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Posts tagged ‘technology’

STEM Students Can (and Should) Dream Big Too

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It’s a tough time to be a student. Landing a halfway decent job is always a struggle, but recent graduates have to deal with a weak economy and devalued degrees, all while more and more of them need to take out loans and find other methods of paying for their education.

Students, you get hit with a flood of advice at all times. (I realize the irony of saying this while being another of many voices telling you what to do.) Lately, there’s been popular refrain among post-graduation advice: get a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) major and earn more money. Just look at these headlines: “Face the Facts: STEM degrees earn the highest paying jobs,” “STEM jobs pay more, reduce the wage gap between men and women,” “STEM Workers are in High Demand.” Study after study indicate that STEM jobs pay better than other fields and that investing your time in something like art, English, or God forbid, theater, is not a wise investment of your tuition dollars.

As an English and art major myself, it goes without saying that I’m not too keen on seeing my chosen areas of study get put down so often, but that’s not what this article is about.

I think there’s a danger in the tone we’ve set about discussing STEM degrees and jobs. The narrative in so many articles (and in many a Reddit thread) is that STEM students are inherently more valuable, that they do serious work, while we liberal arts majors play around with frivolous things. The tone is dismissive, condescending, and accordingly, really, really easy to ignore. Specifically, by focusing so much on money, we’re doing a disservice to the aspects of creativity and inspiration that can exist in the hard sciences.

That last part is the problem. Very few college students choose their area of study according to future earning potential. And telling them over and over again about the money isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Why? Because students are going to study what they find interesting, engaging, and exciting on a day-to-day basis. Future potential money is not as much of a motivator.

The more students think of STEM as the practical and stable area of study, the less the field fosters imagination. And that’s a real problem with the current American attitude towards science. There’s an obsession with practical application of science and a decreased focus on programs that don’t have immediately accessible real-world applications, like NASA or particle physics. Politicians and bureaucrats are overly concerned with the short-term return-on-investment of the sciences, and inherently distrustful of science of science’s sake. Unfortunately, it’s the latter that usually leads to great leaps forward, either through happy accidents or by making little bits of progress that can be carried, football-like, further down the field by later researchers.

Only one in a million of those dreams ever need to come true, but as a society, we aren’t doing enough to foster STEM dreams. Dreams are being dominated by the people who want to write the great American novel or become a world-famous actor or musician.

Most people with STEM degrees aren’t professional scientists, just as most English majors aren’t professional writers. But the ultimate reason for going to college only half lays with the question “What job can I get with this degree?” English majors mostly aren’t writers, but studying literature and the written word inform their broader world view, teach them to appreciate the arts, and help define the person they will be and the work they will do in a thousand unknowable ways.

Studying the sciences is no different. If we want more students to study STEM, we only need to show them how much they’ll get out of a STEM degree. Not the money or the degree, but curiosity, engagement, and that one in a million chance of finding something, not really practical, but really cool.

Ray Bradbury Loved and Hated the Future

Last week, legendary science fiction author Ray Bradbury passed away at the age of 91. If you’ve only read one of his books, it was probably Fahrenheit 451, but if you read more, they’d probably include Something Wicked This Way Comes or a few of the hundreds of short stories he published in his lifetime, such as There Will Come Soft Rains. Or maybe you’d be more familiar with the screenplays he wrote for The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

To say he was an influential writer is a pretty massive understatement. It would be better to say that he bridged the gap between classic and modern science fiction. He was equally comfortable with the wildly imaginative (strongly influenced by a childhood full of L. Frank Baum, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs) as the psychological and personal. He wrote apocalyptic and distopian fiction, pure fantasy, noir, dark comedy, and sometimes two or three of these at the same time.

Last year, Ray Bradbury made a few headlines when he finally agreed to let Fahrenheit 451 be distributed as an ebook. He was a long hold-out against the technology, saying:

Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.

To be honest, I’m a little confused about his complaint against portability, when that’s exactly what ebooks are supposed to offer. And I’ve also never understood why “smell” always comes up as an argument about ebooks. (I guess because it’s the sense closely associated with memory.) But I’m not criticizing Bradbury or his viewpoint at all. If I ever make it to 91, I’m going to hate whatever fancy new garbage inventions my grandkids come up with.

What’s important to take away from the story is that Bradbury felt there were certain more intimate aspects of human interaction that couldn’t be replaced by technology, as much as technology was going to try. You can see that viewpoint running through all of his books. There Will Come Soft Rains tells the story of the gadgets in an automated household running through all their daily motions long after the human inhabitants have died. Fahrenheit 451 includes a subplot about protagonist Guy Montag’s wife, who’s addicted to a wall-size interactive television, which provides her with a virtual version of a social life. That’s a powerful image, probably even more so today in a world with social media sites and video games that primarily serve as social settings, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft.

(As an aside, director Frank Darabont has long been saying he wants to release an updated film version of Fahrenheit 451. If it ever gets made, I wonder if those sort of details from the book will be updated for a modern view of the future.)

But while it’s easy to think of Bradbury’s prescient fiction as condemning future tech and attitudes, that’s really not the case. He was critiquing, not condemning. No one who becomes a science fiction writer can be a complete technophobe. Bradbury clearly loved the promise of exploration that came with the future. Shortly before he died, he even stated that he wants his remains to be entombed on Mars. (And proving how much he wasn’t intimidated or threatened by new technology, he said this on a podcast.)

I want to be buried on Mars. I don’t want to be the first live person to arrive there. It’ll be too late. But I want to be the first dead person that gets there. I want to arrive in a Campbell’s soup can.

Anytime Bradbury did express caution about technology, whether through his fiction or through interviews, the theme was always the same. There’s never any reason to be afraid of progress. We should just always be aware of the weaknesses of human nature. Another great quote:

I’m not afraid of machines. I don’t think the robots are taking over. I think the men who play with toys have taken over. And if we don’t take the toys out of their hands, we’re fools.

Bradbury both loved and hated the future and that conflict is precisely what made him such a brilliant writer. His voice was perfectly poised between excitement and trepidation. He was fascinated with the creations of humanity’s progress, and terrified of how they could be twisted and exploited.

Why the Government Confiscated High School Sports Footage

Source: Talking Points Memo IdeaLab

Where do you save your files? I mean the really important ones. Ones that you couldn’t afford to lose if your computer went kaput. Do you have an external hard drive? Do you stash them in a cloud service like Dropbox? Or do you just keep them in “My Documents” and hope that nothing bad ever happens to your CPU?

Kyle Goodwin tried to do the responsible thing and back up the videos for his business OhioSportsNet, a company that creates highlight reels and documentaries on local high school athletes for prospective colleges. But he made the mistake of entrusting them to the recently FBI-raided file-sharing site Megaupload. When the government locked down Megaupload, they also locked down Goodwin’s access to all his files.

To make matters worse, Goodwin’s hard drive crashed shortly before the raid. Everything was either lost or turned into evidence for a copyright infringement case against Megaupload. Remember, this is all footage that customers were paying him to film and edit. No copyright infringement here, just a man getting punished for using the wrong company.

You could say that Goodwin should’ve known better than to trust a seedy website with important business files. I’m going to assume that Goodwin had never heard about Megaupload founder and CEO Kim Dotcom. (Yes, he did legally change his name to “Dotcom.” I can see it on an XFL jersey now.) Because even if he didn’t know that Dotcom had initially earned his millions off insider trading and embezzlement, a picture of the human-doughboy hybrid should be more than enough info to know just how classy of an operation he was running. But even if Goodwin’s decision was shortsighted, it wasn’t wrong. He certainly doesn’t deserve to lose his business over this one bad call.

I’ve got no sympathy for Dotcom, but plenty for people like Goodwin. And unfortunately, there will probably be a lot more people like him caught in the crossfire as the government tries to regulate the Internet to shut down piracy.

On our old blog, I wrote a lot about SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and the many, many problems with the way its broad definition could incriminate a lot of innocent people. Fortunately, the strongly vocal opposition to the bill forced it to fizzle out. But there’s a new, similar bill in Congress now called CISPA. It allows for information sharing between the government and companies in the name of security. It hasn’t yet generated the sort of outrage SOPA did, but its opponents are complaining about the same thing: The language is too broad to work as a policy.

I’m definitely not one of those Guy Fawkes-masked Anonymous types. There needs to be some level of regulation on the Internet to protect owners of intellectual property. But even when lawmakers mean well, they always seem to get the details wrong. I really believe that SOPA and CISPA aren’t intended to actively trample your rights, they’re just written by people with a terrible understanding of how the Internet works.

A lot more time needs to be spent figuring out how to punish the Kim Dotcoms of the world without hurting the Kyle Goodwins in the process.

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