Wednesday, September 28, 2011

... But Student Research is HARD

Yesterday I posted some of my thinking as to why I believe student research is the best way to teach science. But not everyone does it. Why not? Because the students, especially at first, don't like it.

I understand why that may be. Yesterday's lab I tried to implement some of the structure of research in the teaching lab. I proposed a problem, gave some tools, allowed time and space in the experiment for mistakes, and then set the students free on some relatively simple tasks in the lab. But the whole point was they didn't know what would happen, and they had to manage their time and adjust on the fly to make it happen.

Part of the problem was I didn't know how the lab was going to go myself. Of course, it went slightly wrong. I called the class and modified the lab on the fly. The thing is, the students were flustered after that, and even after modifying the lab the students carried over a bit of their flusteredness, which made them much more tentative in their experiments. They pulled back in the face of the unknown even though the lab was designed to allow mistakes. It's possible that lectures in science courses reinforce this idea of perfectionism in "getting the right answer" that just isn't always there in lab. Things go wrong and you have to modify, and keep one eye on the clock.

So I think I learned something myself and the students (hopefully) learned something too. I will try again today with a few modifications. And we'll see if we can teach flexibility in thinking and the ability to make the right kind of mistakes in lab today. Considering that such teaching is my goal, I think we at least approached that goal yesterday, and maybe we can approach it today with less flusteredness.

The bottom line is it is definitely not easy, and I can understand why everything can't be done this way, but I think it's worth it. Ironically, it takes more planning to figure out how to set the students free than it does to teach a cookbook-style lab recipe to them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Student Research is a Christian Activity

Today in Opening Convocation our University President referred to a recent lecture N.T. Wright gave at St. Andrew's, which refers to the Christian task in learning as the "Upside-Down University". My church just finished a series on Matthew 5-7 titled "The Upside-Down Kingdom." I think they're copying from the same notes somehow. (Which is a good thing!) It occured to me as I watched my friend, the molecular biologist, give the invocation at the beginning of the ceremony, that entrusting the progress of research to undergraduates is a risky proposition, and somewhat upside-down. Maybe that's what many scientists at a level fear about it -- and possibly justifiably so! Undergrads take a lot more time to teach and to oversee and to interpret and even to present results than grad students or post-docs. Progress is, as a result, slow by the standards of other labs. You can't work on the hottest problem because you'll almost definitely be scooped. But you do it this way because it's best for them. They are the reason you research in this way. And that's the kind of upside-down thinking that is summed up and put forward by Jesus himself, in his teaching on the one mount early on, and in his actions on the other mount on Good Friday. This is a good reminder as I start the busiest time of the year for me teaching-wise. I don't have students complete research for the short-term benefits. I do it for the long-term ones.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Does the Unbalanced Schedule Make Baseball More Boring?

As of today there are only 1, maybe 2 of the 6 divisions in baseball in which the winner of the division is not already settled, with almost a month of baseball to play. I honestly do not remember a close race in September -- ever. Now, part of that is the fact that I'm a Mariners fan and they haven't been exactly competitive the past decade or so, since I've become a fan (remember, kids, correlation is not causation!).

The thing is, I remember in about the year 2000 that a new "unbalanced" schedule was introduced, in which teams would play the other teams in their divison more often. This was specifically introduced to make September more exciting. It's clearly had the opposite effect. At least I don't have to worry about important baseball games interfering with preparation for the upcoming school year.

That's why I'm skeptical about schemes like adding a second wild-card team or realigning the divisions. I remember the claims made with past innovations (Exhibit A: "This time it counts!"), and I cannot remember one that really worked. Of course, I wasn't around when they introduced the DH, but I always must support that innovation because it gave us St. Edgar of the ALDS Double. I'm not diametrically opposed to so-called innovation, just skeptical.

On the other hand, advanced statistical metrics for understanding baseball? More please.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop (Part 4)

(part 4 of 4)

I kept asking as I read, over and over: What is the point really? How should this change actions rather than self-regard? And what is the ethical downside to your philosophy? Typically a scientist should attack his own philosophy to make sure it still stands. This is one of the reasons I read this book myself, to attack my own philosophy with the best absolute materialism has to offer. But at the end of your book I’m hard-pressed to recall a specific ethical prescription. What should we DO, then? Rather, I remember spirited defenses again particular philosophical antagonists and the general concept of qualia. I’m left wondering if your definition of qualia fits with its proponents. Because they don’t seem to match, and that seems to be the whole point of qualia, that they don't match from person to person!

For all your concern with causality, you make a statement on the next-to-last page that upends your argument in another way: these symbols have helped us survive throughout the ages, adding an evolutionary wrinkle to your argument. But why should survival necessarily correlate with truth? I’m not sure, maybe it should deep down, but this concern is never mentioned in the whole book. Does your colleague Dennett’s “universal acid” eat away at your philosophy as well?

While we're at it: why do we live in a universe stable enough to exist for billions of years and give us strange loops? And, most importantly to me, to give ME this particular strange loop that is my only true possession? Isn’t that the strangest thing of all? I'm not satisified with your explanation that this is just what brains do as they grow. Why am I a brain, then, and not a powerful self-regarding computer? To you, it's a meaningless question, but to me, it has the most meaning of all. This viewpoint is ultimately all I have. At root is the question of why I'm not a "Boltzmann Brain" because that would be a simpler solution than the existence of the universe ... but, you know, I really do think the universe exists, it's not just me.

This comes down to a vision of what it means to be human. You say your vision is, well, true, but that it’s also deeper and subtler than the others because it teaches us to hold lightly, life is tenuous at its core, and that we are wildly different from what we seem to be. I worry that we’ve gone so far down the road to abstraction that we’ve succeeded in arguing ourselves out of existence: that nothing matters but it doesn’t matter that nothing matters. I’d like to see your viewpoint in conversation with others, especially those steeped in the strange story of the personality of the Creator seeking us out. Ultimately (and ironically, given your argument about the spread-out nature of consciousness) this is a one-man show and has the weaknesses that come with that. I’d like to see a back-and-forth with Marilynne Robinson on the importance of mind, or with Jeremy Begbie on the connections between the spiritual and physical in the music of Bach. I’d like to see a true dialogue, not one you make with yourself.

So thank you, truly, thank you for a provocative book. I could go so far as to say it was a storm against my own beliefs, washing away some accretions that didn’t really need to be there in the first place. But what stands when the storm has passed is the shape of the cross, and the conviction that we live in a universe of personality, which is therefore a universe of love. You come to a very different conclusion – I am richer for it despite my disagreements. I hope these other things may continue to pass the riches around.

Yours, Ben

Friday, September 2, 2011

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop (Part 3)

(part 3 of 4)

The biggest problem with this book is the same problem that always happens with Gnostics. No matter how hard Gnostics try, they always, always smuggle in passivity and elitism. Elitism comes before a fall. Once you quantify soul units (Huneckers, right?) you will start down the road in which some people are large-souled and some people are small-souled. The lines get redrawn: vegetarianism is a symptom of this condition, as is, contrastingly, dismissive attitudes toward the fetus. Once you try to enlarge your own consciousness you look around and see that other consciousnesses appear smaller. The section of the book where you hypothesize about switching your character traits with a football-watching, woman-ogling "red state" person is a big red flag. You can't get around the fact that you consider football watchers and right-wingers to have smaller souls than you. Which itself causes you to have a smaller soul: a paradox of the highest order!

Your line for "soulishness" is drawn at the ability to have friends. But you stop too soon here. In your introduction you mention that one of your sisters cannot understand and cannot speak. Throughout the book I was looking for you to talk about this, but she is not mentioned in the text more than fleetingly. I would really like to know how you look at her – I know you must love her – how does she fit into this book? She stands as a silent reminder of what may not be included in your philosophy. (This is one of the reasons I cannot write this as a dialogue. I simply don’t know how DH would respond.) A theological book called Suffering Presence by Stanley Hauerwas comes to mind as a way that these kind of things "fit" better into a philosophy than to yours. I know, there's enough to engage in with the study of the mind that you can't read everything -- but I would suggest that thinkers like Hauerwas offer a different way that stands in stark contrast to your philosophy at this very point.

And then, well, here comes the part where I get personally put off. At the end of the book you get to the point that really gets under my skin, in the section titled “Dig That Profundity!”. You describe how disappointed you are in a vocal group that sang one of your favorite Bach pieces at double tempo with vocal trills and – heaven forbid – SMILING at the audience. Your writing seems to recognize with its many qualifiers that you are elevating personal opinion and taste to universal standards for musical performance here, yet you go ahead and do it, which reinforces the apparent elitism of your position.

Let my strange loop comment to your strange loop on this one, because my strange loop has seen the world from the other side of the stage, and there's several things you aren't seeing. I work with a small ensemble to sing pieces from all musical eras, before and after Bach. For a three-minute piece you must dedicate several hours of rehearsal time. And you have to follow your leader – the conductor wants to go fast, you go fast, and the conductor will ALWAYS tell you to smile more, because most people actually like that, and the musician is always tempted to focus on the making music than the appearance of the body (although I would prefer to focus on the music myself, guilty as charged).

So because the ensemble you saw changed the piece you love away from the version that you had imprinted on your neurons as a teenager (by a biochemical chance, according to your philosophy, because I read a study that the music you hear when you're 14 will be the best music to you for the rest of your life), you jump to conclusions about the interiority of that ensemble, that they are flashy self-obsessed small-souled singers who just want to sell CD’s. Maybe if this was a Bach piece specifically about death or civil war, something inherently slow and melancholy, this critique might make sense, but it is just called “The Great” – it has no referent that I know of, and musically no reason not to change it away from your personal favorite parameters. I don’t know about those musicians, but I do know you can’t judge their motivations from the fact that you musically disagree with them. I’ve had a lot of judging comments just like this come back after we sing (in both directions: smile more! smile less!), which may be appropriate, but the problem is the certainty of the commenter. Ultimately you don’t know and you shouldn’t judge the self-centeredness of other people from a single piece at a concert. It seems pretty small-souled to do so!

It comes down to the act of judging others to be better than yourself, of humility (which you mention, yay) and, even if they're self-centered divas, of forgiveness (which you don't, boo). You know, I admit I'm often a self-centered divo, which probably shows from my own reaction to this. But I volunteer hours of my time every week to make music for God with my friends, and there are lots better ways to get attention and applause, quite frankly. I make the music because once in a while it's a thing of unique beauty that says something on a level that other things can't. Sometimes I even smile.

So I see a lot of similarity between your philosophy and my Christian belief: the Golden Rule, the lion lying down with the lamb, the importance of empathy and internalizing the “other” … but what I don’t see in this 400-page book is anything about forgiveness, which I think is absolutely necessary to life. By negating free will, have you also negated forgiveness? Is this philosophy therefore doomed to be limited to the comfortable or those who want to be comfortable – just like Gnosticism?

(Part 3 of 4 -- for those offended by my offense in the above paragraph please note all the positive comments in parts 1 and 2!)

Brain Proteins Before Brains

One of the grand unifying themes of recent findings has been that very old organisms contain molecules that are later used for complex purposes. It's the main theme of research into the origins of multicellularity, the immune system, rhodopsin, and now brain chemistry. I'm thinking more and more that this looks like J.R.R. Tolkien's approach to the origins of language, but much more needs to be in before we can say something. Yet my prediction is we will find a lot more molecules like this, the more we look. Let's see if that pans out. I'm writing more on the Tolkien connection to be published some day.