Jaime Holmes: On the Need to Teach Ignorance!

Dear Commons Community,

Jamie Holmes, a fellow at New America and the author of the forthcoming book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, proposing that faculty need to do a better job of teaching ignorance. He posits that too much of what faculty teach emphasizes what is known but it is the unknown which unleashes the creativity to experiment and seek answers. He provides several vignettes of faculty who have felt the need to teach ignorance in their courses. For example:

“In 2006, a Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart J. Firestein, began teaching a course on scientific ignorance after realizing, to his horror, that many of his students might have believed that we understand nearly everything about the brain. (He suspected that a 1,414-page textbook may have been culpable.)

As he argued in his 2012 book “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” many scientific facts simply aren’t solid and immutable, but are instead destined to be vigorously challenged and revised by successive generations. Discovery is not the neat and linear process many students imagine, but usually involves, in Dr. Firestein’s phrasing, “feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms.” By inviting scientists of various specialties to teach his students about what truly excited them— not cold hard facts but intriguing ambiguities — Dr. Firestein sought to rebalance the scales.”

Holmes concludes:

“The study of ignorance — or agnotology, a term popularized by Robert N. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford — is in its infancy. This emerging field of inquiry is fragmented because of its relative novelty and cross-disciplinary nature (as illustrated by a new book, “Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies”). But giving due emphasis to unknowns, highlighting case studies that illustrate the fertile interplay between questions and answers, and exploring the psychology of ambiguity are essential. Educators should also devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity and the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty.

The time has come to “view ignorance as ‘regular’ rather than deviant,” the sociologists Matthias Gross and Linsey McGoey have boldly argued. Our students will be more curious — and more intelligently so — if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge.”

Is ignorance bliss?



Will the Day Come When Androids Write Fiction?

Dear Commons Community,

Claire Fallon, Books and Culture Writer for The Huffington Post, explores the possibility of androids writing fiction. Referencing a blog posting by the writer James Bridle, she questions whether we may be coming to the day when artificial intelligence reaches a tipping point when machines can use “imagination” and “experiences” to write or at least co-author fiction.  Here is an excerpt:

“Robots that write fiction? You couldn’t make it up.” The Guardian headline plays on a trope that, at its core, is rather insulting to fiction writers, who have a pretty good track record of making up wild things — concepts far more imaginative than stories composed by AI.

Putting that aside, James Bridle’s breezy blog in The Guardian looks ahead eagerly to a time when fiction will no longer be the exclusive realm of living authors. “Robot writers could become co-authors of our most complex subjects, helping to write the narratives of climate change and political upheaval,” he breathlessly speculates, without specifying why robots would excel at writing about these topics or how they would collaborate with humans, as he implies. Still, could they?

Well, perhaps, the way that “soothing mothers” might “give up their babies, plot bank robberies and become threatening bank robbers” — just one scenario generated by the Metaphor Magnet, a fiction-writing robot, for an earlier Guardian piece. It’s not impossible, but there’s no particular evidence that it will happen that way.

Lest we get too eager, there are still significant hurdles for machines to clear before the day they make novelists superfluous.”

Fallon goes on to mention several examples of software programs that tease the possibilities.

“The What-If Machine [Computational Creativity Project in Europe] tosses out intriguing hypotheticals, of the sort that might spark a full work of fiction; if a writer wants to loosen up by checking out some totally crazy computer-generated scenarios, WHIM is a pretty solid bet to get the creative juices flowing.

That said, these scenarios don’t really make up stories, and most sound stilted, trite or absurd.”

The idea of droids or software writing fiction is somewhere in humankind’s future – exactly when is hard to say.


New York Times Editorial Advises Mayor de Blasio Not to Overreact to Women Baring Breasts in Times Square!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times editorial this morning advises Mayor Bill de Blasio not to overreact to the handful of women who bare their breasts in the Times Square pedestrian mall. The editorial (see full text below) makes the point that this is a media-created story and does not reflect a major problem that is changing the nature of one of New York City’s special places. The editorial rejects one proposal to return the mall to automobile traffic. It also takes a swipe at Governor Cuomo “to stop being ridiculous” with his unnecessary and unhelpful comments.

The Times editorial is right. This has become an overblown story mostly fueled by the New York Daily News that has had a week of headlines accompanied by photos of near naked women on page one. It is a shame that the Daily News which was once a great New York newspaper, has lowered itself so far into the depths of the tabloid gutter.



Shirtless Bodies in Pointless Times Square War


In New York politics, as in Newtonian physics, there is action and reaction and, too often, overreaction.

Take Times Square, and the handful of women there who expose their painted breasts and pose for photos with tourists among the Elmos and Spider-Men. They are vastly outnumbered by the milling throngs of out-of-towners, and far tinier than towering images of near-naked models preening and pouting on the digital billboards all around. But their presence has been enough to stir a Lower Manhattan tabloid into a righteous fury.

“BUST THIS FLESH PIT” read one Daily News headline this month. “TOO MUCH TO BARE,” said another.

Times Square has an old reputation as a crossroads of bad behavior. But is it really being overrun again by vice? By pimps, prostitutes, muggers, drug dealers, bootleggers, pornographers or even card-game hustlers? Not even close. And yet The News, horrified at the rampant shirtlessness, put these frightening women on Page 1 for four straight days. (Its usual spot for breasts is Page 3.) It called the city to arms to repel this “dastardly” outrage.

Predictably, distressingly, our leaders took the bait. On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the formation of a multiagency force “to curb topless individuals” and their costumed counterparts in Times Square.

There’s nothing wrong with asking smart people to study a problem — and the intense crowding in Times Square and reports of harassment of naïve tourists by illegally aggressive panhandlers certainly qualify as problems. But the size and firepower of this task force are more appropriate for an Ebola outbreak. It is led by Police Commissioner William Bratton and the City Planning Commission chairman, Carl Weisbrod, and includes the Police Department; the Manhattan district attorney’s office; the Transportation Department; the Law Department; the Department of Consumer Affairs; the Department of City Planning; the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice; NYC & Company; and the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, Alicia Glen.

Their job is to study how topless women can be “regulated,” and to report back by Oct. 1.

On Thursday, Mr. de Blasio suggested one solution: eliminating some of Times Square’s pedestrian plazas, apparently on the theory that if you can get tourists to go away, you reduce the topless-woman threat. Other officials suggest creating a pen for the women and costumed characters — sort of a panhandling zoo — or turning this great bustling commercial zone into, of all things, a park.

Such proposals, and Mr. de Blasio’s sudden willingness to roll back years of ambitious streetscape redesign, are a monumental overreaction. The mayor could save everybody a lot of time. He could just meet with a few First Amendment lawyers and some of the women and men who make their living posing for tips. He doesn’t have to wait a month — he could get a report this afternoon. It would remind everyone that being shirtless in the city is perfectly legal, a privilege men have enjoyed since forever. That the people who flock around the painted women in Times Square do not seem terribly offended. And that those who are can always walk away.

Most important, it would say that panhandlers who become aggressive and obstructive can be dealt with. Mr. Bratton’s officers are trained to handle terrorists and epidemics and armed criminals. They are more than capable of dealing with half-naked panhandlers who get pushy.

This page is not endorsing extortion. People who break the law should be arrested. And the city should be seriously thinking about how to make Times Square work better than it does — in many ways it is too successful, clotted with so many slow-moving people and vendors and leafleteers and untalented buskers that it can be a highly unpleasant place to try to walk through. Its vibe can be cruddy.

But Times Square is not going to hell, or anywhere near hell’s vicinity. Mr. de Blasio’s enemies have been predicting New York’s downfall since before the mayor took office. He should not be feeding their false narrative by panicking over some localized crudeness. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who recently said that he thought what the women were doing was illegal and had to be stopped, and that they reminded him of the “bad old days,” should stop being ridiculous.

The Times has a long relationship with our namesake square. It’s in our backyard now, since we moved to Eighth Avenue, but it was our front porch for more than 100 years. We and the city have survived rallies and riots and many, many New Year’s ball drops. More seasoned members of our staff remember how shuttle vans used to take late-shift employees in safety from our old 43rd Street building to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Pennsylvania Station.

Times Square can reveal New York at its bleakest and most brilliant. It took grit and resolve to stick with it through the bad times. This is not one of them.


MSNBC Airs Softball Interview With Anti-Teacher Activist Campbell Brown!

Dear Commons Community,

Here is a short article from The Huffington Post commenting on Campbell Brown’s bid to be the latest corporate sponsored education reformer. 

“After her show was cancelled on account of low ratings, former CNN anchor Campbell Brown reinvented herself as an education reformer and charter school advocate — this despite having little to no training in education, and never having taught students herself.

She founded the education advocacy group the Partnership for Educational Justice to fight teacher tenure in New York and recently launched the Seventy Four, an “nonprofit, nonpartisan” education news site.

However, as some critics have pointed out, Brown’s news site is largely dedicated to trashing teachers unions and advocating for school choice. And despite her group’s goal of bringing “transparency” to the education debate, Brown has refused to disclose the donors behind her Partnership for Educational Justice — which is not tied to the news site — saying only that they come from “both sides of the aisle.”

But MSNBC made no mention of Brown’s ties to advocacy groups — or her lack of transparency — when she came on “Morning Joe” on Wednesday to promote an upcoming education forum with many of the Republican presidential nominees.

The network basically let her make her pitch, then congratulated her on putting together the event. Now that’s hard-hitting journalism.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with having on guests with an agenda or a strong point of view, but the network should, at the very least, identify where its guests are coming from.”

Campbell Brown will come and go.  Parents have had enough of anti-union and corporate sponsored  anti-teacher groups undermining public education in this country.



New book, Conducting Research in Online and Blended Learning Environments: New Pedagogical Frontiers!

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Dear Commons Community,

I am happy to announce that a new book, Conducting Research in Online and Blended Learning Environments:  New Pedagogical Frontiers, has just been published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis. I co-authored this book with colleagues, Charles Dzuiban, Charles Graham, and Patsy Moskal. Those of you interested in research in online and blended learning, will find it a valuable addition to your library.

Conducting Research in Online and Blended Learning Environments… examines various perspectives, issues, and methods for conducting research in online and blended learning environments. It provides in-depth examinations of the perspectives and issues that anyone considering research in online or blended learning will find insightful as they plan their own inquiries. Grounded in educational research theory, this is invaluable to both the serious researcher as well as the occasional evaluator. It also provides comprehensive, useful information on research paradigms, methodologies, and methods that should be considered in designing and conducting studies in this area. Examples of the most respected research in the field enhance each chapter’s presentation.

It is available at amazon.com at:


and Barnes and Noble at: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/conducting-research-in-online-and-blended-learning-environments-charles-d-dziuban/1121838565?ean=9780415742474


First Near-Fully Formed Brain Grown In Lab at Ohio State University!

Dear Commons Community,

Scientists at Ohio State University say they’ve grown the first near-complete human brain in a lab.  As reported in The Huffington Post:

“The brain organoid, if licensed for commercial lab use, could help speed research for neurological diseases and disorders, like Alzheimer’s and autism, Rene Anand, an Ohio State professor who worked on the project, said in a statement Tuesday,

“The power of this brain model bodes very well for human health because it gives us better and more relevant options to test and develop therapeutics other than rodents,” Anand said.

The brain, engineered from adult human skin cells and grown in a dish for 15 weeks, is about the size of a pencil eraser, according to the university. It has the maturity of a 5-week-old fetal brain, and contains 99 percent of the genes in a fully developed human fetal brain.

“If we let it go to 16 or 20 weeks, that might complete it, filling in that 1 percent of missing genes,” Anand said. “We don’t know yet.”

Other researchers in the field were skeptical. Anand’s claims haven’t been reviewed by peers. Instead, the feat was announced at the 2015 Military Health System Research Symposium in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. (Anand’s team says the brain could have military research implications for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder).

“When someone makes such an extraordinary claim as this, you have to be cautious until they are willing to reveal their data,” Zameel Cader, a consultant neurologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, told The Guardian.

Earlier this year, Anand and colleague Susan McKay created an Ohio-based startup with the goal of commercializing the brain organoid platform. As The Guardian notes, Anand has not published details of his brain model due to a pending patent. “

While we congratulate Professor Anand and his team, I believe there will be a lot of ethical questions looming for this type of research.


Intel Releases Software that Stephen Hawking Uses to Speak!

Dear Commons Community,

People with disabilities across the world will have access to Stephen Hawking’s custom technology that allows him to speak with an artificial voice. Hawking has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, one of the symptoms of which can be an impaired voice. He worked with Intel for three years to develop the Assistive Context-Aware Toolkit that gives him an artificial voice. As reported in The Huffington Post:

“The technology uses an infrared switch to detect the motions in his [Hawking’s] left cheek muscle, which he uses to select individual characters and build sentences. A cursor automatically scrolls across a keyboard on Hawking’s wheelchair-mounted tablet. When the cursor reaches the letter Hawking wants, he moves his cheek and an infrared switch picks up the motion. In this way he can build words and sentences, which are sent to his voice synthesizer.

“It is the best I have heard, although it gives me an  accent that has been described variously as Scandinavian, American or Scottish,” Hawking says on his website.

Intel is broadening the toolkit’s reach by releasing it as an open source platform, so anybody with a PC and a webcam can use it. It can be programmed to work with infrared switches and regular buttons, as well as a camera, the company said in a statement.   

“Our hope is that, by open sourcing this configurable platform, developers will continue to expand on this system by adding new user interfaces, new sensing modalities, word prediction and many other features.”

You can download the Intel software here.”

Good move on Intel’s part.


Jeff Bezos Does Damage Control for Amazon Over Article Depicting ‘Callous’ Management Practices!

Dear Commons Community,

Jeff Bezos, responding to an article that was published by the New York Times over the weekend about Amazon’s hard-hitting management style, deplored what he called its portrait of “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard” and said, “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”He told workers: “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”

The article, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” told of workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises who said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover in a company that could not slow down.

In a letter to employees, Mr. Bezos said Amazon would not tolerate the “shockingly callous management practices” described in the article. He urged any employees who knew of “stories like those reported” to contact him directly.

Amazon declined a request to interview Mr. Bezos for the original article, but made several executives available. Over all, the Times interviewed more than 100 current and former Amazon employees, including many who spoke on the record and some who requested anonymity because they had signed agreements saying they would not speak to the press.


Paul Smith’s College to Receive $20 Million Gift if It Changes its Name!

Dear Commons Community,

Paul Smith’s College, one of the truly special colleges in upstate New York, has an interesting dilemma. A donor, Joan Weill, the wife of the Wall Street billionaire Sanford I. Weill, is willing to donate $20 million to the college if it changes its name to Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. However, the college was created with money and land bequeathed by its founder, Phelps Smith, to honor his father, a celebrated hotelier. When Mr. Smith died in 1937, his will directed that the school be built on the site of the former Paul Smith’s Hotel. The will also required that the institution be “forever known” as Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences. The requirements imposed by both Mr. Smith in his will and by Mrs. Weill in her proposed gift leave the college in a sticky philanthropic situation. As reported in the New York Times:

“…the decision will most likely be made in court.

On Tuesday [today], Justice John T. Ellis of State Supreme Court in Franklin County plans to consider the college’s request to be released from the “forever” requirement in Mr. Smith’s will.

Mrs. Weill has been active in the school’s development and governance for more than two decades.

The petition lays out the college’s challenges. It operated at a loss of nearly $2 million in 2013. Its current $27 million endowment cannot keep the college operating in the long term. The college must enroll more students in order to survive. The demographics of college students are changing: They are increasingly coming from ethnically diverse and lower-income households.

The high cost of operating, and the college’s $36,000-a-year price tag for students, means that it “is not very selective, accepting approximately 76 percent of all applicants,” according to its court filing.

Given those factors, Mr. Smith’s “forever” requirement “nearly fatally impedes” the college’s ability to seek large gifts from a single donor to adapt and grow, the petition said. Holding the school to the provisions of its founder’s will “may make it impossible to maintain the institution for higher education in the future, as was the general purpose of the gift,” according to the filing.

The proposed name change has brought head-scratching opposition from alumni and neighbors, who say they appreciate Mrs. Weill’s generosity but do not understand why the college should change its name.”

It sounds to me that Paul Smith’s College is heading for an interesting legal battle should Judge Ellis rule in favor of the request and descendants of Paul Smith decide to challenge his ruling.


Racial Wealth Gap Persists Despite College Degree!

Dear Commons Community,

The payoff from a college degree remains strong, lifting lifelong earnings and protecting many graduates. However, a new report has found that for black and Hispanic college graduates, a college degree fails to protect them from both short-term crises and longstanding challenges. As reported by the New York Times:

“The long-term trend is shockingly clear,” said William R. Emmons, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and one of the authors of the report. “White and Asian college grads do much better than their counterparts without college, while college-grad Hispanics and blacks do much worse proportionately.”

A college degree has long been recognized as a great equalizer, a path for minorities to help bridge the economic chasm that separates them from whites. But the report, scheduled to be released today, raises troubling questions about the ability of a college education to narrow the racial and ethnic wealth gap.

“Higher education alone cannot level the playing field,” the report concludes.

The report provides data and draws conclusions on a number of factors including issues of discrimination and the fact that black and Latino college graduates work disproportionately in government positions. But the issue that seemed most important to me was family wealth.

“William A. Darity Jr., director of the Duke Consortium on Social Equity at Duke University, points out that a family headed by a black college graduate has less wealth on average than a family headed by a white high school dropout.

The lack of family wealth is pivotal to understanding the racial economic gap, he argues.

While the researchers from the St. Louis Fed, when asked, played down the importance of financial support from family when explaining their results, Mr. Darity said he believed that family aid helped individuals avoid the type of risky big-ticket borrowing that ensnared so many Hispanic and black graduates.

“Prior family wealth is the key,” Mr. Darity explained in an email, noting that it “shapes both income-generating opportunities and the capacity to allow wealth to grow more wealth.”

This report provides good insights and raises important questions on the racial economic gap and is an important addition to the research literature.