Merry Christmas

In case you are overwhelmed by White Christmas and Jingle Bells just now, here’s The Shepherd’s Farewell from Hector Berlioz’The Childhood of Christ Shot 2015-12-25 at 11.12.39 AM


Merry Christmas, and may your hats be bigger than your holly!

Computers and Education

A few tidbits that caught my eye on computers and education. First, the inspiring Conrad Wolfram adding his powerful voice to an argument that is now 30 years old…whether we should still be wasting the massive amount of time we do teaching students to calculate by hand using algorithms they memorize, but neither understand nor will ever use.

One thing he doesn’t get into…rote methods are certainly inappropriate for this computerized age because computing has fundamentally changed both mathematics and will change education, although not without a fight, but what’s more–there is really very limited evidence they worked in the past. As somebody who has spent a lot of the last 20 years doing work in math education, the nostalgia for our parents’, grandparents’, and and great grandparents’ modes of teaching and learning math would be funny if it weren’t so sad. If they are around, go ask them what it was like, and then reflect whether you’d go back, and also what it did for them? (For the mathematically elect it worked, everybody else it was a dead letter).

Wolfram’s ideals–problem solving, real world problems, real engagement with computing as part of thinking, and assessments that make this visible, are mine. But the question does remain, what do you do in class as a teacher? What does it actually look like? Pedagogy–although there is much talk about scientific testing thereof–often seems like pseudo science. For one thing, real tests on actual students raise ethical questions, time/longitudinal work is hard to do, and controlling for variables is logistically impossible. (I went to seven schools before I was 14, just for one factor, I also grew up with writing teacher father and journalist mother. I wasn’t a very tractable English student, and would have stood for being a lab rat even less.

What I’ve wondered about for years is whether you could take educational data and create a model of an educational experience in a computer, including necessary data on the students, the teachers, the environment, and the content, and then feed in various pedagogical approaches and see the results? You could run as many trails as possible speeded up as you want, and watch these simulations to see what happen.

One problem with this is that learning (as opposed to scoring tests) has been very poorly modeled in computers until recently (and even now it’s still pretty primitive–the not exactly earth shattering discovery that students take many different paths to solving problems is enough to get you tenure at Stanford apparently, although doesn’t seem like something a grade school teacher takes more than a week or two to notice her first year!).

A piece in the Post by Joel Achenbach on computers that that learn the way humans do. It too is pretty primitive in comparison to my automated learning simulation lab idea, but at least it suggests that there is some plausibility that such a thing might happen.

By the way, on an unrelated note: The Post is reading better than it has done in years. I attribute it, right or wrong, to Marty Baron, and certainly not to Bezos, beyond his hiring of Baron.nypl.digitalcollections.8a697433-f5e6-9749-e040-e00a18066330.001.w


A break from my usual humanities stuff to give a shout out to Nicole Jeray, an LPGA golfer with narcolepsy, who graciously let the team at VOX Television, where I am a digital producer, profile her for the centerpiece of a patient education project on the disorder.

She’s profiled in today’s NYTimes, and here’s the site, part of an ongoing project on sleep health and education.

Here’s the video.

And the site…


QZ On the SEP

ResearchBuzz: Firehose picked up a nice story on one of my favorite resources online, SEP.

ResearchBuzz: Firehose

QZ has a nice writeup on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “The internet is an information landfill. Somewhere in it—buried under piles of opinion, speculation, and misinformation—is virtually all of human knowledge. But sorting through the trash is difficult work. Even when you have something you think is valuable, it often turns out to be a cheap knock-off. The story of how the SEP is run, and how it came to be, shows that it is possible to create a less trashy internet—or at least a less trashy corner of it.”

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Friday Roundup: Tidbits from Around the Web

A few bits from here and there that I’ve come upon this week.

1. FluentU and Do It Yourself Language Learning. This company does a clever thing with existing YouTube videos. They wrap them in a player that is tricked out for language learning, and then provide quizzes, exercises etc. I’ve been sort of doing the German ones and it has revived some of my rusty (and not great shakes in the first place) German. They also had a great post about “DIY” German language learning, but applicable to any language, and to other topics.
“How to DIY German: Learn Better Than Ever on Your Own”
The whole flash card thing he mentions seems pretty intriguing (good advice to write the whole sentences, by the way–you can learn a lot of German vocabulary and still not be able to read. German word order and syntax is, um, interesting.)

2. Lady Gaga Goes Normal. NY Mag has an essay about her latest in transgression, Lady G does normcore? Perhaps it started with The Sound of Music?  But even Maria really is a higher form of drag? From Lindsay Zoladz’ article:

“So what I loved most about Lady Gaga was how unapologetically fake she was, especially when she was at her most girlie. (The wigs! The affect! The Alexander McQueen shoes!) The much-needed message that she beamed to the world was that — even if you are a straight, cisgender woman, as she turned out to be — femininity is always a drag act. And so, during her reign, pop stars’ ideas of womanhood mutated into something robotic, grotesque, and unavoidably performative. This leveled the playing field somehow. In the early days of Gaga’s rule, I thought often of a quote from the theorist Mary Russo: “To put on femininity with a vengeance suggests the power of taking it off.”

3. The Onion nails “trigger-free” zones on campus.
Parents Dedicate New College Safe Space In Honor Of Daughter Who Felt Weird In Class Once. Bye-bye philosophy majors!

A Future For Libraries?

I’m a library lover (sort of a librarian manqué in fact, even though my days employed in a library or using it for academic work are a ways back). I even cataloged my childhood books in 3rd grade (odd but true). In 2013, Pew which is sort of Upworthy for the egghead set, did a quiz on how engaged you are with your public library, and predictably I got good marks.

So the question of the shifts in the mission and services of libraries that comes from the digital revolution is naturally of interest. The quick assumption is that libraries are toast (like much else I care about, live music, newspapers, analogue photography, spelling analog with a “ue” at the end.) But, in fact, libraries, some of the oldest institutions on earth, have a reliable way of reinventing themselves. That they existed pre-Gutenberg gives the hope that they will be around post-web, even if their shape morphs radically and their services include more 3D printing than readers’ advisory.

I attended an interesting, if speculative, webinar on possible futures put out by the Library 2.0 people, and in addition to hearing an aside from school library guru Joyce Valenza that has stuck with me, “stop saying ‘social’ media, it’s just ‘media,’ particularly to anyone under 25,” I was impressed to learn that the American Library Association has a future of libraries project, with a handy guide to the broader trends that are shaping libraries, and for that matter much else.  Worth checking out, and notable for a minimum amount of jargon (particularly for librarians, who love their argot); pithy, to the point and intriguing.

ALA Future of Libraries: Trends
ALA’s Trend Watch

And as the saying goes, “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” I recently got to visit one example of the future of libraries, the Hunt Library at NC State.  That particular future: amazing.



Silly Words: Lesser-Known Ethical Dilemmas

Amsterdam Sculpture
Sculpture I spotted above Amsterdam’s canals. Are they contemplating the categorical imperative?

Via McSweeny’s a Monday morning giggle:



– – – –
The Time Traveler

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards a worker. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits a different worker. The different worker is actually the first worker ten minutes from now.

The Cancer Caper

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards four workers. Three of them are cannibalistic serial killers. One of them is a brilliant cancer researcher. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits just one person. She is a brilliant cannibalistic serial killing cancer researcher who only kills lesser cancer researchers. 14% of these researchers are Nazi-sympathizers, and 25% don’t use turning signals when they drive. Speaking of which, in this world, Hitler is still alive, but he’s dying of cancer.

The Suicide Note

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards a worker. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits a different worker. The first worker has an intended suicide note in his back pocket but it’s in the handwriting of the second worker. The second worker wears a T-shirt that says PLEASE HIT ME WITH A TROLLEY, but the shirt is borrowed from the first worker.

The Ethics Teacher

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards four workers. You are on your way to teach an ethics class and this accident will make you extremely late. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits just one person. This will make you slightly less late to your class.

The Latte

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards five workers. You’re in a nearby café, sipping on a latte, and don’t notice. The workers die.

The Dicks

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards two workers. They’re massive dicks. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits just one person. He’s an even bigger dick.

The Business Ethics Version

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards three workers. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits a teenager instead. At a minimum, the three workers’ families will receive a $20,000 insurance payoff each, and the families will no doubt sue the company, which in this scenario you represent. The trolley driver seemed to die instantly from a freak aneurism, so your company might not be faulted for negligence under the FELA and might come out okay. The teenager’s parents, on the other hand, make a total of $175,000 a year, and can afford a pretty decent lawyer.

The Real Stinker

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards four workers. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits just one worker instead. But get this: that one worker? It’s your fucking mom. Bet you weren’t expecting that shit, were you?

The Surrealist Version

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards four workers. You have the ability to pull off your head and turn it into a Chinese lantern. Your head floats into the sky until it takes the place of the sun. You look down upon the planet. It is as small as the eye of a moth. The moth flies away.

The Meta-Ethical Problem

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards Immanuel Kant. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits Jeremy Bentham instead. Jeremy Bentham clutches the only existing copy of Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Kant holds the only existing copy of Bentham’s The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Both of them are shouting at you that they have recently started to reconsider their ethical stances.

Books and the Seasons of Life

“Every book its reader” counts as one of the Laws of Library Science  and there is, I suppose a corollary, about reading the right things at the right time. Sometime in my 20s, I encountered advice that you probably won’t get much out of Henry James before 40. So I of course promptly tried one of the “tough” ones, maybe The Golden Bowl, grinding out after a few pages. Years later I read The Aspern Papers (because it had been made into an opera) loved it, and still do, and Washington Square (also adapted for the stage, with an astonishing Cherry Jones in the Catherine Sloper role), and that one has stayed with me too as pitch perfect.

So there are definitely novels and writers you grow into, and there are others you grow out of. This was brought home to me by reading a sharp piece by August Kleinzahler in the LRB on a new e. e. cummings biography.

E.E. Cummings is the sort of poet one loves at the age of 17 and finds unbearably mawkish and vacuous as an adult. But in the mid-20th century he was the most popular poet in the United States after Robert Frost, and from early in his career, among the most admired by writers and critics. It wasn’t just the usual modernist suspects like Pound, Williams, Stevens and Marianne Moore who sang his praises, but other, very different kinds of poet too: Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas, Octavio Paz, Louis Zukofsky and Charles Olson. As did any number of critics: Edmund Wilson, Harry Levin, Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Guy Davenport. Were all of them hornswoggled, taken in by the surface polish and acrobatics of Cummings’s style and, those who knew him, by his great personal charm, unable to register the paucity of content, limited range and shallowness of his work? The short answer is yes.


e.e. was pretty dear to me at 17, and even into college. But he fell off my radar and I didn’t know about his streak of anti-Semitism. There are some song settings of his works that are appealing, but the little balloon man is too far and wee, and sensibility somehow now seems twee, not sincere.

Hard on the heels of reading that I found a parallel bit on Tolkien in a book of Terry Prachett essays. He was smitten with Middle Earth at 13, and read Lord of the Rings every spring thereafter for quite a while. “I started with a book, and that led me to a library, and that led me everywhere.”
But he goes on,

“Do I still think, as I did then, that Tolkien was the greatest writer in the world? In the strict sense, no. You can think that at thirteen. If you still think it at fifty-three, something has gone wrong with your life. But sometimes things all come together at the right time in the right place–book, author, style, subject, and reader. The moment was magic.

And I went on reading; and, since if you read enough books you overflow, I eventually became a writer.


Start here, go anywhere. (Image from the DPLA).
Start here, go anywhere. (Image from the DPLA).