Dec 28, 2007

the language of Alzheimer's

My inner ear is not known for its cleverness in cars. On the ride from Burlington, VT back home to Marlboro, VT last night, I got spectacularly carsick (not unusual, sadly). I spent almost all of the ride slumped motionless in my seat, reminding myself which way was up and attempting to breathe. My poor parents kept trying to ask how I was doing, but all I could manage to do was mumble and wave my left hand in a feeble attempt at "thumbs up".

But even though my verbal communication was totally nonexistent, I was able to think about stuff during that car ride. We'd been in Burlington to visit my grandparents. My grandfather has both Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Both are very advanced. He's quite shaky, and sometimes he can't remember how to walk or sit up, so he spends most of his time lying on the couch. Two or three minutes of slow walking exhausts him. He still speaks a little bit, mostly in response to questions, and occasionally on his own. He doesn't recognize anybody except for my grandmother, and he only recognizes her 50% of the time these days. But in so many ways, he hasn't changed. His expressions and mannerisms, though displayed on a failing body, are totally recognizable. He can sing along to almost any hymn - including all of the words. And, most significantly, his pronounced sweet tooth and fondness for dessert has only been magnified as the disease has progressed. He may not remember how to read, but ice cream? He knows all about that.

While we were visiting, I took a walk downtown with my family. As we milled around, I remembered that Amanda Baggs lives in downtown Burlington and I wondered if I was anywhere near her apartment. I remembered
reading a post somewhere on her blog that said that anybody friendly was welcome to visit her, which I thought was an disarmingly generous offer. Of course, I never did find her apartment (though I must have been close). But if I had found it, and if I had actually summoned up the courage to knock on her door - an unlikely prospect, I know, but it's just imaginary - and she had been in a chatty mood, we would have had an unusual conversation. She probably would have used her speech synthesizer, and I probably would have spoken out loud.

I saw Amanda Baggs' video "In My Language" long before I found her blog. In her video, she explains that her native language is not really English, but a constant interaction with every part of the world around her. Though she does speak fluent English, it is taxing for her when she types it, and nearly impossible if she tries to speak out loud. (Similar, I think, to the way I have increasing difficulty speaking my second languages as I get more tired.) I took her video as a challenge never to assume that any living thing (human or animal) is unintelligent or unfeeling on the grounds that he, she, or it cannot communicate in my language. In some ways, that's obvious - I don't assume a Frenchman is an idiot just because he cannot speak English. And one reason I'm a vegetarian is because I'm not fluent in the language of chickens, cows or pigs, so they can't tell me that they'd like a chance to keep on living, and so I defer to the (reasonable, I think) assumption that living things want to keep living. Because it's silly to assume that somebody or something you can't communicate with is less worthy of life than you are. (Don't get all cheeky and tell me I shouldn't eat plants because I can't talk to them either. Philosophy only goes so far - I will, in fact, kill plants to ensure my own survival. I like living too.)

But what about Alzheimer's? Is there a language of Alzheimer's? Should I have learned it long ago? So often, people speak to my grandfather like he's just a shell of a person, with no consciousness at all. His attention to the present time and place does seem to fade in and out, but I doubt his mind is blank during those times. What must he be thinking about? As his brain melts away little by little, is he creating a new language?

So far, I only know one word in the my grandfather's new language: dessert. That's my main method of communication. Ice cream, brownies, chocolates, pie, whipped cream. The deliciousness of these things is a point of understanding. A good bite of dessert, and there's a twinkle in his eye, a knowing look, a little nod of the head. Good communicatin'.

Emily in a hammock

If I were a rat on vacation, and I could do whatever I wanted with my days, I think I just might nap in my hammock, too :)

Dec 10, 2007


Available at are .wav recordings (done by Kontakt Player*, which is a crummy synthesizer) of my minuet & trio and art song**. PDFs of the music included for the curious. There is also a recording of a live - and professional - quartet playing my minuet & trio. Lastly, a live performance of my chamber group playing the Schumann piano quintet.

*The synthesizer recordings each have some bizarre hiccups in the sound that seem inevitable - my computer just can't keep up.

**Forthcoming: live performance of my art song.

Dec 8, 2007

Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants

This essay by Marc Prensky is really interesting. It's the first formal attempt that I'm aware of to qualify the difference in experience between young people interacting with digital technology, and adults interacting with digital technology. Much of the essay is about how "Digital Natives" now learn in a fundamentally different way, and the "Digital Immigrants" who are trying to teach them are going about it all wrong. I have my own opinions there (below), but first...

I expect that most of my fellow classmates here at MIT have, like me, been called upon by relatives - particularly parents and grandparents - to explain, fix or set up computers. We get frustrated phone calls about error messages, and during our trips home we often teach new computer skills and fix problems.

In most cases, us "Digital Natives" were not taught how to use computers. Some of us may have had Apple II computers in elementary school (used for playing Oregon Trail or other games), and some (like me) had typing lessons - but we are definitely self-taught. It it that learning how to use computers is like learning a language - it takes effort and structure as an adult, and happens much more organically as a child?

Perhaps - this article by Sugata Mitra is incredible. So often adults assume that complex skills, like using a computer, require regimented, segmented, carefully planned exposition in order to be absorbed by young minds. (Just look at how we teach math in this country! Or even reading for that matter! If you want proof that people can - and always do - learn to read with no instruction at all, look here.) Mitra's article shows just the opposite. Children (poor slum children, lest one suggest that only the privileged can master these things) given access to a computer, which appeared with no fanfare, instruction, or even the childrens' native language, figured out how to use it.

Three quotes from Mitra's article relating to Prensky's Native/Immigrant Digital Divide (apologies for the length, but it's interesting, you see):

"It was a social observation rather than a scientific one. Any parent who had given his child a computer would invariably remark to me about it. I could hardly ever find an exception. Within a very short period of time, the parent would be claiming that the child was a genius with a computer. When I poked a little further, I invariably found that the child was doing things with the computer that the parent didn't understand."

"Well, I tried another experiment. I went to a middle-class school and chose some ninth graders, two girls and two boys. I called their physics teacher in and asked him, "What are you going to teach these children next year at this time?" He mentioned viscosity. I asked him to write down five possible exam questions on the subject. I then took the four children and said, "Look here guys. I have a little problem for you." They read the questions and said they didn't understand them, it was Greek to them. So I said, "Here's a terminal. I'll give you two hours to find the answers."

Then I did my usual thing: I closed the door and went off somewhere else.

They answered all five questions in two hours. The physics teacher checked the answers, and they were correct. That, of itself, doesn't mean much. But I said to him, "Talk to the children and find out if they really learned something about this subject." So he spent half an hour talking to them. He came out and said, "They don't know everything about this subject or everything I would teach them. But they do know one hell of a lot about it. And they know a couple of things about it I didn't know.""

"I'm not even going to suggest that we use this [technique] for adults. The only reaction we got from adults was, "What on earth is this for? Why is there no one here to teach us something? How are we ever going to use this?" I contend that by the time we are 16, we are taught to want teachers, taught that we cannot learn anything without teachers."

So. Here's the real question - is there a *fundamental* difference between how adults and children learn to use computers? Or, as Mitra suggests, are adults taught that they need teachers?


I want to mention some of the characteristics Prensky identifies about Digital Natives, because although I think he brings up some really good points, I disagree with him on several counts.

Here's a quote from his essay describing what Digital Natives are like:

"Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work."

(Importantly to what I am going to say, he also mentions: 1) that Digital Immigrants have a tendency to assume that Learning Is Serious Business and shouldn't be confused with playtime and 2) that Digital Natives, widely assumed to have lost the ability to memorize anything because of the internet, in fact memorize lots of stuff - just not academics.)

As a Digital Native, here's what I think: Yes, I'm used to receiving information fast. I get irritated by slow internet connections. But take the internet away altogether - say, when hiking - and I don't go crazy. I don't think young people are dependent on the internet in order to think - which is an attitude I often hear, as if our brains have been outsourced. Why WOULDN'T we use it? It's a miracle tool! I think that teenagers often say things like "I can't live without my cell phone", when what they really mean is "I can't live without my friends", and that's certainly not unusual for a teenager of any era!

Do I like to parallel process and multi-task? Eh, sometimes. I don't really see what relevance this has to the debate. My mom multi-tasks just as much as I do, and she's squarely in the Digital Immigrant category. Do I prefer graphics before text? Not necessarily. While I do like pictures, actually, I find web pages with distracting images irritating. When I'm looking for information, I don't want extraneous pictures.

(In general I think Prensky's points about multi-tasking and graphics are somewhat prey to the stereotype of sugarhigh 10 year olds who can't be sedated except by jittery videogames and more sugar. I'm not sure these children actually exist. If there is actually a 10 year old who can't sit still for something he or she is interested in, I have yet to meet him or her.)

Do I prefer random access (like hypertext)? Yes! Absolutely. I think this is one of the most important points Prensky makes. If you have hypertext, you're not limited to learning things in a linear fashion. You can build a network of knowledge, at your own pace. If you learn differently from other people (which, by the way, is true of, well, everybody), you have the freedom to take your own winding path through information.

Now, do I thrive on instant gratification? No. Unless you count having a web page load as "gratification" - which I don't. This idea implies that Digital Natives have no goals that they are willing to pursue for any length of time, and that they crave less meaningful, more instant rewards. I think what IS true is that many young people are bored by textbook classroom teaching, which presents information with no excitement or joy. If pleasure in learning is what Prensky means by "gratification", then I think he's right. And then, I would ask, why should anybody put up with learning that is not fun, when it has the potential to be fun?

Prensky says that Digital Natives thrive on games as opposed to serious work. Well, good for them. Good for us. If learning and living can be more fun than it currently is in schools - and I can certainly attest to the fact that secondary education is NOT FUN - why on earth would we choose not to have fun? Some sort of puritanical guilt? Prensky and Mitra and Dodd (the author of the page on reading) all give examples of people learning without forced instruction, and having a good time doing it. Prensky points out that young people are pefectly capable of memorizing worlds of information about Pokemon, but seem incapable of memorizing the capitals of the world. The internet hasn't outsourced our brains or killed our curiosity - in fact, my personal experience would lead me to believe that it's given me more food for thought than any other resource I have. Thank goodness that young people today are realizing that we needn't divide our lives in to Serious and Fun.

Dec 7, 2007

a proud moment

I had a proud moment today.

A while ago, I realized that a class I took for fun last year, 6.002 (Electronics+Circuits), counts as a Restricted Elective in my major. Great news - it means I have inadvertently completed all my graduation requirements (except the capstone project next semester), and can take basically whatever I want during my senior spring. Yay!

But, alas, I realized shortly afterward that since I took 6.002 Pass/Fail, I can't use it to count towards anything at all. I thought that was really a shame. It was doubly a shame because I know that I got an "A" in the class (my TA told me), and I felt stupid for passing up 15 units of Restricted Elective "A" credit. So I emailed my advisor and the administrators of my major, asking for my transcript to be changed from "Pass" to "A", and explaining that I'm really gung ho for some neuroscience classes next semester that I couldn't take if I was required to do another Restricted Elective. I pasted in the email from my TA in which he told me my grade.

And, to my wonderment and disbelief, they *all* wrote back within the hour. And this was on the Friday night of the busiest week of term. They immediately contacted my TA, who responded with helpful emails in which he explained that yes, he does remember that I got an "A", but that the professors probably have the official grade spreadsheets. He even said that if the professors don't seem to be answering, the head TA also has a grade spreadsheet.

I was in the middle of composing an email thanking them all for being so very helpful, when Linda Griffith, the chair of the Undergraduate Programs committee, beat me to it. Her email thanked everybody, and said that they "think the world of me" and were glad to help out.


Dec 5, 2007


I played the Beethoven on Sunday.

I took Monday off on account of achy tendons and mountains of schoolwork.

Last night - Tuesday night - I had a rehearsal with my quintet. I took out my violin, and it was completely out of tune. Not a half step out of tune, although of course that alone would make it unplayable, but more than an octave out of tune. My E string was so loose it couldn't produce a sound.

This isn't particularly unusual, because cold and lack of moisture, two recent problems here in Cambridge, very frequently cause violins to be out of tune (the pegs shrink in the cold and dry and twist in their holes). And of course NO violin ever stays perfectly in tune for longer than, say, an hour - the stress of playing changes so many things - but mine isn't particularly prone to slipping that far out, so it caught my attention, even though it's no big deal.

I tuned up, adjusted the bridge, which tends to tilt when the strings loose tension, and the quintet began to play. But I stopped about 2 minutes in to the first movement because something just didn't sound *right*.

I played a few scales, a little snippet of the Beethoven, some chords, some harmonics... the violin was just different. Something had changed. No matter how I checked it over, I couldn't figure it out. It's usually impossible to see changes to a violin, even significant ones, because moving this or that a millimeter can have a huge impact, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. The tone was just inexplicably changed.

Strange thing was, the tone is actually... better. My violin improved over the course of Monday. It's got a slightly fuller, darker tone on the A string now, and the E string seems ever so slightly louder. It seems just a little bit mellower - like a teenager who finally got over his angst.

It's well known among musicians - and it has finally been shown - that violins improve with time. I wouldn't be surprised if I found out that my violin sounds better now than it did in 2002.

But these changes aren't supposed to happen overnight! I think Beethoven must be possessing my violin ;)