Monday, October 29, 2007

Knowledge is Dead

My buddy Andrew, one of the many bright young minds attending Claremont McKenna College, poses a fantastic question in his comment to my previous post. Among other things, he writes that,

"Most blogs talk about current events or future events. I haven't seen many blogs on the history of French republics or blogs on the Fed. Papers. It seems history might be hard to chase down in the blogging world."

So the question is, can and will you learn the relevant history of a particular subject just from reading a blog on it? Or, must you take a class in order to read a wide range of information on the subject and have a teacher evaluate your knowledge?

My response would be that blogs once again will trump traditional methods of learning here. While traditional learning tells you to read up so that you can have general knowledge that may or may not be helpful in the future (and so you can get a good grade, ugh), reading up on current happenings demands that you be literate in past events so that you can understand what is going on now.

The difference is one of incentives. Classroom learning posits a long-range reward of understanding French history with the rationale that eventually it will be useful. The current events that you read about in blogs, on the other hand, give you immediate incentive to search for an article about the Marshall Plan on Wikipedia to understand how our foreign intervention policies have morphed into what is going on in Iraq. There's no grading system that rewards cramming online, just your desire to understand the world around you.

In a world where information is so liquid with Google Scholar and Wikipedia at each of our fingertips, and Amazon able to drop any book on your doorstep within two days, I would expect that mass stores of prior knowledge would be even less helpful.

Nevertheless, I'm not about to drop out of Vassar next semester and I intend to finish my stay here, for two main reasons:

a) The social scene, including but not limited to being around a bunch of smart and funny guys on the basketball team, is incredible and probably couldn't be replicated anywhere else.

b) There's little economic incentive to blog and read blogs, because our mainstream society is nowhere near to accepting this form of knowledge. If I want recognition for my studies, which isn't necessary but undoubtedly provides a sense of security, I must grind out the process and receive a formal degree.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Models of Learning

OK, this is an incredibly subjective question, but I'm going to pose it anyway.

What would make you more intelligent, attending the classes of a rigorous four-year college for a semester or reading some of the top influential blogs on a daily basis and blogging your responses for four months? I think that many in the "real world" (ie, people who probably definitely wouldn't read this blog anyway), would knee-jerkily respond that college is the obvious choice here.

But hear me out here. Reading many of the top economics, science, and political blogs over the past four to five months has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Freakonomics and Marginal Revolution have taught me a love for data. Cognitive Daily and Mind Hacks help to reaffirm my belief in the importance of raw, experimental science. And reading David Brooks and Kevin Drum have kept me far more informed on the political scene than I ever was when I used to drone through CNN and the occasional Daily Show. All the while I'm actively learning, and reinforcing this learning by writing about these subjects on my own time.

Compare this experience with college. While Vassar is probably one of the most challenging schools in the country and I have had to engage in each of my classes to keep up, most of the talk among my fellow students is not about the issues, but instead about "beating the system." Respect in many cases comes not through understanding the material the best, but by getting the best grade while doing the least possible amount of work.

I'm sure that this sounds plenty pretentious, and rather rantish, by this point. But it's not meant to be. The point is, I succumb to this groupthink on a daily basis as well. It'd be remarkably difficult not to.

I'm usually not this forthright about the utility of blogging, and perhaps it is the stress of all of the work that is piling up on my shoulders that is forcing me into it. But the next time you fellow bloggers look down upon your writing as merely a hobby, consider the possibility that your supposed hobby might not be as trite as you assume.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mixing art and science

I was reading this recent article in Nature, which talks about how science could use the aesthetic process and take more risks in order to produce faster results. But I think the article could take it one step further.

What if a new wave of artists in this next century didn't work in oil or pastels but instead in genetic engineering? The next Picasso could engineer new plants that are blue and grow sideways, and display them at the MOMA in New York or San Francisco. Now that would be art that I could really appreciate, instead of this postmodern stuff that I could make in Microsoft Paint in 20 minutes on a whim.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Note to Self

Writer's block doesn't mean you don't have anything to say, it just means that you have too many individual ideas, and when compared to the whole they seem useless. Now, that's not simply to say that the first step is the hardest, in fact it probably isn't because you'll choose the easiest path, the most intuitive topic for your first step. What I'm saying is that writer's block can be a good thing. How else would you form all of your nascent ideas but to let them simmer and heat up in your brain?

So, blog readers, there is no reason to shun a break in the action now and then. As long you aren't a paid writer, taking a week or two off from writing could be quite helpful. It's like Obi-Wan in the first Star Wars. Strike me down now, Darth, and I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Tic Tac Toe

Somebody offered to play me in tic-tac-toe for the first time in a long time when we were stuck in class the other day. While I was more than down to blow off some steam, I had to say no, and vehemently. I refuse to play that game ever again. There's two quick reasons why:

A) It gives a bigger advantage to the player that goes first than any game I have ever seen in my life. You might as well just try to play a game of backyard football and let Bill Belichick coach the other team and use a cell phone with video and picture messaging. Just like there's no way you can win if you go second in tic tac toe, there's no way you can win against huge cheaters like the Patriots.

B) You know how the worst punishments the Greeks could think of was pushing a boulder up a hill all day? Well, that's because they had never seen tic tac toe. Most people are bored of this game by the second grade, when they get sick of spinning those big blocks on the play structure and would rather go hang on the monkey bars instead. If you know how to play right (and it's not hard), you'll tie every time. I can't imagine a worse possible premise for a game.

Can't we do better, America? Don't we want our children to grow up in a better world than we grew up in? If we care so much about global warming, then we should care about getting rid of things like tic tac toe. Hangman or paper ro-sham-bo would both be much better. Hell, get creative, and make your own minesweeper field for somebody to decipher. Do anything, just no more tic tac toe. I don't want to see it ever again.