Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Jim Davies to Speak at TEDxOttawa

I have been invited to speak at TEDxOttawa.

It's on Saturday, October 22, 2011.

I will be talking about my theory of education this time, on why teachers should strive to have their students do productive work for assignments. I call this philosophy "Don't Waste Student Work."

If you'd like to attend, click this link:

This is real honor, having already given a TEDx talk before. You can watch my previous talk here:

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Symbolism in the Film "Where The Wild Things Are"

This post is an analysis of the Spike Jonze film Where the Wild Things Are. I assume readers have either already seen it or don't mind my giving away what happens in it.

I was expecting a fun fantasy movie, given the fact that it's based on a children's book, and because of quirky director Jonze (who also directed Being John Malkovich.) What I didn't expect was to see one of the most emotionally moving films I've seen in years.

The film starts by establishing the emotional life of a young boy, Max. His mother works hard. His older sister ignores him to play with her friends. He builds an igloo, gets into a snowball fight with neighborhood kids, and they collapse it on him. He is scared and crying, and his sister, who is among the friends, does not help him.

His mother comes home, and tries to pay attention to him, and it's clear that she loves him, but her work is stressful and apparently in danger. She spends time on the phone while Max wants attention. He wants attention from her later when she is with a date in the living room. He acts out, ordering her around. She tells him he's out of control. He bites her and runs away.

He boats to a land where there are big monsters and becomes their king by lying to them about his powers. The society's current problem is loneliness and sadness.

The world Max enters appears to represent his mental landscape.

When he arrives, Carol (a male wild thing) is angry and smashing houses, which represents destroying the igloo. They all roughhouse and end up in a huge pile. Max is trapped inside, just like he was in the igloo. However, here he finds it comforting and warm, and they all sleep like that. Perhaps this is how he comes to grips with the igloo experience.

The main monster character, Carol, wants attention from KW. However, she does not have time for him, and wants to pay attention instead to Bob and Terry. The attraction to Bob and Terry is inexplicable because they appear to be captive birds who can only squawk. I believe Carol represents Max, KW represents his mother, and Bob and Terry represent the phone. Max's mother spends a good deal of her time talking to the phone, an entity, like the birds, that Max cannot understand.

Carol takes Max to a cave in which he has built himself a model of an ideal world. The model itself represents this new land for Max. Max instructs the wild things to manufacture a huge fort. The build it and everyone is happy.

The arrival of Bob and Terry ignites Carol's jealousy, and the society continues to unravel. Earlier Judith expresses dissatisfaction with Max, accusing him of playing favorites. She tells him that as the leader, he is never allowed to get angry. Only the subjects of the king can get angry. This is when Max comes to accept that leadership is difficult, and his mother can legitimately get upset at him.

Carol's anger increases when he feels Max drifting away, and he pulls off the arm of another wild thing, Douglas. This represents Max biting his mother. In the same scene, Max uses his mother's words on Carol: "You're out of control!"

Eventually they realize he is not a king at all. The wild things return to their melancholy state and Max returns to the real world, less selfish, and more appreciative and mature.

Overall, it's a very sad movie. The wild things are big and dangerous, but ultimately lonely and looking for a savior  He leaves them in the state he found them, or perhaps in a slightly worse state. Looking at Max's experience in the new land, he could have learned the following lessons: Leadership is difficult or impossible. People must make their own happiness and not expect others to provide it.

The wild things are unhappy, and I think they are permanently so. They are like an unhappy family, bound together but quick to be on each other's nerves. We can understand KW's need to get away. In our world, as adults anyway, we can leave our families save for occasional visits. For the wild things, there are no others.

I'm done talking about the symbolism.

This Is A Movie For Adults

Although it contains some whimsy, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this is a film for adults. However, it could be that the book is better for adults too. I found this short article interesting and convincing:

Overall I found the movie very moving. It didn't matter that the wild things were ten feet tall and had claws. They were people with problems I recognized right away. They spoke softly, intimately, with human voices and had human names. It is also the only movie I really know if that deals so effectively with anger in young children. I was almost teary-eyed in the first ten minutes. My favorite film, Kiki's Delivery Service, has a bit of that, but the anger is not as intense, and the reaction is not violent. I recommend this film for when you're feeling contemplative. It's heady, sad, and psychological. I  think children would find it boring.

Pictured: Graffiti based on the book. By Scott Woods-Fehr from Saskatoon, Canada (Where The Wild Things Are) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Reason I Love the Food Box (It's Not What You Expect)

A food box is a service that delivers a box of food (mostly fruits and vegetables) to your door every week.  My beloved and I have been getting them for a while now, and I love them. Before I explain why, I will tell you reasons other people love the food box, but don't impress me.

Bad reason 1) It's organic. 

There is no evidence that organic food is any better for you. If you inhale or inject too many pesticides, you will be hurt, but as my man Alex Gill says, everything is poisonous; it's just a matter of dosage. There is no scientific evidence that non-organic food is any worse for you.

Although organic farming might be better for the soil, because farmers are not using the strongest pesticides, you end up throwing out a lot of food. Lots of people like to eat food without pesticides, but so do pests. You end up using more farmland to get the same amount of edible food if you're going organic.

So environmentally, there appears to be a trade off, and in terms of health, there is no benefit. Since there's usually an extra cost for organic food, I would prefer, actually, if my food box were non-organic. But there are no non-organic food box services in Ottawa.

Bad reason 2) It's locally grown.

Well, some of it is. They get what they can from greenhouses and regular local farms. But we get bananas too.

People like locally grown food because of the environmental benefit. I'm not convinced that there is a benefit at all. When food is brought from long distances, it's usually shipped in bulk. The economies of scale sometimes can mean that it's less expensive, in terms of fuel, to bring an orange from Florida here in a big truck full of oranges than to drive an orange in a pick up truck full of oranges ten miles.

My box is delivered by a van, to my house. This means that instead of my walking down the block to the grocery store and back, somebody is driving around, delivering the food boxes. I'm not convinced we're doing the environment any favours.

The other thing people like about local food is that they are helping their immediate community. I think it's natural to care about the people around you more than people far away, but I also think it's wrong to do so. I have not heard a convincing argument in favour of helping local Canadians rather than helping, say, Mexicans. With a global view, everyone needs the business. In Mexico they need it even more.

So I don't particularly mind that the food is local when it can be, but I wouldn't be happy if I were paying more to help some Canadian farmer at the expense of an Argentinian, for example.

Which brings me to the actual reasons I love, I adore, the food box.

Good reason 1) It enforces variety.

We get crazy vegetables. Vegetables I've never heard of. Vegetables I would not buy because I don't know how they taste and I don't know how to cook them. Swiss chard. Pattypan squash (pictured).

Usually, when we shop, we buy things we know what to do with, and that makes us risk averse. We end up eating the same things. Now I get yellow tomatoes, weird garlic. I have to search for recipes. We've been pleasantly surprised so often. I feel like my food palate is growing a lot.

A related benefit is that opening the food box is a little like opening a Christmas stocking. We don't know what we're getting week to week.

Good reason 2) It encourages me to eat vegetables.

Even with a small food box, it's a struggle to eat all of those vegetables in a week. The result is that I'm constantly trying to eat them. I make vegetable frittatas for breakfast. I munch raw wax beans while I watch The Clone Wars. We don't go out shopping for dinner very often-- it's a matter of figuring how how to eat what we already have. If you want more vegetables in your diet-- and you probably should, if you eat a Western diet-- it's so great.

Good reason 3) It's cheaper (I think).

I'm not sure about this, but I believe it's cheaper for us to get this food box delivered than it would be to buy them at Hartman's Independent, the centretown grocery store on our block.

Good reason 4) Ethical Milk and Cheese.

Factory farms are hell on Earth for the animals that live in them, and I really don't like supporting them. I buy eggs from my co-worker Lianne, who raises chickens. Through the food box I can get milk and cheese from Quebec. The farm gives tours (factory farms tend not to) and I don't believe we have factory farms in Quebec or Ontario. So by drinking this milk and eating this cheese (it's delicious), I don't have to pay my meat offsets. If you don't know what I'm talking about, see my previous blog entry on the subject:
The milk is definitely not cheaper than grocery store milk, but I can't find ethical milk elsewhere.

We love the food box and recommend it to anyone who finds compelling any of the reasons above.

Pictured: Romanesco broccoli or fractal broccoli is an edible flower of the species Brassica oleracea and a variant form of cauliflower. I ate this recently too from our food box. We use Ottawa Organics and are quite happy with it.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

I'll be Giving a Talk on Imagination and Virtual Reality

Speaker: Dr. Jim Davies, Carleton Institute of Cognitive Science
When: Thursday September 15, 11:45am-1:00pm
Where: Dunton Tower 2203, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Title: Imagination: The Third Reality to the Virtuality Continuum

Abstract: Both the art and science of the imagination have integral roles in defining compelling Mixed Reality (MR) experiences. In this paper we argue that the audience member's own imagination is an essential third kind of input in defining the full virtuality continuum for MR. It is traditionally accepted that there are two experiential inputs in MR incorporating a combination of stimuli of the real world as well as from artifacts (typically from computers). Using a case study of a MemoryScape Prototype for the Maitland Holocaust Museum, we show how, in addition to reality and augmented/virtual reality, imagination scientifically serves as an important third reality to the virtuality continuum to achieve the experience designer's intent for the audience’s perception of MR experiences.

The paper this talk is based on was co-authored with Chris Stapleton at the University of Central Florida.

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Monday, September 05, 2011

Can You Imagine a Three-sided Square?

Can you imagine a three-sided square? Try it.

In one sense of "imagine," you can, and in another, you can't. Let's start with the "can't."

Sometimes, when people use the term imagination, they are referring to mental imagery. Mental imagery is when you generate sensory like experiences from your own mind, rather than from the environment, through your sensory organs. This happens when you dream, and when you hear a song in your head. If you try to picture a three-sided square, you're not going to be able to do it.  As soon as it has more or fewer than four sides, it ceases to be a square.

However, not all of imagination is mental imagery.  When you are entertaining hypothetical situations, you can imagine statements. For example, if you imagine that you were jealous, it need not be even accompanied by any mental imagery. It's just a fact that you're entertaining. In this sense of the word, you can imagine a three-sided square. You just can't picture it.

Will this imagined fact lead to contradictions? Perhaps. This is what we mean when we say things like "I can't imagine he's like that for his birthday." What we mean is that, given the other things we know about the world, we think it's very unlikely. But if those inferences are not made, then the contradictions might not be detected. And in any case, the fact can be imagined. We can imagine contradictions too.

This is a problem for non-Euclidian geometry. A cube is a three-dimensional analog of a square. We can picture cubes. The lesser-known tesseract is a four-dimensional analog of a cube. Can you picture that? No, although the image above is an attempt. We can't picture more than three spatial dimensions without flattening it out to three.

But can we, in some sense, imagine four spatial dimensions? Of course. There are huge areas of mathematics that require this.  When I did work at Los Alamos National Laboratories, we had to do vector calculations in 17,576 dimensions. Don't be too impressed; the math is actually rather simple. But you'll drive yourself crazy trying to picture it.

One idea that physicists have for the shape of the universe is a three-dimensional surface of a sphere. What does this mean?

Picture a balloon covered with dots made by a sharpie. The surface of the balloon is space, and the dots are galaxies. Because of the big bang, the surface of the balloon is gaining area. It's getting bigger. Got it?

The surface of a balloon is two-dimensional. It's a flat sheet that happens to be curved. The rubber of the balloon itself is, of course, there-dimensional, but we're not talking about that-- we're only taking about the surface.

Now here's the tricky part. In the case of the universe, the surface is three-dimensional. You might have heard that if you were to travel far enough in a single direction in the universe you'd end up back at the same place. This is true. It's like being an ant on the surface of a balloon. No matter where the ant walks, it can't leave the surface of the balloon, and eventually it will come around to where it was. Everywhere the ant looks, there are dots. Likewise, we see stars all around us.

The misconception people have with the big bang is that it's like an exploding firework-- a bunch of stars moving in some larger space. But it's not. The surface of the expanding balloon is all the space there is. The "inside" and "outside" of the balloon does not exist. All of space is in the surface of the balloon. And it's expanding, which, in three dimensions, means that the distance between all of the galaxies is getting greater. This is why all stars appear (in our telescopes) to be moving away from us. That's what happens to a dot on an expanding balloon, too. In fact, it's better to think not of the stars as moving, but as space expanding between them.

And "before" the big bang, there was no space at all. There was a time, long ago, when the entire universe was a single square foot (it didn't stay that way for long). There was nothing outside of that square foot. No space, no stars, nothing.

Can you picture that? No, you can't.

But you just might be able to imagine it.

Pictured: A tesseract. This work has been released into the public domain by its author, JasonHise at the English Wikipedia project. This applies worldwide.

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