Monday, August 28, 2006

The Roots of Things

For awhile now, I've been fascinated by the realization that the behavior of light, heat, energy, sound, color can all be described and represented, to some extent, in terms of waves. Because (at least at this point in my life) I believe that truth is consistent across contexts, and that the observation of similar patterns across contexts is a sure sign that something fundamentally important is at play, I started wondering about the potentially important truths embedded in that phenomenon.

As I explored, I discovered that light is cropping up as an important theme in all sorts of unusual places--Appliance Design magazine regularly contains articles that refer to light-based innovations, including the use of blue light to reduce bacteria in the mouth that causes tooth decay, the use of light to weld certain plastics, etc. Other articles in science magazines talk about things like quantum dots, the use of light as a mechanism for storing information, or the influence that light has on children's ability to learn (in one study, full spectrum lighting improved test scores by something like 67% . . . but replacing flourescent lights with full spectrum lights is expensive . . . so we continue to default to alternatives like attempting to use standardized testing to coerce change in student achievement).

All of these ideas seem to have a couple of things in common--a relationship to electromagnetic fields and, more generally, an association with quantum mechanics. Naturally, I wanted to know more about that. Unfortunately, math and I have not always been on speaking terms,
though, and I found that as a result, I didn't have the mathematical background to understand the answers to the questions I was asking. Fortunately, a friend of mine who is a theoretical mathematician, among other things, spent the better part of a year convincing me that math is a part of daily life, and that if I could live life, I could understand math. Through our conversations, coupled with a number of diagrams and three dimensional demonstrations, I learned about fractals, Julia sets, Mandlebrot spots, vanishing points, harmonics, vectors, pivot tables, and a host of other interesting things that I never knew existed and that I never could have guessed I would find so incredibly compelling. I suddenly had an appetite for things mathematical, and, more importantly, the confidence that I could digest them once I had consumed them.

Since then, I have been relying on sporadic, fortuitous contacts with physicists and mathematicians that life in a research one university affords, and their patient and good-humored explanations, to slowly fill in the gaping holes in my understanding of many of the fundamental principles that govern the world.

During one recent conversation of this nature, another friend suggested that I consult a book entitled, The Roots of Things: Topics in Quantum Mechanics for answers to some of my questions that were written for a lay person with only minimal references to math. Although I have to say that his definition of minimal and mine certainly differ, I have made it to page 63--pretty impressive for someone who finds that somnolence overcomes her the minute a mathematical equation crosses the page!

So, my next few postings will be an attempt to make sense of some of the things that I'm reading.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Textbook Transformations

Ads Coming to Textbooks

We've seen start-up companies change the face of a variety of industries, so the idea that a start-up company could exert sufficient influence on the markets to pressure textbook conglomerates to change is not unimaginable. However, the vignettes about textbook industries who have tried ad-filled textbooks and rejected the model is amusing to me in the sense that it epitomizes the one-chance-one-strategy-at-a-time, top-down, business model sort of approach (the most important people are the professors who decide what texts to use) instead of a more creative, flexible, imaginative approach that demonstrates an understanding of the "real" target audience (students), the pressures at play in the system (including the inflexibility of textbook conglomerates), and uses a bundled set of strategies to leverage change at multiple points in the system. I wonder if the textbook publishing industry will pay attention, or if it will wait until it finds itself scrambling to keep market share. I think in the digital age, it is dangerous to assume that the old models will continue to work, that bigger is better, that those with the most money will be the most likely to succeed. There are other kinds of capital besides that of a financial nature, and people are starting to figure out how to use it.

The "between the lines" part of this article is also interesting. The article begins with the premise that professors select textbooks because they are critical to students' learning. It continues to extrapolate that premise by suggesting that students who choose not to buy the texts must be missing out on the materials, and equates missed material as missed learning. If the initial premise was sound, the logic might hold, but . . . ;-)

The most interesting part of this model to me are the downloadable texts and iChapters. Convenient, customizable, economical, searchable . . . certainly likely to appeal to a generation of students who are constantly connected.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Of Conversations, Chopping, & Conceptual Cropping

So I've been thinking today . . .

I'm discovering that face-to-face conversations are critical components of my ability to synthesize. I know that I often prefer them to other media (assuming I have the option of an interesting one), but I wasn't totally aware of what they do for me until yesterday and today.

Had several interesting conversations with 4 different people in the last 2 days. All of them were about different topics, but I walked away with major insights from each one—insights that came after 10-15 minutes of conversation in almost every case (in other words, it wasn't the length of the conversation that produced the insight).

Explaining my thoughts to other people and having them bounce questions back helps me "crop" the ideas quickly (think of a chef chopping vegetables—slice, slice, slice so quickly and so decisively that you wonder how he manages to miss his fingers each time—well, I noticed my mind doing that today. One comment and slice, there went a huge chunk of the idea, a question and chop, there went another major piece, until after a few minutes, the whole thing is crystal clear and very condensed in my head.)

Applying the concept of cropping to ideas is interesting to me.