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December 12, 2018

Posts from inside Google

For the past six months I’ve been a writer in residence embedded in a machine learning research group — PAIR (People + AI Research) — at the Google site in Cambridge, MA. I was recently renewed for another 6 months.

No, it’s not clear what a “writer in residence” does. So, I’ve been writing occasional posts that try to explain and contextualize some basic concepts in machine learning from the point of view of a humanities major who is deeply lacking the skills and knowledge of a computer scientist. Fortunately the developers at PAIR are very, very patient.

Here are three of the posts:

Machine Learning’s Triangle of Error: “…machine learning systems ‘think’ about fairness in terms of three interrelated factors: two ways the machine learning (ML) can go wrong, and the most basic way of adjusting the balance between these potential errors.”

Confidence Everywhere!: “… these systems are actually quite humble. It may seem counterintuitive, but we could learn from their humility.”

Hashtags and Confidence: “…in my fever dream of the future, we routinely say things like, “That celebrity relationship is going to last, 0.7 for sure!” …Expressions of confidence probably (0.8) won’t take exactly that form. But, then, a decade ago, many were dubious about the longevity of tagging…”

I also wrote about five types of fairness, which I posted about earlier: “…You appoint five respected ethicists, fairness activists, and customer advocates to figure out what gender mix of approved and denied applications would be fair. By the end of the first meeting, the five members have discovered that each of them has a different idea of what’s fair…”

I’ve also started writing an account of my attempt to write my very own machine learning program using TensorFlow.js: which lets you train a machine learning system in your browser; TensorFlow.js is a PAIR project. This project is bringing me face to face with the details of implementing even a “Hello, world”-ish ML program. (My project aims at suggesting tags for photos, based on a set of tagged images (Creative Commons-ed) from Flickr. It’s a toy, of course.)

I have bunch of other posts in the pipeline, as well as a couple of larger pieces on larger topics. Meanwhile, I’m trying to learn as much as I possibly can without becoming the most annoying person in Cambridge. But it might be too late to avoid that title…

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September 20, 2018

Coming to belief

I’ve written before about the need to teach The Kids (also: all of us) not only how to think critically so we can see what we should not believe, but also how to come to belief. That piece, which I now cannot locate, was prompted by danah boyd’s excellent post on the problem with media literacy. Robert Berkman, Outreach, Business Librarian at the University of Rochester and Editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, asked me how one can go about teaching people how to come to belief. Here’s an edited version of my reply:

I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer. I actually haven’t thought much about how to teach people how to come to belief, beyond arguing for doing this as a social process (the ol’ “knowledge is a network” argument :) I have a pretty good sense of how *not* to do it: the way philosophy teachers relentlessly show how every proposed position can be torn down.

I wonder what we’d learn by taking a literature course as a model — not one that is concerned primarily with critical method, but one that is trying to teach students how to appreciate literature. Or art. The teacher tries to get the students to engage with one another to find what’s worthwhile in a work. Formally, you implicitly teach the value of consistency, elegance of explanation, internal coherence, how well a work clarifies one’s own experience, etc. Those are useful touchstones for coming to belief.

I wouldn’t want to leave students feeling that it’s up to them to come up with an understanding on their own. I’d want them to value the history of interpretation, bringing their critical skills to it. The last thing we need is to make people feel yet more unmoored.

I’m also fond of the orthodox Jewish way of coming to belief, as I, as a non-observant Jew, understand it. You have an unchanging and inerrant text that means nothing until humans interpret it. To interpret it means to be conversant with the scholarly opinions of the great Rabbis, who disagree with one another, often diametrically. Formulating a belief in this context means bringing contemporary intelligence to a question while finding support in the old Rabbis…and always always talking respectfully about those other old Rabbis who disagree with your interpretation. No interpretations are final. Learned contradiction is embraced.

That process has the elements I personally like (being moored to a tradition, respecting those with whom one disagrees, acceptance of the finitude of beliefs, acceptance that they result from a social process), but it’s not going to be very practical outside of Jewish communities if only because it rests on the acceptance of a sacred document, even though it’s one that literally cannot be taken literally; it always requires interpretation.

My point: We do have traditions that aim at enabling us to come to belief. Science is one of them. But there are others. We should learn from them.

TL;DR: I dunno.

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July 31, 2018

[2b2k] Errata: Wrong about Wycliffe

I received this about Too Big to Know from Isaiah Hoogendyk, Biblical Data Engineer at Faithlife Corporation:

In chapter 9, “Building the New Infrastructure of Knowledge,” (sorry, don’t have a page number: read this in the Kindle app) you state:

“There was a time when we thought we were doing the common folk a favor by keeping the important knowledge out of their reach. That’s why the Pope called John Wycliffe a heretic in the fourteenth century for creating the first English-language translation of the Christian Bible.”

This is quite false, actually. There was in fact nothing heretical about translating the Scriptures into the vernacular; instead, Wycliffe was condemned for a multitude of heresies regarding rejection of Catholic belief on the Sacraments and the priesthood, among other things. Some of these beliefs were interpolated into the translation of the Scriptures attributed to him (which weren’t even entirely translated by him), but it was mostly his other writings that were censured by the Pope. You can read more about that here: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries/wyclif/.

Thanks, Isaiah.

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December 16, 2017

[liveblog] Harri Ketamo on micro-learning

I’m at the STEAM ed Finland conference in Jyväskylä. Harri Ketamo is giving a talk on “micro-learning.” He recently won a prestigious prize for the best new ideas in Finland. He is interested in the use of AI for learning.

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.

We don’t have enough good teachers globally, so we have to think about ed in new ways, Harri says. Can we use AI to bring good ed to everyone without hiring 200M new teachers globally? If we paid teachers equivalent to doctors and lawyers, we could hire those 200M. But we apparently not willing to do that.


One challenge: Career coaching. What do you want to study? Why? What are the skills you need? What do you need to know?


His company does natural language analysis — not word matches, but meaning. As an example he shows a shareholder agreement. Such agreements always have the same elements. After being trained on law, his company’s AI can create a map of the topic and analyze a block of text to see if it covers the legal requirements…the sort of work that a legal assistant does. For some standard agreements, we may soon not need lawyers, he predicts.


The system’s language model is a mess of words and relations. But if you zoom out from the map, the AI has clustered the concepts. At the Slush Sanghai conference, his AI could develop a list of the companies a customer might want to meet based on a text analysis of the companies’ web sites, etc. Likewise if your business is looking for help with a project.


Finland has a lot of public data about skills and openings. Universities’ curricula are publicly available.[Yay!] Unlike LinkedIn, all this data is public. Harri shows a map that displays the skills and competencies Finnish businesses want and the matching training offered by Finnish universities. The system can explore public information about a user and map that to available jobs and the training that is required and available for it. The available jobs are listed with relevancy expressed as a percentage. It can also look internationally to find matches.


The AI can also put together a course for a topic that a user needs. It can tell what the core concepts are by mining publications, courses, news, etc. The result is an interaction with a bot that talks with you in a Whatsapp like way. (See his paper “Agents and Analytics: A framework for educational data mining with games based learning”). It generates tests that show what a student needs to study if she gets a question wrong.


His newest project, in process: Libraries are the biggest collections of creative, educational material, so the AI ought to point people there. His software can find the common sources among courses and areas of study. It can discover the skills and competencies that materials can teach. This lets it cluster materials around degree programs. It can also generate micro-educational programs, curating a collection of readings.

His platform has an open an API. See Headai.

Q&A


Q: Have you done controlled experiments?


A: Yes. We’ve found that people get 20-40% better performance when our software is used in blended model, i.e., with a human teacher. It helps motivate people if they can see the areas they need to work on disappear over time.


Q: The sw only found male authors in the example you put up of automatically collated materials.


A: Small training set. Gender is not part of the metadata in Finland.


A: Don’t you worry that your system will exacerbate bias?


Q: Humans are biased. AI is a black box. We need to think about how to manage this


Q: [me] Are the topics generated from the content? Or do you start off with an ontology?


A: It creates its ontology out of the data.


Q: [me] Are you committing to make sure that the results of your AI do not reflect the built in biases?


A: Our news system on the Web presents a range of views. We need to think about how to do this for gender issues with the course software.

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August 10, 2015

[2b2k] Sharing the credit when knowledge gets big

The Wall Street Journal has run an article by Robert Lee Hotz that gently ridicules scientists for including thousands of people as co-authors of some scientific publications. Sure, a list of 2,000 co-authors is risible. But the article misses some of the reasons why it’s not.

As Robert Lee points out, “experiments have gotten more complicated.” But not just by a little. How many people did it take to find the Higgs Boson particle? In fact, as Michael Nielsen (author of the excellent Reinventing Discovery) says, how many people does it take to know that it’s been found? That knowledge depends on deep knowledge in multiple fields, spread across many institutions and countries.

In 2012 I liveblogged a fantastic talk by Peter Galison on this topic. He pointed to an additional reason: it used to be that engineers were looked upon as mere technicians, an attitude mirrored in The Big Bang (the comedy show, not the creation of the universe—so easy to get those two confused!). Over time, the role of engineers has been increasingly appreciated. They are now often listed as co-authors.

In an age in which knowledge quite visibly is too big to be known by individuals, sharing credit widely more accurate reflects its structure.

In fact, it becomes an interesting challenge to figure out how to structure metadata about co-authors so that it captures more than name and institution and does so in ways that make it interoperable. This is something that my friend Amy Brand has been working on. Amy, recently named head of the MIT University Press is going to be a Berkman Fellow this year, so I hope this topic will be a subject of discussion at the Center.

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August 2, 2015

[2b2k][liveblog] Wayne Wiegand: Libraries beyond information

Wayne Wiegand is giving the lunchtime talk at the Library History Seminar XIII at Simmons College. He’s talking about his new book Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library.

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.


He introduces himself as a humanist, which brings with it a curiosity about what it means to be a human in the world. He is flawed, born into a flawed culture. He exercises his curiosity in the field of library history. [He’s also the author of the best biography of Melvil Dewey.]


People love libraries, he says, citing the Pew Internet 2013 survey that showed that almost all institutions except libraries and first responders have fallen in public esteem. His new book traces the history of the public library by listening to people who have used them since the middle of the 19th century, a bottom-up perspective. He did much of his research by searching newspaper archives, finding letters to the editors as well as articles. =People love their libraries for (1) the info they make accessible, (2) the public space, and (3) the stories they circulate that make sense of their world.

Thomas Edison spent as much time as possible in the library. The Wright Brothers came upon an ornithology book that kindled their interest in flight. HS Truman cited the library as influential. Lilly Tomlin, too. Bill Clinton, too, especially loving books about native Americans. Barack Obama, too. “The first place I wanted to be was a library,” he said when he returned from overseas. He was especially interested in Kenya, the home of his father.


For most of its history, library info science discourse has focused on what was “useful knowledge” in the 19th century, “best books” in the 20th century, or what we now call “information.” Because people don’t have to use libraries (unlike, say, courts) users have greatly influenced the shape of libraries.


“To demonstrate library as place, let me introduce you to Ricky,” he says as he starts a video. She is an adult student who does her homework in the library. When she was broke, it was a warm place where she could apply for jobs.” She has difficulty working through her emotions to express how much the library means to her.

Wayne reads a librarian’s account of the very young MLK’s regular attendance at his public library. James Levine learned to play piano there. In 1969 the Gary Indiana held a talent conference; the Jackson brothers didn’t win, but Michael became a local favorite. [Who won???] In another library, a homeless man–Mr. Conrad– came in and set up a chess board. People listened and learned from him.


“To categorize these activities as information gathering fails to appreciate the richness” of the meaning of the library for these places.


Wayne plays another video. Maria is 95 years old. She started using the library when was 12 or 13 after her family had immigrated from Russia. “That library was everything to me.” Her family could not afford to buy books “and there were some many other servicces, it was library library library all the time.” “I have seen many ugly things. You can’t live all the time with the bad.” The library was something beautiful.


Pete Seeger remembered all his life stories he read in the library.


The young Ronald Reagan read a popular Christian novel, declared himself saved, and had himself baptized. He went to his public library twice a week, mainly reading adventure stories.


Oprah Winfrey’s library taught her that there was a better world and that she could be a part of it.


Sonia Sotamayor buried herself in reading in the public library after her father died when she was nine. Nancy Drew was formative: paying attention, finding clues, reaching logical conclusions.


Wayne plays a video of Danny, a young man who learned about music from CDs in the library, and found a movie that “dropped an emotional anchor down so I didn’t feel like I was floundering” in his sexuality.


Public libraries have always played a role in making stories accessible to everyone. Communities insist that libraries stock a set of stories that the community responds to. Stories stimulate imagination, construct community through shared reading, and make manifest moral weightings.


In his book, Wayne gives story, people, and place equal weight. “Stories and libraries as place has been as important, and for many people, more important than information.” We need to look at how these activities product human subjectivity as community-based. We lack a research base to comprehend the many ways libraries are used.


The death of libraries has been pronounced too early. In 2012, the US has more libraries than ever. Attendance in 2012 dipped because the hours libraries are open went down that year, but for the decade it was up 28%. [May have gotten the number wrong a bit.] In 2012, libraries circulated 2.2B items, up 28% from 2003. And more. [Too fast to capture.] The prophets of doom have too narrow a view of what libraries do and are. “We have to expand the boundaries of our professional discourse beyond information.”


Libraries fighting against budget cuts too often replicate the stereotypes. “Public libraries no longer are warehouses of book” gives credence to the falsehood that libraries ever were that.

He ends by introducing Dawn Logsdon who is working on a film for 2017 titled Free for All: Inside the Public Library. (She’s been taping people at the conference and assures the audience that whatever doesn’t make into the film will be available online.) She shows a few minutes of a prior documentary of hers: Faubourg Treme.

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August 1, 2015

Restoring the Network of Bloggers

It’s good to have Hoder — Hossein Derakhshan— back. After spending six years in an Iranian jail, his voice is stronger than ever. The changes he sees in the Web he loves are distressingly real.

Hoder was in the cohort of early bloggers who believed that blogs were how people were going to find their voices and themselves on the Web. (I tried to capture some of that feeling in a post a year and a half ago.) Instead, in his great piece in Medium he describes what the Web looks like to someone extremely off-line for six years: endless streams of commercial content.

Some of the decline of blogging was inevitable. This was made apparent by Clay Shirky’s seminal post that showed that the scaling of blogs was causing them to follow a power law distribution: a small head followed by a very long tail.

Blogs could never do what I, and others, hoped they would. When the Web started to become a thing, it was generally assumed that everyone would have a home page that would be their virtual presence on the Internet. But home pages were hard to create back then: you had to know HTML, you had to find a host, you had to be so comfortable with FTP that you’d use it as a verb. Blogs, on the other hand, were incredibly easy. You went to one of the blogging platforms, got yourself a free blog site, and typed into a box. In fact, blogging was so easy that you were expected to do it every day.

And there’s the rub. The early blogging enthusiasts were people who had the time, skill, and desire to write every day. For most people, that hurdle is higher than learning how to FTP. So, blogging did not become everyone’s virtual presence on the Web. Facebook did. Facebook isn’t for writers. Facebook is for people who have friends. That was a better idea.

But bloggers still exist. Some of the early cohort have stopped, or blog infrequently, or have moved to other platforms. Many blogs now exist as part of broader sites. The term itself is frequently applied to professionals writing what we used to call “columns,” which is a shame since part of the importance of blogging was that it was a way for amateurs to have a voice.

That last value is worth preserving. It’d be good to boost the presence of local, individual, independent bloggers.

So, support your local independent blogger! Read what she writes! Link to it! Blog in response to it!

But, I wonder if a little social tech might also help. . What follows is a half-baked idea. I think of it as BOAB: Blogger of a Blogger.

Yeah, it’s a dumb name, and I’m not seriously proposing it. It’s an homage to Libby Miller [twitter:LibbyMiller] and Dan Brickley‘s [twitter:danbri ] FOAF — Friend of a Friend — idea, which was both brilliant and well-named. While social networking sites like Facebook maintain a centralized, closed network of people, FOAF enables open, decentralized social networks to emerge. Anyone who wants to participate creates a FOAF file and hosts it on her site. Your FOAF file lists who you consider to be in your social network — your friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. It can also contain other information, such as your interests. Because FOAF files are typically open, they can be read by any application that wants to provide social networking services. For example, an app could see that Libby ‘s FOAF file lists Dan as a friend, and that Dan’s lists Libby, Carla and Pete. And now we’re off and running in building a social network in which each person owns her own information in a literal and straightforward sense. (I know I haven’t done justice to FOAF, but I hope I haven’t been inaccurate in describing it.)

BOAB would do the same, except it would declare which bloggers I read and recommend, just as the old “blogrolls” did. This would make it easier for blogging aggregators to gather and present networks of bloggers. Add in some tags and now we can browse networks based on topics.

In the modern age, we’d probably want to embed BOAB information in the HTML of a blog rather than in a separate file hidden from human view, although I don’t know what the best practice would be. Maybe both. Anyway, I presume that the information embedded in HTML would be similar to what Schema.org does: information about what a page talks about is inserted into the HTML tags using a specified vocabulary. The great advantage of Schema.org is that the major search engines recognize and understand its markup, which means the search engines would be in a position to constructdiscover the initial blog networks.

In fact, Schema.org has a blog specification already. I don’t see anything like markup for a blogroll, but I’m not very good a reading specifications. In any case, how hard could it be to extend that specification? Mark a link as being to a blogroll pal, and optionally supply some topics? (Dan Brickley works on Schema.org.)

So, imagine a BOAB widget that any blogger can easily populate with links to her favorite blog sites. The widget can then be easily inserted into her blog. Hidden from the users in this widget is the appropriate Schema.org markup. Not only could the search engines then see the blogger network, so could anyone who wanted to write an app or a service.

I have 0.02 confidence that I’m getting the tech right here. But enhancing blogrolls so that they are programmatically accessible seems to me to be a good idea. So good that I have 0.98 confidence that it’s already been done, probably 10+ years ago, and probably by Dave Winer :)


Ironically, I cannot find Hoder’s personal site; www.hoder.com is down, at least at the moment.

More shamefully than ironically, I haven’t updated this blog’s blogroll in many years.


My recent piece in The Atlantic about whether the Web has been irremediably paved touches on some of the same issues as Hoder’s piece.

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July 19, 2015

Wikipedia is too hard: A suggestion

Frequently we consult encyclopedias because a concept came up in conversation or in something we’re reading, and we need to know just enough about it to be able to move on. But it seems to me that more and more frequently Wikipedia’s explanations are too hard and too detailed for this.

For example, if Planck’s Constant came up in something I was reading and I needed to know just enough to make sense of it, here’s how Wikipedia begins its explanation:

Wikipedia first paragraph about Planck's Constant

That may be fine for a physics student, but I need something more like this:

Simple Wikipedia's Planck Constant explanation

Much better.

That happens to come from the Simple Wikipedia. If the article you’re looking at has the address https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_constant, replace the “en” with “simple” (https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_constant) and often you’ll get a far more intelligible answer. Well, “often” means 113,937 articles in English so far.

One of the reasons Simple Wikipedia’s opening paragraphs are clearer than Regular Old Wikipedia’s is that Regular’s explanations often think that links replace explanations: you don’t have to explain “proportionality constant” if you link it to its Wikipedia article. That’s great for browsing on a quiet Sunday afternoon, but not great if you’re looking up something in service of understanding something else. Linking instead of explaining seems to me to be lazy.

So here’s a request for someone to write a browser extension that, when you hover over a link in a WP page, pops up the first paragraph of the linked article. If there’s a Simple WP version, it should pop up that first paragraph. Getting an explanation without leaving the page is not just a convenience. It would help preserve the reading experience and improve comprehension.

If this also encouraged writing first paragraphs that are clear enough that they let us get a quick hit of understanding and then move on, so much the better.

In fact, if I were King of Wikipedia, I’d take the first paragraphs of all 113,937 Simple Wikipedia articles and make them the first paragraph of the articles of which they are the simplifications. And then I would retire to my Wiki Castle and drink some wiki mead.


As i was poking around for a bad example of a first paragraph, I came across many good examples. Here’s just one:

In the late 19th century, luminiferous aether, æther or ether, meaning light-bearing aether, was the postulated medium for the propagation of light. It was invoked to explain the ability of the apparently wave-based light to propagate through empty space, something that waves should not be able to do.

Got it! Thank you, Wikipedia!

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June 27, 2015

Does the moral universe arc?

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”

Does it?

That saying was of course made famous by Martin Luther King who put it between quotation marks to indicate that it was not original with him. Had King’s own arc not been stopped short by a white racist with a gun, it might have been MLK, at the age of 86, who addressed us on Friday in Charlestown. As it is, our President did him proud.

The always awesome Quote Investigator tells us that the quotation in fact came from Theodore Parker in 1857; Parker was a Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and abolitionist. The entire sermon (“Of Justice and the Conscience,” pp. 66-102) is worth reading, but here’s the relevant snippet:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

The sermon points out that the wicked often suffer in ways that the outside world can’t perceive. But Parker is realistic enough to recognize that “we do not see that justice is always done on earth,” (p. 89) and he proceeds to remind his congregation of some of the overwhelming evils present in the world, including: “Three million slaves earn the enjoyment of Americans, who curse them in the name of Christ.” (p. 90) Neither does Parker let us rest in the comfortable thought that justice reigns in the next world. We need a “conscious development of the moral element in man, and a corresponding expansion of justice in human affairs…” (p. 90).

But, is Parker right? Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, or towards injustice, or toward neither, or toward entropy? Why shouldn’t we think we construct that arc out of our wishes and happy thoughts?


Parker’s support for his claim is not what sight shows him but what is visible to his conscience. But what did conscience mean to him?

In 1850 Parker delivered a sermon called “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws.” He begins by explaining the term: “It is the function of conscience to discover to men the moral law of God.” He puts it on a level with our other faculties, part of the reaction against the reduction of consciousness to what comes through our sense organs. Transcendentalists were influenced by Kant who argued that sense perception wouldn’t add up to experience if we didn’t come into the world with a pre-existing ability to organize perceptions in time, space, causality, etc. In addition, affirms Parker, we have a faculty — conscience — that lets us understand things in terms of their moral qualities. That faculty is as fallible as the others, but it is “adequate to the purpose God meant for it”; otherwise God would have failed to outfit us adequately for the task He has set us, which would be on Him.

For Parker, conscience (knowledge of what is right) is at least as important as intellect (knowledge of the world). In “Of Justice and Conscience,” he bemoans that “We have statistical societies for interest” but “no moral societies for justice.” (p. 92) “There is no college for conscience.” (p. 93). (Statistics as a concept and a field had entered British culture at the beginning of the 19th century. By the 1850s it had become a dominant way of evaluating legislative remedies there. See Too Big to Know for a discussion of this. Yeah, I just product placed my own book.)

The faculty of justice (conscience) is at least as important as the faculty of intellect, for conscience drives action. In “The Function and Place of Conscience,” he writes:

Nothing can absolve me from this duty, neither the fact that it is uncomfortable or unpopular, nor that is conflicts with my desires, my passions, my immediate interests, and my plans in life. Such is the place of conscience amongst other faculties of my nature

Indeed, the heart of this sermon is the injunction to rise to the demands inherent in our being children of God, and to reject any conflicting demands by government, business, or society.

Much of this sermon could be quoted by those who refuse as businesspeople or government employees to serve same-sex couples, although Parker is talking about returning fugitive slaves to their owners, not decorating cakes:

This statute [the Fugutive Slave Act] is not to be laid to the charge of the slaveholders of the South alone; its most effective supporters are northern men; Boston is more to be blamed for it than Charleston or Savannah, for nearly a thousand persons of this city and neighborhood, most of them men of influence through money if by no other means, addressed a letter of thanks to the distinguished man who had volunteered to support that infamous bill telling him that he had “convinced the understanding and touched the conscience of the nation.”

That “distinguished man” was, shockingly, Daniel Webster. Webster had been an eloquent and fierce abolitionist. But in 1850, he argued just as fiercely in support of the Fugitive Slave Act in order to preserve the union. Parker wrote an impassioned account of this in his 1853 Life of Daniel Webster.

Parker’s sermon exhorts his congregants, in a passage well worth reading, to resist the law. “[I]t is the natural duty of citizens to rescue every fugitive slave from the hands of the marshal who essays to return him to bondage; to do it peaceably if they can, forcibly if they must, but by all means to do it.”

So, conscience trumps the other faculties by bringing us to act on behalf of justice. But the moral law that conscience lets us perceive is different from the laws of nature. Parker writes in “Of Justice” that there is no gap between the natural laws and their fulfillment. This is so much the case that we learn those laws by observing nature’s regularities. But the moral law “unlike attraction [i.e., gravity] … does not work free from all hindrance.” (p. 69). The moral law requires fulfillment by humans. We are imperfect, so there is a gap between the moral law and the realm over which it rules.

Parker continues: Even if we could learn the law of right through observation and experience — just as we learn the laws of nature — those laws would feel arbitrary. In any case, because history is still unfolding, we can’t learn our moral lessons from it, for our justice has not yet been actualized in history. (p. 73) Man has “an ideal of nature which shames his actual of history.” (p. 73) So, “God has given us a moral faculty, the conscience…” (p. 72) to see what we have yet not made real.

Intellect is not enough. Only conscience can see the universe’s incomplete moral arc.


So, does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?

Our intellect sets off warning flares. History is too complex to have a shape. The shape we perceive of course looks like progress because we always think that what we think is the right thing to think, so we think we’re thinking better than did those who came before us. And, my intellect says quite correctly, yeah, sure you’d think that, Mr. Privileged White Guy.

At the moment of despair — when even in Boston citizens are signing letters in favor of returning people back to their enslavement — “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice” brings hope. No, it says, you’re not going to get what you deserve, but your children might, or their children after them. It is a hard, hard hope.

But is it true?

I will postulate what Theodore Parker did not: Neither our intellect nor conscience can know what the universe’s arc will actually be. Even thinking it has any shape requires an act of imagination that bears an unfathomable cost of forgetting.

But, I believe that Parker was right that conscience — our sense of right and wrong — informs our intellect. Hope is to moral perception as light is to vision: You cannot perceive the world within its moral space without believing there is a point to action. And we can’t perceive outside of that moral space, for it is within the moral space that the universe and what we do in it matters. Even science — crucial science — is pursued as a moral activity, as something that matters beyond itself. If nothing you do can have any effect on what matters beyond your own interests, then moral behavior is pointless and self-indulgent. Hope is moral action’s light.

So, of course I don’t know if the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But if there is a moral universe, modest hopes bend its history.

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June 3, 2015

[liveblog] Shaping the future: Minister of Ed

I am at an event in Tel Aviv called “Shaping the Future,” put on by the Center for Educational Technology; I’m on the advisory board. (I missed the ed tech hackathon that was held over the past two days because of a commitment to another event. I was very sorry to miss it. From all reports it was a great success. No surprise. I’m a big fan of Avi Warshavski, the head of MindCET, CET’s ed tech incubator.)

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. And I’m hearing this through a translator. You are warned, people.

The minister of ed, Naftali Bennett, is speaking. He’s a tech entrepreneur ( and also a right winger).

He begins by saying his son helped him fix his home wifi. A hundred years ago, that wouldnt have been possible because here was a monopoly on info, and it didn’t move from child to parent. We are in a time of radical change of reality. The changes in tech go beyond the changes in tech. E.g., the invention of the car also created suburbs.

Tech is not a spice for ed, a nice addition. There’s a transformative possibility. Israel went from 30K grads of a math exam to 9K. This is a threat to Israel, to develop Iron Domes, to win nobel prizes. We’re analyzing the issue. There are many hundreds of schools that don’t allow math ed sufficient for passing this test at the highest level. Few make it through MOOCs. It’s not going to work on its own.

The answer? I don’t know. Trial and error. We’ll fail and succeed.

Take a school with no qualified math teacher. What if we have a MOOC, online courses? The class will teach itself. The teacher will be a coach, facilitator, a motivator. But you need a self assurance on the part of the teacher. The teacher does not know the material. It’s a bungie jump for the teacher. The chain will be measured not by the weakest link but the strongest link. Success will be measured by the average. The 2-4% will get the material through the online materials. Then, just like butterflies, they will teah the other students. The students just has to connect the students. You don’t come to the teacher to ask what is the solution. The teacher says, “I don’t know. Let’s work on this together.” In Judaism, we call this “havruta”[1]: sitting together in a group studying Talmud. We can join online courses with the Jewish idea of studying in a group. Connect the two and who knows what the outcome will be?

We now need teachers who are willing to dare. In the next year we’ll have all sorts of experimentation. No one knows if we’ll succeed .Wherever it’s success we’ll carry on with this.


[1] Thanks to Jay Hurvitz for correcting the Hebrew word. He adds: “Some of us prefer to write it – “khavrutah” – ?????? – from the root for both friendship and joining.”

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