenged people. To describe in one word it is intimidating. The trouble is only there till, actually you become used to it, and become part of the system. This is more like the adaptation to smell, after a while in a stinking place, you don’t feel the stink anymore (just an analogy, I do not mean that Wikipedia stinks!). The rules become a part of your editing skills, which you do want to see in other editors. But how many people are able to get over this first major hurdle is not known to me, but I guess (which can be completely wrong) this number can be significant. This will in general reduce the number of producers and just tend to increase the number of consumers in the commercial sense of the word.

Another thing that the above quote says it is not a democracy. Again here I think, Wikipedia is not a democracy in the sense of common usage of the term. In a democracy, by definition the popular aspirations get through, and they may not be even the best for a society, as we many times see in the Indian context. But then it mostly the people who are editing the Wikipedia who decide by consensus that certain thing should be done. Is it not like majority win? So there is in fact a strong democratic element in Wikipedia.

Do we also want a society that is same as above “neither an anarchy, democracy, nor bureaucracy”? What kind of society would you like to live in?

 

The Children’s Machine

These are some unfinished notes that I have taken while reading the Children’s Machine by Seymour Papert. Hope that someday I will weave them into something more fluid.

  Why, though a period when so much human activity has been
  revolutionized, have we not seen comparable change in the way we
  help our children learn?

* Quotes

  116

  One could indeed make kitchen math part of the School by making School part of the kitchen.

  127
 
  Are there any snakes in the house?
  Yes there are, there are zero snakes in the house!

  So. negative numbers are numbers too, and their reality grows in the course of playing with turtle.

  130
  You can’t retire from a good project simply because it has succeeded.

  139

  Constructionism: It does not call in question the value of  instruction as such

  The kind of knowledge that children most need is the knowledge that will help them get more knowledge.

  140
  If the children really want to learn something, and have the opportunity to learn it in its use, they do so even if the teaching is poor.

  Constructionism looks more closely than other educational -isms at  the idea of mental construction. It attaches a special importance to role of constructions in the world as a support for those in the head, thereby becoming less of a purely mentalistic doctrine. It also takes the idea of constructing in the head more seriously by recognizing more than one kind of construction and by asking questions about the methods and materials used.

  How can one become expert in constructing knowledge?

  What skills are required?

  Are these skills different for different kinds of knowledge?

  144

  School math, like the ideology, though not necessarily the practice, of modern science, is based on the idea of generality – the single, universally correct method that will work for all problems and for all people.

  145

  Use what you’ve got, improvise, make do.

  147

  The natural context for learning would be through particiaption in other activities other than math itself.

  148

  The reason is that the educators who advocate imposing abstract ways of thinking on students almost practice what they preach – as I  tried to do in adopting a concrete style of writing – but with very different effects.

  149

  But however concrete their data, any statistical question about  “the effect” of “the computer” is irretrievably abstract. This is because all such studies depend on use of what is known as the “scientific method,” in form of experiments designed to study the effect of one factor which is varied while taking great pains to
  keep everything else same. … But nothing could be more absurd than  an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else has changed. The entire point of all the examples I have given is that the computers serve best when they allow everything to change.

  150

  The concept of highly rigorous and formal scientific method that most of us have been taught in school is really an ideology  proclaimed in books, taught in schools and argued by philosophers but widely ignored in actual practice of science.

  154

  They count the same, but it’s more eggs.

  161
  My overarching message to anyone who wishes to influence, or simple understand, the development of educational computing is that it is not about one damn product after another (to paraphrase a saying
  about how school teaches history). Its essence is the growth of a  culture, and it can be influenced constructively only through understanding and fostering trends in this culture.

  167
  I would be rather precisely wrong than vaguely right.
  – Patrick Suppes
  
    It had been obvious to me for a long time that one of the major difficulties in school subjects such as mathematics and science is that School insists on the student being precisely right. Surely it is necessary in some situations to be precisely right. But these situations cannot be the right ones for developing the kind of thinking that I most treasure myself and many creative people I know.

    168
    What computers had offered me was exactly what they should offer children! They should serve children as instruments to work with and to think with, as means to carry out projects, the source of concepts to think new ideas. The last thing in the world I wanted or needed was a drill and practice program telling me to do this sum of spell that word! Why should we impose such a thing on children?

    183
    The opportunity for fantasy opens the to a feeling of intimacy
    with the work and provides a peep at how emotional side of
    children’s relationship with science and technology could be very
    different from what is traditional in School. Fantasy has always
    been encouraged in good creative writing and art
    classes. Excluding it from science is a foolish neglect of an
    opportunity to develop bonding between children and science.

    184
   
    Errors can become sources of information.

    185

    Although the ultimate goal was the same, the means were more than
    just qualitatively different; they were episte,mologically
    different in that they used a different way of thinking.

    Traditional epistemology is an epistemology of precision:
    Knowledge is valued for being precise and considered inferior if
    it lacks precision. Cybernetics creates an epistemology of
    “managed vagueness.”

    197

    The real problem was that I was still thinking in terms of how to
    “get the children to do something.” This is the educator’s
    instinctive way of thinking: How can you get children to like
    math, to write wonderfully, to enjoy programming, to use
    higher-order thinking skills? It took a long time for me to
    understand in my gut, even after I was going around saying it,
    that Logo gaphics was successful because of the powet it /gave/ to
    children, not because of the performance it /got from/ them.

    Children love constructing things, so let’s choose a construction
    set and add to it whatever is needed for these to make cybernetic
    models.

    198

    What will they [children] learn from it [Logo]? And won’t it favor
    boys over girls?

    The first question concerns what piece of the school curriculum is
    being learned but I attach the most importance to such issues as
    children’s relationship with technology, then idea of learning,
    their sense of self. As for the gender issue, I am thinking more
    about, how in the long run comoutational activities will affect
    gender than how the gener will affect the activities.

    Their work provies good examples of material that overlaps with
    School science and math, and of an alternative style applied to
    these subjects – instead of formal style that uses rules, a
    concrete style that uses objects.

    202
   
    It is worth noting that the students appreciated the
    self-organizing nature of the traffic jam only because they had
    written the programs themselves. Had they been using a packaged
    simulation, they would have had no way of knowing the elegant
    simplicity of the programs underlying the jam.

    Emergent stuctures often behave very differently than the elements
    that compose them.

    207

    The cathedral model of education applies the same principle to
    building knowledge structures. The curriculum designer in cast in
    the role of a “knowledge architect” who will specify a plan, a
    tight progra, for the placement of “knowledge brick’s” in
    children’s minds.

    208

    What is typical of emergently programmed systems is that
    deviations from what was expected do not cause the wholw to
    collapse but provoke adaptive responses.

    209
   
    We are living with an edicational systsem that is fundamentally as
    irrational as the command economy and ultimately for the same
    reason. It does not have capacity for local adaptation that is
    necessary for a complex system even to function effieciently in a
    changing environment, and is doubly necessary for such a system to
    be able to evolve.

    Defininf educational success by test scores is not very different
    from couting nails made rather than nails used.
   
    212

    But calling hierarchy into question is the crux of the problem if
    educational change.

    216
   
    Each of these cases suggests ways in which a little school created
    in a militant spirit can mobilize technology as an assertion of
    identity.

    217
   
    I could continue in this spirit, but this may be enough to make
    the point that little schools could give themselves a deeper and
    more conscious specific identity. Everything I have said in this
    book converges to suggest that this would produce rich
    intellectual environments in which not only children and teachers
    but also new ideas about learning would develop together.

    I see little schools as the most powerful, perhaps an essential,
    route to generating variety for the evolution of education.

    The prevailing wisdom in the education establishment might agree
    with the need for variety but look to other sources to provide
    it. For example, many – let us call them the Rigorous
    Researchers – would say that the proper place for both variation
    and selection is in the laboratory. On their model, researchers
    should develop large numbers of different ideas, test them
    rigorously, select the best, and disseminate them to schools.

    In my view this is simply Gosplan in disguise.

    218

    The importance of the concept of the little school is that it
    provides a powerful, perhaps by far the most powerful, strategy to
    allow the operation of the principle of variation and selection.

    This objection depends on an assumption that is at the core of the
    technicalist model of education: Certain procedures are the best,
    and the people involved can be ordered to carry them out. But even
    if there were such a thing as “the best method” for learning, it
    would still only be the best, or even mildly good, if people
    believed in it. The bueracrat thinks that you can make people
    beleive in something by issuing orders.

    221

    The design of learning environment has to take account of the
    cultural environment as well, anad its implementation must make
    serious effort at involvement of the communities in which it is to
    operate.

    223

    It is no longer necessary to bring a thousand children together in
    one building and under one administration in order to develop a
    sense of community.

    224

    I do not see that School can be defended in its social role. It
    does not serve the functions it claims, and will do so less and
    less.

*

  MegaChange!

  Talking about megachange feels to them like fiddling when Rome
  burns. Education today is faced with immediate, urgent
  problems. Tell us how to use your computer to solve some of the
  many immediate practical problems we have, they say.

  Impediments to change in education such as, cost, politics, the
  immense power of the vested interests of school bureaucrats, or lack
  of scientific research on new forms of learning.

  Large number of teachers manage to create within the walls of their
  own classrooms oases of learning profoundly at odds with the
  education philosophy espoused by their administrators…

  But despite the many manifestations of a widespread desire for
  something different, the education establishment, including most of
  its research community, remains largely committed to the educational
  philosophy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and
  so far none of those who challenge these have hallowed traditions
  has been able to loosen the hold of the educational establishement
  on how children are taught.

  Do children like games more than homework because, the later is
  harder than the former?

  Most [games] are hard, with complex information – as well as
  techniques – to be mastered, in the information often much more
  difficult and time consuming to master than the technique.

  These toys, by empowering children to test out ideas about working
  within prefixed rules and structures in a way few other toys are
  capable of doing, have proved capable of teaching students about the
  possibilities and drawbacks of a newly presented system in ways many
  adults should envy.

  In trying to teach children what adults want them to know, does
  School utitlize the way human beings most naturally learn in
  non-school settings?

  If it has so long been so desperately needed, why have previous
  calls for it not caught fire?

  K[G]nowledge Machine

  Is reading the principal access route to knowledge?

  Ask a symapathetic adult who would reward her curiosity with praise.

  Literacy is being able to read and write. Illiteracy can be
  remedied by teaching children the mechanical skill of decoding black
  marks on white paper.

  /Letteracy/ and /Letterate/

  Reading from Word to Reading from World

  … the Knowledge Machine offers children a transition between
  preschool learning and true literacy in way that is more personal,
  more negotiational, more gradual, and so less precarious thant the
  abrupt transition we now ask chidlrento malke as they move from
  learning through direct experience to using the orinted word as a
  source of important information.

  …. School’s way is the only way beacause they have never seen or
  imagined convincing alternatives in the ability to impart certain
  kinds of knowledge.

    * Babies learn to talk without curriculum or formal lessson

    * People develop hobbies at skills without teachers

    * social behavior is picked up other than through classroom
      beahvior

     Parable of the Automobile:

      … certain problems that had been abstract and hard to grasp
      became concrete and transparent, and certain projects that had
      seemed interesting but too complex to undertake became
      manageable.

      Paulo Freire: “Banking model” information is deposited in
      child’s mind like money in a savings account.
     
      /Tools/ for creating new experiments in effective fashion.

      * Ideas

    * Dewey: children would learn better if learning were truly a
          part of living experience

    * Freire: chidlren would learn better if they were truly in
          charge of their own learning processes

    * Piaget: intelligence emerges from an evolutionary process in
          which many factors must have time to find their equilibrium.

    * Vygotsky: Conversation plays a crucial role in learning.

    Why did the discovery method fail?

    By closing off a much larger basis of knowledge that should
        serve as a foundation for formal mathematics taught in school
        and perhas a minimal intuitive basis directly connected with
        it.

    The central problem of mathematics education is to find ways
        to draw on the child’s vast experience of oral
        mathematics. Computers can do this.

    Giving chidlren opportunity learn and use mathematics in a
        nonformalized way of knowing encourages rather than inhibits
        the eventual adoption of formalized way, just as the XO,
        rather than discouraging reading, would eventually stimulate
        children to read.

    The design process is not used to learn more formal geometry.

    Traditionally teh art and writing classes are for fantasy but
        science deals with facts; union of technology with biology.
   

    It allows them to enter science through a region where
        scientific thinking is most like there own thinking.

    Reading biographies and iterrogating friends has convinced me
        that all successful learners find ways to take charge of their
        early lives sufficiently to develop a sense of intellectual
        identity.

    Piaget’s first article: a paradox?

    Schools have inherent tendency to infantilize the children by
        placing them in a position of have to do so as they are told,
        to occupy themselves with work dictated by someone else and
        that, morever, has no intrinsic value – school work is done only
        because the designer of the curriculum decided that doingthis
        work would shape the doer into a desirable form[for the
        authorities?].

    NatGeo: Kidnet??Robert Tinker

    Researchers, following the so-called scientific method of
        using controlled experiments, solemnly expose the children to
        a “treatment” of some sort and then look at measurable
        results. But this flies in the face of all common knowledge
        of how human beings develop.
   
    The method of controlled experimentation that evaluates an
        idea by implementing it, taking care to keep everything else
        the same, and measuring the result, may be an appropriate way
        to evaluate the effects of a small modification. However, it
        can tell us nothing about ideas that might lead to deep
        change… It will be steered less by the outcome of tests and
        measurements than by its participant’ intuitive understanding.

    The prevalent literal-minded, “what you see is what you get”
        approach measuring the effectiveness of computers in learning
        by teh achievements in present-day classroons makes it certain
        that tomorrow will always be prisoner of yesterday.

    Example of Jet attached to horse wagon.

    … most people are more interested in what they learn than in how
        the learning happens.

   
    But math is not about feeling the relationship of your body to
        numbers.

    Turtle lets you do this!

    Intellectual work is adult child’s play.

    Example that if observation of schools in some country where
        only one writing instrument could be provided for every fifty
        students suggested that writing does not significantly help
        learning.

    The change requires a much longer and more social computer
        experience than is possible with two machines at the back of
        the classroom.

    /Balkanized Curriculum and impersonal rote learning/

    What had started as a subversive instrument of change was
        neutralized by the system and converted into an instrument of
        consolidation.

    Schools will not come to use computers “properly” because
        researchers tell it how to do so.’

    It is characteristic of a conservative systems that
        acoomodation will come only when the opportunities of
        assimilation have been exhausted.

    Supposed Advantages
    * Immediate Feedback
    * Individualized instruction
    * Neutrality *

      CAI will often modestly raise test scores, especially at the low end
      of the scale. But it does without questioning the structure or the
      educational goals of the traditional School.
   
      Today, because it is the 15th Monday of your 5th grade year,
          you have to do this sum irrespective of who you are or what
          you really want to do; do what you are told and do it the
          way you are told to do it.

      Piaget was the theorist of learning without curriculum;
      School spawned the projectof developing a Piagetian curriculum.

      The central issue of change in education is the tension
      between technicalizing and not technicalizing, and here the teacher
      occupies the fulcrum position.

      Shaw: He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.

      The system defeats its own purpose in attempt to enforce them.

      School has evolved a heirarchical system of control that
          sets narrow limits within which the actors – administators
          as well as teachers – are allowed to exercise a degree of
          personal initiative.

      Hierarchy vs. Heterarchy

      The major obstacle in the way of teachers becoming learners
      is inhibition about learning.

The problem with `developed’ countries as opposed to `developing’ ones
is that the developed countries are already there, there is no further
development possible.

In education, the highest mark of success is not having imitators but
inspiring others to do something else.

As long as there is afixed curriculum, a teacher has no need to become
involved in the question what is and what is not mathematics.

Society cannot afford to keep back its potentially best teachers
simply because some. or even most, are unwilling.

The how-to-do-it literature in the constructivist subculture is almost
as strongly biased to the teacher side as it is in the instructionist
subculture.

Some etymology:

/Mathematikos/ disposed to learn
/mathema/ a lesson
/manthanein/ to learn

\ldots mathetics is to learning what heuristics is to problem solving.

What is that feeling when you look at a familiar object, with a sense
that you are looking at the object for the first time?
It is /jamais vu/.

Attempts by teachers and textbook authors to connect school fractions
with real life via representations as pies simply reuslyed in a new
rigidity.

* What is the difference in learning at school and all other learning?
  Generally in life, knowledge is acquired to be used. But school
  learning more often fits Freire’s apt metaphor: Knowledge is treated
  like money, to be put away in a bank for the future.

 
* What does /Computer Literacy/ mean?
     

* The Technology of the Blackboard and The Technology of The Computer

   

* Lines You can use:

**
   The computer to program the student…
   OR
   The student to program the computer…

**
   Computer as an expensive set of flash cards.

**
   If the students scores improve, our approach must be right.

**
   Self-directed activities versus carefully guided ones
**
   If the scores improve does it mean that the strategy is effective/
   approach is right?
**
   Heterarchical versus Hierarchical
**
   Totalitarian Education or Trivialized Education