The Dynamo and the Social

Thought this was an interesting piece at Slate based on Paul David’s paper. There are some obvious parallels with personal or mobile computing and education and the difficulties we have with using it well.

“Electric light bulbs were available by 1879, and there were generating stations in New York and London by 1881. Yet a thoughtful observer in 1900 would have found little evidence that the “electricity revolution” was making business more efficient.

Steam-powered manufacturing had linked an entire production line to a single huge steam engine. As a result, factories were stacked on many floors around the central engine, with drive belts all running at the same speed. The flow of work around the factory was governed by the need to put certain machines close to the steam engine, rather than the logic of moving the product from one machine to the next. When electric dynamos were first introduced, the steam engine would be ripped out and the dynamo would replace it. Productivity barely improved.

Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will. The improvements weren’t just architectural but social: Once the technology allowed workers to make more decisions, they needed more training and different contracts to encourage them to take responsibility.

Last year’s OECD report was one of many to suggest that it might, just might, be a little more complicated than putting more computers in classrooms. I do wonder whether, at some level, the school as an organisation will have to undergo a similar redesign to make the most of our new dynamos.

Intelligence has nothing to do with speed

Love this, from Laurent Schwartz‘s ‘A Mathematician Grappling with his Century’ [via Jo Boaler]

“I was always deeply uncertain about my own intellectual capacity; I thought I was unintelligent.  And it is true that I was, and still am, rather slow.  I need time to seize things because I always need to understand them fully.  Even when I was the first to answer the teacher’s questions, I knew it was because they happened to be questions to which I already knew the answer.  But if a new question arose, usually students who weren’t as good as I was answered before me. Towards the end of the eleventh grade, I secretly thought of myself as stupid.  I worried about this for a long time.


I never talked about this to anyone, but I always felt convinced that my imposture would someday be revealed: the whole world and myself would finally see that what looked like intelligence was really just an illusion.  If this ever happened, apparently no one noticed it, and I’m still just as slow. (…)At the end of the eleventh grade, I took the measure of the situation, and came to the conclusion that rapidity doesn’t have a precise relation to intelligence.  What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other.  This is where intelligence lies.  The fact of being quick or slow isn’t really relevant.  Naturally, it’s helpful to be quick, like it is to have a good memory.  But it’s neither necessary nor sufficient for intellectual success.

Empirical tags experiment

Looks like Prof Chuck and his graduate student might be about to do an interesting experiment.

“a study where we compare information retrieval times and errors when people are using 2 kinds of info organizations: traditional hierarchical/taxonomic categories versus tags.

Between groups: We are thinking of having subjects come in and sort 100 photographs into categories or tag 100 pictures. Then, a few days or one week later, they would have to retrieve a subset of those pictures. Of course we would control the amount of time spent on the pictures.”

It got me thinking about maths proofs of the same problem. Presumably, you could do some statistical analysis of the problem? And that might let you know something about the relevant pro’s and con’s, of say how many tags to use?

(This all then made me realise how much maths I’d forgotten or never knew, but anyway, here goes some thinking out loud…)
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