Sorry, Dave, but you get an F.

April 5, 2013

There was a report in the paper today about a joint project by MIT and Harvard that has produced new freeware to grade written answers to exams.  This will, they say, free up professors for other tasks.  Hmm…

Years ago, I entered a contest sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers on the topic of whether or not Ethics and Professionalism could be usefully measured as part of the engineering licensing exam process.  I suggested that an essay be required, not an obvious answer for those in the engineering profession.  I won the contest – I think there was one other entry in the entire USA – and I got a paid trip to Denver to present my essay to an ASCE conference:  pretty fun for a student with no money at the time.  Now that engineering-numeracy model is come back to bite me, or us!

Why yes!  Why shouldn’t a machine be able to grade short essays and written answers?  Everyone with a school-age child knows about ‘rubrics,’ those itemized lists of things to be accomplished and presented in the student’s submission to receive a decent grade on the project.  Perfect for programming. 

I wonder if the machine will grade philosophy exams?  Or creative writing too?  Easily done if we reduce education to teaching for a test, not to mention a test that a machine can grade, but then, we’re halfway there already what with the reign of the SAT and standardized testing in grade school. 

Here we confront the central tension in education:  for most people, in and out of the power elite, it’s simply a production process to enhance economic output, employability, etc. etc.  Okay, nothing wrong with that.  It also helps to solidify the status quo while you’re at it.  But then, there’s always that other  element of education that favors questions, critical thought, play, humor, imagination and wit, and all sorts of  un-measurable things.  And no use pining for the good old days when higher education was restricted to an elite few:  reading accounts of it in memoirs makes clear that there is no need for machines to produce a completely stultifying, mechanical education system!


At 30,000 feet, again…

July 23, 2012

Last year, I posted about my trip to a work-related conference in San Diego, and my view of the Mississippi River system flooding I saw from the plane:  Well, I’m back.  I flew over the same terrain, and the damage of the flooding was apparent from the air.  You can see how the neat patchwork pattern of the agricultural areas has been smudged with the debris and sediment from last years flood.

Other themes of that post are recurring:  animation for one.  Then I was reading about Muybridge, friend of Leland Stanford, who did the first time-series images of a running horse.  I took a class on programming for Flex – fascinating, eh? – and sat next to a woman who works at Stanford.  Wow!  And at the museum of art, I bought a kit to make a zoetrope.  I just can’t escape myself.  The content for the toy was printed in the Sunday supplements of newspapers in the 1890s.

In my class, as I fiddle with code and talk of servers, map-services, instantiating queries, and so on, I think of the vast industry that has grown up to move large amounts of data, including the cartographic data with which I am concerned, over the Internet to consumers.  Yes, we are ‘consumers’ of map-services.  It’s as good a term as any, but does anyone wonder about how we all got to be consumers…of everything?  I get distracted by the sociology of the IT industry, and lose my place in the flow of the programming…

I took some time off to visit Balboa Park’s museums.  San Diego has something to offer other than sunshine and conventions, but it’s certainly not good coffee!  Next to the San Diego Museum of Art, where I saw a nice exhibit on German Expressionism, I visited the Timkin Museum, for free!  It’s a small collection, but there are a couple of knockout pieces of Sienese art of which I was unaware.  I particularly like the representation of the Trinity in the center of the second piece below, by Niccolo di Tomme. (Click to enlarge the images.)

Then there was this wonderful portrait by an artist I’d never see, clearly influenced by Leonardo, and newly discovered portrait by van Dyck.  The fabric and the hand seem pure Anthony van.

While shopping the museum store, I came upon a book about Yinka Shonibare, MBE, another new one for me.  He was born in London, raised in Nigeria, and now is back in the UK, producing installations, ‘paintings’, and sculpture that are filled with sly and not-so-subtle, but very exuberant, send-ups and skewerings of European culture, colonial and otherwise.  Turns out, his stuff is on exhibit there, so now I have to get back before I return to NJ.


Alpha Noir

March 8, 2012

Alphaville (1965) is Jean Luc Godard’s noir-sci-fi mash-up, and it’s pretty darn good.  The film seems like a stylistic riff on those genres, with a hunk of surrealism thrown in, and at times it has, I think, its tongue in its cheek, but always just so:  the control of tone never wavers.  Sort of like Flaubert… Those French!

I don’t quite understand the use of music in French films of the 50s and 60s.  I commented on The 400 Blows that I thought its music was intrusive:  In this film, the soundtrack is purposely so, but sometimes it borders on romantic schmaltz.  But then, there’s that ironic, stylistic mash-up again…

A noir thriller with a main character called Lemmy Caution (Not sure, but I think there was a series of films or books with that character in France at the time…) played by an American expatriot actor whose face looks like it’s seen a lot of action, that ends with the destruction of an entire city.  Well, maybe not.  “Maybe all the inhabitants will heal and it will become a happy place,” Lemmy tells us as he drives away with his princess who saves herself and ends the movie by speaking the words she never learned, “I love you!

The story begins with Lemmy, aka Ivan Johnston, a secret agent from the Outer Countries, running around Alphaville in a fedora and raincoat looking for Dr. von Braun.  He snaps pictures of everything with a cheap camera, pretending to be a journalist.  The film is shot in haute and not so haute moderne architectural sites around Paris.  Part of the near-campy weirdness of the film is that it’s supposed to be in the future – not sure how far – and it’s supposed to be on another planet, but everyone talks as if they just got off the subway in NYC.  Lemmy drives American cars, of course.

Things happen that don’t make sense, but since it’s  a noir, it’s all rather deadpan.  A man breaks into Lemmy’s room, and Caution, not being too cautious, shoots him.  Later, interrogated by the Alpha 60 computer that runs the city, he says he was nervous and doesn’t take chances.  How was he to know it was just a psychological test?  Lemmy is pretty quick with a gun at the end, shooting people right and left with aplomb as he decommissions Alpha 60 and sets the city on its ear.

Lemmy is a hard-boiled type.  He knows his way around the hi-tech world, but he prefers old technology.  I concur – you won’t catch me with a smart phone.  He finally catches up with von Braun who tries to bribe him with gold and women, the two things Lemmy told the central computer he cares about.  But he was probably fooling – he’s a romantic under his tough exterior.  He tells von Braun he’s used to living with the fear of death:  “For a humble secret agent like me, it’s a constant companion, like whiskey.”  Hard-boiled, indeed!

 

Of course, women in Alphaville are mostly at the disposal of men, and come in various seductress levels, with numbers tattooed on their necks.  Lemmy isn’t tough enough to resist this one (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife), his own femme fatale who reminds me of the one from Zamyatin’s We.  Lemmy even says she has “sharp teeth” like the characters in old vampire movies.  She’ll betray him, of course.

When Lemmy goes on the rampage against the computer, we aren’t quite sure what he does, but it all begins with him speaking illogically about love.  The shot below is a portent of 2001.  With Alpha 60 on the blink, the citizens literally start to climb the walls, acting like termites in a nest where the queen has died.  Alpha 60, like Hal 9000, speaks, but with a voice that is distorted with a synthesizer.

Typical sights in Alphaville…huh?

The use of sites is very clever.  While we hear narration about the ways non-normals are executed, we see a theater with banks of seats that are rotating into a recess in the floor, and learn that a large group was electrocuted while watching a show.

Ivan/Lemmy is a cool customer with a semi-automatic, and he uses it without hesitation.  The thugs disarm him, however, by commanding the girl to recite story No. 434, which gets a laugh from Lemmy:  then they pummel him into submission.  Still, isn’t this film the forerunner of other noir-sci-fi faves, such as Blade Runner?  Maybe not – it’s so French.  Readings from the surrealist poet Paul Eluard’s Capital of Pain figure prominently in the narrative (every Frenchman with pretensions to cool would have known the text), and there is much abstract talk of love, conscience, humanity, and such existentialist cliches…

Mission accomplished, the girl rescued, Lemmy drives off on the ring road to inter-sidereal space, returning to his own galaxy in the Outer Countries.


Another “close, but no cigar.”

November 10, 2011

The New York Times Science section ran a piece on Tuesday about a project to build a working model of Babbage’s planned analytical engine.  It was a cog and gear driven ‘computer’ that read punch card data and instructions.  The article implies that it was the first such device, and so, the ancestor of all modern digital computers.

Close, but not quite.  Before the Victorian Babbage, there was  the 18th century Jacquard and his loom.

These huge machines read complex instructions on punch cards, made Lyons a dominant force in the silk weaving business, and were recognized by Babbage himself , as well as the future leader of IBM, the firm that put punch cards into the popular mind, as an important precursor and inspiration for the analytical engine.  Not to mention, that the looms actually worked, while the analytical engine never got off the drawing board.

The story is well and comprehensively told in this very fine book:  Jacquard’s Web.


The Real (Techno) Revolutionary

October 16, 2011

Amid all the media hoopla and weeping over the passing of Steve Jobs, a real revolutionary of the digital age passed quietly from the scene, Dennis Ritchie.  The book he co-authored, known simply as Kernighan and Ritchie brought the C language into the world, and changed computing forever.  As the Times also points out, his development of Unix is at the heart of the current digital world infrastructure and consumer frenzy:

The Unix operating system has similarly had a rich and enduring impact. Its free, open-source variant, Linux, powers many of the world’s data centers, like those at Google and Amazon, and its technology serves as the foundation of operating systems, like Apple’s iOS, in consumer computing devices.

Dennis Ritchie, a true technological and intellectual pioneer.


At 30,000 feet: in 1/100th of a second

July 13, 2011

I find business travel of any sort disorienting.  Why am I here?  Just what am I doing in this place with these people?  Unmoored, my mind floats free of Earth’s gravitational pull and looses itself in philosophical maundering and pessimism.

I am in Carlsbad, CA, for the ESRI International Users Conference.  No clue?  Look here.  Yes, that’s what I do for a living, sort of.  And along with 1o,ooo members of the sometimes cultish fans cum users of ESRI software, I am here to try to learn something useful.  I’m even making a presentation.

On the flight out, I made sure to have a window seat, and my foresight was rewarded with some views of the Missouri River that looked like these below.  Floods, gotta love ‘em, they’re so grand.

I passed over arid hillscapes that were pricked here and there with giant white toothpicks – wind turbines – that seemed puny in comparison to the huge urban energy-suckers I saw.  I arrive in a new city, San Diego, and observe trucks, trains, planes, industrial zones, and crowds of people going to work – the human beehive.  It all seems so utterly pointless.  Why don’t they all just stay in their rooms, read a good book?  Is what they’re doing so great?

I recall a letter by V.I. Lenin in which he deplored the unplanned, chaotic and wasteful nature of capitalism.  Perhaps he and I share a similar visceral disgust with the nature of modern society.  Of course, his solution wasn’t as good as mine.  (Of course, I stole it from Pascal.)

On the flight, I read Freefall, an analysis of the financial debacle of 2007 by Stiglitz.  Perhaps he should read my post on the thieving state.  Well, he won a Nobel, but he is an economist after all…  I also finished reading River of Shadows, by Rebecca Solnit, which is a biography, sort of, of Eadweard Muybridge, the man who is famous for motion studies like these of horses:

and who also did many others of people which are not so widely known, such as this one of a woman simply getting into and out of bed:Obviously, Muybridge was onto something with his instantaneous photos of moving objects, and his work was an important precursor to the development of motion pictures.  Today, you can buy amusing flip-books of some of his studies that work wonderfully well.  In fact, he created an early zoetrope that combined magic lanterns with his motion studies to produce projected animations, and he was involved with Edison in creating the early kinetoscopes.  He was also an accomplished landscape photographer, and a bit of an eccentric.

Solnit’s book, however, indulges in much breathless metaphysical word-spinning at every possible opportunity, and is built on the conceit that Muybridge and Leland Stanford (it was his horse, and he paid for the initial work photographing it in those famous sequences) founded the modern world in the previously Wild West.  After all, the basis of modern civilization is Hollywood (Muybridge’s part) and Silicone Valley ([Leland] Stanford University’s part).  It’s pretty tiresome after a while, but the book rewards judicious skimming.

One of the most interesting parts to me was the connection with Ernest Meissonier, the successful French salon painter known for his large canvasses showing Napoleon in what appeared at the time to be photo-realistic detail.  (He was a favorite painter of Salvador Dali.)

 

Meissonier exerted tremendous effort in studying the movements of horses, trying to get the legs right.  Muybridge’s sequences of Stanford’s racer, Occident, laid to rest the momentous question of whether or not a horse ever had all four feet off the ground at once – they do – but it also showed how complex was the movement of the legs.  Messonier was upset: he’d got them all wrong, but he was a good sport about it.  In his portrait of Stanford, a photo sequence by Muybridge is just barely visible on the table at the right.


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