It has been some time since I took a departure from political and social commentary, diving back into the topics that should interest us... cool advances in science, engineering art and the general notion of problem solving.
Which reminds me to remind you to include the book Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century in your holiday shopping. A very attractive volume that is beautiful in its own right. But also the most dynamically modernist volume in the can-do spirit of the old Whole Earth Catalog.
And see a more specialized (but excellent) tome: Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials, by Michael Michaud.
Of course, if you'd like to shake up that STar Wars fan of yours, there is always Star Wars on Trial...
Speaking of forward-looking notions, the New Scientist Magazine ran a sort of Futurological Congress, soliciting brief 50 year forecasts from many (though obviously not all!) of the visionary seers out there.
An education related breakthrough: An on-line course in the literature of science fiction, organized with a historical perspective as a parallel experience to the Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction, now is posted on the K.U. Continuing Education website. The course is a project of AboutSF and was created by Thomas Seay, the AboutSF coordinator. Note that one can view the syllabus and the lessons, etc., by clicking on the appropriate links on the left side. Jim James Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction ku.edu/~sfcenter "Let's save the world through science fiction" (alt address: http://tinyurl.com/yl2kkg)
More about using SF to teach. (Note, I helped to establish AboutSF and was one of its founding donors.) If any of you out there would like to help in an international effort to help kids (and science fiction) by using SF as a stimulating tool for waking up young minds, see the Reading for the Future Project.
Other do-gooder endeavors:
Have a look at the Natural Capital Institute, that began in 2002 as an offshoot of Paul Hawken’s work and writings, in particular his books Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism. Shades of EARTH...
See also my article: Proxy Activism for ways you can easily make a difference...
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Birds, bees, bats and other species that pollinate North American plant life are losing population. This "demonstrably downward" trend could damage dozens of commercially important crops, since three-quarters of all flowering plants depend on pollinators for fertilization.
Researchers say that the combined use of alternative energies for which we already have reliable technology "could replace all fossil fuel power plants." And that the use of hydrogen for vehicle fuel is a bad idea in most cases - as using electricity directly in vehicles (stored in batteries) rather than to generate hydrogen is three times cheaper.
Silicon Valley firms are driving a sizzling $11 billion worldwide market in solar energy, part of a rapidly expanding alternative-energy economy.
New LED lamps capable of 70 lumens per watt may cut our light-based electrical bill ultimately by more than 90 percent. And Toyota has said that replacing a car's lights with LEDs would be equivalent to getting an extra 20 percent mileage through reducing vehicle weight.
A team found a ‘brain gene’ that appears to have entered the human lineage about 1.1 million years ago, and that has a modern form, or allele, that appeared about 37,000 years ago -- right before Neanderthals became extinct. Leading to the notion that modern Homo sapiens and so-called Neanderthals interbred at some point when they lived side by side in Europe. Neanderthals may have given the modern humans who replaced them a priceless gift -- a gene that helped them develop superior brains. An interesting turnaround!
And my "subvocal" from EARTH is on its way: A new device being created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University uses electrodes attached to the neck and face to detect the movements that occur as a person silently mouths words and phrases. Using this data, a computer can work out the sounds being formed and then build these sounds up into words. The system is then able to translate.
--- AND FINALLY, SOME RESULTS OF MY “BASIC RANT” ---
Swedish programmer Nikko Strom read my Salon Magazine cover story “Why Johnny Can’t Code” and was among the few who seem to have actually “got it”... that even obsolete BASIC is better than nothing... which is what millions of kids now have as a programming language on their so-called “computers” which can no longer compute!. (How did we ever let that come to pass? And why has no one commented on it till now?)
Many students (like my own kids) still have textbooks with “Try It In Basic” exercises... that zero percent of them are even able to try! Make that one or two percent... who have savvy professionals or super-nerds to help them download and decipher obscure interpreters. A travesty, when it would be so easy to just create a simple web site that...
Well, to see how easy, see Strom’s QUITE BASIC web site, which he created quickly, in direct response to my article. Wonderfully intuitive and easy to use, it is designed to ease any student through copying down a few lines of a BASIC program and not only trying it out (with a handy graphics “canvas”) but also STEP through the program, watching variables change, one line at a time! (Something I suggested in the Salon article.) Allowing the brighter students to mentally follow along, envisioning each and every incremental stage and KNOWING that it’s all about algorithms and human-made commands, not magic.
Now if only a million high school math and physics teachers could be told; with this web site, all those BASIC demos and exercises in the older texts are no longer useless! (I’m as proud of this as I am of my recent patent... and it may do more good, it seems.)
Interested in seeing another fine effort - somewhat differently done - toward a similar goal? BASIC-256 is an easy to use version of BASIC designed to teach young children the basics of computer programming. It uses traditional control structures like gosub, for/next, and goto, which helps kids easily see how program flow-control works. It has a built-in graphics mode which lets them draw pictures on screen in minutes, and a set of detailed, easy-to-follow tutorials that introduce programming concepts through fun exercises.
I frankly cannot tell which approach is better for the purpose at hand. Which is to re-establish BASIC as a “lingua franca” that’s available to everybody, every person who has a modern computer with web access.
Again, the purpose is to restore a very simple universality that textbook publishers can rely upon - as they did for a decade - well enough to assign little illustrations in class, and know that all students can then type in a few lines (perhaps the only lines of code that some of them will ever type!) ... and thereby get a little taste of moving a pixel by the power of math ... and by math alone.
Any person who has done that, even once, is less afraid of the wizard, standing behind the curtain. He or she has seen the algorithm and made the computer obey. At least once.
There's a lot more stocked up... stay tuned...