Archive for the ‘Science and Math’ Category

A Free ‘College Education’ on Your Computer Screen

April 21, 2009

Farnsworth invented electronic TV as a 14 plowboy

Farnsworth invented electronic TV as a 14-year-old plowboy

I twice had the pleasure of meeting the widow of Philo Farnsworth, the man who had envisioned electronic television while plowing an Idaho potato field as a boy of 14. No kidding!

His widow’s name was Elma, but she went by ‘Pem.’ When I met her, circa 1990, Pem had completed the first book-length biography of Philo called Distant Vision.

It’s an interesting read, especially the part about Philo programming his first TV station, W3XPF in Philadelphia. Farnsworth… who received precious little formal education after high school… was racing against the ruthless General David Sarnoff, head of RCA, to prove the concept of television by actually programming a station. Farnsworth had conceived of television as a kind of ultimate educator, a technology custom fit to bless the lives of humanity.

The word ‘television’ was invented well before there were any channels to change and Farnsworth’s philosophical determinism on the topic was common among the television pioneers. Several years before he’d founded RCA and decades before the advent of TV, Sarnoff himself circulated a memo to friends in which he wrote: “I believe that television… is the ultimate and greatest step in mass communications.”

Farnsworth began broadcasting on W3XPF in January 1937 in Philadelphia, about six months after RCA started experimental broadcasting in New York City. RCA’s first TV broadcast had singing acts, a dramatic reading from a Broadway actor, and a performance from three ballet dancers. Farnsworth made an abortive attempt at televising educational lectures before following RCA’s lead into entertainment.

Farnsworth’s electronic television, he found to his dismay, seemed to demand something not only livelier but shallower than education for the masses.

In short order W3XPF was producing a mix of orchestral music and singers, variety and novelty acts like ‘Baby Dolores,’ a 4-year-old singer/dancer. RCA demonstrated electronic television at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York. Then WWII broke out and everyone who was once a television specialist was now a radar specialist, Farnsworth included. Television as the great educator of the people fell through the cracks for decades.

In retrospect it’s easy to understand why television as an educator didn’t fly in the earliest days of the medium. Really gifted lecturers are rare. Compelling educational TV can be made today, but producing it can be expensive and requires technology and pedagogical approaches that were decades away in 1937. And then there’s the issue of exactly what to program. Videotape wasn’t invented until the 1950s. Until then all TV aired live. Even in 1937 a university might offer hundreds of different courses. But which one to televise?

You might also blame anti-intellectualism among the American populace, but I reject that argument. Beginning in the 1830s a broad swath of Americans embraced a rising tide of informal adult education. Lecturers would tour the cities and the backcountry talking about the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, philosophy, religion, languages, the evils of liquor and tobacco, and more.

Mark Twain made a good living as a lecturer before enjoying fame as a writer. And in the century before movies and television, people in smaller burgs especially had few of the outside diversions we enjoy today. Back then, education was entertainment.

Consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates. People would watch the debates for several hours, break for lunch then come back, break for dinner, and then come back again for a third session. If there really ever was such a thing as ‘American Exceptionalism,’ some part of the explanation must be owed to our historical propensity for self-improvement.

Now benefiting from the long tail made possible by digital content and inexpensive storage, Farnsworth’s dream has come true. Only the TV is on your computer or even your phone.

Since March 26, 2009 YouTube has offered a broad aggregation of videos from the nation’s accredited 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities, all free. The project was undertaken by a tribe of volunteer YouTubies.

Philo Farsnworth, self-taught  genius, would have loved it.

[Check this sample clip featuring Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, MD from the University of California San Diego. She lectures on the topic of the apparent relationship between obesity and Alzheimer’s disease. As she takes pains to point out, no causation has yet been proven.]

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Informal Learners and DIY

August 20, 2008

The Long Now Foundation Displayed a Prototype of Its 10,000-year Clock at the 2008 Maker Faire

The Long Now Foundation Displayed a Prototype of Its 10,000-year Clock at the 2008 Maker Faire

I changed out my 25-year old bathroom exhaust fan the other day and… in a moment of false pride… told my eldest brother. He asked me what I did with the old one and I told him I’d tossed it.
“Oh, too bad,” he said, “I could have rewired the motor for you.” He’s a gearhead, always fixing cars, but spent most of his career as a computer geek at Hewlett Packard.
My other brother could have built a new wooden faceplate for the fan. After a career flying in the Air Force, he now makes his living creating custom electronic Halloween displays, including motion. If you want something really cool for your house this Halloween, let me know and I’ll pass on your contact info.
Our father was an electrical engineer who always told us that he built the first crystal radio set in his home town.
And then there’s me. I can change the oil in the car, but I don’t. I could hang a new door, but it would probably be crooked. I’ve got the genes, but not much desire to be handy.
For a long time I’ve presumed my handiness shortcomings are a cultural thing. Both brothers are more than 15 years older than me. I just grew up in a different time. On my suburban block, for instance, the only guy with a woodshop…band saw, wood lathe, drill press, etc… is a professional home builder.
By contrast, my father-in-law and about 10 of his peers/neighbors have power tools in their garages.
But the winds of change of are blowing. In the last 2 years especially, empowered and enabled by the Internet, there’s been an explosion of do-it-yourself handiness, repair and invention. And thank goodness for it. Now more than ever, the world needs to be fixed!
Here are some of the best resources I know for informal learners who want to learn how to do stuff that’s handy, helpful, playful, cool, or all those.
Howtoons. Targeted at kids, it’s a 112-page comic book featuring Tucker and Celine, a brother and sister, who get off the couch and start making cool stuff like a marshmallow shooter.
Instructables.com bills itself as “The World’s Biggest Show and Tell.” It has user-generated instructions in 8 broad categories including ‘craft,’ ‘food,’ ‘green’ and this one from ‘tech’ for a “breathalyzer microphone.”
Make Magazine. Both a blog and a quarterly print magazine Make was the first to recognize a renaissance in DIY. In the current issue, No. 14, how to make an inexpensive digital microscope. On the blog, modding your scanner into a camera.
Maker Faire. Brainiacs on display in this event sponsored by Make Magazine. The first one took place in San Mateo, California and is now spreading to Austin, Texas and beyond.
Who or what am I missing? You tell me. Use the comments to suggest other DIY gems.

I changed out my 25-year old bathroom exhaust fan the other day and… in a moment of false pride… told my eldest brother. He asked me what I did with the old one and I told him I’d tossed it.

“Oh, too bad,” he said, “I could have rewired the motor for you.” He’s a gearhead, always fixing cars, but spent most of his career as a computer geek at Hewlett Packard.

My other brother could have built a new wooden faceplate for the fan. After a career flying in the Air Force, he now makes his living creating custom electronic Halloween displays, including motion. If you want something really cool for your house this Halloween, let me know and I’ll pass on your contact info.

Our father was an electrical engineer who always told us that he built the first crystal radio set in his home town.

And then there’s me. I can change the oil in the car, but I don’t. I could hang a new door, but it would probably be crooked. I’ve got the genes, but not much desire to be handy.

For a long time I’ve presumed my handiness shortcomings are a cultural thing. Both brothers are more than 15 years older than me. I just grew up in a different time. On my suburban block, for instance, the only guy with a woodshop…band saw, wood lathe, drill press, etc… is a professional home builder.

By contrast, my father-in-law and about 10 of his peers/neighbors have power tools in their garages.

But the winds of change of are blowing. In the last 2 years especially, empowered and enabled by the Internet, there’s been an explosion of do-it-yourself handiness, repair and invention. And thank goodness for it. Now more than ever, the world needs to be fixed!

Here are some of the best resources I know for informal learners who want to learn how to do stuff that’s handy, helpful, playful, cool, or all those.

Howtoons. Targeted at kids, it’s a 112-page comic book featuring Tucker and Celine, a brother and sister, who get off the couch and start making cool stuff like a marshmallow shooter.

Instructables.com bills itself as “The World’s Biggest Show and Tell.” It has user-generated instructions in 8 broad categories including ‘craft,’ ‘food,’ ‘green’ and this one from ‘tech’ for a “breathalyzer microphone.”

Make Magazine. Both a blog and a quarterly print magazine Make was the first to recognize a renaissance in DIY. In the current issue, No. 14, how to make an inexpensive digital microscope. On the blog, modding your scanner into a camera.

Maker Faire. Brainiacs on display in this event sponsored by Make Magazine. The first one took place in San Mateo, California and is now spreading to Austin, Texas and beyond.

Who or what am I missing? You tell me. Use the comments to suggest other DIY gems.

Informal Learning on the Street Where You Live

July 2, 2008

\Imagine if thought balloons appeared above people’s heads that told you exactly what they were willing to teach someone like you. 

  • Maybe the gentle-looking white haired fellow you pass in the aisle at the grocery store could teach you about the miracle of forgiveness.
  • Maybe the tattooed and be-pierced kid at the library texting her boyfriend could help you work through a thorny CSS challenge.
  • Maybe the well-dressed woman in the Lexus in front of you could help you understand the Upanishads. Or, belly dancing. 

Now it appears that a Seattle outfit called TeachStreet is doing just that. (Though not exactly with thought balloons).

 

Presently in beta, TeachStreet links together teachers who are willing and presumably able to teach students in Seattle. They claim to have in their database 25,000 classes, teachers, coaches, instructors and schools just in the Emerald City.

 

Here’s how it works. Suppose you’re a student who wants to learn, say, conversational Italian. You plug in the term ‘Italian language’ into the site’s search engine. When I did 86 results popped-up. Currently you can narrow the search by geography, class size, ability, schedule, and price.

 

I selected personalized lessons, evening classes, and beginner status, which left me with a more manageable six results. I clicked on the one taught by a Valentina Preziuso… whose name sounds wonderfully Italian… and it took me to her biographical area. So far Valentina has yet to post anything about her background. There’s a review section as well, but for Valentina that too is blank.

 

At the page for the class, I found a link to Amazon products and a Google Ads column, as well as information about the class and cost, times, days, etc.  

 

The class and teacher profiles are free to registered users.

 

TeachStreet is the brainstorm of Dave Schappell, the founder and CEO, and a director at Amazon from 1998- 2004, who was, as his bio says, a driving force behind Amazon’s marketplace platform.

 

So far TeachStreet is only in Seattle, but plans are in the works to expand the concept to “San Philayorkizona,” the website reports.

 

The Buddha is supposed to have said; “when the student is ready the teacher appears.”

 

Time will tell if there are enough students ready for 25,000 teachers in Seattle.