Trans-cultural courseware

Richard’s comment on yesterday’s post really brought home for me the issue of how prepared our educational system leaves us for being able to bridge C.P. Snow’s Art/Science cultural divide. It would be interesting to design courseware specifically with this in mind.

I don’t think the problem is as acute in music as it is in other fields. Thanks to the influence of Max Mathews and other pioneers, the same students who learn musical history, theory and practice are also able to learn the history, theory and practice of procedural music and its associated technological arc. In fact, NYU’s own Music Technology program is one of those wonderful places where the divide between the two cultures has been all but obliterated.

But for other disciplines, such as the visual arts, the wall of mutual ignorance seems to remain as high as ever. Perhaps courses focusing on specific topics could be specifically designed to combat this mutual ignorance. Of course if we did manage to design such a curriculum, the problem would remain of getting universities to accept such trans-disciplinary courses as legitimate academic offerings.

Sol LeWitt

I was in a room full of people who are deeply committed to knocking down C.P. Snow’s problem of The Two Cultures. To be sure, not everyone in the room was old enough or widely read enough to be familiar with Snow’s famous lecture.

Yet every single one of them would wholeheartedly agree, if asked, that we need to find a way to bridge the great divide between the Arts and the Sciences. Further, they would say that their own work is largely an attempt to bridge that very divide.

Yet a problem with all such efforts is that everyone inevitably comes in with some sort of bias, and the nature of your own bias is that you can’t see it. In this case, most of the participants are coming to the conversation from a strong background in the sciences.

This really hit home for me when somebody got up to speak — one of the rare individuals who has put in the effort required to be equally conversant in “Art-talk” and “Science-talk”. She started describing the work of Sol LeWitt, and then casually asked how many people were familiar with his work.

To my immense surprise and disappointment, almost nobody in the room knew who he was.

Trying to think of an analogy going the other way, I likened it in my mind to a group of artists intent on bridging the art/science divide in the use of procedural techniques, and none of them knowing the names “John von Neumann” or “Jim Blinn”.

And I was forced to admit to myself that it would be very difficult for me to convince my own computer science department to include a for-credit course about LeWitt or the other proceduralists.

Clearly something is very wrong here. But I’m not sure what to do about it.

The man behind the curtain

I was at a meeting this week of fellow researchers on a large project, and everyone was introducing themselves. One of the people in the room was from the large company that was funding the project.

When it was time for him to introduce himself, he said something that I thought was really delightful. Talking about how important it was for funding to happen seamlessly, without requiring us researchers to jump through too many hoops, he said:

“Every once in a while the man comes out from behind the curtain and you have to confront him, but for the most part we try to maintain the illusion.”

I think this is a wonderful statement of what we all really want in so many aspects of our lives: We know there is a man behind the curtain, and we are often very glad that he is there, doing things just out of sight. Of course the curtain is there for a reason — so we can all pretend he isn’t there.

And for the most part, we would prefer to maintain the illusion.

Jay Oliva

I was very sad to hear today that the previous President of NYU, Jay Oliva, passed away.

It’s hard to describe the positive effect that this man had on our University. Whereas other presidents of great universities carry themselves with a certain “air of command”, Jay never did any such thing. He continually reminded us, through his policies and his wonderfully warm personal style, that we are, after all, just people on this planet, each of us trying to do the best we can.

Our University became a warmer, kinder, more human place under his guidance, and that warmth has become a permanent part of our culture.

I will miss him, as well many in our community.

Contextual expertise

These last few days there was a big publication deadline in my field, so grad students were scrambling to get their papers finished on time. Weeks like this are exhilarating and exhausting, in equal measure.

From time to time a student would ask me questions about how they should write their paper. And each time this question would trigger something in me.

I would start to verbally outline the possible research questions, methods for empirical validation, engineering tasks, prior and related work, larger overarching themes, possible future directions, and an entire host of other things.

While this was happening, somewhere in the back of my mind I would be thinking “How am I saying all these things? I’m not really as smart as this guy whose words are coming out of my mouth right now.”

And I’d realize that this expertise is almost entirely contextual. The right question, in the right circumstance, triggers my brain to operate in a certain way, evoking a kind of “expert mode”. This is not a mode that I can simply conjure up at will — it surfaces only when needed.

I suppose we all have these little pockets of contextual expertise, ways of thinking and problem solving that emerge from our minds only when we need them. And when we no longer need them, they retract back to some remote corner of our brain, returning us to our usual, slightly clueless selves.

Debt burden, part 2

Richard’s comment on yesterday’s post showed something positive at work. But I wonder, aren’t we looking at all of the question of higher education in a fundamentally wrong way? Why should it be the responsibility of young people to pay a high price for higher education? Isn’t in any society’s collective economic interest to do the exact opposite?

After all, if you have a for-profit company, and you are trying to maximize your profitability, your best option is generally to invest in those aspects of your business that will increase long term revenue.

And in the case of a nation, by far the largest potential engine for economic growth resides in the young minds that continually emerge from the population. These minds are, in the long run, the sources of invention, of new business models, new forms of art and entertainment, novel insights into science, technology and medical innovation.

The empirical genetic scientific evidence tells us that innovative minds are distributed rather randomly throughout any population — they don’t tend to be born more into privileged families. Which means that a nation that creates a de facto higher economic hurdle for a poor young person to be educated through the college level is simply self-destructive: The society that does so is like a farmer who consumes his own seed corn.

To put it plainly: Any nation state that figures out how to educate its young people without trapping them into a large debt burden will win, in the economic battlefield, over other nation states.

Debt burden

Recently I had dinner with some friends who were arguing for forgiving college student debt in the U.S. Their argument goes roughly as follows:

To pay college costs — in some cases over $60,000 per year — young people and their families can go deeply into debt, often for many years. Many are never able to get out from under that debt burden, and so their chances for economic advancement remain permanently crippled.

It’s not as though they have much of a choice. In the U.S. one’s chances for professional success are very low if one does not have a college degree.

My friends argue that the increased short term tax burden to pay off those loans would be more than offset within just a few years by the more robust economy that would result.

This is a powerful argument. Yet there are aspects to our nation’s state of economic disparity that resist straightforward rational discussion. But I can try anyway.

More tomorrow.

Opening lines

Recently I was thinking of the lovely first line of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Except my mind did a sort of funny substitution: “Last night I dreamt I went to Pemberley again.”

It’s not really such a stretch. The literary trail from du Maurier’s Rebecca back to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is fairly clear and quite easy to trace. In both cases a hyper-romantic tale is viewed through the prism of a symbolic locale. Even the sounds of the two words “Manderley” and “Pemberley” have a similar musical line.

Similarly, I was recently thinking about the opening line of Melville’s Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.”

Except my mind did a similar sort of substitution: “Call me Starbuck.”

Again there is a similar parallel at work. A sweeping saga of a ship adrift, facing an implacable enemy that mocks our all too human conceit of hegemony over nature. We are told a tale of terrible isolation, of vast stretches of emptiness, of insidious tendrils of madness threatening to seep in at every moment, and above all of the uncertainty that creeps into the thoughts of every crew member, not just of getting home, but of whether there is any longer such a thing as home.

I am speaking, of course, of Battlestar Galactica — a work that arguably could not have existed but for the cultural influence of Moby Dick.

I wonder what other works could likewise evoke their literary kin, via a substitution, in the opening line, of a single word.

That in between state

I was having a conversation today with an friend I hadn’t seen in a while, who mentioned something I had recently said on my blog. I said “Oh, you read my blog?”

There was a pause, then she replied “Well, every once in a while.”

And I realized that we had perhaps gotten into a slightly complicated topic.

There are friends who are perfectly happy to tell me that they read my blog every day. There is, of course, a vastly greater group of people who never read my blog.

Then there are people who don’t want me to think they read it too often, because, you know, maybe that means they are paying too much attention. And that wouldn’t be cool.

I’m not sure why, but I think that in between state is interesting. It suggests that something, somehow, is being negotiated.

The value of having less time

I gave a talk last week at the MIT Media Lab. To my surprise, many of the questions afterwards were not about the things I had talked about.

Rather, they were questions about my process. How do I work, and how do I prototype? What goes into deciding how long to spend on an idea, and how do I know whether to move forward?

I understood that these questions, all of them asked by professors, were for the benefit of the students in the room.

One of the beautiful and startling things about youth is that the young know they will live forever. Oh, if you ask them, they will acknowledge that they will die one day. But in their hearts they do not believe it. Life is infinite, possibilities are endless, and it is all just beginning.

But after a while the heart begins to understand differently. We look upon our parents and see our own future, we understand that the clock is ticking, and we recalibrate.

And we learn the value of time.

Much of what I do is rapid prototyping. When I have an idea, I work fast to implement a quick sketch — perhaps a short interactive graphics program that runs on the web — without worrying too much about the details. I’m not looking for perfection, but for a sign that will tell me whether to stop now, or to go forward. Or maybe to veer off in a related direction.

This is what the professors asking those leading questions were getting at. Time is valuable, and spending three months to build something that may lead nowhere is not a good use of one’s time. Good rapid prototyping skills are a way of maximizing life, of making the most of the time we have.

Because when all is said and done, you know only two things for sure: (1) You do not know how much time you have left to get things done, and (2) You surely have less time than you did a year ago.