Can’t blame China, yet: Steinberg

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We teach kids the wrong stuff.

Yes, multiplication is important. And you don’t want youngsters looking at a dollar bill and wondering, “Who’s the dude in the wig?”

But we load students with too many dates, too many facts, too much Treaty of Ghent and not enough organizing concepts.

Knowing a fact — the Civil War ended in 1865 — can be helpful in constructing an accurate view of the world. But knowing a concept helps you mold the countless facts encountered through life into meaning.

If I had the chance to design a class for high school students, I would teach “Pattern Recognition.” Patterns explain so much: Why you wake up at night, startled, thinking the shirt you draped over a chair is an intruder. Why so many otherwise sane people believe the 9/11 attacks were the result of a conspiracy other than the actual conspiracy. Or why on Wednesday, when I saw that, in addition to United Airlines suspending its entire operations due to a computer malfunction, the New York Stock Exchange had also ceased trading, I tweeted two words: “The Chinese . . .”

OPINION

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We connect dots, facts, and form patterns, some accurate, some illusional. United Airlines freezes up, Wall Street goes down, the Wall Street Journal home page too — obviously an attack — and China, causing computer trouble lately, the obvious culprit. The difference is, when officials announced that it wasn’t an attack, just coincidence, I accepted that. (Although, wouldn’t that be just what they would say, to avoid panic?)

See, that’s what people do. They take a couple of data points and spin a story around it. That’s how the little pinpricks of light randomly jumbled in the sky became Orion the Hunter, Gemini the Twins, Queen Cassiopeia and such. Then we stick with that story, ludicrous though it be. Think of those constellations. All our technology, all the complicated history of the world, all the stuff we have to knownow that shepherds 2,000 years ago didn’t have to know.

So why does society still teach us the “W” in the sky is Cassiopeia — and I never bothered to find this out before — a Greek queen famous for her beauty? Whose vanity drew the wrath of the gods, which is why she is in that chair, the Earth’s rotation turning her upside down, punishing her.

Heck, why not? The stars are always above — no glitches there — and separating them into little packages and giving those clusters personalities, well, maybe it makes the night less scary. We look up and see the Big Dipper, we recognize a pattern, like a friend’s face in a crowd.So not only do patterns alarm — the bear that isn’t there, the Chinese attack that wasn’t, apparently. But they also comfort.

Technical disruption, temporarily and on a small scale, can be comforting too. Or at least a chance for a pause from routine. I like when the power goes out. We light a few candles and sit there, a routine evening turned into flickering drama. I’m sure after two days it would get old, but my power was never out for two days. Lucky me.

Even computer crashes, annoying as they are, are also a reminder that this isn’t magic. It’s human agency. Robots won’t take us over; we’ll take ourselves over. The networks are all dependent on overworked, overheating server farms in places like Prineville, Oregon, and Weehawken, New Jersey, and right here in Chicago, where Microsoft has thousands of servers. Facebook has been wheezing lately, its data banks no doubt groaning under billions of users who all want to post video of their 4-year-old playing a bee in the school pageant. Facebook constantly crashes — “Aw, Snap!” Chrome’s error screen says — which was cute the first 20 times I saw it.

I take Facebook’s sputtering as a karmic reminder that Facebook has peaked, and the less time I spend on it the better. We have to remember that all this online stuff is still relatively new and people are still figuring out how much of our lives to devote to it. I’m not suggesting the novelty might wear off. We won’t go back to pasting photos in scrapbooks or recording stock sales in ledger books. But we might decide to focus a tad more on the living world and a tad less on the Internet. It is possible. Isn’t it?

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