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March 29, 2017

[liveblog] Ed tech hackathon

I’m at an education technology hackathon — “Shaping the Future” — put on by MindCET, an ed tech accelerator created by the Center for Educational Technology in Israel. MindCET’s headquarters are in Yeruham in the Negev, a small-ish town that’s been growing as tech companies migrate there.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Our group created — in a demo hackathon-ish way — a tool that helps teachers create workgroups for collaborative learning based on information gleaned from machine learning about learning capabilities. The judges are four young people who are prodigiously talented computer developers. We named it Sort_ed because my team did not appreciate the sheer (shear?) genius of Zissorz. (My team was awesome.)

“Our business plan: Mexico will pay for it.”Our business plan: Mexico will pay for it.

Here are some of the projects presented at the end of the 36 hours of development. Each group has two minutes to present, ruthlessly enforced.

Interest In: A platform for students sharing their interests by learning or teaching. They can create tutorials and list them. They get badges.

Escape the classroom “Classrooms are so boring”Classrooms are so boring. Escape the Classroom uses the power of whatsApp and escape rooms (i.e., the puzzle rooms you try to get out of collaboratively, using educational clues.

Rope. Team-based learning.”Rope Team” is a course format for Moodle that implements a unique workflow for learning a set number of topics.” There are roles and responsibilities, and a workflow with automation. (The creator of Moodle, Martin Dougiamas, is on that team.)

Snippy. Every child has a passion for something. Snippy lets students create content, share it, and share the content of others. A chatbot interviews you and presents relevant materials from what other students have uploaded. You can create a multimedia object to share your passion.

Clash of Brains. No one (hardly) likes tests. This team wants to bring fun and sociality into assessments. Teachers create a quiz and the app sends a code to students. Students can “duel” other students.

Edventure — a tailor-made education adventure. In the example, a friendly monster asks for help with a question. It’s a collaborative RPG for 3-5 players.

Playful — “promoting education through play.” “They introduce RRS: Robot Rewards System.”They introduce RRS: Robot Rewards System. You get real-world rewards from a robot: perhaps art, maybe it does a dance, etc. You can also be challenged to hack the robot.

Disruptive text. “For students who hate to read.” For 7-9th graders who struggle to read long texts. The text becomes a riddle they need to decode. They use several techniques to challenge the reader: Difficult fonts. Blurred text until you click. Mirrored words that reverse when clicked.

The Words and Image Challenge. “Students from a local Bedouin school are wearing a word and a drawing of an object.”Students from a local Bedouin school (unfairly adorable) are wearing a word and a drawing of an object. They throw a ball to the person with the name of the object on her or his shirt. You have to throw the ball as quickly as you can, in “hot potato” style.

ReflectMe. A team from the Israeli army has created an app that enables students to give one another feedback. (They contrast this with top-down military structure.) It has a simple, intuitive UI. In the example, students can leave feedback on a video, tied to the time code.

Peerz. Standardization misses individual passion. The future is individualized passion-based learning. But teachers can’t scale for this. A student asks Peerz a question, with hashtags. Other students can respond. The system suggests resources, better questions, etc. The questions are rated. “Peerz monetizes talent discovery.” “Co-creative learning in your pocket.”

EdMarket. “The Amazon of Education.” It gives teachers the ability to choose the best products. EdMarket is a marketplace of learning resources, sponsored by the govt (or so their business plan says). The students and teachers can reference the market.

Owie. “An AI best friend.” It will help students talk about emotions, especially when the situation is stressful. Owie is a chatbot that lets 8-12 year olds communicate with other friends and play emotionally-supportive games.

Shape on You. A virtual reality experience that teaches geometric figures. It aims at making it easier to grasp abstract concepts. You can manipulate figures, see the dimensions, alter them, and see the results. You can share your figure with other students.

Action Learning. They show a robot (a bit Lego-like) that models a robot for delivering water in the desert. They programmed this with the Creative Learning Lab. They created a space, physical and digital, where you can meet others and learn life lessons. “Solving problems that you couldn’t solve in school.”

Who Am I?. How to encourage creation within children, and how to motivate them to be interactive and really invest in the process. Who Am I? is a mini-quest game where you try to discover who is hidden in the room. It’s a mobile app that you navigate by moving the phone. You find clues. Students can make their own puzzles.

DPlay — “Democracy Playground.” “How do you liberate learning for self-reflection.” They created a platform for debating issues and reflecting on one’s own positions. Students fill out a little survey about the opposing positions, reflecting on why they react against it. These surveys are compiled over time. Is a student changing her vote often? Is she always voting with her friends?

OwnEd. They created an app that takes away the stress from students (12-13yr old) who are unsure what subjects they should be taking. It lets them design their own learning program. How do they want to learn? When do they want to learn? An “intuitive app” visually stimulates them to say that they’re most interested in. The backend uses this to suggest areas. The app suggests a time structure for their program. “Breaking the rules around space and time.”

Imagibate.com “Free learners’ mind from the old structures by engaging them in debate.” They use imaginary worlds to make sure the issues are not personally sensitive. The debates will be put up on line. E.g., “a world of unicorns and coffee beans”a world of unicorns and coffee beans, two tribes that have gotten along until the coffee beans learn to make a scent they find pleasurable, but it makes the unicorns sick. The team models a live debate, complete with a unicorn hat.

The winner was Who Am I?. We came in second, by one vote.

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March 25, 2017

How a little bit of data ruined my morning run

Since I was 21 years old, I’ve gone through long stretches where I have “run” outside for exercise — in quotation marks because I am passed by people who are running so slowly that I feel bad for them until I remember that they passed me. I’ve gone years running infrequently, and then other years I’ll run 3-6 days a week. But three things have been consistent throughout this: I don’t like running, I always run the same set route, and I have always run for distance, not for time: I set a course and don’t care how quickly I complete it.

That’s almost true. I care enough that I time my runs, but I don’t try to run faster in order to beat yesterday’s time. It’s just a little bit of long-term quantified knowledge that gives me a rough indication of what sort of shape I’m in as a jogger.

Beyond that smidge of data, I have gone out of my way to be data-free about my route. I don’t know how long it is. I therefore don’t know how long it takes me to run a mile. I therefore don’t know where the halfway point is, or the quarter markers. (My route’s a loop, so the halfway point is not obvious.)

Until today.

My Pebble smartwatch is declining, so I looked for a running app on my phone. The one I rather randomly chose gathers info beyond the duration of the run, but I just wasn’t thinking well about it when I plugged in my my headset, picked some upbeat music, and set off this morning.

“You’ve run one mile,” said the woman’s voice in my ear when I was a block away from the pond. I cannot unhear where the first mile marker is. And because I didn’t want to stop to fiddle with the app, I also know where the second mile marker is. And I know my home is 0.03 miles short of being the third mile marker. I also know how fast I run.

I don’t want to know any of this, although the distance and my speed are both a little better than I would have guessed. So, yay for being marginally less pathetic than I’d thought?

The real problem is knowing where those mile markers are.

I’ve tried lots of other sorts of exercise, and I haven’t stuck with any of them. They’re too boring, they take too long to get to, or — this is the crucial one — they involve counting. How many laps? How many reps? Am I at the twenty minute mark yet? It’s not the numbers that bother me. It’s knowing that there’s some knowable quantity I have to complete in order to be done. Doing a countable exercise is like watching a clock tick. You want to slow down time? Pay attention to it.

Running wasn’t like that. Now it will be. I’ll know when I’m at the one-third mark, and, more to the point, I’ll know when I haven’t even reached the one-third part. This little bit of data turns the entire run into a set of tasks that must be accomplished in sequence — a set of tasks that at any moment during the run I know have not yet fully accomplished.

For the past forty-five years, I’ve managed to run with some regularity by running through space. Now I’m running through time, and that takes much longer.

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March 22, 2017

Four-pound fountain pen?

I’m thinking that this Lamy 2000 pen on Amazon

lamy 2000 pen


isn’t really a one-inch cube…

pen details

…that weighs 4.2lbs.

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March 18, 2017

How a thirteen-year-old interprets what's been given

“Of course what I’ve just said may not be right,” concluded the thirteen year old girl, “but what’s important is to engage in the interpretation and to participate in the discussion that has been going on for thousands of years.”

So said the bas mitzvah girl at an orthodox Jewish synagogue this afternoon. She is the daughter of friends, so I went. And because it is an orthodox synagogue, I didn’t violate the Sabbath by taking notes. Thus that quote isn’t even close enough to count as a paraphrase. But that is the thought that she ended her D’var Torah with. (I’m sure as heck violating the Sabbath now by writing this, but I am not an observant Jew.)

The D’var Torah is a talk on that week’s portion of the Torah. Presenting one before the congregation is a mark of one’s coming of age. The bas mitzvah girl (or bar mitzvah boy) labors for months on the talk, which at least in the orthodox world is a work of scholarship that shows command of the Hebrew sources, that interprets the words of the Torah to find some relevant meaning and frequently some surprising insight, and that follows the carefully worked out rules that guide this interpretation as a fundamental practice of the religion.

While the Torah’s words themselves are taken as sacred and as given by G-d, they are understood to have been given to us human beings to be interpreted and applied. Further, that interpretation requires one to consult the most revered teachers (rabbis) in the tradition. An interpretation that does not present the interpretations of revered rabbis who disagree about the topic is likely to be flawed. An interpretation that writes off prior interpretations with which one disagrees is not listening carefully enough and is likely to be flawed. An interpretation that declares that it is unequivocally the correct interpretation is wrong in that certainty and is likely to be flawed in its stance.

It seems to me — and of course I’m biased — that these principles could be very helpful regardless of one’s religion or discipline. Jewish interpretation takes the Word as the given. Secular fields take facts as the given. The given is not given unless it is taken, and taking is an act of interpretation. Always.

If that taking is assumed to be subjective and without boundaries, then we end up living in fantasy worlds, shouting at those bastards who believe different fantasies. But if there are established principles that guide the interpretations, then we can talk and learn from one another.

If we interpret without consulting prior interpretations, then we’re missing the chance to reflect on the history that has shaped our ideas. This is not just arrogance but stupidity.

If we fail to consult interpretations that disagree with one another, we not only will likely miss the truth, but we will emerge from the darkness certain that we are right.

If we consult prior interpretations that disagree but insist that we must declare one right and the other wrong, we are being so arrogant that we think we can stand in unequivocal judgment of the greatest minds in our history.

If we come out of the interpretation certain that we are right, then we are far more foolish than the thirteen year old I heard speak this morning.

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March 12, 2017

The wheels on the watch

1. This is an awesome immersion in craft knowledge.

2. It is incomprehensible without that craft knowledge.

3. It is mesmerizing, in part because of its incomprehensibility.

4. The tools — many of which he makes for this task — are as beautiful as their results.

5. How much we must have loved clocks to have done this without these tools!

6. What sort of creatures are we that our flourishing requires doing hard things?

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March 1, 2017

[liveblog] Five global challenges and the role of the university

Juan Carlos De Martin is giving a lunchtime talk called “Five global challenges and the role of the university,” with Charles Nesson. These are two of my favorite people. Juan Carlos is here to talk about his new book (in Italian), Università Futura – Tra Democrazia e Bit.

Charlie introduces Juan Carlos by describing his first meeting with him at a conference in Torino at which the idea of the Nexa Center of Internet and Society
, which is now a reality.

Juan Carlos begins by tracing the book’s traIn the book and here he will talk about five global challenges. Why five? Because that’s how we he sees it, but it’s subjective.

  1. Democracy. It’s in crisis.

  2. Environment. For example, you may have heard about this global warming thing. It’s hard for us to think about such large systems.

  3. Technology. E.g., bio tech, AI, nanotech, neuro-cognition. The benefits of these are important, but the problems they raise are very difficult.

  4. Economy. Growth is slowing. Trade is slowing. How do we ensure a decent livelihood to all?

  5. Geopolitics. The world order seems to be undergoing constant change. How do we preserve the peace?

We are in uncharted waters, he says: high risk and high unpredictability. ““I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, because I’m not, but we have to face the dangers”I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, because I’m not, but we have to face the dangers.”
Juan Carlos makes three observations:

First, we are going to need lots of knowledge, more than ever before.

Second, we’ll need people capable of interpreting, using, and producing such knowledge, more than ever before.

Third, in democracies we need the knowledge to get to as many people as possible, and as many people as possible have to become better critical thinkers. “There’s a clear rejection of experts which we, as people in universities, need to take seriously…What did we do wrong to lose the trust of people?”

These three observations lead to the idea that universities should play an important role. So, what is the current state of the university?

First, for the past forty years, universities have pursued knowledge useful to the economy.

Second, there has been an emphasis on training workers, which makes sense, but has meant less emphasis on educating people as full humans and citizens.

Third, the university has been a normative organization (like non-profits and churches) that has been pushed to become more of a utilitarian organization (like businesses). This shows itself in, for example, the excessive use of quantitative metrics for promotion, an insane emphasis on publishing for its own sake, and a hyper-disciplinarity because it’s easier to publish within a smaller slice.

These mean that the historically multi-dimensional mission of the university has been flattened, and the spirit has gone from normative to utilitarian. “All of this represents a problem if we want the university to help society face … 21st century problems.” (Juan Carlos says that he wrote the book in Italian [his English is perfect] because when he began in 2008, Italian universities were beginning a seven year contraction of 20%.)

We need all kinds of knowledge — not just what looks useful right now — because we don’t know what will be useful. We need interdisciplinarity because so many societal challenges — including all the ones he began the talk with — are interdisciplinary. But the incentives are not currently in that direction. And we need “effective interaction with the general public.” This is not just about communicating or transferring knowledge; it has to be genuinely interactive.

We need, he says, the university to speak the truth.

His proposal is that we “rediscover the roots of the university” and update them to present times. There is a solution in those roots, he says.

At the root, education is a personal relationship among human beings. ““Education is not mere information transfer”Education is not mere information transfer.” This means educating human beings and citizens, not just workers.

Everyone agrees we need critical thinking, but we need to work on how to teach it and what it means. We need critical thinkers because we need people who can handle unexpected situations.

We need universities to be institutions that can take the long view, can go slowly, value silence, that enable concentration. These were characteristics of universities for a thousand years.
What universities can do:

1. To achieve inter-disciplinarity, we cannot abolish disciplines; they play an important role. But we need to avoid walls between them. “Maybe a little short fence” that people can easily cross.

2. We need to strongly encourage heterodox thinking. Some disciplines need this urgently; Juan Carlos calls out economics as an example.

3. The university should itself be a “trustee of the unborn,” i.e., of the generation to come. “The university has always had the role of bridging the dead and the unborn.” In Europe this has been a role of the state, but they’re doing it less and less.

A side effect is that the university should be the conscience and critic of society. He quotes Pres. Drew Faust on whether universities are doing this enough.

4. Universities need to engage with the public, listening to their concerns. That doesn’t mean pandering to them. Only dialogue will help people learn.

5. Universities need to actively employ the Internet to achieve its objectives. Juan Carlos’ research on this topic began with the Internet, but it flipped, focusing first on the university.

Overall, he says, “we need new ideas, critical thinking, and character”we need new ideas, critical thinking, and character. By that last he means moral commitment. Universities can move in that direction by rediscovering their roots, and updating them.

Charlie now leads a session in which we begin by posting questions to http://cyber.harvard.edu/questions/list.php . I cannot keep up with the conversation. The session is being webcast and the recording will be posted. (Charlie is a celebrated teacher with a special skill in engaging groups like this.)


I agree with everything Juan Carlos says, and especially am heartened by the idea that the university as an institution can help to re-moor us. But I then find myself thinking that it took enormous forces to knock universities off their 1,000 year mission. Those same forces are implacable. Can universities deny the fusion of powers that put them in this position in the first place?

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February 18, 2017

The Keynesian Marketplace of Ideas

The awesome Tim Hwang (disclosure: I am a complete fanboy) has posted an essay
arguing that we should take something like a Keynesian approach to the “marketplace of ideas” that we were promised with the Internet. I think there’s something really helpful about this, but that ultimately the metaphor gets in the way of itself.

The really helpful piece:

…our mental model of the marketplace of ideas has stayed roughly fixed even as the markets themselves have changed dramatically.

…I wonder if we might take a more Keynesian approach to the marketplace of ideas: holding that free economies of ideas are frequently efficient, and functional. But, like economic marketplaces, they are susceptible to persistent recessions and bad, self-reinforcing equilibria that require systemic intervention at critical junctures.

This gives us a way to think about intervening when necessary, rather than continually bemoaning the failure of idea markets or, worse, fleeing from them entirely.

The analogy leads Tim to two major suggestions:

…major, present day idea marketplaces like Facebook are not laissez-faire. They feature deep, constant interventionism on the part of the platform to mediate and shape idea market outcomes through automation and algorithm. Digital Keynesians would resist these designs: marketplaces of ideas are typically functional without heavy mediation and platform involvement, and doing so creates perverse distortions. Roll back algorithmic content curation, roll back friend suggestions, and so on.

Second, we should develop a

clearer definition of the circumstances under which platforms and governments would intervene to right the ship more extensively during a crisis in the marketplace.

There’s no arguing with the desirability of the second suggestion. In fact, we can ask why we haven’t developed these criteria and box of tools already.

“ a way to think about intervening, rather than bemoaning the failure of idea markets”The answer I think is in Tim’s observation that “marketplaces of ideas are typically functional without heavy mediation and platform involvement.” I think that misses the mark both in old-fashioned and new-fangled marketplaces of ideas. All of them assume a particular embodiment of those ideas, and thus those ideas are always mediated by the affordances of their media — one-to-many newspapers, a Republic of Letters that moves at the speed of wind, even backyard fences over which neighbors chat — and by norms and regulations (or architecture, law, markets, and norms, as Larry Lessig says). Facebook and Twitter cannot exist except as interventions. What else can you call Facebook’s decisions about which options to offer about who gets to see your posts, and Twitter’s insistence on a 140 character limit? It seems artificial to me to insist on a difference between those interventions and the algorithmic filtering that Facebook does in order to address its scale issues (as well as to make a buck or two).

As a result, in the Age of the Internet, we have something closer to a marketplace of idea marketplaces “we have something closer to a marketplace of idea marketplaces” that span a spectrum of how laissez their faire is.[note.] These marketplaces usually can’t “trade” across their boundaries except in quite primitive ways, such as pasting a tweet link into Facebook. And they don’t agree about the most basic analogic elements of an economy: who gets to participate and under what circumstances, what counts as currency, what counts as a transaction, how to measure the equivalence of an exchange, the role of intermediaries, the mechanisms of trust and the recourses for when trust is broken.

So, Twitter, Facebook, and the comments section of Medium are all mediated marketplaces and thus cannot adopt Tim’s first suggestion — that they cease intervening — because they are their policies and mechanisms of intervention.

That’s why I appreciate that towards the end Tim wonders, “Should we accept a transactional market frame in the first place?” Even though I think the disanalogies are strong, I will repeat Tim’s main point because I think it is indeed a very useful framing:

…free economies of ideas are frequently efficient, and functional. But, like economic marketplaces, they are susceptible to persistent recessions and bad, self-reinforcing equilibria that require systemic intervention at critical junctures.

I like this because it places responsibility — and agency — on those providing a marketplace of ideas. If your conversational space isn’t working, it’s your fault. Fix it.

And, yes, it’d be so worth the effort for us to better understand how.

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February 13, 2017

Ricky Gervais's "Life on the Road": Review

[NO SPOILERS YET] Ricky Gervais’ new TV movie, Life on the Road, now on Netflix, suffers from the sort of mortifying errors committed by its protagonist, David Brent, the manager of The Office with whom the movie catches us up.

[TINY SPOILERS THAT WON’T SPOIL ANYTHING] The movie is amusing in some of the main ways the original The Office was. David Brent is an unself-knowing narcissist surrounded by people who see through him. It lacks the utterly charming office romance between Tim and Dawn (Jim and Pam in the US version). It lacks any other villain than Brent, unlike Gareth in the original (Dwight in the US version). It lacks the satire of office life, offering instead a satire of self-funded, doomed rock tour by an unknown, pudgy, middle-aged man. That’s not a thing, so you can’t really satirize it.

Still, Gervais is great as Brent, having honed uncomfortable self-presentation to an art, complete with a squealing giggle that alerts us to his inability to be ashamed of himself. And Gervais sings surprisingly well.

[SPOILERS] But then it ends suddenly with Brent being accepted by his band, by the office where he’s been working as a bathroom-supply salesperson, and by a woman. Nothing prepares us for this except that it’s the end of the movie and Gervais wants to give his character some peace and dignity. It’s some extraordinarily sloppy writing.

Worse, the ending seems way too close to what Gervais himself seems to want. Like Brent, he wants to be taken seriously as a musician and singer, except that Gervais’s songs are self-knowingly bad, in the style of Spinal Tap except racist. Still, you leave the movie surprised that he’s that good a singer and that the songs are quite good as comic songs. Brent-Gervais has achieved his goal.

Likewise, you leave thinking that Gervais has given us a happy ending because he, Gervais, wants to be liked, just as Brent does. It’s not the angry fuck-the-hicks sort of attitude Gervais exhibited during and immediately after The Office.

And you leave thinking that, like Brent, Gervais really wants to carry the show solely on his shoulders. The Office was an ensemble performance with some fantastic acting by Martin Freeman (!) as Tim and Lucy Davis as Dawn, as well as by Gervais. Life on the Road only cares about one character, as if Gervais wanted to prove he could do it all by his lonesome. But he can’t.

Ricky Gervais pulls his punches in this, not for the first time. Let Ricky be Ricky. Or, more exactly, Let Ricky be David.

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February 1, 2017

How to fix the WordFence wordfence-waf.php problem

My site has been down while I’ve tried to figure out (i.e., google someone else’s solution) to a crash caused by WordFence, an excellent utility that, ironically, protects your WordPress blog from various maladies.

The problem is severe: Users of your blog see naught but an error message of this form:

Fatal error: Unknown: Failed opening required ‘/home/dezi3014/public_html/wordfence-waf.php’ (include_path=’…/usr/lib/php /usr/local/lib/php’) in Unknown on line 0

The exact path will vary, but the meaning is the same. It is looking for a file that doesn’t exist. You’ll see the same message when you try to open your WordPress site as administrator. You’ll see it even when you manually uninstall WordPress by logging into your host and deleting the wordfence folder from the wp-content/plugins folder

If you look inside the wordfence-waf.php file (which is in whatever folder you’ve installed WordPress into), it warns you that “Before removing this file, please verify the PHP ini setting `auto_prepend_file` does not point to this.”

Helpful, except my php.ini file doesn’t have any reference to this. (I use MediaTemple.com as my host.) Some easy googling disclosed that the command to look for the file may not be in php.ini, but may be in .htaccess or .user.ini instead. And now you have to find those files.

At least for me, the .user.ini file is in the main folder into which you’ve installed WordPress. In fact, the only line in that file was the one that has the “auto_prepend_file” command. Remove that line and you have your site back.

I assume all of this is too obvious to write about for technically competent people. This post is for the rest of us.

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January 23, 2017

Trump's conspirators

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have bore the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered but the jobs left and the factories closed.

So said Pres. Trump in his inaugural address, identifying the perpetrators of the Bladerunner-esque hellscape he depicted.

It’s not clear who he means. That’s worrisome.

The “rewards of government” Trump has in mind seem to be monetary, since in the next sentence he talks about wealth, and in the one after that he contrasts prospering politicians with factory workers who have lost their jobs.

So, who does Trump thinks is this shadowy group that has controlled our nation for their own personal monetary profit? Obama and his administration? Especially in terms of personal enrichment, the Obama years were the cleanest in my lifetime. And, of course, Trump’s poised to be the most corrupt in terms of self-enrichment.

It makes me nervous when politicians blame a small unnamed group that controls the country and does so for personal monetary benefit. Sounds like a dogwhistle to me, especially when an anti-Semitic white racist is the president’s chief strategic adviser.

I’m struggling to make sense of this particular paranoid conspiracy theory. I’m only coming up with one answer.

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