Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The game of predictions -- as it's New Year's Eve

I have always liked to play the game of making predictions on New Year's Eve. Everyone comes up with as many predictions as they like, in whatever category they choose -- whether personal (who'll get married, divorced, have a baby, etc.), work-related (change jobs, get acquired, expand, downsize, etc.), political, global, sports, cultural, etc. All are written down and put in a sealed envelope labeled "PREDICTIONS for 2009" -- and stored in a drawer, ready for the next New Year's Eve, when it is opened and the score is tallied -- how many right and by whom.

We never looked more than a year ahead, and you only ever got the honor of being right.

But I recently discovered a website which combines the challenge of long-range predictions with the option of making specific bets (i.e., predictions with potential rewards) -- from those clever people at the Long Now Foundation (Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, etc.).

Here is the first bet made, back in 2002 -- between Mitch Kapor and Ray Kurzweil (who has made a famous prediction with his Singularity -- interesting aside: his Wikipedia page is labeled as one of those currently in dispute).

What does the future hold? Here's a possible map -- from Ross Dawson at Trends in the Living Networks (where he also has links to his previous Trend Blends for 2007 and 2008):

And here's the World Future Society's top ten forecasts for 2009 and beyond:

1. Everything you say and do will be recorded by 2030.

2. Bioviolence will become a greater threat as the technology becomes more accessible.

3. The car's days as king of the road will soon be over.

4. Careers, and the college majors for preparing for them, are becoming more specialized.

5. There may not be world law in the foreseeable future, but the world's legal systems will be networked.

6. The race for biomedical and genetic enhancement will -- in the twenty-first century -- be what the space race was in the previous century.

7. Professional knowledge will become obsolete almost as quickly as it's acquired.

8. Urbanization will hit 60% by 2030.

9. The Middle East will become more secular while religious influence in China will grow.

10. Access to electricity will reach 83% of the world by 2030.

Numbers 4 and 7 support the need for developing flexible learners, able to continually renew themselves as experts. And Number 1 means we might be able to resolve those arguments over who said what when ("let's replay the tape from that morning....").

Must go make my own private predictions now...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Round Two: Creativity -- and Mathematics

Just found some notes on an essay of Lewis Hyde -- "Two Accidents: Reflection on Chance and Creativity" (1998).
"The agile mind is pleased to find what it was not looking for."

"Wandering is the trick, and giving up on 'loss' or 'gain', and then agility of mind."

Dumb luck = luck of chance
Smart luck = craft added to accident, i.e, "a kind of responsive intelligence invoked by whatever happens"

Louis Pasteur quote: "chance favors the prepared mind", i.e., a mind prepared for what it isn't prepared for...

Chogyam Trungpa quote: "magic is the total appreciation of chance"

creation (absolute newness) vs. revelation (accident as a tool of revelation)

Absolute newness = "in a civilization as complex and shifting as ours has become, a readiness to let the mind change as contingency demands may be one prerequisite of a happy life."
Also just read an essay on mathematics and creativity -- A Mathematician's Lament -- by Paul Lockhart -- a damning critique of the typical teaching of mathematics -- devoid of the recognition of its inherent creativity. I want every teacher who teaches mathematics to read this and justify their current practices to me (says the indignant librarian).

Everything he says rings true to me because I had a teacher like Paul Lockhart from 7th grade onwards in my little town in Maine. Thank god for Wally Hayes and Ralph (Danny) Small. They made mathematics come alive -- and made us exercise our mental creativity every day in the name of mathematics. It was pure theater at times -- how Mr. Small would enthuse over a new proof he'd thought up the night before. We believed him when he said he had the quadratic formula framed over his bedstead. We never doubted that he spent his evenings reading mathematics books, enhanced by a bowl of potato chips and a glass of milk.

He never used labels for what he showed us -- he just showed us his thinking and encouraged us to show him ours. I went off to college/university believing I'd never had calculus, because that word had never come up. So I ended up repeating almost a whole year, not really knowing where Mr. Small had left off. But I definitely recognized that what my college professor had to offer was lesser stuff -- it was all just "cookbook" mathematics, whereas I had been trained to do the real thing -- proofs and analysis and an underlying understanding all along, no matter whether I knew what the outside world called it or not.

In reading Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" -- and the luck of Bill Gates to have access to a computer in junior high in Washington state in 1967 or whenever it was -- I can't help but realize that I also was lucky. It was 1972 when I was a freshman in high school that I got to program for the first time. We had a time-share set-up with some computer in Portland and all of us had to write a computer program to solve the quadratic formula. That meant creating an oiled punched-out tape that got fed into the remote reader and loaded into memory. So at 15 I began my relationship with computers (okay, nowhere near the 10,000 deliberate practice hours of a Gates, but..). Maybe it isn't so surprising that in 1980 I ended up in Boston at a software development company, despite my major in Russian Civilization. (I always used to say, languages are languages -- whether natural or mechanical.)

Anyway, here's Paul Lockhart in full force on how math should be considered in the curriculum:
"The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such."

"A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanet than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas." [G.H. Hardy]

"Mathematicians enjoy thinking about the simplest possible things, and the simplest possible things are imaginary."

"Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity.... you deny them mathematics itself."

"Math is not about following directions, it's about making new directions."

"A piece of mathematics is like a poem, and we can ask if it satisfies our aesthetic criteria: Is this argument sound? Does it make sense? Is it simple and elegant? Does it get me closer to the heart of the matter?"

"Mathematics is the music of reason."

"The trouble is that math, like painting or poetry, is hard creative work. That makes it very difficult to teach. Mathematics is a slow, contemplative process. It takes time to produce a work of art, and it takes a skilled teacher to recognize one."

"Teaching is not about information. It's about having an honest intellectual relationshiop with your students."

"How ironic that people dismiss mathematics as the antithesis of creativity. They are missing out on an art form older than any book, more profound than any poem, and more abstract that any abstract."
Image credit: gadl via flickr

Common Genius and Creativity

I've been reading and digesting several thinkers/texts/thoughts on creativity -- and the genius of the cultural commons.
(Image credit: lightbulbs by andydoro)
The individual genius is definitely a discredited idea these days.

Malcolm Gladwell addresses this issue in his May 2008 article, "In the Air: who says big ideas are rare?" -- where he uses the example of Nathan Myhrvold and his attempt to create a group capable of generating insights that might lead to scientific inventions and innovation. Gladwell asserts that "the genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight."

Gladwell's latest book, "Outliers: the story of success", similarly argues that those people who achieve extreme success owe a great deal to the fortuitous ecology of their lives. "They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy." And the success of late bloomers, like Cezanne, is highly contingent on the efforts of others surrounding and supporting them (he says in a New Yorker article on October 20, 2008, "Late Bloomers: why do we equate genius with precocity?").

"For Innovators, There is Brainpower in Numbers" ran a recent article in the New York Times, affirming that "truly productive invention requires the meeting of minds from myriad perspectives, even if the innovators themselves don't always realize it." The article interestingly argues that brainstorming (or "idea showers" as some teachers I know prefer to call it -- eliminating that negative imagery), introduced in 1948, has been proved to be less effective than generally believed. Evidently, "individuals working alone generate more ideas than groups acting in concert". Instead, "systematic inventive thinking" is better, where successful products are analyzed into separate components and considered for alternative uses. "The best innovations occur when you have networks of people with diverse backgrounds gathering around a problem."

Clay Shirky, professor of new media at New York University and author of "Here Comes Everybody: the power of organizing without organizations", argues the same thing, especially in regards to the internet and Web n.0. (See here and here for videos of him presenting the ideas of the book.) He refers to the two kinds of social capital -- bonding capital, best envisaged as the number of people willing to lend you a large sum of money without asking when you'll be paying it back, and bridging capital, the number of people to whom you would lend small amounts of money without much fuss. (In other words, bonding capital is more exclusive, bridging capital is more inclusive.)

Shirky asserts it's not how many people you know, it's how many different kinds of people -- that most good ideas come from people who are bridging "structural holes" in an institution -- because too much bonding capital in a group results in an echo-chamber of ideas. This is not creativity born of deep intellectual ability -- it's creativity as an import-export business.

Aside re school librarians: we are particularly well-suited to bring bridging capital (read: new ideas) to planning meetings, interacting as we do with all grade levels.

Gladwell, in an interview, also credits his own writing success with the breadth and diversity of his friendship base, when asked where he gets his ideas:
People tell me things. I have learned, I suppose, how to position myself to have access to serendipitous moments. I fill my life with people from diverse backgrounds. I have friends in academia, in business, in technology. Once you understand the importance of those contacts you can take steps to increase the likelihood of having them pay off. I never come up with things entirely by myself. It's always in combination with somebody. I exploit the entire resources of my friends very efficiently.
Charles Leadbeater, a UK consultant on innovation and creativity, came out with a book similar to Shirky's at roughly the same time -- We-Think: mass innovation, not mass production. Videos of him speaking about the book can be found here -- and there is a 3-minute animated illustration of the book on his homepage. (I must admit, I like his plain confession, This is Not a Blog.)

Leadbeater brings up Lewis Hyde, poet, essayist, and author of "The Gift", a book (first published in 1983) dedicated to exploring the gift economy, especially with regard to the arts, though also including the internet -- and the power of sharing and becoming aware of the gifts cycling throughout society. Hyde was recently the focus of a New York Times Magazine article -- "What is Art For?" -- in which he distinguishes his take on the artistic commons as more academic, abstract, and aesthetically nuanced compared with that of Lawrence Lessig, founder and guru of the (more legalistic) Creative Commons movement. (See Lessig's brilliant TED talk on How Creativity is being Strangled by the Law.)

Hyde's book explores the concept of the gift economy (contrasted to the market/commodity economy), roaming through anthropology, mythology, and poetry (Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, in particular) -- and likens it to our current understanding of ecology -- that every gift calls for a return gift in a large self-regulating earth system. He notes the traditional types of gifts -- separation gifts, threshold gifts or gifts of passage (birthdays, graduation, marriage, newcomers), and incorporation gifts (goodbye presents meant to give a piece of yourself to someone going away). Transformative gifts are less concrete, but no less important, and cover the situation of a young artist awakened to their life's labor by another's artistic gift to the world, with the paradox of the gift exchange -- that when a gift is used, it is not used up -- and how the only gratitude required is the act of passing the gift along. (I could go on and on -- read the book -- it's available from the National Library for those of you in Singapore.)

Speaking of gifts -- look at this mindmap someone (Austin Kleon) has put up on Flickr re Hyde's book:

It is obvious how this all relates to Web n.0. Here, for example, is a snippet about sharing from a blog posting by Mark Pesce, an Australian future-oriented consultant:
The center of this argument is simple, though subtle: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. You extend your brand with every resource you share. You extend the knowledge of your institution throughout the Internet. Whatever you have – if it’s good enough – will bring people to your front door, first virtually, then physically.
Speaking of giving things away, Seth Godin, major marketing guru, is giving away his most recent book, "Tribes" -- as an audio book. (I listened to it while doing housework one Sunday -- a perfect way to enhance menial tasks.)

His little book is about leaders -- and how tribes (the small units we're going to find ourselves belonging to) need them -- for the 7 C's: challenge, creating a culture, curiosity, communication, charisma, connection, and commitment. He defines leadership as the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work. That leaders give people stories they can tell about themselves -- and that you can't lead without imagination (read: creativity).

Interesting aside: there's a new social anthropology book out by Daniel Miller which argues that in London now every household is, in effect, a tribe.

Another free download (pass that gift on) to note: Little Brother -- a popular young adult novel by Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing fame. Re the creativity of young people in evading Big Brother's attempt to control them and the internet.

Back to creativity: I must, of course, mention a few other TED talks on the subject: Sir Ken Robinson -- if people know any TED talk, it's usually this one: Do Schools Kill Creativity? See also Amy Tan -- and Tim Brown.

I'm going to end with Alison Gopnik, psychology/philosophy professor and child development expert and her musings on why fiction is so attractive to children (oops, humans) in the 2006 Edge "World Question Center".
The greatest success of cognitive science has been our account of the visual system. There's a world out there sending information to our eyes, and our brains are beautifully designed to recover the nature of that world from that information. I've always thought that science, and children's learning, worked the same way. Fundamental capacities for causal inference and learning let scientists, and children, get an accurate picture of the world around them - a theory. Cognition was the way we got the world into our minds.
But fiction doesn't fit that picture - its easy to see why we want the truth but why do we work so hard telling lies? I thought that kids' pretend play, and grown-up fiction, must be a sort of spandrel, a side-effect of some other more functional ability....
So the anomaly of pretend play has been bugging me all this time. But finally, trying to figure it out has made me change my mind about the very nature of cognition itself.
I still think that we're designed to find out about the world, but that's not our most important gift. For human beings the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds....
In fact, I think now that the two abilities - finding the truth about the world and creating new worlds-are two sides of the same coins. Theories, in science or childhood, don't just tell us what's true - they tell us what's possible, and they tell us how to get to those possibilities from where we are now. When children learn and when they pretend they use their knowledge of the world to create new possibilities. So do we whether we are doing science or writing novels. I don't think anymore that Science and Fiction are just both Good Things that complement each other. I think they are, quite literally, the same thing.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Looking back at (the technology behind) our conference

Our conference -- Hands on Literacy -- came off beautifully just over a month ago, with over 260 people attending, but it burned us committee members out so much that we have spent the rest of this term recovering.

In our de-brief we made many notes of things to improve on next time, the most important being: "start planning much earlier" -- like 18 months ahead of time. We really only started working on it in mid-August and it was held mid-November, so it was a miracle it all came off at all.

The use of technology to plan and present the conference was another area for improvement. Wiki and SurveyMonkey worked great for us, but not enough presenters took up the challenge to make their pages their own. Also need to go with online payment/registration, e.g., using something like EventBrite, next time. And in retrospect should have set up Google Group for the committee, rather than relying on just a Google Email account. Getting all committee members up to speed with chosen web 2.0 tools before crunch time is something else.

Several presenters have updated their wiki pages since the conference, including:
But wish more did.