An Evening with Frank Warren

Frank Warren, the guy behind PostSecret, visited Ann Arbor on Friday. He travels and gives talks on PostSecret, and having followed that blog for over two years now, I thought I would go and listen to him speak.

This is the first time I've been to any sort of ticketed event. I've never been to concerts (except free ones), or improv theaters (at least not by myself).

If people are not familiar with PostSecret, it's an online social art project. People from all over the world send postcards to Frank. Sometimes the postcards are hand made, other times they're bought, but they share one feature: the sender has written a secret on the postcard. Frank then chooses 20 or so each week (he gets hundreds) to put on the blog, as well as some email responses people have had.

For his talks, he spends some time talking about the origins of the project, then sharing some secrets which were never posted or published in his books, and talks more about the appeal of human connection. At the end, people from the audience are encouraged to share their secrets on the spot.

Personally, I thought the two hours spent was well spent, although the event overall could be better. Although I applaud Frank from coming up with the idea, when people read PostSecret it's really for what people have poured their heart out on. The catharsis is from reading the secrets, and knowing that other people have the same thoughts, feelings, and fears that you do. Knowing that, I wish Frank would have allotted more time for the audience to contribute, to build the conversation in the moment, as opposed to talking about how PostSecret came to be. He's not a bad speaker - he has done this hundreds of times before, and gets the audience to laugh when he wants them to - but it's also missing the heart of why his project is so successful.

Nothing that Frank said had much affect on me. I was more affected by a secret that someone in the audience shared, which made me feel warm and euphoric, as though I had been drinking. It was a girl, who told the story of answering the phone one day and talking to the stranger on the other end for hours. At the end, as they were about to hang up, the stranger told her, "thankyou for talking to me. I was going to kill myself before I dialed a random number..." While telling the story, the girl's voice cracked and started sobbing, no doubt reliving the powerful effect that experience had on her. As Frank pointed out, people are just looking for someone to listen, to show that they care.

Since I haven't had a complete post on PostSecret before, I thought I would also share some of the secrets which resonated with me from the blog. My old dorm did do a similar event, and you can read some of what my (really) immediate neighbors wrote. These are from the official site:
  • "I want to tell you that i love you, but I'm afraid of the silence that might follow."
  • "I am afraid that the person I would love and myself will never meet, since we would both be too introverted to introduce ourselves."
  • "Today I realized I could no longer remember what you were like when you still loved me."
  • "I am a virgin. I've had three girls offer me free, easy, no-commitment sex. But I turned them all down, because I'm in love with a beautiful girl who just wants to be friends."
These next two were displayed in the same post. I thought it showed something about humans and love.
  • "I lost my virginity last night to a boy who doesn't love me... And all I care about is how I'm going to have to lie to people when they ask me if I'm still a virgin."
  • "You thought you lost your /virginity/ that night. I never had the heart to tell you... /It was only my hand/."
This one I thought a little strange, because it implied that love doesn't require respect:
  • "I love my wife, but I don't respect her, because she's not very smart."
Some more:
  • "Whenever a stranger stands by me, or passes, I wonder what's on their mind and when they walk away, I secretly miss them."
  • "Everywhere I look people have found someone to share their lives with. I don't think anyone is looking for me."
I do this too, and more than just near Valentine's:
  • "Every Valentine's Day, I go to Papyrus to rip off their card ideas."
And even more:
  • "I didn't take your virginity because I felt it was going to end and I love you so much I wanted it to be special for you."
  • "If I could go back in time, I'd go back to all the times we almost kissed... and I'd kiss you."
  • "I have pretended to be happy for so long. I don't know if I'm still pretending."
  • "I love you and I know you are going to hurt me. I resent that you will hurt me, but I don't know what to do."
  • "The best decision I ever made was letting you love me."
And my personal favorite:
  • "We accept the love we think we deserve."


This has been a hard week for me.

On Tuesday I got back my midterm for intro to AI. The material for the course is mostly stuff I'd already done before, so Ive never been too worried about my grade. And, seeing that I got 85% on the midterm, I was correct. What had an undercurrent of an effect on me, which I didn't feel until that evening, was that my score was below both the mean and the average.

And all of a sudden, I started questioning myself. Am I really cut out to be in grad school? Can I make the original contributions that are required of me?

Then there's the anxiety of not knowing how I did in my machine learning midterm last week. Although I have taken a machine learning course before, this course is much more statistically oriented. While I am not completely clueless about statistics, the only course I took on it was in my junior year. I was definitely not up to scratch with my probabilities and density/mass functions, and it was a struggle to understand what the class was about.

It's strange, because I imagine that's how some people must feel even in high school. For people who are not particularly gifted at math, or science, or whatever subject, being required to take those courses must have been difficult for them. I have never had that problem - most of the courses I took even in college came easily to me, and very rarely did I really have to push myself to even get by in a class. With the combination of machine learning, and being below average in AI, I got a glimpse of what school must have felt like for some people.

Last summer when I first worked at CTY, one of the things which struck me the most during orientation was something not about me or the staff, but about the kids. Someone who has worked at CTY for many years commented that while the kids can do a lot of things by themselves, at some point when they get older they /have/ to work with each other, because what they're doing is simply beyond the capability of any single person. I remembered that comment, and even put it in my journal, because I wondered if that was the case for me too. Just as before CTY the students might not have needed to work together, and therefore have poor teamwork skills, I could phrase my own life in those terms. Everything up to and including college had a fixed upper boundary on what you could do. In elementary school you had to master multiplication, in high school it was calculus, and in college some selected topics within a certain field. I was smart, so I did all this without problems, but I wasn't smart enough to skip all the way to college or grad school before my age.

But once college ends, the world is wide open. In grad school and in research, the things you are learning may not have an agreed upon answer. The question might not even have been asked. Each professor that you deal with personally have expertise, and what they studied might not even have occurred to you. It is exciting for the same reason, but it also meant that things will not come easily anymore. The material is more recent - no longer are we studying the creation of some guy in the renaissance (calculus), but concepts and algorithms developed in the last 50 years, maybe even the last 10 years.

I was just suddenly overwhelmed by all of this, and wondered if I really would make my mark among all these giants.

The feeling passed by Wednesday afternoon, but the advice remains: pull yourself together, Justin.


A Little Mathematical Proof

Did you know that if you take any non-negative integer, then subtract the sum of its digits, the answer will always be divisible by 9?

For example, today's date is 11/06. 1106-(1+1+6) = 1098, and 1098/9 = 122.

Curious why? Here's a more general proof [pdf], that the difference between a number and the sum of its digits (if written in base b) will always be divisible by (b-1).

Michigan Updates

Alright, I've finally decided to sit down and write in more detail about my Michigan experience.

Living in Ann Arbor is a little strange to me, as it's the first time I'm further removed from a large city. Being in Chicago for four years, visiting San Francisco, LA, and Seattle during the summers, have gotten me used to there being interesting "cultural" events around. I put cultural in quotes because there is of course an Ann Arbor culture, but what I'm talking about is museums and history and architecture. Seattle and San Francisco were great in this respect, where as Ann Arbor is a college town, and thus is dominated by eateries. The university and the town developed together, so only a few blocks from campus the streets become much quieter, and within 15 minutes drive it quickly turns into farmland. Although Detroit is only an hour or so away, I know of no quick/cheap way to get there, and even then I doubt there's much that would interest me. As a result most of my free time is spent reading or climbing, which is a saving grace of sorts. Michigan has a bouldering wall on South Campus, which is across the city from where I live, and so I commute there at least twice a week. It is also one of the few ways I've met people outside of engineering, as North Campus is dominated by engineers. So I've gotten a bit better at bouldering.

As for classes, I'm taking three, and I'll go through them below. As a final though, I will talk about my experience as a Graduate Student Instructor (TA)

Introduction to AI

I've already done a lot of the things on the syllabus, such as search algorithms, inference, and Bayesian networks. All this stuff, however, was done in different classes, and I later decided that this is because a Michigan semester is longer than the Northwestern quarter. I think I could have gotten an equivalency for the course if I wanted to, but I'm considering doing research with the professor, and it has been a while since I did most of the Good Old Fashioned AI (GOFAI) stuff, so I might as well sit in. So far the course has not been surprising, and I'm rather glad I'm in it, as it's my single "easy" class for the semester.

Machine Learning

Although I've also taken a machine learning course before, my previous work was very implementation biased. This course, on the other hand, is based entirely on statistics and linear algebra. I've only taken one course in both subjects, and linear algebra in my freshman year. The good thing is that I've been teaching linear algebra through the years (as it is part of the course I peer tutor), so the knowledge I retained from that is very helpful. To be honest, I'm not sure I will find the mathematical background to these methods helpful. I did read a paper where principal component analysis was used before the course covered it, so it was exciting to know a concrete example.

Computational Complexity

My background for this course is even stranger. Michigan has an undergraduate course on the theory of computation, which I have obviously never taken. Northwestern used to have a similar course, but the only place I've found it referenced was in the course catalog. So most of what I know about Turing Machines come from recreational reading. And it turns out that it was enough: books on Turing and Godel, together with what I picked up in my programming languages and compiler courses, gave me enough background to take the course. I like the course a lot; the professor has a nice way of putting everything in narrative and historical perspective. If I wasn't so interested in AI, theory would definitely be an area I would look into. A system of logic is just so... elegant.

Graduate Student Instructor (for Programming and Intro Data Structures)

Ah, teaching. I'm always surprised by how much teaching I've done already. I was involved with the GSW for all four years, one of them as a student. And I've done two summers of CTY. Still, I expected doing discussion sections and office hours to be different. But it wasn't; after the first day, when I think back to see what I could improve, I didn't see anything that I needed to adapt to the new format. Actually, this is now not entirely true - I think I need to do a better job of emphasizing why these concepts are important, in the world of computer science. It's much harder to keep a room of 30 college students than a room of 14 6th graders engaged, especially when you don't have much flexibility on what to teach.

Anyway, I'm definitely enjoying being a GSI. At least one student have told me that what I do is helpful, and several others have been asking me questions on computer science concepts outside of the course. Yeah. Now the hard part: keeping it up.

Spiral Staircases

The new Computer Science and Engineering building has a nice spiral staircase that rises prominently from the main hall. It connects all four floors of the building, and is the most convenient way to get directly up; there is at least one other staircase (probably more; I haven't found any emergency staircases), but that has significant horizontal translation.

I thought a spiral staircase was pretty cool when I first saw it, but as I'm using it more often, I realized how stupid an idea it really is.

The problem with a spiral staircase is that the steps are non-uniform. Since people's gait depends on their height, and their height is a random variable, people have preferences as to how wide a step should be. With a circular staircase, the steps are obviously longer towards the outside and shorter towards the inside. This means people can pick where they walk, right? Except, of course, when there's two way traffic, so people are forced to one side of the staircase. With normal stairs, moving to one side doesn't change your gait, and so you can continue walking. With spiral staircases though, you have to constantly adjust how far you're stretching your legs just to keep going.

Besides that, Michigan is going well. By virtue of it being a public university, the classes are quite a bit bigger than those at Northwestern, even for relatively obscure classes like machine learning. I think that's the only reason why professors seem a little more distant here than at NU. On the other hand, I have two discussion sections to lead next week, as well as however many office hours, and this is also with the largest number of students I've dealt with yet. It'll be fun.

Writing About Writing

I have been writing recreationally for a while - I've been writing in my journal for close to 7.5 years, and this blog has been going for 2 years as well. Before that, I used to have a LiveJournal account, which was mostly used to keep my high school friends up to date with what I was doing. This blog stands out though, because it can be said that I'm doing a lot for a very small audience.

I recently read Paul Graham's essay on essays though, and I found it interesting that the word "essay" comes from the French verb/noun essayer/essai, meaning to try/an attempt. A lot of my blog posts are planned before hand. I have a running list of topics I want to write about, and while I find the time and mood to write them, I collect ideas and quotes in bullet-point form. Often times I don't actually know what I want to write, just want I want to write about. For example, I knew that I would do a post on The Fountainhead, but I didn't know what I want to say about it. Even for this short post, I'm not sure what my final point is, if I have one. Writing, then, is a way for me to figure out my own ideas. It's not just a tool for me to express my ideas to other people, but also for my ideas to become clearer in my head.

My friend Genia also wrote something about writing a little while back.

I thought it would be interesting to show the notes I have collected before writing this too. They're below:

Paul Graham on essays
    the french essayer, to try
    I have a goal, but I don't know how it turns out
        I'm not sure what's the point I want to make in this essay
    more to write thoughts down, to externalize and make concrete my thinking
    to clarify ideas
    show notes for this essay

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

I just watched this, and despite wanting to be the "whole purpose of public education throughout the world" that is the university professor, I have to agree with him.

The TED talk can be found here:

I'm also putting the transcript up, if reading is more your thing.

Do Schools Kill Creativity?
Ken Robinson

Good morning. How are you? It's been great, hasn't it? I've been blown away by the whole thing. In fact, I'm leaving. There have been three themes, haven't there, running through the conference, which are relevant to what I want to talk about. One is the extraordinary evidence of human creativity in all of the presentations that we've had and in all of the people here. Just the variety of it and the range of it. The second is that it's put us in a place where we have no idea what's going to happen, in terms of the future. No idea how this may play out.

I have an interest in education -- actually, what I find is everybody has an interest in education. Don't you? I find this very interesting. If you're at a dinner party, and you say you work in education -- actually, you're not often at dinner parties, frankly, if you work in education. You're not asked. And you're never asked back, curiously. That's strange to me. But if you are, and you say to somebody, you know, they say, "What do you do?" and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They're like, "Oh my God," you know, "Why me? My one night out all week." But if you ask about their education, they pin you to the wall. Because it's one of those things that goes deep with people, am I right? Like religion, and money and other things. I have a big interest in education, and I think we all do. We have a huge vested interest in it, partly because it's education that's meant to take us into this future that we can't grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue -- despite all the expertise that's been on parade for the past four days -- what the world will look like in five years' time. And yet we're meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.

And the third part of this is that we've all agreed, nonetheless, on the really extraordinary capacities that children have -- their capacities for innovation. I mean, Sirena last night was a marvel, wasn't she? Just seeing what she could do. And she's exceptional, but I think she's not, so to speak, exceptional in the whole of childhood. What you have there is a person of extraordinary dedication who found a talent. And my contention is, all kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly. So I want to talk about education and I want to talk about creativity. My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status. Thank you. That was it, by the way. Thank you very much. So, 15 minutes left. Well, I was born -- no.

I heard a great story recently -- I love telling it -- of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was six and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, "What are you drawing?" And the girl said, "I'm drawing a picture of God." And the teacher said, "But nobody knows what God looks like." And the girl said, "They will in a minute."

When my son was four in England -- actually he was four everywhere, to be honest. If we're being strict about it, wherever he went, he was four that year. He was in the Nativity play. Do you remember the story? No, it was big. It was a big story. Mel Gibson did the sequel. You may have seen it: "Nativity II." But James got the part of Joseph, which we were thrilled about. We considered this to be one of the lead parts. We had the place crammed full of agents in T-shirts: "James Robinson IS Joseph!" He didn't have to speak, but you know the bit where the three kings come in. They come in bearing gifts, and they bring gold, frankincense and myrhh. This really happened. We were sitting there and I think they just went out of sequence, because we talked to the little boy afterward and we said, "You OK with that?" And he said, "Yeah, why, was that wrong?" They just switched, that was it. Anyway, the three boys came in, four-year-olds with tea towels on their heads, and they put these boxes down, and the first boy said, "I bring you gold." And the second boy said, "I bring you myrhh." And the third boy said, "Frank sent this."

What these things have in common is that kids will take a chance. If they don't know, they'll have a go. Am I right? They're not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original. If you're not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes. And we're now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said this: he said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately: that we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it. So why is this?

I lived in Stratford-on-Avon until about five years ago. In fact, we moved from Stratford to Los Angeles. So you can imagine what a seamless transition that was. Actually, we lived in a place called Snitterfield, just outside Stratford, which is where Shakespeare's father was born. Are you struck by a new thought? I was. You don't think of Shakespeare having a father, do you? Do you? Because you don't think of Shakespeare being a child, do you? Shakespeare being seven? I never thought of it. I mean, he was seven at some point. He was in somebody's English class, wasn't he? How annoying would that be? "Must try harder." Being sent to bed by his dad, you know, to Shakespeare, "Go to bed, now," to William Shakespeare, "and put the pencil down. And stop speaking like that. It's confusing everybody."

Anyway, we moved from Stratford to Los Angeles, and I just want to say a word about the transition, actually. My son didn't want to come. I've got two kids. He's 21 now; my daughter's 16. He didn't want to come to Los Angeles. He loved it, but he had a girlfriend in England. This was the love of his life, Sarah. He'd known her for a month. Mind you, they'd had their fourth anniversary, because it's a long time when you're 16. Anyway, he was really upset on the plane, and he said, "I'll never find another girl like Sarah." And we were rather pleased about that, frankly, because she was the main reason we were leaving the country.

But something strikes you when you move to America and when you travel around the world: every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one. Doesn't matter where you go. You'd think it would be otherwise, but it isn't. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on Earth. And in pretty much every system too, there's a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than drama and dance. There isn't an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think math is very important, but so is dance. Children dance all the time if they're allowed to, we all do. We all have bodies, don't we? Did I miss a meeting? Truthfully, what happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.

If you were to visit education, as an alien, and say "What's it for, public education?" I think you'd have to conclude -- if you look at the output, who really succeeds by this, who does everything that they should, who gets all the brownie points, who are the winners -- I think you'd have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn't it? They're the people who come out the top. And I used to be one, so there. And I like university professors, but you know, we shouldn't hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement. They're just a form of life, another form of life. But they're rather curious, and I say this out of affection for them. There's something curious about professors in my experience -- not all of them, but typically -- they live in their heads. They live up there, and slightly to one side. They're disembodied, you know, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads, don't they? It's a way of getting their head to meetings. If you want real evidence of out-of-body experiences, by the way, get yourself along to a residential conference of senior academics, and pop into the discotheque on the final night. And there you will see it, grown men and women writhing uncontrollably, off the beat, waiting until it ends so they can go home and write a paper about it.

Now our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there's a reason. The whole system was invented -- around the world, there were no public systems of education, really, before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas. Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don't do music, you're not going to be a musician; don't do art, you won't be an artist. Benign advice -- now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution. And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn't valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can't afford to go on that way.

In the next 30 years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history. More people, and it's the combination of all the things we've talked about -- technology and its transformation effect on work, and demography and the huge explosion in population. Suddenly, degrees aren't worth anything. Isn't that true? When I was a student, if you had a degree, you had a job. If you didn't have a job it's because you didn't want one. And I didn't want one, frankly. But now kids with degrees are often heading home to carry on playing video games, because you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other. It's a process of academic inflation. And it indicates the whole structure of education is shifting beneath our feet. We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.

We know three things about intelligence. One, it's diverse. We think about the world in all the ways that we experience it. We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinesthetically. We think in abstract terms, we think in movement. Secondly, intelligence is dynamic. If you look at the interactions of a human brain, as we heard yesterday from a number of presentations, intelligence is wonderfully interactive. The brain isn't divided into compartments. In fact, creativity -- which I define as the process of having original ideas that have value -- more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.

The brain is intentionally -- by the way, there's a shaft of nerves that joins the two halves of the brain brain called the corpus callosum. It's thicker in women. Following off from Helen yesterday, I think this is probably why women are better at multi-tasking. Because you are, aren't you? There's a raft of research, but I know it from my personal life. If my wife is cooking a meal at home -- which is not often, thankfully. But you know, she's doing -- no, she's good at some things -- but if she's cooking, you know, she's dealing with people on the phone, she's talking to the kids, she's painting the ceiling, she's doing open-heart surgery over here. If I'm cooking, the door is shut, the kids are out, the phone's on the hook, if she comes in I get annoyed. I say, "Terry, please, I'm trying to fry an egg in here. Give me a break." Actually, you know that old philosophical thing, if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, did it happen? Remember that old chestnut? I saw a great t-shirt really recently which said, "If a man speaks his mind in a forest, and no woman hears him, is he still wrong?"

And the third thing about intelligence is, it's distinct. I'm doing a new book at the moment called "Epiphany," which is based on a series of interviews with people about how they discovered their talent. I'm fascinated by how people got to be there. It's really prompted by a conversation I had with a wonderful woman who maybe most people have never heard of, she's called Gillian Lynne, have you heard of her? Some have. She's a choreographer and everybody knows her work. She did "Cats," and "Phantom of the Opera." She's wonderful. I used to be on the board of the Royal Ballet, in England, as you can see. Anyway, Gillian and I had lunch one day and I said, "Gillian, how'd you get to be a dancer?" And she said it was interesting, when she was at school, she was really hopeless. And the school, in the '30s, wrote to her parents and said, "We think Gillian has a learning disorder." She couldn't concentrate, she was fidgeting. I think now they'd say she had ADHD. Wouldn't you? But this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn't been invented at this point. It wasn't an available condition. People weren't aware they could have that.

Anyway, she went to see this specialist. So, this oak-paneled room And she was there with her mother, and she was led and sat on a chair at the end, and she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school. And at the end of it -- because she was disturbing people, her homework was always late, and so on, little kid of eight -- in the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said, "Gillian, I've listened to all these things that your mother's told me, and I need to speak to her privately." He said, "Wait here, we'll be back, we won't be very long." and they went and left her. But as they went out the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out the room, he said to her mother, "Just stand and watch her." And the minute they left the room, she said, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, "Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn't sick, she's a dancer. Take her to a dance school."

I said, "What happened?" She said, "She did. I can't tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me. People who couldn't sit still. People who had to move to think." Who had to move to think. They did ballet, they did tap, they did jazz, they did modern, they did contemporary. She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School, she became a soloist, she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company, the Gillian Lynne Dance Company, met Andrew Lloyd Weber. She's been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, she's given pleasure to millions, and she's a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.

Now, I think -- What I think it comes to is this: Al Gore spoke the other night about ecology, and the revolution that was triggered by Rachel Carson. I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won't serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children. There was a wonderful quote by Jonas Salk, who said, "If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish." And he's right.

What TED celebrates is the gift of the human imagination. We have to be careful now that we use this gift wisely, and that we avert some of the scenarios scenarios that we've talked about. And the only way we'll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are, and seeing our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being, so they can face this future. By the way -- we may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it. Thank you very much.
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Reflections on Teaching

I’m not sure when it became apparent to me that liked teaching. I remember helping other people with math and biology back in ninth grade, but I don’t think I had that much self-understanding at the time. I helped with some (in reality, a minimal amount) of peer tutoring in high school through the math center, where students can drop in and ask questions about their math work. Not too many students used that though, and I maybe helped three students in the two years I was there. Freshman year in college, I was a student in the Gateway Science Workshop (GSW) peer tutoring program at Northwestern. I think that was the first time I really woke up to the idea that I want to teach. I remember that my facilitator was really not very good at the whole facilitation thing, and often I would be explaining things to other people in the session, if other people were there at all. I stayed in the program because I was bored (the things boredom make you do!), and I stayed with the same facilitator because it was easy (the things comfort makes you do!). But by the last quarter of that year, I had made up enough of my mind to apply to be a GSW facilitator next year, which I got.

For the next three years, I was first a facilitator, then a senior facilitator, and finally just filling in sessions as necessary. This means I’ve been involved with the program for all four years of college, and of course I did two summers of CTY as well. In the next two weeks I will be a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) at Michigan, my “fourth” year of teaching.

It is therefore unfortunate that this last year, if not more, of GSW was horrible.

By this statement I don’t mean that I grew to hate GSW, or indeed that GSW was something I had to tolerate. No, I still enjoyed every session of GSW; I just wasn’t convinced my students enjoyed it. When I think back over successive years of GSW, I can see that I have gotten complacent about teaching and have relaxed how I think about it. Let me give some examples.

Although the GSW facilitator orientation at the start of the year recommends doing ice breakers during the first session (or two) of each quarter, I gave up doing those around the middle of junior year. During the first year of GSW, I had a couple students follow me for the entire year. Since students can get priority to follow the same facilitator through the school year, this means that the students found what I said useful. I had some students join me the second quarter, who stayed for the final quarter too. But each quarter there were also new students, and so despite it being awkward for the people who I already know and who already know each other, I continued to do ice breakers. The second year, no one from my first quarter stayed, but a number from my second quarter stayed for the third. I didn’t intend to skip ice breakers – I remember coming prepared to do them, but there were only two students in the first session of the quarter, and it seemed silly to do games with just two people.

I could blame the decreasing number of students in GSW for that, but while that does contribute to the situation, it is my attitude which changed. Simply put, I became more focused on what an ideal session is like than on how to foster such an ideal session. For peer tutoring (and I think teaching in general), it’s best if the students talk to each other and exchange ideas. Not because there’s a barrier, however small, between facilitator and student, but also because students are much closer in mindset than the facilitator. Sharing how they approach problems allows everyone to reformulate the question, and perhaps find a perspective which helps them most easily understand. And therefore, in an ideal session (I remember I had one absolutely perfect session back in my first year), the facilitator mostly listens while the students teach each other, only stepping in if everyone is stuck.

My mistake is that I allowed my non-participation become status quo, without adapting to whether the students were discussion. This turns what should be a discussion into something worse than a lecture – it turns into a self study. I forgot that getting that initial engagement takes work, and an ice breaker – even if it seems silly – is part of that work. Instead of leading the students through problems until they have developed the confidence to discuss among themselves, I have just been letting them work.

I just finished Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do, and while it wasn’t a ten point plan to better teaching (which would have been bound to failure), I did get some insight into what I’ve been neglecting. The main thing I learned is that even though you may be going through the same motions, your relationship with you students depends as your attitude as well, and without that the same motion just doesn’t work. My personal example of that is offering to stay after the session to help. The first year, I’ve had students ask me more questions afterwards, and that had led me to know more about them and their background as well. Lately though, although I still make the same offer, no students take me up on it. This is because I haven’t gained their trust (note: this is different from them not trusting me enough). When I started GSW, I cared a lot more about what the students are thinking and how they are feeling about the material and the session itself. In my personal journal I have written short evaluations of the students after the first couple sessions, noting how they’re reacting to me, and how I can draw them out more. I actually cared about their answer to the customary “how was your week?” – it wasn’t just a greeting, but a semi-serious attempt to know more about the students. This mutual understanding and trust, although not reflected in the students’ attendance records or grades, paves the way to the autonomous learning I described.

The other big mistake I made is not leading them through the questions anymore. This applies whether or not that trust is established, although if the students are actively discussion the problem at hand it is more permissible to step back. What I realized is that talking them through the question (note: not through the solution) shows them more than how to arrive at the answer. It also shows them how to approach these types of questions, and what kind of thinking the student is supposed to have. After all, the material is only part of what we care about as teachers. Equally as important, if not more so, is that the students can think within the discipline. For computer science, for example, that means the ability to break down a complex procedure into simple steps, evaluating whether that solution is cost-effective, and so on. For Newtonian mechanics, that means seeing the forces acting on objects and knowing how the forces interact. Whether they can use big-O descriptions or integral calculus to find the answer is something else, but getting that thinking there takes precedence. If I lead the students through the question, letting them make mistakes and questioning them on why their solution does or does not work, I am changing ever so slightly the way they see the world.

The last mistake I made, this one somewhat less apparent but equally influential, is that I stopped thinking about what the students are learning. This seems silly, especially since GSW has all the worksheets made for us. But without a goal, without consciously trying to lead the students into the way of thinking, it is too easy to simply go for the answers. I am robbing the students of their opportunity to look at the larger questions. Again, it’s not the questions on the worksheet which are the most important, but the concepts behind it. The successful completion of the worksheet is merely a proxy to what the students learned. Bain brought up studies where the students can ace a Newtonian physics final, but still hold some naive, intuitive beliefs about motion. Part of it is certainly how the final was designed, but part of it (a larger part, I would argue) is that the teacher has not thought about how to bring it above just plugging and chugging.

If I had to summarize Bain’s book in one sentence, it’s this: The goal of teaching is for students to not just learn the material, but to understand it’s implications. This necessarily means changing (or at least adding to) how students think. Ways of thinking, unfortunately, are pretty resistant to change, and so to accomplish that the teacher needs to be prepared. I want to give three examples of good teaching, all of which I have personally experienced as a TA to the course.

The first is from CTY, where once a week during lunch my instructor will give a student a dollar if they can give the pronunciation and meaning of a word (limited to a collegiate dictionary) which he couldn’t spell. The result is that the day before and the day of, the students will spend a lot of their free time looking at a dictionary. Think about it: if a teacher’s job, in general, is to spark people’s desire to learn, then he has achieved this beyond measure. No children of twelve will willingly spend hours looking at a dictionary, but giving them this challenge drives them to do so. Whether they learned anything by looking at the dictionary is arguable, but it did inspire an educational fervor.

The second example is from compilers. The professor consistently brought up books and papers which were not included in the textbook. These books were not necessarily related to compilers, although they were all relevant to the topic under discussion at the time. This has the same effect as the spelling challenge – it draws the students deeper in to the subject, while making them aware of the larger context of what they’re studying. The best thing is that, at least for me, I really get the sense that the professor is really bringing up the books because he wants to invite the students to share his curiosity and interest in those subjects, and not just to impress students by how much he knows.

The last example is by the same professor. I mentioned that exams and most homework being just a proxy to measure how much a student understands. So the “final” for the compilers course (in addition to a working compiler, of course), instead of being a paper, was a “code walk”. That means the student/group comes in to meet the professor for an hour, during which the student walks the professor through their code. This is done in an informal fashion – it’s not a powerpoint presentation – but it allows the student to let the professor know, with the highest “bandwidth” possible, what they have learned. And although there are “points” awarded through the quarter for sections of a finished compiler, that merely influences the final grade. If a student did poorly before, but have improved as the quarter went on (each assignment is cumulative, and previous test cases are run again) with the final result of presenting a well organized code walk at the end, then they get a good grade. That is, the students are graded on what they understand, both about compilers and about programming in general, and not just whether they can answer questions about compilers in general.

So to put this into practice, I’m writing my own CTY robotics curriculum (like I did last year) with all this in mind. I will post the result here when I’m done. To close though, I want to pull a totally unrelated quote. I feel this should be how assignments given to students should be viewed, as Stanford University president John Hennessy said (as quoted in Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded):

A series of great opportunities disguised as insoluble [read: intriguing] problems

Answers of the Weeks

What is the difference between hurricanes, typhoons, and maelstroms?

Hurricanes are basically large storm systems (aka tropical cyclone). Typhoons are just hurricanes which form in the Pacific ocean; as far as I can tell, it's just a naming difference.

Maelstroms are giant whirlpools; they have nothing to do with the above.

How do 3D glasses work?

3D glasses allow movies to be turned into "stereograms". Humans (and most animals, I assume) have depth perception because each of our two eyes sees slightly different things. This is most clearly demonstrated if you put a finger in front of your nose. If you then focus on something far away, you will have two semi-transparent fingers. This comes from the brain trying to compensate for the blocked view, and piecing information from the two eyes together.

Cute trick - take a hollow, see-through, cylindrical tube (like a used toilet paper roll), and put it up to one eye. Now, take your hand, and put it along the tube in front of the other eye. Open both eyes. If you're doing this correctly, you should see a "hole" in your hand. It's the same principle as the two "fingers" above - your brain fills in the what should be behind the hand, and since it only knows what your other eye can see through the tube, that's the only part it fills in.

Anyway, back to stereograms and 3D movies. In the old days, 3D pictures are created with color-filtered glasses. Two images of different colors are projected onto the movie screen, and when people put 3D glasses on, each eye sees only one of the colored pictures - because the filter blocks out the other color. By presenting each eye with a slightly different image, the illusion of depth is created. In the two images, things that should be "closer" would have more horizontal displacement, while things that should be "further" would have less. This can be demonstrated by moving the finger back and forth, while still staring at something far away. The further you extend your finger, the closer the two "fingers" appear.

What my question was really getting at was the new, polarized, 3D glasses. I watched Pixar's Up in those, and noticed while standing in line that the glasses only darken when paired with one lens and turned to a certain angle, but it would not darken with the other lens at all. We knew it was polarized, but we thought it would be linearly polarized at first. If that was the case though, the lens should darken regardless of which other lens it was paired with. I thought they were circularly polarized, which would explain the odd pairing thing, but I never did find out why it would be darkest at a certain angle.

Does truth exist?

This question was suggested to me by a friend. Clearly, the answer to this one would not be as... objectively truthful most other questions. I can, however, give my personal belief: yes.

I do believe in an objective truth. To me it's simple: either the trees, the mountains, and my laptop all exist, or I'm a brain in a vat and hallucinating all this, or even I'm part of a strange dream of a giant frog. Whichever one of these is true - and I'm not saying that I know which one is - the basic idea remains that one of them is true. Of course, it could be that none of those are correct, but it's hard to imagine a reality where there is no truth at all. It would almost be a paradox to call it a reality at that point.

Whether we, as humans, would ever know the truth is a completely different question.

Why do humans have social needs?

As far as I can tell, it's evolutionary. This section of Wikipedia gives a fairly simple answer.

I actually made a mistake in the list of questions; the question of whether AIs can become a human's best friend should have been under this question of social needs. That was the true point of asking this question: if social needs could be met without physical contact (for example, through the phone, through email, IM, etc.), then it is almost inevitable humans will eventually befriend an AI.

Let me attack the conditions first. Could human social needs be satisfied without physical contact? I think so. In the old days people have pen pals and write letters to family members in far away places. There is satisfaction in doing those things, and it could only be social in nature. Nowadays people have phones, email, IM, Facebook, etc. which makes it even easier to keep up with people without their physical existance.

A deeper question could be asked as to how advanced the AI has to be. Now that people are used to computers and the idea of AI, it would have to be quite advanced. When AI was just being invented, however, people were willing to believe that they were interacting with a human. Just look at the first ELIZA tests. People got attached to the computer, despite being told how it works and that it's just a computer program. That's one of the big downfalls of the Turing test - that people are too willing to believe. For the purpose of meeting social needs, however, this willingness to believe might be exactly what is needed.

On another level, and also speaking personally, the AI would have to be quite advanced for me to be satisfied. I'm interested in people's stories, not just discussions on various topics. Sure, a lot of my conversations with people have a philosophical leaning, but it's interesting because they have experiences which led them to their believes. Without this experience, it's no different from reading a dry book which simply lays out the argument - or it should more properly called the plan of attack, because there wouldn't be any argument at all.

That said, I believe we will eventually have the technology to create AIs which have their own - albeit not physical - histories and stories.

List of Discarded Post Topics

I have a large backlog of topics I want to blog about. Most of them were interesting at the time, but I have since lost enough interest to not want to write about it. If anyone is particularly interested in something, or want some clarification of what I would have written about, let me know.

Below are the topics and the notes I've collected for them.

  • questions of the weeks
    • why /should/ there be a separation of church and state?
    • what is the difference between hurricanes, typhoons, maelstroms?
    • does truth exist?
    • why do humans have social needs?
    • would a human-level AI replace the need for best friends?
      • Eliza and the Turing Test
    • what should you do to maximize your chance of a relationship on a date?
      • adrenaline mistaken for attraction (psychology: it works, bitches!)
    • do animals burp?
    • why do roosters crow at dawn?
    • how do 3d glasses work?
    • physics of getting yourself swinging
  • musical imagery
    • hurdles with audience
    • picket fence
    • cages
    • graph paper
    • DDR tracks
    • bookshelves
    • rick roll
  • communism = democracy
    • if totally transparent government
  • IAT to measure cultural associations

Some Quotes

I've stored up a lot of quote from books I've been reading. It's time to unload some of them to the internets. Some of these are just new insights (like the first one), some of these describe how I feel very well (like the Obama one about his daughters), and some are just

Traditions in a Rootless World, Lynn Davidman
Note - required for class. Not that interesting, but at the time I was questioning why sociologists need to be emersed in the culture they're studing.
Contemporary ethnography is understood by its followers as a process of interpretation rather than explanation. Phenomenological approaches in social science [...] cannot tell us why some people do one thing and others do not. Thus, rather than try to find the distinctive characteristics of joiners, ethnographers of religious communities instead try to portray the religious world as it is experienced by those inside or entering it.
Humans are always engaged in an ongoing process of ordering and making sense of their experiences. The language people use to talk about their experiences and the sequence of their stories "reveal the world that they see and in which they act." Because everyday life encompasses an ongoing process of constructing the meanings of our experience, the ways in which people talk about their experiences are as important as the content to the experiences themselves.
Shocking Science, Geoffrey Carr (The Economist, The World in 2009)
Someone once accused Dr [Craig] Venter of playing God. His reply was, "We're not playing."
Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman
Note - This book starts off great, but about halfway it starts to get really repetitive.
"The biodiversity of the planet is a unique and uniquely valuable library that we have been steadily burning down - one wing at a time - before we have even cataloged all the books, let along read them all" - John Holdren, Woods Hole Research Center
Jeff Wacker, the futurist at Electronic Data Systems, likes to say that innovators are those people who know the 99 percent that everybody knows and therefore are able to create the 1 percent that nobody knows. If you don't know the 99 percent, or cannot get access to it, you will not have the foundation to create the new 1 percent. More likely, you will just re-create part of 99 percent that everyone already knows.
"A series of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems" - John Hennessy, president of Stanford University, on the energy-climate challenge
Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama
Note - I highly recommend this book. Not only because Obama is the president, but it really is well written and highly enjoyable.
We ended up spending the afternoon together, talking and drinking coffee. She told me about her childhood in Chicago, the absent father and struggling mother, the South Side six-flat that never seemed warm enough in the winter and got so hot in the summer that people went out by the lake to sleep. She told me about the neighbors on her block, about walking past the taverns and pool halls on the way to church on Sunday. She told me about evenings in the kitchen with uncles and cousins and grandparents, the stew of voices bubbling up in laughter. Her voice evoked a vision of black life in all its possibility, a vision that filled me with longing - a longing for place, and a fixed and definite history. As we were getting up to leave, I told Regina I envied her. "For what?" I don't know. For your memories, I guess." Regina looked at me and started to laugh, a round, full sound from deep in her belly. "What's so funny?" "Oh, Barack," she said, catching her breath, "isn't life something? And here I was all this time wishing I'd grown up in Hawaii."
In her smiling, slightly puzzled face, I saw what all children must see at some point if they are to grow up - their parents' lives revealed to them as separate and apart, reaching out beyond the point of their union or the birth of a child, lives unfurling back to grandparents, great-grandparents, an infinite number o f chance meetings, misunderstandings, projected hopes, limited circumstances.
Who was I, who shed no tears at the loss of his own?
I imagined Regina's grandmother somewhere, her back bent, the flash of her arms shaking as she scrubbed an endless floor. Slowly, the old woman lifted her head to look straight at me, and in her sagging face I saw that what bound us together went beyond anger or despair or pity.
What was she asking of me, then? Determination, mostly. The determination to push against whatever power kept her stooped instead of standing straight. The determination to resist the easy or the expedient. You might be locked into a world not of your own making, her eyes said, but you still have a claim on how it is shaped. You still have responsibilities.
... Beneath layers of hurt, beneath the ragged laughter, I heard a willingness to endure. Endure - and make music that wasn't there before.
Later that night, back home in Chicago, I sat at the dinner table, watching Malia and Sasha as they laughed and bickered and resisted their string beans before their mother chased them up the stairs and to their baths. Alone in the kitchen washing the dishes, I imagined my two girls growing up, and I felt the ache that every parent must feel at one time or another, that desire to snatch up each moment of your child's presence and never let go - to preserve every gesture, to lock in for all eternity the sight of their curls or the feel of their fingers clasped around yours.

Intimate Strangers, Lillian Rubin
Note - this book was mostly psychoanalytic babble, but some of the interview quotes and field studies were interesting.
Suddenly, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to work anymore; it no longer seemed like such fun. It's one thing to work because you want to, another because you have to. It makes a difference, too, if working is defined as helping out - which is the way most married women characters their presence in the work force - or as the mainstay of support for the family.
from the beginning, life is a process of... internalizing representations from the external world.
A man may lust after /women/, but a woman lusts after /a man/. For a woman, sex usually has meaning only in a relational context - perhaps a clue to why so many girls never or rarely masturbate in adolescence or early adulthood... For with them, an emotional connection in a relationship generally is a stimulus, if not a precondition, for the erotic. If women depend on the emotional attachment to call up the sexual, men rely on the sexual to spark the emotional, as these words... show: "Having sex with her makes me feel much closer so it makes it easier to bridge the emotional gap, so to speak. It's like the physical sex opens up another door, and things and feelings can get expressed that I couldn't before. For women, emotional attachments without sex are maintained with little difficulty or discomfort; fr men, they're much more problematic. It's not that they don't exist at all, but that they're less common and fraught with many more difficulties and reservations.
Over two-thirds of the single men couldn't name a best friend. Of those who could, it was much more likely to be a woman than a man who held that place in their lives. In contrast, over three-fourths of the single women had no problem in identifying a best friend, and almost always that person was a woman. Among those who were married, far more men than women named a spouse as a best friend, their most trusted confidante, and/or the one they would be most likely to turn to in emotional distress. For the married women, it was a strikingly different picture. Even when a woman did name her husband to one or more of these roles, it was never exclusively his, as was most likely to be the case with a man. Most women identified at least one, usually more, trusted friends to whom they could turn in a troubled moment, and they spoke openly and ardently about the importance of these relationships in their lives.
Therefore, most men sat silently for a long while when I asked, "Who would you turn to if you came home one night and your wife announced she was leaving you?" When they finally spoke, it was with great hesitation as the realization came to them that there would be no friend to whom they could turn in that moment of pain and shock.

Quote Unquote

There are a number of things which I don't like about English grammatical rules. The one I want to address here is the nested quotation, which is not only confusing but unwieldy. Consider the following example:
Adam said, "I like apples."
What if this was part of a narrated story?
Beth said, "Adam said, 'I like apples.'"
And if I nest that again...
Carl said, "Beth said, 'Adam said, "I like apples."'"
Obviously, anything this complicated should be rewritten in any case (Carl said, "Beth said, 'Adam said that he likes apples.'"), but putting that aside, it really bothers me that I cannot just copy and paste a piece of text, wrap quotations around it, and be done with the change. If you notice carefully, the rules of English require the outer-most pair of quotation marks be double quotes ("), and each nesting from then on alternate between double quotes and single quotes. For the copy-and-paste usage case I just mentioned, this means all the quotation marks needs to be switched, which is extremely annoying.

Despite this asinine rule, I can actually see the reason: the inability to distinguish between nested quotes and sequential quotes. Compare:
Carl said "Beth said 'This note reads "This note can talk."' I like talking notes."
Carl said "Beth said "This note reads "This note can talk."" I like talking notes."
The first sentence is Carl quoting Beth who is quoting a talking note. The second can mean the same thing, but the ambiguous quotation can also mean Carl quotes Beth, then adding his own comment, and someone else replying. In proper quotation, this latter meaning should be:
Carl said, "Beth said, 'This note reads.' This note can talk?" "I like talking notes."
It can be argued that the alternating quotation, therefore, makes the meaning of nested quotations clearer (with some excuses as to other improper punctuation, of course).

The main problem with the quotation marks is that the starting and ending marks are the same. By nesting the quotation marks, inner quotes will never be "accidentally" terminated by outer quotes. More modern character encodings solve this problem with using different characters for beginning and ending quotes. You can look at the Wikipedia page to see how to type the different ones - although most word processors will do that for you automatically anyway. With computers, the problem is compounded by the starting and ending single quotes doubling (or as it were, tripling) as the apostrophe as well. This is only really a problem for contractions at the beginning of words though, such as "'cause", which could be interpreted as a starting quote. I'm not sure how word processors deal with this.

Personally, I prefer to stick with ASCII. Since I quote a large amount of emails and chats in my journal, and the emails and chat themselves very often quote other things, I can't be bothered to switch the quotation marks back and forth. This sometimes does cause me a little more comprehension time, but compared to the time I would have wasted on changing punctuation, it's not a big deal.

How do you use quotation marks?
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I’ve been tracking the presence of CTY online throughout the two sessions, especially through Twitter, but also through blogs. Last year I found several blogs which expressed their amazement at what CTY does for them and for children. I did the same this year, and found this:

CTY’s a place where the top end of the ability curve can find a community. Unlike just about anywhere else, there’re lots of other people like you there. Any strange, obscure reference you make, probably at least 3 people in earshot will get. Any weird thought you have won’t seem all that weird to more than a few people present.

And the same goes for how you act. A lot of gifted kids are, let’s face it, pretty crazy sometimes. But that’s perfectly normal there. In fact, it becomes self reinforcing so that almost everyone acts even weirder than normal. And, because we’re all like that, it’s Ok! You get cheered on, not made fun of.

And by that same principal, because there’s a lot of the shared experience of being pretty lonely at home sometimes, people are very quick to form friendships, and just generally very accepting of and nice to each other. People understand, and so they accept. Most of us have a few friends who will do that so that we can be ourselves with them at home, but here for three weeks it’s like that with most people!

I’ve never done the real CTY (both summers I’ve worked with young students), but I totally agree with what the author said. And I don’t mean it just for the kids - I mean it for the staff as well.

On the other hand, because I’ve never done real CTY, I don’t shout "Die! Die! Die! Die! Live! Live! Live! Live! Sex! Sex! Sex! Sex! More! More! More! More!" during the American Pie chorus. So I was surprised to find a blog post by someone who claims to have started the "Sex!" chant:

...Because I’m the one who started "Sex! Sex! Sex!"

It was Slut Day. That wasn’t a camp tradition, it was something I started on a whim, this being a period of my life in which I valued attention above dignity. To be clear, our definition of sluttishness was pretty mild; no one scored below a 70 on the Purity Test and most of us were lying. Anyway, shouting "Die Die Die" at the chorus of "American Pie" was already a long-standing tradition when I arrived at CTY, but the summer of 1994 something had happened--possibly a suicide?--that convinced people to tack on "Live! Live! Live!" afterwards in a flurry of PC-ism. Then as now I found the revision pretty lame, so on that particular day, Slut Day, since we had been talking about nothing but sex since breakfast, I threw in "Sex! Sex! Sex!" as a kind of musical one-liner. Well, it caught on like hula hoops. The next thing I knew it was part of the canon. The addition of "More! More! More!" followed hard upon, but I’m not sure who was responsible

Whether you believe her or not is up to you. Do visit the post though, and read through the comments - it’s more evidence of how CTY bonds people.

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A Small But Important CTY Complaint

CTY ended about a week ago, and I'm still very much in denial about it. I've mentioned previous that I wish the program would continue, even if it was just for one session. This summer was everything I had remembered it to be: the rush of seeing the light go on in the students, being swept away by the excitement in learning that everyone shows. I do, however, have one complaint, which I thought this site didn't do as well in comparison with last year. This involves the communication between staff members, and in particular, between the residential, instructional, and administrative staff.

As a residential camp for middle schoolers, CTY staff is not only responsible for the education of the campers; we are also responsible for the emotional and social well being of the kids. If the kids are older we'd have more problems (like people being in relationships, breaking up, or God forbid, getting pregnant), but at this age most of our problems have to do with being homesick, provoking or being provoked by others, and bullying or being bullied by others. All three happened to my students this year. Under CTY procedure, as a TA I am required to talk to the RAs several times every day, to find out if anything has happened to the kids over the night or during activities. There is a system of paperwork for everything that happens to a student, and those are left in mailboxes for staff to read. In theory, this system allows a rapid dissemination of information on the students, so everyone knows what's happen.

What I found this summer was that while the system is designed properly, people don't really follow them. I have seen TAs and RAs simply bringing the kids to the drop off point, then walk away after seeing they are picked up - without talking to that staff. The paperwork system, while detailed, does not provide a rapid enough response. In one case, I was lucky to have found out about an incident the morning after from the RA. They had put in the paperwork as well, but it had taken over a week for me to be notified of the administrative response. There was a worse case - I heard about the incident from the RA, and never ended up reading the paperwork. Although I knew the gist of what had happened, I didn't really have the details. And since the incident was rather serious, I would prefer to have it - but I didn't. And finally, there were things which I never knew until I read the paperwork - like the fact that one of my students had daily meetings with a member of the administration.

Don't get me wrong - things worked out great this summer, and as I said I had an awesome time. But I was really disappointed by the things I just pointed out, which not necessarily made my job harder, but it did give me unpleasant surprises. If I got the chance to talk to the staff before CTY started, I would say this:

Administration: My management philosophy is simple - it's about the people who's close to the action. For a summer camp, that would be the RAs, the TAs, and the instructors. We are here to make their jobs easier, here to support them. This means that we might have to work longer hours to resolve issues as soon as possible, or we might have to do extra work to ensure classes and activities goes as the RAs and instructors have planned. We get paid more not because we're more important, but because we have to work harder.

RAs: I know you have a tough job - you have to take care of over a dozen kids all by yourself, for multiple hours at a time, sometimes sacrificing sleep. But remember that besides making sure the kids are under supervision at all times, there is a larger goal: to keep them excited and motivated for class. Think about it this way: you can spend 5 minutes talking (and listening!) to the TA and instructor about a problem that arose, or you can spend hours afterwards trying to comfort the student, explain to the administration, or even the parent, about what happened. So please, talk to your TAs and instructors.

TAs and Instructors: You're what the camp is about. Congratulations. But your job is not just to teach the kids; as with the RAs, you have to make sure the students are having a good time. This certainly involves finding out about things which happened in the dorm, or during activities - and remember, finding out earlier saves time. If you could, however, lead an activity! Join the talent show! The kids are never more excited than seeing their TAs and instructors spending time with them outside of the classroom. If it doesn't earn you friends, it at least earns you camaraderie - and that goes a long way in talking with the students.
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The Fountainhead

I have been collecting and clarifying the thoughts I have about the book and its concepts since I finished reading it. There is a collection of ideas, many of which I’ve had before, some of which are new to me as presented in the book, and some which took me till now to figure out. I have a few things to say about my reaction first. Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, her last novel, Atlas Shrugged, is supposedly a book which makes a difference in peoples lives, coming in second only to the Bible. The Fountainhead, written earlier but containing the same heavy dose of what would become objectivism, might not have as large an impact, but I still expected it to make me question things I believe. Instead, beginning early in the novel and continuing after I finish, I was more surprised by the fact that the book did not change me at all. Rather, I found that I have individually arrived at a lot of the conclusions presented in the book. There might be a confusion of causation here; it is entirely possible that I have read books about objectivism first, which lead me to Ayn Rand, thus me finding the books uninspiring. The most supportive evidence I have of this is that I’m a fan of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, which expresses a lot of objectivist philosophy. That might indeed be how I first came across Ayn Rand. Since there was a gap of several years before my first reading in 11th grade in high school, my subsequent discovery of the series in junior year of college, and finally reading The Fountainhead, I feel this is unlikely. I would prefer to believe that I have come to the same conclusion as Ayn Rand has, at least on the subject of how best to live one’s life. Due to my focus on the individual and not in society, I have the feeling that if I continue to read Atlas Shrugged, I will in fact like The Fountainhead more. But that’s an essay for another day.

Let me start by addressing the thoughts that I’ve had up to the reading of The Fountainhead, then show how the thoughts are tied together by the ideas in the book.

The first idea is one I’ve expressed for a while, even on this blog: it is the idea that work and play does not have to be separate. I just finished six weeks of working for a summer camp, where I wake up at 07:00, spent at least 7 hours a day with middle school kids (more often closer to 8 or 9), have to work in the evenings to prepare lessons for the next day, and still have paper work to file. If this sounds like a horrible job, it isn’t; I love the entire experience, and my only feeling at the end of six weeks is a wish for just one more session. I may have complained in the middle, about how the students are not getting along with each other, or that some policy about paperwork is stupid, but those are minor things. Compared to watching how quickly these children can pick up material and what their minds are capable of understanding, the things I’m complaining about are insignificant. Part of the reason I complain is to express a moment’s frustration; the other is that somehow, I am expected to complain.

That last one is strange, when one thinks about it. Of course, there’s no rule saying that all employees must complain about their job. But most people do, and it has become a ritual of bonding to talking about jobs as such. In the same way, my parents have very often drawn the distinction between working and play: yes, play is important, but work more so. By the way it is phrased, it creates a false separation between work and play, that the two can not coexist. Play is the fun one, but in order to have fun one must first have fame/fortune/influence, and to get that, one must work first, which is not fun. CTY is the greatest counter-example to this theory. People are taking vacation time from their normal jobs to come and teach children. The salaries are much lower than what I could get if I do an internship at Microsoft, and the food, accommodations, etc. are all at lower standards. But I’m not taking the job because of the meals and wheels, but because of what I’m paid to do. And I happen to like robotics, I happen to like teaching, I happen to like playing frisbee with children.

In the last year or so, I’ve realized that this sets me apart in several ways. The first, of course, is that I complain less than other people. But more than that, I realize I spend more time being productive, being happy. At CTY there are people who don’t want to spend time outside of class with the children. It is not part of the job description, they say. That’s true. But the very nature of the job involves spending hours with the kids. If they didn’t like kids, why did they take the job? The real reason is probably more subtle than that; I’m sure everyone at the camp liked children. In my case though, I’m taking time out of my own life, when I’m not “on duty”, to do more “job work”. The distinction between work and play is blurred: I do the same thing whether I’m paid or not. In things besides summer jobs there’s a difference – I would have to work a part-time job to support myself, I would have to worry about time and transport and all that stuff. But it’s a start. Paul Graham suggested that the test of whether someone is doing what they love is asking them whether they would continue doing that if they weren’t paid. I would do CTY; in fact, I did. Living in a dorm, my address changed during the summer, so I never got the last check which was mailed out (the others were collected in person). In essence I was paid only two thirds of what I signed up for. I didn’t know until this summer that there was a third paycheck. But I didn’t care, I came back; I didn’t do it for the paycheck, I did it for the sake of doing it.

The second idea I want to address is one that was on the waiting list to become a blog post. There are two related ideas: an arrogance and over-confidence that I sometimes show, and a condescension for people who don’t try.

I recently noted to a friend that arrogance and being full of oneself is different: the former usually has something to be proud of, but they are overly so, while the latter may not in fact have any accomplishments. I believe my arrogance comes from several things: abilities as a quick learner, a mental (and by extension, limited physical) resourcefulness, a refusal to be defeated (at least emotionally), and perhaps relative success so far in life. Because of these things I see myself as better than other people. I’ve never really worked hard in school, but have pretty good grades. One might object here that my definition of work is different. That is true; I had a lot of fun in school, and part of that fun comes from learning and understanding new things. But that just proves my point. Being able to enjoy this required process of schooling sets me apart. It is like I’m gaming the system, except I’m not. Everyone can be happy at school; some just don’t know how, others refuse to.

Wanting to learn and being curious gives me the advantage of knowing a lot, not just in my major, but also in things outside my major. Here again I clash with convention. Look at lists of 100 must read books. Count how many are non-fiction. I’ll bet that fiction books dominate. In fact, back in freshman year of high school, in English we had periods where we were required to read. There was one caveat: it had to be a fiction book. I once tried to bring in a non-fiction book, perhaps about physics, perhaps about dinosaurs, but it was rejected. Granted, on that occasion I was sent to the library and thus discovered Terry Goodkind, but I never understood why reading must focus on narratives. I find books on science, philosophy, and sociological studies equally as absorbing, and I don’t think that there are any more good authors in fiction than there is in non-fiction. And from these books, I learn a lot about other people, about how the world works, things which I can use in my life.

As for emotional stability – not being allowed to read non-fiction in class didn’t stop me. It just meant I had to be somewhat less efficient. I write journals, blogs, debates on philosophy, which helps me get rid of any bottled-up emotions. I’m the kind of person who would be happy in many situations, even if things are not working out they way I want them to. One question I’ve always hated on the “getting to know you” type games is one which asks for things you regret. I tend not to have them. I’m sure if I plan now and act, I can be just as happy, if not more so. Wallowing in despair is not going to help anyone, and you’re in charge of your own emotions. That doesn’t mean I don’t have goals or that I just let things happen to me. It’s the same way I deal with grades. If I’m doing well, then I’ll care about them; if I’m not, well, I’m still learning material.

Although I’ve been aware of these things about myself for several years now, sometimes I’m still surprised when I see other people don’t share the same ideals. Being rather secure in my belief that this is the way to being happy and productive, sometimes I just can’t bear other people complaining about their life. Have they tried to make their life better? Have they tried to stop complaining and act? It is perhaps not surprising that, if they haven’t tried to make things better, things don’t get better. This idea actually sprang from a discussion about search engines. We were talking about having additional power operators, like the negation of a search term or searching only pages on a site. Other people in the discussion were saying that these functionalities should be provided, maybe by adding buttons, sliders, etc. I argued that these functions already exist (indeed, Google has them), and people are just not taking the time to learn them. The conclusion that the class had about me was that I’m a power user, and I don’t understand how the “average user” works. On reflection though, I think the difference might be wider still: I believe in doing what is possible to get things done. Where is the line drawn between people being stupid and the object of use being badly designed? As a Linux user, I subscribe to the philosophy of “scratching your own itch”. If you want something in a program, either work around it, ask someone to code it for you, code it yourself, or forget it. There is enough documentation and forums online to solve most problems, and these solutions are only a Google search away. People should be willing to do this much to solve their problems; less than that, they’re just lazy. I was reminded of the computer help desk acronym PEBKAC: Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair. My personal conclusion on the matter? I shouldn’t be in human computer interaction.

The last idea I had is one which I never intended to write about, but is inseparable from these ideas. This idea is dedication, and I will sidetrack into romance and love to demonstrate my point.

As I’ve said, I don’t like people who don’t try. Some people do try, but very often I feel they don’t try enough. Although perhaps I don’t do it for everything I do, in general I want to see things to the end. For a project in my freshman year, I was in a team of four, except two of the group members didn’t really do anything. So the remaining guy and I, we worked the entire evening, through the night, and most of the next day to get the project done on time. We’ve talked to the other two before, and they’ve somewhat acknowledged that they haven’t pulled their weight. We were supposed to meet the evening before to get the thing done, and what happens? Those two don’t even bother to show up. It might be said that this is the simplest case of dedication, that maybe half the people my age have done something like that to get homework finished. True; but I do this not just for homework or group projects, but also for clubs and other activities. I don’t value sleep or food much, and would rather see things finished than go to bed.

Let me take this into the realm of feelings. Taking to a friend recently, I was surprised to discover that she had never felt a certain feeling: that of loving someone so much that she would be willing to give them away. It can be slightly paradoxical, but in the simple case it’s easy to understand. Let’s say that my friend likes someone, but that someone is attracted to someone else. If the happiness of the person she loves is of such value that it is shadows the value of her own happiness, then letting that person go actually makes her happier, solely for the reason that that person is happier. This particular idea has been with me since high school, so it’s strange for me to hear that it has never occurred to other people. This is dedication: a commitment to something – whether an ideal or a person – which goes beyond your personal needs.

I’m not sure how well I’ve explained the ideas, but in the form they’ve existed in my head, they’re intricately connected, although I could not explain how. Reading The Fountainhead gave me ideas, but it still took me until today to realize what it is. I summarized it this way:

By loving what we do, we become self-sufficient – an unprecedented liberty, freedom from the judgement of others, freedom from failure – because it is not other people’s reactions or the result which matters, but the journey, the act of doing itself. By loving what we do, we become powerful beyond measure through the knowledge that no matter what happens, we are happy.

The link I was missing is the self-sufficiency. If someone loves what they do, and are totally dedicated to it without regard to anything else – as Howard Roark was to architecture – then they are truly happy, and can be smugly so. This only applies to things which don’t require other people – architecture as a personal art, or a boundary-pushing science where politics doesn’t interfere. In these cases, it doesn’t matter what other people think, because the goal has never been their approval. The goal is to design, or to push the boundaries of human knowledge. That is all that is necessary for happiness: not praise from other people, but the internal certainty that something worthwhile has happened.

I’ve once read somewhere that a book should not be read just by virtue of it being a classic. They should be read for their own value, and if it turns out to be a boring book half way through, stop. I myself skipped the last half of Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded because he kept repeating himself, and also skipped Steven Pinker’s chapter on abstract syntax in The Language Instinct. I’m not reading the books because I want to say I’ve read them; I’m reading to see what they have to say, and maybe gain a new perspective. I don’t want to suffer hours of indecipherable babble for a single moment’s claim of finishing the book. The same is with life. Work, enjoy work, and dedicate yourself to it. Don’t do it for the fame, or the fortune, or anything besides your own happiness. Because when you do so, you are self-sufficient, and you’ll be the happiest person.


The Fountainhead

I'm in the middle of reading The Fountainhead, and have some thoughts on that. I will write it and publish it when I have time, probably this weekend. This is just to let you know that I'm not dead, and to expect something from me soon.
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Education and Games

I'm in the middle of CTY, and I'm having a grand time. If I come back next year, I'll be back as an instructor. The future's not certain though, and there are several factors preventing me from coming back. First, CTY fits Northwestern's schedule really well - we end mid-June, then I have a week before CTY starts. UMich though ends mid-May, which means CTY cuts my summer in half. That  means it's harder to get things, and I can't just start research later during the summer - I'll have to start it, stop for a few weeks, then go back to it. Of course, the whole research thing will probably be the main competitor for my time. I really wish I could come back though; I'll have to talk to my advisor about it.

Anyway, this post isn't about my 2010 summer plans. I started off saying that I want to be back as an instructor because I was thinking about ways to improve the course. While the course as it stands is pretty good, there are several things which bugs me. For example, the pre and post tests are almost irrelevant to the course material; I'm sure I can think of some better questions which deals with breaking goals into steps, or how information travels through a program, or how to build sturdy objects.

One thing that my instructor did, and which I like a lot, is the focus on not only robots, but on design as well. Before each big project, we have the kids fill out design documents, so they have to think through what their problem is, and how their robot will solve that problem. Right now though, the design templates are very heavily physical. There is no room to do some good thinking about the program, where as there's an area for a sketch of the robot. I would totally redesign the design sheet, so the hardware and software components are given enough time. I also think there's some space for more reflective questions; for example, start off by asking the kids what they think will be hard, then afterwards asking them whether they predicted correctly, and if not, what was harder than expected and why.

All this led to thoughts of flow charts, which I know the other robotics class do. We never teach the kids flowcharts, although I learned that some earlier iterations of the class do have that in the curriculum. The main problem, I think, is that we don't deal with branches and loops until Thursday, and by then it's a little late to start adding flow charts to the design process, especially if they've already filled out several of those sheets. One option, I guess, is to move the branches and loops lesson to earlier in the week. My only qualm with that is how comfortable the kids will be with that material that early. And besides, flow charts don't work very well with variables anyway (as a side note, is there any kind of diagram allows the diagrammer to keep track of variables over time?).

So I was thinking about flow charts, and how to best structure the class so kids can learn more abstract concepts, when I found myself wondering how video games have tutorials which slowly guide the player to more advanced skills. The tutorials have to start off easy, get progressively harder, but at the same time must remain fun for the whole time. And isn't that exactly what we want to do at CTY? Yes we're cramming a lot of material into the kids' brains, but it's also supposed to be fun. In this sense, I liked what one of my other instructors did; he had a theme of the students being robot builders throughout the course, and told them that at the end they'll be "little Gorts". This is in essence a "leveling system", so the kids feel like they've accomplished something.

But really, I think game designers should talk to educators more, so kids are learning more but remain engaged.
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Porn and Intimacy

It is rare that I talk about something so personal on my blog. My life is at a changing point, very saliently a point where the future is wide open and I get to decide where it should go. There are some other circumstances which I don't feel like elaborating on, but let it be suffice to say that this has been on my mind somewhat recently.

I think it would surprising some people for them to know I consume a lot of porn. I actually remember the first time I saw anything indecent on the internet. I was probably only 10 at the time, and was trying to get on the search engine Infoseek. I had mistyped the URL, however, and typed in "ifoseek" instead, which turned out to be some porn site. Much later I would classify this as an instance of cybersquatting, but I didn't know any of that at the time. I remember fighting the urge to go back, but eventually I succumbed, and the whole world of online pornography opened up for me. For a long time I was ashamed of it, but in the last few years that changed. It might partially be due to the fact that the Internet being filled with porn is just widely accepted, and as well as the fact that a lot of people watch porn. I think part of it also has to do with me taking a more rational trend in life, and I critically pondered the question of whether porn ever actually does anyone harm. I concluded that, aside from cases where the actors are forced to do it (most prominently, child pornography), there is no physical reason pornography is damaging. As for the whole moral degradation argument, if you were one of those people who were surprised that I watch porn, maybe you should rethink the argument that porn makes men objectify women.

But I don't want to spend this post rebutting the negative affects of pornography. Instead, I want to give a more personal account of pornography, and what I have learned about myself from it. Regardless of it's influence on morals, I do think pornography often depicts humans as (shall we say) animals. That is, the plot of a pornographic movie, if there is one at all, tends to portray people as thinking of nothing but sex. There is no consideration of time, money, possibility of getting caught (unless that's what the director wanted). This past statement, of course, is something I couldn't have said even 3 years ago. In the early days I didn't really discriminate, and everything explicit on the web looked the same to me. As I grew up and learned and thought more, however, this trait of porn became clear to me. I must say that there are times when mindless sex is exactly what you're looking for, but most of the time nowadays I'm looking for something else: a connection.

My real problem with porn is that the actors rarely show concern for each other. Although the act of sexual intercourse requires another person, it is safe to say that both characters are more often than not only concerned with their own desires. If the actress gave a blowjob, it's not to please the buy, but because she "likes it". If I may, it's the difference between being a friend because it keeps you from feeling guilty, and being a friend because you truly care for their feelings. Sex in the real world, I would think, is more about the other person's desire. Both people may be horny, but there is the desire to make the other person happy first. In porn, these acts of "giving" seem forced, and are there more to satisfy the /audience/ than the /partner/.

Instead, lately I've been more attracted to amateur pornography. I don't mean what professional studios label as "amateurs, but actual home made videos. Often these are videos that couples have filmed of themselves, probably for their own entertainment later. Because the actors are real people (not fake characters) with feelings for each other, however, these videos depict much more intimate acts of love making. And that's what I'm looking for: the sense that what is shown is not simply two animals copulating, but two humans with emotions and an intellect. What they are doing is an extension of their love, because even a piece of cloth between their bodies is too much to bare. It is, almost by definition, a private moment, and therefore I also feel somewhat guilty about it's distribution and consumption. But again, it's (mostly) a victimless thing.

Given that it's rather easy to spot whether two people like each other, I'm surprised that not more professional porn is done depicting this connection. The most obvious clue, I think, are the actors hands. Are they clasped and fondling (gently), or are they there just to hold the other person in place? Is the brushing of the hair to see their face better, or to give the camera a better angle? The face, too, is a big area, just because we are so good at reading emotions. And then, of course, the big orgasm thing - is there any involuntary movement?

I think the fact that I think in this way says a lot more about me than the fact that I watch porn. One last thing... you may comment that I'm looking for intimacy in the wrong place. I know.