Why Lydia Lunch Matters

I had an excellent time at the Extreme Futurist Festival ( XFF ) this year.  This is a more artistic and counter-cultural event than the Singularity Summit or Humanity+ Conference.  They had onsite body modification (finger magnets, anyone?) and performances by Negativland and Lydia Lunch.

I will write up more of my impressions in the coming weeks, but I wanted to start out with my commentary on Lydia Lunch’s performance.  Now let me start by saying that I hadn’t thought about Lydia Lunch since I was in my early 20’s and people around me were listening to Teenage Jesus and the Jerks or watching her in alternative films.  I actually found her sort of annoying at that time.  I was into new wave and she was too atonal for me.  I was already immersed in post-modern, post-punk without really realizing it, so she didn’t offer much that I couldn’t get from other artists.

But I must say that I was moved by the intensity of her show in the Vortex Immersion Dome.  She performed raw spoken word accompanied by a petulant guitarist and possibly some samples or prerecorded backing tracks.  The guitar was highly processed and basically just desultory noise.  Lunch touched on topics such as: government surveillance, drug addiction, sex, madness, war, psycho-killers, and more violence.  She understands the urge to kill, she said, but she doesn’t act on it.  At one point she turned to a smiling Rachel Haywire and described how she might end up dismembered at the side of a “shit-stained” road and asked why it was always the daughters that had to die at the hands of the fuckers.  I was shocked when one woman told me later that she heard Lunch was “pretty good but she uses the f word a lot.”  Yeah, uh, this is Lydia Lunch we are talking about here, ok?

I heard some kids afterwards describing her presentation as “confident.”  This is an understatement.  Lunch was spewing forth her own truly authentic insanity.  There could be no question in anyone’s mind that she was tortured by the visions of violence that she relayed.  She practically blasted the audience with her disturbing and outrageous vitriol.  I was squirming uncomfortably in my seat during much of the performance.

But in the end, I appreciated the experience.  I viewed her act as representing the tortured screams of the oppressed that are being crushed under the jackboots of the dominant culture.  I couldn’t help but grimace at the irony when Lunch expressed support for Islamic insurgents who would surely throw acid on her or even kill her for acting as she does.  But I don’t take Lunch too literally.  It’s important to listen to the visceral rage of the outsider which she channels.  Her work is important because the range of political discourse in the mainstream media is insanely narrow.  We Americans seem comfortable discussing the range of opinions from the right to the moderate right.  We need to listen to the outsiders because they offer a unique perspective we can’t get from within.

Before I get too puffed up with Pinker’s whiggish visions of progress, Lunch helps me recall that all is not perfect in the world and maybe to hear what it feels like to be suffering.   The people who are getting dismembered cannot be consoled by the reminder that they represent a smaller and smaller fraction of the population as a whole.  So if we listen to Lunch, it will expand the dynamic range of our political perceptions.  And that matters.

2012 Humanity+ Day 1 – Part 4 – Fred Stitt Online Education

This is part of an on-going series about the 2012 Humanity+ conference:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 3.1

Architect and educator, Fred Stitt spoke at H+ 2012 about the future of education.  Stitt said that he had problems with education from an early age.  It annoyed him how inefficient it was to transfer information in a traditional classroom lecture.  It has a very low rate of bits per minute according to Fred.  I am less inclined to discount the bit rate of non-verbal communication, but I agree with the overall sentiment.  The “Education is broken” meme is gaining steam as evidenced by Thiel’s 20 under 20 fellowship where he pays promising young people to forgo college and start working directly on the projects they are passionate about.

Stitt’s preferred solution to the education problem is a little less controversial, namely, online learning. Online learning has received a lot of attention lately.  Norvig and Thrun’s Stanford online AI class famously attracted more than 100,000 students and was recently transferred over to Udacity, which is a private player in the online learning space.  MIT is a big participant with it’s OpenCourseWare and edX partnership with Harvard.  Coursera, which partners with many schools such as Stanford, Caltech, and Duke rounds out the Big Three of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) world.  So many big name schools have already started providing courses online.

Of course, I don’t want to neglect one inspirational small player, the Khan academy whose earnest founder, Sal Khan, won over the hearts (and pried open the pocketbook) of the Gates foundation.  Sal records very engaging lessons himself primarily using a virtual blackboard.  The Khan academy has quizzes for students and tools to help teachers keep track of student progress.  There is also a cool map to show students which foundational skills are required to learn each subject. I am pleased to say that I myself contributed in a small way to this project when I helped Asante Africa image a bunch of laptops to help native translators could translate Khan academy videos into several African languages.  My friend David is really into a free-schooling and was less enamored with Khan academy when he checked it out.  He thought it was too geared toward helping kids pass tests as opposed to actually learning the material.  I do agree that Khan academy’s work is more complementary to rather than than a replacement for standard classroom education.

But yeah, online learning.  It’s a thing.  According to Stitt, one of the issues that make online learning so important is the discriminatory practices of the current education system.  He pointed out the quotas that previously restricted Jewish student enrollment at the ivy league colleges and the current Asian quotas that appear to be in place.  He also mentioned that the faculty pose one of the largest obstacles to broader adoption of online learning.  So academia appears to be populated with backward racist luddites.  Do tell, Fred, do tell.

Stitt did acknowledge some drawback to online learning such as the lack of accreditation.  He argues that there will be various mechanisms for teachers to sign off on student mastery of subject matter as the field matures, but that schools that have traditionally acted as guardians of accreditation are fighting to maintain the status quo.  Stitt seems to suggest that skyrocketing education costs will provide more opportunities for new players to disrupt this situation.  Another problem with online learning is the lack of personal contact and feedback.  One solution Stitt brought up that I found interesting is the concept of multiple campus enrollment.  He is apparently suggesting that online students would be able to physically attend multiple campuses to interact with students and teachers.  Arguably, the students who stand to benefit the most from online learning, such as those in remote or undeveloped parts of the world, don’t have access to campuses anyway.  Those folks might be stuck waiting for immersive virtual reality to provide a technical solution for remote personal interaction.

Finally, it seems from my notes that Stitt suggested online learning could provide a platform to research the learning process itself.  I scribbled something about optimizing perception and lobe activation.  Now that does seem interesting.  As teachers can gather more data about precisely how the courseware is consumed, they will be able to identify the highest value techniques for students with various learning styles.  The Inner Life of the Cell video comes to mind when thinking about optimizing perception and lobe activation.  The maker of this video also presented at H+ this year and I will say more about this later, but students that watched this video scored well above a control group deprived of this animation when testing time came.

There is plenty more to say about online learning in relation to free-schooling and also the question of how humans will stay competitive in the face of automation.  I will try to dig into that more in future posts.

UPDATE:  I just came across this article in which the One Laptop Per Child folks just dumped a bunch of tablets on some African kids and let them teach themselves.  I must say that I have some skepticism around free-schooling, but this is pretty compelling.  My nagging concern is that without some curriculum, kids will overlook important foundational knowledge that is maybe less fun or interesting.  I like the idea of presenting kids with a carefully curated set of apps to explore on their own.  With this approach, care can be taken to include stuff grownups agree is important.

Do science fiction writers really write the future?

This is my multi-part series on the 2012 Humanity+ conference:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

In my previoius post, I was discussing Kim Stanley Robinson’s talk at the 2012 Humanity+ conference.  One point I forgot to bring up was about the influence of writers.  Robinson made the assertion that the vision of H.G. Wells influenced the formation of the Bretton Woods system and thus deeply impacted the course of the 20th century.  I searched around but I couldn’t actually find anyone else who made that connection.  (At least no one sane.)  I tend to be skeptical when science fiction authors tell us how deeply impactful the work of science fiction authors is.  I heard this argument from Neal Stephenson at Black Hat this year where he promoted his Hieroglyph project.

Stephenson wants SF writers to start writing positive stuff to inspire the engineers again like they used to in the old days.  But I have a hard time blaming SF writers for the Great Stagnation of innovation.  SF writers have given us a bunch of great technology that the engineers have failed to deliver yet.  Where’s my immersive virtual reality?  Where’s my utility fog, dammit?  The world wide web was supposedly inspired by a dark story by Arthur C. Clarke, so engineers don’t appear to require HappyTimeUtopia stories to inspire them.

You know, I think that markets might play a role here somewhere.  Technically, we could probably build some sort of moon base, but no one wants to pay for it.  I was talking to a scientist from PARC at VLAB last night and told me that we spend more on air conditioning in Iraq than NASA’s entire budget.  So please don’t blame (or credit) the engineers or SF writers  too much for our lack of a bright shiny future.  Politics and markets play a pretty big role in what actually gets built.