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Saturday, October 21, 2006 -- 9:03 am

The Incas, as everyone knows, were adept at developing microclimates on mountain tops (such as Machu Picchu) that were suited to each of their agricultural staples, by varying soil, sunlight, water, and exposure to wind. I imagine everyone with plants at home practices this to a certain degree when they decide who to put in the North window and who gets to look South. And I've seen those fun little tents that are supposed to help plants who need high humidity, and the little cactus huts for sprouting seeds. But generally speaking, the amount of information available to the average consumer on the optimal growing conditions for each kind of plant are really rather limited. What's the smallest pot an avocado tree will flower in? Do quenepas need full or partial sun? How much water do date palms enjoy and/or tolerate? What's the coldest temperature a mangosteen can tolerate in good health? So much of plant care, like medicine generally, seems to be a system of educated guesses rather than actual knowledge.

Saturday, October 21, 2006 -- 8:33 am

One of the things I find fascinating about the anthropology of New Guinea and Melanesia is that these are, generally, egalitarian and classless societies (described in the jargon of the field as "acephalous", no less) in which people rise to positions of leadership, and fall from them, strictly on their own merit and efforts, and without regard to money or inherited standing. In my view, as I've hinted at previously, this makes New Guinea societies an interesting microcosm from which to study certain other organizations -- Western democratic societies, for example (if in fact any may be found), or international organizations and coalitions, or professional committees. Someone aspiring to the status of "Big Man" in any of these societies needs demonstrated excellence in a variety of practical and traditional skills, such as yam growing, oratory, sorcery, combat, and, generally, networking and getting things done. The role of various forms of gift-giving in these societies as a way of establishing and maintaining relationships, and therefore as a subtle method of social regulation, has also been well-documented. It also illustrates how political figures tend to have more power than they are constitutionally vested with; it isn't that suddenly landing in office suddenly invests them with all kinds of moral authority, but that selection of someone to hold such an office is, on some level, a recognition that they already function as a leader in informal but practical ways.

This needs to be spelled out in considerably more detail. But I think that ethnographic studies of other societies have a lot to tell us about the dynamics at work in a democratic or republican form of government.

Saturday, October 21, 2006 -- 7:26 am

There's a peculiar article in yesterday's NY Times about the growth of virtual, internet-based science classes that purport to give students a laboratory experience without the equipment or expense associated with actually getting their hands dirty. There's some controversy about whether such classes should qualify for 'lab credit', and their developers argue that not only are these programs the only access students in rural or impoverished areas will have to a laboratory-based science curriculum, but such students tend to do well compared to their dirty-handed peers on certain standardized tests.

I suppose there are a number of things to say about this. One is that standardized tests are inherently biased towards the types of intelligence that are good at manipulating verbally-expressed concepts, and virtual science labs will tend to cater to that bias. When I recall my own lab experiences, both in high school and in college, my principal memory is one of frustration. I could understand how something was *supposed* to work (more or less), but it never really came out that way in execution. The copper would oxidize at some chemically impossible rate, or the bacteria would become allergic to the agar, or the frog's formaldehyde-soaked lungs bore a suspicious resemblance to boiled brussel sprouts, or something. As fascinated as I've always been by electricity and electronics, getting *anything* built with a home electronics kit to work -- even just to light up -- was a frustrating chore. Although I eventually gained a little skill with binoculars, trying to locate stars--any stars-- with a backyard telescope taught me the principle, applicable in philosophy, politics, and litigation, that magnifying a thing often causes it to disappear. Other people who were just plain better with their hands tended not to have any of these problems. So it's altogether amazing to me that I can keep my plants alive, or throw together spices in the kitchen.

So I speak as one who grew up with a decent book-based knowledge of how the experiments were *supposed* to come out, but who knew from hundreds of failed experiments how difficult it was to implement that knowledge in any practical way. And I've always dreaded situations where my academic skills are assumed to be accompanied by practical skills I may not always be able to deliver. So I'm very suspicious of the notion that a 'virtual laboratory' can be a realistic substitute for hands-on experience. Ultimately (and I've never used one), it seems like little more than a glorified textbook, presenting you with idealized experimental conditions and not giving you the experience of struggling against the less-than-ideal circumstances of actual scientific experiments. In short, it's essential to develop actual experience with manipulating laboratory tools yourself. History is filled with scientists who are great theorists, and scientists who are great experimenters, and occasionally you find a some overlap. But it seems to me that a virtual laboratory provides no opportunity to develop the manual dexterity and practical judgment needed for the second category. And depending on the self-awareness of the student, this will either inspire false confidence, or no confidence at all. I'm certainly sensitive to the frustration of not being able to afford the best science education possible; I just have severe doubts about the internet being able to provide an adequate substitute.

But there's a separate and perhaps related issue here that I'm not sure that anyone is picking up on. A few months ago I read in a science blog that the Department of Homeland Security was cracking down on sellers of home chemistry sets, and taking the position that anyone purchasing relatively innocuous (but, like all chemicals, potentially dangerous) needed first to acquire a $1000 explosives license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Makers of garage chemistry kits containing small amounts of uranium were in particularly hot water. I've mentioned earlier my concern about intellectuals always being purged when the revolution comes, but the trend I'm describing could be viewed as somewhat more insidious: doing your best to stymie intellectual growth in the first place. Now, I realize that there may well be some concerns about public safety and security, although whether those concerns have any validity when we're talking about the volume of material available in a home chemistry set (or a carry-on beverage container) is a completely different issue. But reading these two articles in conjunction, I'm get concerned that, once again, knowledge and access to knowledge are being withdrawn from the public sphere either because of economic incentives, or pretexts about security, or both. I have long been frustrated with textbooks for omitting what I regard as interesting, useful, and relevant information, and then struggling to find answers to what should otherwise be a straightforward question. I have absolutely no reason to put some of this knowledge to practical use -- how to make gunpowder, say, or how to make curare -- but I resent the fact that intellectual curiosity is regarded as inherently suspect.