Thursday, January 19, 2012

Seattle Under the White Flag

This week, as has been noted elsewhere, Seattle had some snow. I first heard this winter's storm compared to the storm of 1996. The spring of 1997, my family moved to Montana, and this is my first winter back in the northwest. It seems the weather has followed me. This was my first winter as an adult noting the curious habits of Seattleites in the snow. Someone from the Northeast talked about how Northeasterners just carry on when the weather gets snowy or icy. I saw a youtube video where a Seattleite talked about how, every winter, there's someone from the Northeast talking about how things are handled back in the land of the hardy. We took our guesses on when the University would close operations. Then the University closed, and I've worked the past two days from home.

The slow, white flag descended upon Seattle. The city is eerily quiet. I accompanied my wife to the grocery store, and we compared the city to the landscape of an apocalypse. I think I saw a discarded Christmas wreath roll down the street like a tumbleweed. The mood was heightened by a woman who walked the other direction, singing tunelessly to herself. In GasWorks park, sledders slipped down the hills, as they did on the streets of Capitol and Queen Anne's hill. Even now, as I type from a second floor apartment above Brooklyn street, I can hardly hear a car. No trucks rumble by. It is strangely, beautifully silent.

Others make fun of Seattle's surrender to the snow. We are the French of winter weather. Rain on us all year, we carry on, but snow? There's ice on those hills! The Los Angeles Times called us Snow wimps. On a private note, it has always astounded me how little the home of Hollywood understands of irony. I, myself, respect Seattle's attitude toward the snow. It is something almost religious. I realize, as most Seattleites do, that we could carry on - that we could clear the streets, if we wish. We could go to work. We could put chains on our cars. We could open the office, we could leave the house. But there would be accidents. People would die.

What does it matter, you ask - they would die anyway. They die daily driving in the rain, they die from a thousand byproducts of progress and hard work, as in every major city. They die because they are driving to and from work, or because they work too hard, or spend too many hours at the desk to get exercise. Deaths are a byproduct of progress. But that is the beauty of the ritual of the Seattle snow day. Ritual always appears meaningless, and the best rituals hold a truth that is not immediately obvious. The truths of this ritual are deeply invested in Seattle. The first truth is an ancient one - that it should not be so. People should not be needlessly sacrificed in the name of progress or business.

    The first truth is moral, the second practical, but it is the same truth. Snow deaths in Seattle are meaningless. Seattle is a very technological city, and its technology has overcome weather, not through conquering the elements, but sailing upon their breeze. Seattlites work from home because - why shouldn't they? They'll get their work done by email, or they will go out sledding and do their work later. The knowledge economy has flexible hours. I worked today with a co-worker who answered emails on her phone while her power was out. Even the frailties of our technological culture are being overcome by more technology.

    Seattle, a city quiet under the silence of snow and ice, outwardly surrendering, is inwardly alive with six hundred and ten thousand fibers of the Internet, sharing a memo, or sharing a video of a bus being pushed up a hill by a truck. Seattle is a city that has decided, when "Snowmageddon" is come, not to go out with a bang or a whimper, but to stay home and laugh, mostly at itself.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Crazy stuff.

You know how sometimes you look up at the moon, it's haloed by an eerie light? You know how that happens? Sometimes, water vapor, evaporated, is carried into the high, thin atmosphere, and up there, cooled by the low pressure, this water vapor forms tiny crystals, little diamonds, minuscule gems. Floating in the air. Thousands of feet above our heads. Those gems refract the light of the moon in a hard inner edge, spreading out around, and shine a spotlight on each of us as we walk through this brief penumbra of glory.

Sometimes life is just too awesome for words, and all the things we make are pitiable glories in comparison to the wonders the universe provides.

This message brought to you in part by the fact that little crystals formed in the atmosphere above my head the other day. Then they started to fall. Then gusts of air hauled them back up through the clouds, and they gathered more crystals, and they fell again, and rose again, and gathered more water gems, until they grew heavy and floated down from the sky, a silent blanket of tiny, interlocked crystals. you can keep your diamonds, Africa. Revel in your crown jewels, England, but they are cannot measure the beauty of snow.

Monday, January 2, 2012

When content and conversation both miss the opportunity: Starting the new year off with some controversy

I'm a bit late to the fire, but there has been a fire. Through a series of articles: 1, 2, 3, 4, education gurus Larry Sanger and Steve Wheeler went to the blogosphere's version of the octagon with a few disagreements. I'm a little nervous about summarizing two such well-read, experienced minds, much less responding to them, but I'm going to give it what I can.

I think they both miss the point-  and the opportunity. Basically, they both invent their own straw men, Wheeler opening by arguing that we get too much "content" in school - to use his examples, too many students learn that Shakespeare died in 1616, what phrasal verbs are, and how to recognize a blue-headed wrasse as a thalassoma bifasciatum. To this extent I agree with him: If that's the sort of content students are learning, they are learning too much of it, and the wrong content. I also agree that they could learn more procedures - even cool procedures, from how to write well-formed code, to how to write a poem, from how to put together a suit to how to put together a car. Many of them are never taught, and especially not taught intentionally, how to put together a research paper, an experiment, or an argument. They are expected to osmosise these things from a few textbooks, having to write research papers, and watching experiments in science class - and some of them do, but that's not good enough. There should be more procedures taught.

  Larry Sanger responds by arguing that the content is vital to the conversation - essentially that so many of these procedures require background knowledge. In addition, he argues that learning Shakespeare, Latin, and Grammar, are valuable, because those things don't change. He has a point there - our procedures change all the time. The code my children (if I have any) are likely to write will be vitally different, and probably produced differently than any I will write. That's as it should be. Computing and computer languages are still in an odd sort of infancy - they will continue to grow, develop, and become more efficient. Computers themselves may change drastically. Good. I don't want to hold that back by teaching QWERTY keyboards as the proper way of interacting with a computer. I don't want to teach modern engines as the way all engines work - they may, and I hope they do, change. Besides that, markets and productions move. I've been thinking about how fortunate I have been to be raised in a fairly digital household - if my father had been a factory-line worker, I may have been a factory-line worker - and my recent job search could easily have been prolonged, drastically.

To an extent, I agree with both of them - but I also disagree. The point of teaching facts is not necessarily so that the students will learn those facts. That can be valuable - but the deepest value is in learning how to learn and research and analyze facts. If a student has experienced Shakespeare, they probably will be a better reader of a buisness case - because if they really know their Shakespeare, they know how language is used to manipulate, broadly how power functions in a conversation, and they have an emotional experience which helps ground and balance their experience in the current moment. An understanding of biology gives us valuable lenses through which to see the world - as does each language we learn that is not our own. Likewise, the point of teaching processes, or "conversation" is not the conversation or the process itself-  just because Python (to take one example) may not exist after I am dead does not mean there is no value to learning it now, because with each process learned, subsequent process learning becomes not only easier but more productive, rewarding, and creative. Learn enough processes, and you may find yourself improving the next one, because you brought something from the old skills that no one else brought.

I believe this is how creativity works - we apply unusual models or facts to contexts (by which I mean either processes or facts, or both) to which they are not usually applied. Then we judge the value of those contexts or facts. This is also how learning works - by associating the things we are learing with the things we know, we learn new things, and the more we can associate with, the more and faster we can learn. This is what I believe would be really valuable to teach our children - this is the opportunity. If we teach our children the facts of how we learn (and make no mistake, we must learn many of those facts ourselves) and the processes (which we need to refine) of how to use their brains, we needn't sacrifice facts, processes, conversation or content. We can teach those children everything - and we can teach more of them more than we have ever taught before. That is the point. That's the idea I'm giving away for free because it's too good to hold in.



P.S. - I can't help but note one last irony (and push one last button). At the end of his blog post "Conversation as Curriculum," Wheeler asks teachers to apply a "truely Socratic method" the irony is he didn't learn his facts. A careful reading of Socrates would reveal that Socrates' "conversational" learning wasn't really conversational at all. Socrates led his students on a bread-crumb trail of a few facts he picked out in order to prove his own cleverness. I'm thankful that to call Wheeler's methods Socratic would be a misuse of the vocabulary content of our group knowledge. I may disagree with him, but he's not as bad a teacher as Socrates.

Increasing working memory

This blog post is worth reading:


But in refuting a basic error, it commits another one. The article it is working to refute states that "talent" (a word liberally used to refer to working memory) is important to success. I wont' go into the extra complexities here, but the article basically says that you should focus on the stuff you can control - and let the working memory worry about itself. And that's the failure.

I have read nothing to indicate that working memory is genetically determined or even genetically predisposed. I've read several sources which strongly suggest that working memory can be expanded  - by direct and indirect exercise. I've certainly tested better in working memory tests since practicing Dual-N-Back. I've increased both my number and my wordspan with practice. 

I will continue to experiment, and report back with updates periodically as I progress.