Month: May 2011

Metaphor and cultural ‘truth’

In the week that The Guardian reports that the UK is investing in a programme for cyber-defence, The Atlantic carries an article which says that US intelligence services are attempting to analyse the use of metaphor in order to uncover underlying beliefs or orientations among different cultural groups.

IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) is an organisation mysterious enough to have an X-File of its own… but they seem to have endless resources.  Here’s a synopsis of how it’s supposed to work:

“The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture,” declared an open solicitation for researchers released last week. A spokesperson for IARPA declined to comment at the time.

Diagram illustrating proposed process for harvesting data about metaphor useIARPA wants some computer scientists with experience in processing language in big chunks to come up with methods of pulling out a culture’s relationship with particular concepts.”They really are trying to get at what people think using how they talk,” Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, told me. Bergen is one of a dozen or so lead researchers who are expected to vie for a research grant that could be worth tens of millions of dollars over five years, if the team scan show progress towards automatically tagging and processing metaphors across languages.

The original solicitation is available here.  Metaphor undoubtedly plays a role in shaping our discourses and worldviews, but there’s something about the proposed methodology that seems a problem for me.

The assumption that appears to be made is that metaphor can be reduced to non-metaphor; that one can express the same sentiments with or without the use of metaphor.  I would want to defend the (what I take to be Wittgensteinian) claim that linguistic meaning is both a.) relative to particular forms of life and b.) irreducible in the sense that there are no ‘common denominators’ for forms of life.  Different cultures may simply employ more metaphors – or use the same ones in different ways.

The idea here is no less than peering into the minds of potential terrorists: perhaps those who don’t yet realise they are potential terrorists!  Could this lead to ‘Minority Report‘ style pre-emptive arrests?  Perhaps not, but it does seem likely that this kind of technology might at least be used to ‘justify’ surveillance of particular groups on the spurious grounds that their minds have somehow been read by an algorithm.

I suppose that at this venture it remains to be seen just how useful the results could be –  there’s something exciting about the possibility of using these methods to analyse different forms of discourse – but I’m sceptical about the suggestion that this could be used to somehow uncover ‘the truth of a culture’ as Madrigall puts it.

Aside from these worries, there’s something quite interesting about the ambitions of the project, not least the challenge of finding some way to make this all computable at all

Via Why Are Spy Researchers Building a ‘Metaphor Program’? – Alexis Madrigal – Technology – The Atlantic.

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Transhumanist Technologies

Transhumanism is the idea that technology should be used to fundamentally alter the natural physical, cognitive and psychological limitations of human beings and human Being.  DVICE recently published a short list of technologies on the verge of being released that could contribute towards greater integration between the digital and natural worlds.

1. Social Media (extending individual consciousness and communication)
2. Super Wi-Fi (increasing connectivity)
3. Augmented Reality (merging digital and natural worlds)
4. Transparent Displays (improving privacy)
5. Nanocomputing (see below)
6. Retinal Displays (augmented vision)
7. Bionic Limbs (mobility & nervous system)

via 7 technologies that will turn us into the Borg by 2021 | DVICE.

The potential uses of nanocomputing are very interesting…

In the future we may never need to have surgery again, and biological functions can be monitored in vivid detail and sent to you or your doctor. This will be possible because tiny robots will be living inside of us.

Kidney stones can be obliterated, arteries can be cleaned and wrinkles can be smoothed from the inside thanks to our little robotic friends. Theoretically, these computers could also be used to connect us on an even more intimate scale by being able to broadcast private audio messages directly to our eardrums.

The educational implications of transhumanist technologies like these are profound.  Why bother assimilating information if it can be recalled instantly via an augmented reality display on your retina?  Why bother having physical institutions if you can take part in learning activities from anywhere?

More generally, the whole nature of human existence might be seen to be changing, and there seems an inevitability to the whole thing.  I’m not trying to suggest that this is necessarily bad: more that human beings will inevitably strive to discover new things through the exercise of their reason.  But there’s definitely ethical work to be done here so it would be good to know more.

OER: Shared or Exchanged?

There’s an information page on OER at PBworks. I wasn’t sure about this, though:

It could be argued that sharing implies an open model (sharing with all) and exchange a community based model which relies on mutual benefits within a specific community.

The author (Lou McGill) stops short of saying that this is her own position, but this seems a bit woolly to me.  There’s nothing about the idea of sharing that means one has to share freely; you and I might decide to share what we have without necessarily including someone else.  And the distinction doesn’t seem right in the first place: all sharing (which presumably takes place within communities) is a form of exchange as long as we assume that sharing somehow deprives the giver of something.  I’m not sure this is an assumption we need make.

Perhaps the idea is that one model is prudential while the other is based on a spirit of generosity.  I’d prefer to use the analogy of communication to demonstrate the idea of sharing.  We all partake it language, learning it from each other and teaching it in return.  But it wouldn’t be right to think of it as a kind of exchange; it’s more like the framework that allows something like exchange to be possible.

For education to be truly open, perhaps we have to disabuse ourselves of the idea that anyone really owns these things in the first place.

In any case, I really liked the way that this chart uses the production and consumption of milk to explain how OER materials are re-used, recycled and re-mixed.  Be careful who you call a cow, though.  Via Good Intentions: improving the evidence base in support of sharing learning materials (table edited).

OER/Milk Flowchart

Role OERs Milk
Primary producer/Creator Teacher/Author Cow
Primary consumer Enrolled student Calf
Secondary producer/repurposer Learning technologist/Course leader Farmer
Primary supplier Learning technologist Milk bottlers
Secondary supplier Deposited in institutional repository or open deposit Shop
Secondary consumer Teacher within or outside institution Human family
Sharers and re-users Enroled students of that teacher Human family and pets
Exchange and repurposing Other teachers within or outside home institution Cocoa powder, sugar and milk make chocolate
repository Deposited in different open repositories Chocolate in shop fridge
re-users/sharers Global learners Chocolate eaten
further re-purposing Global teachers Chocolate added to cake mixture

Dispelling myths about OER

The JISC open educational resources programme is the largest scale OER initiative in the UK. It’s so big – and involves so many organisations – that the overall aims of the project may not be entirely clear.  Lorna Campbell’s post at CETIS attempts to address any misunderstandings about the project, but basically amounts a note of caution about what can be achieved at this stage.

It could be argued that sharing implies an open model (sharing with all) and exchange a community based model which relies on mutual benefits within a specific community.

Debating OER

I’m taking place in a public debate this July about the value and future of Open Educational Resources (OER).  I’ll be taking the ‘anti’ side against Martin Weller, even though we’re both effectively advocates of OER in our day jobs.

So I was quite interested to find that Martin has taken part in similar debates before when doing a bit of searching around today.  Helpfully, there’s a summary of his arguments available.

Even more helpfully, Patrick McAndrew has offered a series of counterarguments on his blog.  Here’s my summary of the two positions.

FOR AGAINST
Sustainability: By making more efficient use of resources, OER increases the use and re-use of educational materials and makes them more affordable. Unsustainability: The production and sharing of OER can be complex and time-demanding, and a convincing account of how the costs will be met is yet to be forthcoming.
Re-use: OER are able to be re-used by future learners and teachers, meaning that there is no need to duplicate resources or preparation time. We need new models for producing, distributing and re-using OER Re-use: There are considerable pedagogical, technical, cultural and linguistic barriers to the re-use of OER.
Innovation: Open approaches encourage involvement from all involved in the process, allowing content to be shared in ways that are appropriate for different audiences. Institutions need to think about how to integrate OER into their core teaching and learning. Innovation: “While education ponders different ways of doing this, comes up with repositories that take years to get built and develops complex usage and metadata processes, other people just get on with it.”
Evaluation: More needs to be done to substantiate the impact of OER on learning and teaching. Evaluation: Apart from anecdotal evidence, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that OER is pedagogically effective at all.
Cultural Change: OER carries a message of openness, diversity and mutual interest. Cultural Change: Dave Cormier – “If the MIT edtech curriculum started being the default curriculum taught in even 10% of chinese universities this gives whatever professor is teaching that course ENORMOUS control over the direction of the industry”
Quality: “OER gives a route to quality and depth by extending the base of content beyond those in the same institution – providing a superset of content beyond that previously available.” Quality: OER resources may not be of adequate quality, range, or pedagogical effectiveness, and the traditional processes of peer review cannot applied to OER creation/synthesis.
Teaching & Learning: Creating, using and even re-using OER can be an effective and rewarding way to learn. Teaching & Learning: Preparatory research and lesson planning are important parts of effective teaching. If OER materials are increasingly used ‘off the peg’ then there are negative implications for the quality and innovation in teaching.

This Is Your Brain on Art

Why does Ramachandran continuously feel the need to reassure us that we can gain knowledge about art from neuroscience without losing anything? It seems to presuppose, at the very least, that the other option is a possibility, that looking for (and finding) elemental forces in the brain that govern aesthetic impulses could, in fact, transform our actual experience of art.

via The Smart Set: This Is Your Brain on Art – March 16, 2011.

Ramachandran’s arguments seem to be fairly easy to overcome: aesthetic experience is at least partly a matter of culture and can’t be explained in purely biological terms.  What’s interesting here is the way that some common space is being found between neuroscience and the humanities.  It appears as if a compatibilist, non-reductive position is being proposed, but it’s not clear from this review how any tensions might be dealt with (though the suggestion is ‘not that well’).

If anything, this review suggests that there’s quite a gulf between approaches to questions about the mind in neuroscience and the humanities.  Ramachandran certainly seems to think it possible that we could discover fundamental laws about aesthetic experience without somehow devaluing art.  It’s hard to believe that knowledge of fundamental laws about the experience of beauty wouldn’t in some way affect what we find beautiful.  After all, self-knowledge is not value-neutral.

There has been a vast accretion of knowledge about the natural world and about ourselves over the last two centuries… the understanding we have gained has not been neutral. It has not left the world as it was. The understanding has transformed our relationship to the world, to one another, to ourselves.

Taking the pixels: upscaling 8-bit graphics

I am unreasonably excited by the prospect of classic games being given upscaled and given a new lease of life.

Comparison of native and upscaled rendering of a space invader

Depixelizing pixel art

Check out the research paper for a breakdown of the complicated algorithms that make it happen.  I got lost a few pages in, but I’m wondering whether the same approach could be used to refine video from security cameras and surveillance footage…