Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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On Context, Imagination, and STEM vs. ART

Go read this whole interview with John Seely Brown. It’s awesome. Here’s a few of my favorite bits.

On content versus content:

Remember that image of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down? Well, the photo was actually cropped. Those were Americans pulling the statue down, not Iraqis. But the cropped photo reinforced this notion that the Iraqis loved us. It reshaped context. Milennials are much better at understanding that context shapes content. They play with this all the time when they remix something. It’s actually an ideal property for a 21st century citizen to have.

That’s as good an explanation of what McLuhan meant by the medium is the message as I’ve read.

On creativity versus imagination:

The real key is being able to imagine a new world. Once I imagine something new, then answering how to get from here to there involves steps of creativity. So I can be creative in solving today’s problems, but if I can’t imagine something new, than I’m stuck in the current situation.

I really like that distinction. Imagination is what drives vision, creativity is what drives execution. Both have huge amounts of value, but they’re different things.

On the dangers of a STEM-only world:

Right. That’s what we should be talking about. That’s one of the reasons I think what’s happening in STEM education is a tragedy. Art enables us to see the world in different ways. I’m riveted by how Picasso saw the world. How does being able to imagine and see things differently work hand-in-hand? Art education, and probably music too, are more important than most things we teach. Being great at math is not that critical for science, but being great at imagination and curiosity is critical. Yet how are we training tomorrow’s scientists? By boring the hell out of them in formulaic mathematics—and don’t forget I am trained as a theoretical mathematician.

Not to talk about McLuhan too much, but he also deeply believed in the value of art and artists as the visionaries for society. I think there’s obviously a lot of room here and the reality of the focus on STEM is that we have so far to go that it’s not like we’re going to wake up in a world where people only learn math and science. But I think the point is that the really interesting thoughts that come along are the ones that combine, not shockingly, the arts and sciences.

Again, just go read the whole interview. It’s great.

January 14, 2014 // This post is about: , , , , , ,


The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting article on notes, which, as the article points out, is something we all constantly interact with and seldom discuss. Here’s a bit on digital note-taking systems:

Digital note-taking systems were a direct outgrowth of the early hypertext knowledge-representation systems. I had my first encounter with one of those when I arrived at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the mid-1980s. In addition to their better-known innovations (the laser printer, the WYSIWYG text editor, the graphical user interface, the Ethernet), the center’s researchers developed the system Notecards. It was a thing of wonder, back when the computer could still induce that feeling. You could create notecards containing text or graphics, sort them into file boxes, and link them according whatever relationship you chose (“source,” “example,” etc.), while navigating the whole network via an overview in a browser window. It was as close as you could come to a digital implementation of Placcius’s cabinet, freed from the material constraints of slips, hooks, and drawers and from the requirement that each slip fill only one slot in a network.

Two little bits on this: First, reading through this made me think a lot about this blog, which I’ve always sort of thought of as a notebook. Posts here are much more often notes in margins than they are fully-formed ideas. Second, it makes me think of an article I’ve read over a bunch of times on how Steven Johnson uses a tool called DevonThink to help him write books.

Finally, this line in the essay made me laugh: “The Post-it ranks as one of modern chemistry’s two major contributions to the work of annotation, as partial reparation for the highlighter pen, the colorist’s revenge on the printed page.”

January 9, 2013 // This post is about: , ,

What’s College Worth?

Felix makes some interesting points on the value of a college education in response to a recent Newsweek piece. As more and more people question the value, I’ve been wondering about where they’re getting their math from on the fact that a degree is not worth it anymore. Felix responds:

But the math is complicated: the only thing which has been rising faster than college tuition costs is the wage premium that college graduates receive over those without a degree. A degree is becoming more important, not less, in our digital economy. And so while the cost of going to college is rising, the cost of not going to college is, arguably, rising even faster.

September 11, 2012 // This post is about: , , , ,

Class Tweets

Apparently there’s a kindergarten teacher in TriBeCa who closes each day with a tweet she composes with the class. The whole story is nice, but I’m especially fond of the explanations of Twitter that end the story:

“To me, Twitter is like the ideal thing for 5-year-olds because it is so short,” she said. “It makes them think about their day and kind of summarize what they’ve done during the day; whereas a lot of times kids will go home and Mom and Dad will say, ‘What did you do today?’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t know.’”

Explaining what Twitter is was a little tricky, she said. But there was a handy analogy. Every weekend, one student takes home a stuffed animal frog and a journal. They take pictures and write about what they’re doing to share with the rest of the class.

“So when I introduced Twitter, I said you guys are doing this with Froggie on the weekend, and so we’re going to let your parents know what we’re doing in class a few times a week,” she said.

[Via @jasonoke]

April 12, 2012 // This post is about: , , ,

No More Healthy Lunches!

Congress is fighting back on school lunch nutrition guidelines: “The bill also would allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. USDA had wanted to only count a half-cup of tomato paste or more as a vegetable, and a serving of pizza has less than that.” To some extent I understand the worries about government dictating personal choice, but we’re talking about public schools. Is it any wonder that obesity is a problem if we’re teaching kids that pizza is a vegetable?

November 17, 2011 // This post is about: , , , ,