Monday, May 27, 2013

Many Bothans Died To Bring You This Post

If anyone doubts the capacity of human ingenuity to solve problems of global significance, from climate change to immigration to gun violence, then they need look no further for inspiration than Times Square in the heart of the Big Apple this week. Resting there in all its glory is a 23-ton lego model, the largest ever built, of a Star Wars X-wing spaceship. I am flush with emotion... is this how Titus felt when the Roman Colosseum was finished? Or Qin Shi Huang, first Emperor of China, after linking various fortifications into the Great Wall?

To fully appreciate the achievement, take a look at the close-up photographs in this spread by Business Insider. It's easy to be awed by the statistics: the weight, the height, the five-million-plus bricks used. Like all lego kits, the attention to detail is impressive. R2-D2 sits on top in his clever droid socket; the color markings and proportions are spot on; and the S-Foils are not in attack position, which makes sense since we're no longer at war. (Were this a Lego drone, that might be a different matter.) All in all, it's a stunning space-lego achievement, but what makes it timeless is the pilot figure of lego Porkins at the side of the model standing ready to board.

Porkins, you'll remember, was the wingman who covered Biggs in an early attack, failed to heed Biggs's advice to pull up or eject, and got shot down by Death Star guns. In other words, this is a pre-Death-Star-battle X-wing, a lego warning to all of us, perhaps, that dark and difficult challenges lie ahead. Thanks Porkins.

Among the many challenges facing our nation is in fact the continuation of the Star Wars franchise, long the mythic cornerstone of our material creed. Shouldering this burden is none other than J. J. Abrams, the man of plot twists and turns, he who has attempted to breathe new life into the Star Trek universe and must now travel back in time and a few galaxies over to give us all A New Hope, again. There is anxiety he may not be up to the task. The alternative outlook is that there is nowhere to go but up after the catastrophic prequels that George Lucas inflicted upon America and the world. Plus Abrams is already getting sound advice from science fiction giants. Were he to stick with a lego theme—and if we can build a 23 ton lego X-Wing, why not?—he might find Eddie Izzard's Death Star canteen routine, brilliantly represented in lego live action, one source of inspiration:

It's quite funny, but remember Mr. Stephens will die like everyone else in the Death Star. Everyone except Jeff Vader.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Spring Solace

It is difficult for me to imagine springtime anymore without Van Morrison's brilliant album Astral Weeks coming to mind. (I am listening to it right now. I recommend you do the same.) It was released in November 1968, the same month Richard Nixon was elected President after one of the most devastating calendar years in American history: war in Vietnam, social unrest, race riots, assassinations, and only the promise of Nixon to keep the ship afloat. Even Morrison couldn't escape the tumult completely—he had had to alter the lyrics and title of the song he had written the year before about an interracial relationship, "Brown Skinned Girl" to something more socially acceptable. But the success of that single paved the way for the Astral Weeks recording sessions, where at the close of that terrible year he somehow produced an album of pure idyll, one of those rare works of art in which the unadulterated joy of its final expression arises so organically from its own craftsmanship that the complexity of it is almost completely obscured. A whole lot of music is happening in those eight songs, but once the recorders, fiddles, vibraphones, and horns come together, and with it the sound of the blues, it all amounts to something so natural, a spring day with sunshine and falling rain. Van the Man... turning on his radio, entering the slipstream.

Now 2013 scarcely resembles 1968, but this spring has seen its share of gloom. Faux scandals have derailed what little momentum reform had in Washington. Syria is consuming itself. Boston was horrific. Tornadoes in Oklahoma. Last week environmental news hit the front pages as human industrial activity propelled carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere past 400 parts per million according to the monitoring station on top of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano. Our steady march toward catastrophic global climate instability continues. We are set to pass 450ppm by 2037.

But in the farther reaches of the Fourth Estate, less disheartening news awaited. Reader JW pointed me to an article by Lawrence Krauss and his colleagues, who used the media coverage of the 400ppm threshold as a chance to make their case for direct air carbon capture. To put their argument simply, if we aren't going to stop putting CO2 into the air, we better figure out ways of efficiently and economically pulling it out of the air, and in great quantities. Some companies like Kilimanjaro Energy and Global Thermostat have been working on this for a while and with some success.

Planting a tree has always been a tried and true way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Just a few weeks before we passed 400ppm, on Earth Day 2013, a non-profit called Archangel Ancient Tree Archive launched their project to plant clones of California redwood trees in select environments around the world. The concept is simple; trees that grow to gigantic size will suck a lot of carbon out of the air. Perhaps so (they might also just die), but the idea is a derivative of the larger and more controversial concept of assisted colonization or assisted migration. Climate change, so the theory goes, is occurring so fast that species cannot adapt or migrate fast enough. Many species will go extinct unless humans intervene not just to protect their habitats but to help them migrate as habitats shift with the changing climate. The dilemma is that when humans help plants and animals move around, the risk of invasive species rises. Humans haven't always been so wise when introducing new species into different habitats.

Nevertheless, some scientists are saying that the benefits may outweigh the risks and that new sets of questions about ecology and conservation have to be asked. It is the growing realization in the scientific and environmental community that humankind, sooner or later, for better or for worse, will wield substantial control over all environments. If J. R. R. Tolkien were around, he might say that the Edge of the Wild is disappearing.

I remember being shocked when I was a kid the first time I learned that Central Park was completely constructed. The park was a creation of Frederic Law Olmsted, who won a contest to design it in 1858. (Here is the man's portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1895, courtesy of Wikipedia.) I had never given the reality of the park much thought before—I must have assumed some early forward-thinking city planners just cordoned off a giant rectangle of land smack in the middle of Manhattan before it was settled by anyone. Early conservation. What luck.

Perhaps I was not the brightest of lads. It turns out, of course, that Central Park was born of a man's design. And other great works awaited Olmsted. He would later turn his expertise to the creation of the Emerald Necklace, the parks that link Boston and Brookline.

We are long past Olmsted's time and landscape architecture can no longer suffice as a way to describe our relationship with our surroundings. We are climate architects now, capable of great corruption, as we know, but capable, too, maybe of benevolent influence and more beyond. Andy Revkin at The New York Times dotearth blog recently discussed something akin to this point on a trip to the Adirondecks:
In my talk, I described the park as a positive example of what the biologist Erle C. Ellis calls “anthromes” — “ecological patterns created by sustained direct human interactions with ecosystems.”

Environmental management in such places can succeed when there’s sustained scientific monitoring and engagement of diverse constituencies, I said, creating “zones of compromise, adaptability, and complexity.”
I used to understand environmentalism through the vocabulary of conservation: protection, stewardship, untouched, natural. More and more I think of it in the language of intervention and human agency. It may well be that in the next few decades Nature ceases to exist as we have known it and becomes instead an artifact of humanity, not preserved but designed. It is a future of loss and sorrow, but not one devoid of hope or the beauty of green things growing.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"The Task Before Us"

For the past couple years the world of higher education has been grappling with the latest innovation that promises to transform the classroom: the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. If a movement could be undone by the phonetic quality of its own acronym, MOOCs would die a swift death. Just saying the word out loud brings to mind some kind of ill-conceived alien character from the Star Wars universe that was best left on the cutting room floor... like Mooc, Chewbacca's lovable half-wit wookie buddy.

Instead the word is starting to make regular appearances in the rotation of newspaper columns, as public intellectuals take turns predicting the overturning of the old university order. At the New York Times Tom Friedman has described the explosion of online courses as a revolution. Twice. He confirmed this assessment in a column in March, noting that a revolution must be underway because his buddy from Harvard, professor Michael Sandel, has so many fans of his online course in Korea that some of them gave him new sneakers. Proof positive for Friedman. Coursera, EdX, Udacity... these are the Oxfords and Cambridges of the future. Friedman related this vision of the future he gleaned from talking with Rafael Reif, president of MIT:
Many universities will offer online courses to students anywhere in the world, in which they will earn “credentials” — certificates that testify that they have done the work and passed all the exams. The process of developing credible credentials that verify that the student has adequately mastered the subject — and did not cheat — and can be counted on by employers is still being perfected by all the MOOCs. But once it is, this phenomenon will really scale.
"Scale" is an ugly word when it comes to education. Maybe not "MOOC" ugly, but ugly enough. Anytime the language of corporatism is applied to academia, misapprehension is certain to follow. Sure enough, just when you really need David Brooks to come through with a topically nonsensical column, he does just that. Let it be said that Brooks always strikes, and misses, when the iron is hot. Borrowing (and drastically oversimplifying) a distinction from 20th century conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, Brooks says that online education will force traditional universities away from teaching technical knowledge and towards emphasizing practical knowledge. Technical knowledge, says Brooks, "is like the recipes in a cookbook. It is formulas telling you roughly what is to be done." This is the stuff that the internet can teach. He likens practical knowledge to the skills described in Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In:
...the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.
Represented here is the problem, a deeply limited conception of higher education's purpose as the imparting of modern trade skills. College as corporate pre-season. Education in this paradigm is about information transmission and board-room etiquette. On this spectrum, traditional thinkers will end up on Wall St. while creative thinkers will end up in Silicon Valley, but everyone's doing big business.

It has taken some time, but resistance to the MOOC phenomenon is finally starting to take shape. Few people in education with experience and wisdom are decrying the internet as another important tool for pedagogues. Even skeptics understand the allure of democratizing education. But the manner in which Friedman and Brooks talk about education and the MOOC "revolution" is ridiculous, as readers have pointed out. Responses to Friedman noted the incredibly poor completion rates and the illusion of access for the poor when, in fact, mostly members of the upper-middle class take advantage of online courses (until they drop out). This is a particularly worthwhile criticism since, as Ross Douthat recently pointed out, maintaining class divisions is what elite colleges and universities do best despite their egalitarian aspirations. Meanwhile professors from different colleges and universities criticized Brooks for his narrow interpretation of higher education. Loren Byrne at Roger Williams University wrote:
Thus, an essential, if not primary, answer to Mr. Brooks’s question, “What is a university for?,” should be promoting knowledge and understanding for their own sake — beyond any relevance to a job — and educating thoughtful, caring citizens who have the skills and motivation for helping advance the well-being and flourishing of individuals and communities.
And, as sharp as he is concise, William Pritchard of Amherst College responded:
David Brooks suggests that universities are places where students acquire two kinds of knowledge, “technical” and “practical.” I see little difference between these kinds, but I see a large difference between them and “liberal knowledge.”

What used to be called a liberal education was one that aspired, through the study of literature, philosophy, history and science, to intellectual excellence. For many students and some teachers, such liberal knowledge appears not to count for much.
Yes... and for some pundits too. Pritchard, I would imagine, was one of the 70 faculty at Amherst that just voted against the school joining EdX. (Full disclosure: as an alumnus of Amherst, I am proud of them for doing so.) As The Chronicle of Higher Education observed, the vote was not close (70-36, with 5 abstentions). Other universities have followed suit.

I have no idea what will happen with MOOCs, but I doubt very much a revolution is in the works. Which is not to say a revolution might not be welcome, but if that is the case I suggest that instead of looking online, we reaffirm what John Dewey wrote in his 1939 essay "Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us":
For what is the faith of democracy in the role of consultation, of conference, of  persuasion, of discussion, in formation of public opinion, which in the long run is self-corrective, except faith in the capacity of the intelligence of the common man to respond with commonsense to the free play of facts and ideas which are secured by effective guarantees of free inquiry, free assembly and free communication?
Really, I don't know how you teach that in an online course.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Soon to be Playing...

More to come very soon on the politics of gun control, climate change, education, and Syria, but in the meantime if you are looking for musical accompaniment to the glorious days of this springtime, look no further than Patty Griffin's latest effort, American Kid, released tomorrow.

The subject of death is never too far from the Patty's music, but somehow it is invigorating and never fearful. I don't quite know how she manages that, but I suppose it has something to do with being soulful.