Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for March 13th, 2021

A Mathematician’s Lament

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A 2002 essay by Paul Lockhart (PDF — the essay was later expanded into a short book):

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made—all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.

Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school.

As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this language—to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules: “Music class is where we take out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them or transpose them into a different key. We have to make sure to get the clefs and key signatures right, and our teacher is very picky about making sure we fill in our quarter-notes completely. One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit because I had the stems pointing the wrong way.”

In their wisdom, educators soon realize that even very young children can be given this kind of musical instruction. In fact it is considered quite shameful if one’s third-grader hasn’t completely memorized his circle of fifths. “I’ll have to get my son a music tutor. He simply won’t apply himself to his music homework. He says it’s boring. He just sits there staring out the window, humming tunes to himself and making up silly songs.”

In the higher grades the pressure is really on. After all, the students must be prepared for the standardized tests and college admissions exams. Students must take courses in Scales and Modes, Meter, Harmony, and Counterpoint. “It’s a lot for them to learn, but later in college when they finally get to hear all this stuff, they’ll really appreciate all the work they did in high school.” Of course, not many students actually go on to concentrate in music, so only a few will ever get to hear the sounds that the black dots represent. Nevertheless, it is important that every member of society be able to recognize a modulation or a fugal passage, regardless of the fact that they will never hear one. “To tell you the truth, most students just aren’t very good at music. They are bored in class, their skills are terrible, and their homework is barely legible. Most of them couldn’t care less about how important music is in today’s world; they just want to take the minimum number of music courses and be done with it. I guess there are just music people and non-music people. I had this one kid, though, man was she sensational! Her sheets were impeccable—every note in the right place, perfect calligraphy, sharps, flats, just beautiful. She’s going to make one hell of a musician someday.”

Waking up in a cold sweat, the musician realizes, gratefully, that it was all just a crazy dream. “Of course!” he reassures himself, “No society would ever reduce such a beautiful and meaningful art form to something so mindless and trivial; no culture could be so cruel to its children as to deprive them of such a natural, satisfying means of human expression. How absurd!”

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a painter has just awakened from a similar nightmare…

I was surprised to find myself in a regular school classroom—no easels, no tubes of paint. “Oh we don’t actually apply paint until high school,” I was told by the students. “In seventh grade we mostly study colors and applicators.” They showed me a worksheet. On one side were swatches of color with blank spaces next to them. They were told to write in the names. “I like painting,” one of them remarked, “they tell me what to do and I do it. It’s easy!”

After class I spoke with the teacher. “So your students don’t actually do any painting?” I asked. “Well, next year they take Pre-Paint-by-Numbers. That prepares them for the main Paint-by-Numbers sequence in high school. So they’ll get to use what they’ve learned here and apply it to real-life painting situations—dipping the brush into paint, wiping it off, stuff like that. Of course we track our students by ability. The really excellent painters—the ones who know their colors and brushes backwards and forwards—they get to the actual painting a little sooner, and some of them even take the Advanced Placement classes for college credit. But mostly we’re just trying to give these kids a good foundation in what painting is all about, so when they get out there in the real world and paint their kitchen they don’t make a total mess of it.”

“Um, these high school classes you mentioned…”

“You mean Paint-by-Numbers? We’re seeing much higher enrollments lately. I think it’s mostly coming from parents wanting to make sure their kid gets into a good college. Nothing looks better than Advanced Paint-by-Numbers on a high school transcript.”
“Why do colleges care if you can fill in numbered regions with the corresponding color?”

“Oh, well, you know, it shows clear-headed logical thinking. And of course if a student is planning to major in one of the visual sciences, like fashion or interior decorating, then it’s really a good idea to get your painting requirements out of the way in high school.”

“I see. And when do students get to paint freely, on a blank canvas?”

“You sound like one of my professors! They were always going on about expressing yourself and your feelings and things like that—really way-out-there abstract stuff. I’ve got a degree in Painting myself, but I’ve never really worked much with blank canvasses. I just use the Paint-by-Numbers kits supplied by the school board.”
Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done—I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul- crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.

Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, “we need higher standards.” The schools say, “we need more money and equipment.” Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “math class is stupid and boring,” and they are right.

Mathematics and Culture

The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such. Everyone understands that poets, painters, and musicians create works of art, and are expressing themselves in word, image, and sound. In fact, our society is rather generous when it comes to creative expression; architects, chefs, and even television directors are considered to be working artists. So why not mathematicians?

Part of the problem is that nobody has . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2021 at 6:59 pm

Alexa, Are You Sexist?

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Corinne Purtell writes in the NY Times:

In an Amazon ad that aired during the Super Bowl on Sunday, a woman admiring the spherical contours of the company’s Echo speaker reimagines her Alexa voice assistant as the actor Michael B. Jordan. Instead of the disembodied female voice that comes standard in the device, requests for shopping list updates, measurement conversions and adjustments to the home lighting and sprinkler systems are fulfilled by the smoldering star, in person — voice, eyes, abs and all. Her husband hates it.

Depicting Alexa as a masculine presence is funny because — at least according to Amazon’s official line — the cloud-based voice service has no gender at all. “I’m not a woman or a man,” Alexa says sweetly when asked to define its gender. “I’m an AI.”

Alexa is sold with a default female-sounding voice and has a female-sounding name. Alexa is subservient and eager to please. If you verbally harass or abuse Alexa, as the journalist Leah Fessler discovered in 2017, Alexa will feign ignorance or demurely deflect. Amazon and its competitors in the digital assistant market may deny it, but design and marketing have led to AI that seems undeniably, well, feminine.

What does it mean for humans that we take for granted that the disembodied voices we boss around at home are female? How does the presence of these feminized voice assistants affect the dynamics between the actual women and men who use them?

“The work that these devices are intended to do” — making appointments, watching the oven timer, updating the shopping list — “all of those kinds of areas are gendered,” said Yolande Strengers, an associate professor of digital technology and society at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

Dr. Strengers is a co-author of “The Smart Wife: Why Siri, Alexa, and Other Smart Home Devices Need a Feminist Reboot.” The book examines technologies that perform traditionally feminized roles, including housekeeping robots like the Roomba, caregiving robots like the humanoid Pepper or Paro seal, sex robots and, of course, the multitasking, ever-ready voice assistants.

Dr. Strengers and her co-author, Jenny Kennedy, a research fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, explore the ways in which gendering technology influences users’ relationship with it.

Because Alexa and similar assistants like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Home, are perceived as female, users order them around without guilt or apology, and may sling abuse and sexualized comments their way. And when users become frustrated with the devices’ errors, they interpret glitches as inferior capability, or female “ditziness.” Owners of the devices are also not threatened by them — and thus are less inclined to question how much data they are collecting, and what it might be used for.

Research on digital voice and gender by the former Stanford professor Clifford Nass found that people consider female-sounding voices helpful and trustworthy, and male voices more authoritative. The work of Professor Nass, who died in 2013, is often cited in discussions of voice assistants, yet many of those studies are now two decades old. An Amazon spokesperson would say only that the current feminine voice was “preferred” by users during testing. But preferred over what? And by whom?

Some assistants, like Siri, offer the option to change the default female voice to a male voice. Alexa comes standard with a female voice whose accent or language can be changed. For an additional $4.99, a user can swap Alexa’s voice for that of the actor Samuel L. Jackson, but only for fun requests like “tell me a story” or “what do you think of snakes?” Only the female voice handles housekeeping tasks like setting reminders, shopping, or making lists.

The book “The Smart Wife” belongs to a body of research examining how artificially intelligent devices reflect the biases of the people who design them and the people who buy them — in both cases, mostly men. (Dr. Strengers and Dr. Kennedy have found that setting up the digital infrastructure is one chore in an opposite-sex household that’s more likely to be done by men.)

Take the devices’ response to sexually aggressive questions. “You have the wrong sort of assistant,” Siri replied when Ms. Fessler, the journalist, asked the bot for sex as part of her investigation. The coy phrasing, Dr. Strengers and Dr. Kennedy write, suggests there is another type of assistant out there who might welcome such propositions. Since the publication of Ms. Fessler’s article, voice assistants have become more forthright. Siri now responds to propositions for sex with a flat “no.” Amazon also updated Alexa to no longer respond to sexually explicit questions.

When it comes to gender and technology, tech companies often seem to be trying to have it both ways: capitalizing on gendered traits to make their products feel familiar and appealing to consumers, yet disavowing the gendered nature of those features as soon as they become problematic.

“Tech companies are probably getting themselves into a bit of a corner by humanizing these things — they’re not human,” said Mark West, an education project author with Unesco and lead author of the organization’s 2019 report on gender parity in technology. The report and its associated white papers noted that feminized voice assistants perpetuate gender stereotypes of subservience and sexual availability and called for, among other things, an end to the practice of making digital assistants female by default. If designers initially chose to have their products conform to existing stereotypes, he said, they can also choose to reject those tropes as well.

“There’s nothing inevitable about this stuff. We collectively are in control of technology,” Mr. West said. “If this is the wrong path to go down, do something.”

One intriguing alternative is . . .

Continue reading.

And check out this.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2021 at 5:32 pm

One way to be fooled by statistics

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13 March 2021 at 5:05 pm

The Far Side: A masterclass in storytelling

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13 March 2021 at 5:04 pm

The Bayesian Trap

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13 March 2021 at 4:33 pm

Great sandwiches for non-vegans

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I don’t eat this stuff, but I did, and I enjoyed it — and I still like to watch it being made.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2021 at 11:15 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Recipes

The pleasures of a brush whose knot is coarse

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Not coarse in the sense of bad manners or foul language, of course, but in the sense of thick bristles with blunt ends. One might expect that from a boar brush, but in my experience boar brushes feel smooth, generally with good resilience, the smoothness improving as break-in advances.

This Plisson European Gray badger has thickish bristles with blunt ends — they feel rounded rather than sharp — and on the face they produce a very pleasant grainy feel, like a nano-massage of the skin. With a healthy load of lather from Dr. Jon’s Defiance, and enjoyed the entire prep process (including massaging the stubble with Grooming Dept pre-shave).

RazoRock’s German 37 razor from Italian Barber is a wonderful slant. Its head is a clone of the Merkur 37, but I find I like this razor even better — plus it has the advantage that you can swap handles if you want, since it’s a three-piece design.

Three passes left my face perfectly smooth and unharmed, and a good splash of Booster Aquarius finished the job. I really like the fragrance of this Booster aftershave but will admit to liking June Clover more.

Here is the front entrance to my apartment building, left and right. I don’t know the identity of that dramatic evergreen, but I do like it. The green ground cover beneath the palms is moss. The trees along the sidewalk are cherry (or plum) trees that soon will be in full bloom.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2021 at 11:14 am

Posted in Shaving

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