Alain de Botton on things secularists can learn from religion

This is a really, really good talk. Watch!

Advertisements

“The air that they breathe”

Susan Cain wrote a book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking*, on introversion in contemporary society. We reserved types get little respect: students are forced to work in groups rather than independently; office spaces are more and more often based on an open plan (mine is, and I wish it weren’t); and if an introvert doesn’t act like an extravert, she and her ideas will probably be overlooked because others won’t shut up and listen. Cain would put it more politely, I’m sure, but that’s the situation, and she argues in the book that the world is missing out. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s one of the next on my list.

{Rant:} On the point of classroom arrangements forcing kids to always work in groups, there’s another problem that has less to do with introversion, although I wouldn’t be surprised at all if introverts are more often the victims. If you make kids work in groups, and grade them as a group, the “good” students will get stuck doing most or all of the work while the other half watch and get the same grade for doing nothing. This happened to me countless times in school, and since I didn’t want to be labelled a nark and treated worse by classmates who already thought I was (gasp) a nerd, I didn’t complain to teachers most of the time.

There was a project in middle school social studies, for example, where we had to write a report and design a pamphlet about a foreign country (Zambia, in my case). We were put into groups of three or four, and when the other two in my group heard that I was the third, they both exclaimed “Yesss!” loudly enough for the teacher to hear, though she paid no attention. They knew me well enough to know that they had a free ‘A’ on the project just by being in my group, because I cared enough about my own grades to do nearly everything myself, however much I wanted them to suffer the consequences of their laziness. There were no consequences for laziness in group work, if there was one straight-A student, unless she was willing to sacrifice her own grade and get an ‘F.’ I was not willing, and they knew it.

And this didn’t happen just in middle school, it happened at every level of the educational system that graded group work: in a college art class, I and two other freshmen had to let the upperclassman in our group get away with contributing nothing (or worse than nothing–she wasted our time by asking us for the information she had agreed to research herself, before emailing us a one- or two-paragraph write-up that wasn’t worthy of a second-grader, so we had to write that section of the paper from scratch when we should have been putting on the finishing touches). We explained the entire situation to the professor when we turned in our report, and she basically said we had to suck it up because she couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything based on our word (and our copies of the girl’s email and each draft of our paper).

This is why I’m utterly opposed to graded group work at, really, any level of the school system. Working in groups is fine and sometimes useful, especially for talking ideas through, but putting a grade on it encourages cheaters and freeloaders to sit by and get a free grade at the expense of those who, through peer pressure or hopelessness, won’t rat them out. {/rant}

(Sorry.) Anyway, now Cain has given a TED talk, and it’s quite good. Do introverts everywhere a favor and watch (and share!):

From the talk:

“So I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why we were supposed to be so rowdy or why we had to spell this word incorrectly.” 😀

“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

“Solitude matters and…for some people, it’s the air that they breathe.”

“I wish you the best of all possible journeys and the courage to speak softly.”

* With a pretty lovely cover design. I mean just look at that ‘Q’! Beautiful. 🙂 (/fontnut)

Wherein I go to the Sunshine State only qua nerd

That’s right, qua. Like it.

NASA has, for at least a couple of years now, run events called tweetups for their followers on Twitter. A group of tweeps descends upon one of the NASA space centers for the event, which can last two days and is focused on a launch scheduled at that space center. They bring in speakers (Bill Nye was at the last one!), tour the facilities, and watch the launch. And of course, the tweeps get to meet each other in person and hang out for good times. 🙂 I first learned about these tweetups at some point in the last few months (probably after the GRE, since I was a wee bit oblivious to everything else while I prepped for that).

On September 8, if all goes well, NASA will launch the twin GRAIL craft to the moon from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This launch has an associated tweetup, for which over 800 people registered–only 150 can come, picked randomly. Now, my luck has a history of being quite bad, but somehow, somehow, my name was one of those pulled. So I’m going to Florida to see a rocket launch at KSC!

I have never been to Florida before; I’ve never been to a NASA facility; I didn’t even know about NASA tweetups a few months ago. Now I have plane tickets, lodging, and rides all or nearly all sorted out; I’ll be staying in a beach house with five other tweeps who all seem like a cool bunch; and my Twitter and Facebook streams have more or less exploded in a flurry of space-nerd fervor. Chouette, non?

What I can’t decide is whether to let myself use the tweetup as an excuse to get a Canon G series camera at long (loooonng) last. I’ve been eyeing those cameras since the G9 came out but could never justify spending that kind of money–especially when I was in college, working (essentially) with a fixed budget. But now…

Now the Canon G13 is likely to come out in another month or two, if not sooner. They’ve kept a tight lid on the release date, so as far as I know it could be released on Monday or in October. I would really like to wait for that camera. But my current (old) little point & shoot won’t cut it, and I’m loath to ask to use (or in fact to use) my brother’s Rebel.

Ah, dilemmas. 😛

I guess I’ll have to post more about GRAIL itself later. Meanwhile, this seems somewhat apropos. Also it’s stuck in my head (may it become stuck in yours):

Favorite piano works: Bach’s Goldberg Variation #1

I’ve recently been discovering more wonderful classical piano; last year sometime it was Chopin, then it was Mozart, now it’s Bach. (I think Beethoven will be next, thanks to Glenn Gould and Andràs Schiff.)

The most recent incarnation of BMG, where I bought my first cds back in middle school, closed at the end of June. They gave members several weeks’ warning and deals leading right up to the end, so I decided to take advantage. I’ve never known them to carry much in the way of indie rock or folk music; and I certainly wouldn’t get my Keren Ann or Carla Bruni fix there. But they usually have a decent enough variety of classical music, so I browsed through their whole classical section, period by period–Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern. I found quite a lot that I’d recommend readily (links go to their Amazon product pages, since yourmusic.com is no more):

Finally, the most recent album to arrive, there is Dong Hyek Lim’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I gather from reviews that piano enthusiasts believe a pianist should be a good bit older than Lim is before he attempts the Goldberg Variations (he is not even a year older than me and recorded this work some three years ago).

As far as I can tell, youth did him no harm in this album; his playing is clean, breezy, and great fun to listen to. My favorite variation (youtube below) is the first one, which climbs, runs, and skips, always almost tripping over itself in its exuberance. It’s one of those pieces that gives you the impression that you are actually watching the notes dance over the piano as it plays, like little lightning bugs flashing in the air. It is like Debussy’s Arabesque #1 in that way, and this leaves me torn: now I don’t know which one I love more!

Here it is (the cd version has better editing and feels fuller, but this is still lovely, especially if you close your eyes and just listen). Please, enjoy. 🙂

In defense of the James Webb Space Telescope

Yesterday I heard through Phil Plait on Twitter (who writes Discover’s Bad Astronomy blog) that a new budget draft from the House Appropriations Committee would slash budgets for the sciences, most notably that of NASA, whose budget for FY 2012 would be $1.6 billion lower than this year. That’s a huge cut, and the bill would explicitly scrap the entire James Webb Space Telescope project!

JWST is seen as being the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been operating for over 20 years and has contributed immensely to our understanding of the cosmos. (Tidbit: We knew the universe is expanding, thanks to Edwin Hubble in the first half of the 20th century, but it was his namesake space telescope that showed us that not only is the universe expanding, that expansion is speeding up!) Hubble has peered back almost to the origins of the first galaxies; James Webb would take us even further. With it, we could see the formation of the first galaxies and stars; could see stars forming inside the clouds of gas and dust that obscure them from Hubble’s view. We could look for planets orbiting other suns, and even get a picture of what elements those planets harbor–that’s so much more than the faint hint of a planet that we get now with Kepler! We could look at other planets, outside our solar system!

In case you haven’t seen my earlier post on Hubble and my interest in things astronomical, it was the stunning imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope that first piqued my curiosity about galaxies and star clusters and nebulae. These images are breathtaking, some of them bizarre, some ethereal, some almost incredible: they are like works of art. But they’re not paintings, not mere imagined things; these are images of objects, flaming gas balls, pinwheels of light, and dusty clouds some of which are hundreds of thousands of light-years across and millions or billions of light-years away (millions or billions of years in the past!) and all of which are really out there in the vast dark of our universe. Can you even begin to imagine such immense size or distance? Can you wrap your head around the fact that by looking through a telescope in space, we can look at the past–so far in the past that we can almost see the universe before it even had galaxies? This was the power of Hubble for me; but Hubble’s life is almost over, and it’s time for something new to take its place. James Webb can be that something for a whole new generation, but only if we see it through.

There are billions of dollars invested in JWST already. The mirrors, it was announced last week, are fully polished. The equipment, part by part, is being completed. This telescope is at the top of the priorities for astrophysics research, described in Nature News as “the key to almost every big question that astronomers hope to answer in the coming decades;” its importance for America’s standing in the field of astronomy is hard to overstate, and its power to captivate and engage the interest of the public will probably be at least as great as that of Hubble. And the House Appropriations Committee is telling us to throw all that away when we have already come so far.

We are already losing the shuttle program. Please, please don’t let this happen to JWST.

Links to more info here:

And here, a pretty entertaining vlog advocating for the JWST: