Friday, February 26, 2010

40,000 Talents

I normally wouldn't blog my response to this post, but the circumstances are such that the comment might not survive moderation, and I would like there to be a record (I draw a lesson from all this at the end).

Andrew Pass writes:

For the last several days, I’ve been wondering about Arrian’s assertion in his life of Alexander the Great, that at the capture of Persepolis, Alexander and his army captured 40,000 talents of silver.

Now, a talent is a measure from ancient times, about 58 pounds of silver or gold. So I’ve been wondering, how much is that?

I’ve asked a few colleagues, and it turns out that people are curious. Not as curious as I am perhaps, but curious. But it’s been gnawing at my insides for a few days, and I didn’t know how to solve the problem.

Then I realized, I DID know. I used Wolfram|Alpha. It turns out that 40,000 talents of silver is about 2,320,000 pounds. And that weight of silver is 96.4 cubic meters – not quite a cubic kilometer of silver, but close.

And its current street value? Around 2.6 billion dollars.

So maybe Arrian is exaggerating. It’s possible. It’s even likely. Maybe it’s not pure silver.

But say that he isn’t?

My response:


Um… don’t teach math.

You shouldn’t need to look up 40,000 times 58. Because 4 x 6 is 24, 4 x 2 = 8, you know the amount is 2,400,000 – 80,000 = 2,320,000. No calculator needed.

You might not know that your silver is a bit more than 10 grams per cubic centimeter (CC) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silver , so you may have to look up the fact that just under a million kilograms of silver (1 kg = 2.5 pounds, roughly) is just under 100 cubic meters.

But there is no excuse for saying that 96.4 cubic meters is close to a cubic kilometer. First of all, a kilometer is 1,000 meters, not 100. Second, a cubic kilometer = 1000 meters x 1000 meters x 1000 meters = 1,000,000,000 cubic meters. One billion cubic meters, not 100 cubic meters.

The value of silver is generally around 15 dollars per ounce (today it’s about $16.50 – http://silverprice.org/silver-price-history.html ) and there are 12 avoirdupois troy ounces to a pound, so a pound of silver is worth $180. Say, about $200 today.

200 x 2 million = 400 million, so there’s no way $200 x 2,320,000 is $2.6 billion. More like $464 million. Silver would have to be priced at $60 per ounce to be worth that much. Silver peaked at about $50 an ounce once in 1980, but has otherwise never been close.

To put things in perspective, if I had a 1 gram dime to sell, your calculations would result in it being 1 million grams, which you would buy from me for $12,000.

(Just as an aside - this was not part of my response - I have often argued that 'knowing' is an act of recognizing and not remembering. This is a case in point. A person that merely remembers must execute a series of calculations, in which there is a lot of room for error. But a person who knows can recognize errors that are that large.

Such a person looks at 40K x 60 and just sees 2.4 million. Such a person looks at 96 cubic meters and just sees that it is not remotely a cubic kilometer (it is actually roughly 10 meters long by 3 meters wide by 3 meters high - roughly the size of a semi-trailer). When you learn math - or anything! - by rote, you do not learn to 'just see' - you do not develop 'knowledge as recognition'.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The True North Boors and Cheats



I have been disappointed with the way we've approached the Olympics as a nation this time.

The 'Own the Podium' campaign is but one case in point. The convoluted torch relay with carefully selected torch-bearers and on-point messaging, the Conservative party logo Olympic wear, the wailing 'Believe' anthem and appalling 'belief and magic' speech at the opening ceremonies all served to turn the Olympics into some sort of marketing campaign for a 'new national identity' (something CTV has pushed very hard) based on faith and family, flag-waving, anthem-singing and jingoism.

What's worse is the way the campaign - which transformed what would have been an otherwise brilliant performance by our athletes into a failure - was based on management by 'targets', gerrymandering the facilities (which resulted in an athlete's death), cutting corners on facilities and funding (which resulted in equipment malfunctioning) and in many ways being poor and boorish hosts.

If this is our 'new identity' I want no part of it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Pew Report Interview

I was interviewed some time ago (here's how I responded, in full) for a Pew report on the future of the internet, which has now come out. I am one of the people featured in the report. The report is being picked up, and I am quoted by Fast Company and ReadWriteWeb.

Here's how I am featured:

"Here are some of the respondents: Clay Shirky, Esther Dyson, Doc Searls, Nicholas Carr, Susan Crawford, David Clark, Jamais Cascio, Peter Norvig, Craig Newmark, Hal Varian, Howard Rheingold, Andreas Kluth, Jeff Jarvis, Andy Oram, David Sifry, Marc Rotenberg, John Pike, Andrew Nachison, Anthony Townsend, Ethan Zuckerman, Stephen Downes, Rebecca MacKinnon, Jim Warren, Sandra Brahman, Seth Finkelstein, Jerry Berman, and Stewart Baker."

Here are my quotes:

“It's a mistake to treat intelligence as an undifferentiated whole. No doubt we will become worse at doing some things ('more stupid') requiring rote memory of information that is now available though Google. But with this capacity freed, we may (and probably will) be capable of more advanced integration and evaluation of information ('more intelligent').” – Stephen Downes, National Research Council, Canada

“The internet generation is being exposed to text and media in unprecedented quantities, and more, is not just consuming this media, but producing it as well. Practice tells. The improvement will be especially dramatic and apparent because new readers will be compared primarily with the previous generation, the television generation, which for the most part did not read at all. Unfortunately, this improvement will be apparent only to the newly literate generation; the older generation will continue to complain that young people cannot read, despite evidence to the contrary. Moreover, it will be apparent by 2020 that a multi‐literate society has developed, one that can communicate with ease through a variety of media, including art and photography, animation, video, games and simulations, as well as text and code.” – Stephen Downes, National Research Council, Canada

“I choose to see personal web‐server technology (Opera Unite, Firefox POW, etc) as a breakthrough technology, so people can put their own data into the cloud without paying Flickr or whomever. It is this sort of 'personal technology' I believe will characterize (what we now call) web 3.0 (and not 3D, or semantic web, etc.). So my dilemma is that, while these technologies are pretty evident today, it is not clear that the people I suspect Pew counts as “the savviest innovators” are looking at them. So I pick “out of the blue” even though (I think) I can see them coming from a mile away.” – Stephen Downes, National Research Council, Canada

“By 2020 online anonymity will be largely a thing of the past, but not because people have been forced into disclosing their identity by pervasive authentication technologies. Indeed, there will be a strong and substantial reaction against being required to prove who we are in order to read a book, watch a movie or buy a cup of
coffee (much less should criticisms at the government). Opportunities, technologies, and legal license will continue to protect anonymity. However, many people will in most circumstances elect to assert their identity in order to protect their own interests. Online banking, personal websites and social networks, etc., require that a person protect his or her identity. Where authentication is voluntary, and clearly in the client's interests, and non‐pervasive, people will gladly accept the constraints. Just as they accept the constraint of using keys to lock the car and house door but have the prerogative to, if they wish, leave either unlocked.” ‐‐ Stephen Downes, National Research Council, Canada

I don't have a full list of citations; this is what is showing up in my Google Alert:

Fast Company
PBS NewsHour
ReadWrite Web

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On Peer Review

Responding to Terry Anderson.

Interesting commentary (I would webcam comment but we have the TV on playing the Olympics in the background).

I want to focus on this: "these annotations and references are all from a look in the rear view mirror and very rarely result in improvements to the work."

There are two stances you can take with respect to commentary (not necessary mutually exclusive, but which creates the divide between peer review and my own style of formal aggregation postings):

- you can intend the comment to create an improvement in the current work, or

- you can intend the comment to create an improvement in a future work

This is a difference in attitude toward knowledge and writing, and it has wider ramifications in scholarship as a whole.

First, the attitude. When you are focused on improving a single work, you are approaching knowledge and scholarship as something that can be pinned down and definitively recorded.

Now by that I don't mean you can achieve perfection, or any such thing. But this approach can be contrasted with one that takes knowledge and scholarship to be more like a stream of (social) consciousness, with each article an artifact of the moment.

I don't think of knowledge and scholarship as static; I think of them as fluid, and therefore to me it seems counterintuitive to attempt to capture a paper and fix it as a definitive statement of fact (or knowledge, or findings, or however you want to represent it).

Second, the wider ramifications. "The author also gains the lesson learned and experience (hard though it may feel) of how NOT to write a scholarly article." So there is an educational value to reviewer comments, and this forms a significant part of the value of the review.

But it is very inefficient to address these comments to a single recipient. One of the comments I make in one of my posts about an article can reach thousands of people. If I offer suggestions about how to write a scholarly article (as I sometimes do) then this lesson is learned my many more people at a time.

But there is another, even more important, factor at work here. These reviewers do not merely educate people in what counts as scholarly work, they *define* what counts as scholarly. This definition is part and parcel of the science or discipline in question. And yet, if the reviews are never seen publicly, this most important part of a science - defining what counts as knowledge - takes place in secret.

And because it can be, it is abused. Rivals reject papers for no good reasons. Reviewers suggest that certain citations are needed - namely, of their own work (or if they are more clever, work that in turn cites their own work). Standards of evidence may be looser if it supports a certain perspective (usually, the need for more research) and an entire discipline (like, say, education) may see its standards slip.

The difference between me, and an academic reviewer, is that I am held accountable for every harsh word, every appeal to an academic standard, every suggestion of a missing reference, every appeal to theoretical support. I can't secretly lobby for a certain theory, undercut an opponent or competitor, bias the evidential basis for a proposition, or any of the many other things that can and do happen in peer review.

For me, these three major factors are a conclusive argument against the practice of peer review. The post-publication review represents a more appropriate epistemological stance, is pedagogically more efficient, and is academically more honest.

Learning and Assessment



(Just practising my Kathy Sierra presentation style. Fonts thanks to advice from Rapid E-Learning Blog.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

TED is Political

Commenting here:

 I have never been jealous of the rich (though there was a pretty long period of time in my youth when I was angry about not being able to afford food and housing).

I'm not about to start being jealous. Being rich isn't some kind of natural ability; it's a symptom of a psychosis. Rich people - especially those who continue to amass more and more wealth - are anti-social, and often criminals.

What I object to is the representation of TED attendees as an elite. They are no elite. TED attendees are like "Nina Khosla, design student at Stanford. Does that name sound familiar? It should, her dad is famous VC Vinod Khosla." Having a famous (rich) dad makes her elite? Not in my book.

Same with the presenters. It isn't like you lined up everyone and picked the top 100 to present. Quite the contrary - the top 100 people in the world would probably be found nowhere near TED. They are very likely people who are trying to fight world hunger (not world obesity). They would be actual nuclear physicists (not Bill Gates talking off the cuff on the subject).

TED is political. Let me repeat that. TED is political. It is not an elite - it is money trying to dictate what counts as intelligent, what counts as important. Anything is fair game, so long as it doesn't jeopardize their (the audience's) comfort level and position in society.

In a way, the $6K admission price is pure genius. It completely distracts attention from the real price of admission: conformity with an outrageous and pernicious political platform. *That* is what they screen for when they screen for admission.

And from here:


The thing is, they – TED Exec and their corporate sponsors – decide which ideas are “worth spreading”, and then they lend these ideas a false legitimacy by creating this ‘elite’ status around them – where ‘elite’ means, of course, ‘chosen by the TED Exec and their corporate sponsors’.

Would these ideas stand on their own merit, without all the hype? Maybe. But the ideas – and the speakers advocating them – get a big boost. And we get, at a minimum, the ‘big man’ theory of science (coupled with the ‘big CEO’ picture of commerce) and the ideas and ethos that goes with that.

TED exists as a concept by denying, at its foundation, that ideas are created and nurtured and grown by a community. It imposes on top of that (and often against that) a mythology that ideas are created by ‘great thinkers’ (and therefore to be owned, and commodified, and monetized).

(For example) who are the champions of open learning? According to TED, a Harvard professor and an entrepreneur.

This is classic TED. Take an idea that has gained currency. Self-appoint some (non-genuine) champion of that idea. Change the idea subtly to align with the political preferences of the ‘elite’ audience. Then market the new version of the idea (and its new champions) as the original idea that has been and is widely accepted.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Entrepreneur Quiz

The Entrepreneur Quiz, more accurately composed (original questions in parentheses). Makes you reconsider just what is being measured:

  1. I think I'm more capable than everyone else (I don't like being told what to do by people who are less capable than I am).
  2. I'm never satisfied with what I have (I like challenging myself).
  3. I see enemies everywhere (I like to win).
  4. I can't work with other people (I like being my own boss).
  5. I am always critical of things (I always look for new and better ways to do things).
  6. I disregard 'facts'. (I like to question conventional wisdom).
  7. I like to tell people what to do (I like to get people together in order to get things done).
  8. I take credit for other people's ideas (People get excited by my ideas).
  9. Nothing is ever enough for me (I am rarely satisfied or complacent).
  10. I can't relax (I can't sit still).
  11. I frequently get myself into difficult situations (I can usually work my way out of a difficult situation).
  12. I fail a lot and blame other people (I would rather fail at my own thing than succeed at someone else's).
  13. I butt into other people's business (Whenever there is a problem, I am ready to jump right in).
  14. I have forgotten what I learned when I was young (I think old dogs can learn — even invent — new tricks).
  15. My family won't work with me (Members of my family run their own businesses).
  16. My friends won't work with me (I have friends who run their own businesses).
  17. I was poor as a child (I worked after school and during vacations when I was growing up).
  18. I enjoy cheating people (I get an adrenaline rush from selling things).
  19. I can't control my emotions (I am exhilarated by achieving results).
  20. I turn other people's successes against them (I could have written a better test than Isenberg (and here is what I would change ....)).

    Capitalists and Parking Spots

    Kevin Carey writes,
    Driving around my neighborhood today, I saw dozens of parking spots blocked off with orange cones, garbage cans, broomsticks, etc. This is ridiculous. I spent over an hour this morning digging my car out from under a week’s worth of snow. It was hard work, but not some feat of public generosity–I needed my car! Upon completion of the digging, Maureen and I spent the entire afternoon shopping, having lunch, buying groceries, and picking up stuff from the office. Rendering that spot inoperable for five hours would have wasted a scarce public resource. Hoarding parking spots is the equivalent of saving seats in a restaurant while someone else buys the food — a small act of malice against civil society. People reveal important things about themselves at times like this.
    My response:


    Welcome to the fight between capitalists and socialists.

    You are on the side of the socialists. You are reacting against the capitalists, who feel that by virtue of performing some labour on a public asset, they have now converted that public asset to private ownership.

    Witness how this labour breeds sanctimony on their part. “The problem is those who don’t bother digging out a spot for themselves and then take the one in front of my house overnight.” As though they are somehow stealing from them! But the spot is a PUBLIC spot – it was never owned, and isn’t converted into private property by means of shovelling.

    The fight between capitalists – who are the ones actually doing the stealing – and socialists – who are the ones actually trying to protect the original owner – continues in all domains. In the information age, notice, they believe that by adding value (digitizing) to public knowledge and information, they are claiming to now own it.

    Saturday, February 06, 2010

    Moral Standards

    Responding to Martin Downes, who asks, "how do you define immorality at all? What is the standard?"

    The presumption is in the belief that morality can be defined by something as simple as a standard, when it is in fact complex and difficult to describe succinctly.

    For example, principles such as Kant's "treat people as ends in themselves" and his categorical imperative, or Mill's principle of utility, each play a role in morality and interact in complex and not always predictable ways.

    None of them stands alone as a principle, and a system of morality based on only one such principle would, sooner or later, result in a perversion of morality in the name of the principle. Thus it is with all standard-base or principle-based moralities.

    Morality is a complex weaving or tapestry formed from a variety of principles founded on various perspectives and understanding of people, their environment, and their beliefs.

    The actual description of a morality may or may not involve a reference to God, but given an environment with numerous conflicting religions, not to mention the irreligious, a description of a morality founded on a particular theism is impractical and incomplete.

    The nature of morality requires us to go beyond religion, requires us to see ourselves not as a privileged seat of moral understanding but as one player in a multifaceted chorus that, together, describes an interwoven, comprehensive, and in some senses infeffable morality.

    The idea that religion provides some sort of dispensation from participation in this broader dialogue is what leads people to a narrower, self-justified sense of morality, one in which their personal understanding, to them, outweighs consideration of the broader ethos.

    If we take seriously the precept that people matter in themselves, that their happiness is a matter of moral import, that spirituality and devotion are things that can happen in people other than ourselves, then it is necessary to think of morality as broader than religion, and therefore, not to be founded in religion.