11 May 2013: The Good We Can Do
"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher;
"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
I don't want to try to enact the myth of the hero teacher.
Tribal education in Southwest Alaska has many systemic problems. Alcohol abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, English language acquisition, traumatic head injury, and cultural clashes. The first six months of a teacher's tenure here are wasted working in familiar ways against unfamiliar problems, rebuffing the students' mischievious gestures of friendliness as disobedience.
Above all of these is the fact that there is no life here for teachers from the outside. Though as an outsider you cannot own land or settle here, a rare few teachers will find reason to stay here as many as five years. The rest will leave after two or three, leaving place for a new teacher to come and struggle with the students against their situation and misunderstandings.
What does it mean to do good for these students? Giving them tools to take advantage of modern opportunities can only be considered a good. And yet many teachers will also lay pressure on students to conform to the demands of western civilization, pressure as subtle as singling out the college-bound for praise. When students find that they cannot meet these demands, that they were given only expectations but not ability or motivation, severe psychological distress can result. Feelings of inadequacy can perpetuate the cycle of alcohol abuse and annual suicide. Teachers with long tenures here might bury as many kids as they send to college.
Whatever I do here as an individual will be lost. I will leave in short time and my name and works will be forgotten. The best thing I can do for my students is to support them in their own goals, emotionally and academically. And I can hope to support the teacher that takes my place with systems that will help guide them towards a quicker understanding of the students that they are working with.
The best I can work towards, day by day, is to be happy and help those around me be happy too.
26 Apr 2013: A Well-Ordered God
When I was born,
I had installed a clockwork mind:
the very best and most efficient,
at pursuing clockwork ends.
But I have watched time grow long,
and space grow long with it too,
letting levers loosen from cogs,
and clockwork fall in heaps.
So come with me now
to where the summer sun never sleeps,
to damn the world of time,
and regain ignorance of our creators.
13 Apr 2013: In Loco Parentis
In loco parentis got a little more literal with the shop teacher out of town. His son became mine, and I used my parental power to whisk him away to Kongiganak, where I was to chaperon a Native Youth Olympics meet.
I've had a hard enough time these last few weeks, surrounded by too many people and in beds not my own. We spent this weekend at the Kong school, and my sanity creaks under the weight of being unable to escape the herds: sleeping on a hard classroom floor with our team of boys, being followed and following everywhere. And yet it is in a way the most privacy some of these kids get; if I had to sleep seven to a bedroom in a 500 square-foot house, I might find my only retreat in humming myself a tune. And I would rarely be able to find the attention for homework.
In loco parentis is Latin for in the place of the parent and describes the broad authority of schools and teachers over students. Teachers here don't perform the most important parental roles: we do not teach a child what it means to be loved or nurtured, we do not transmit the bulk of culture or provide a safety net of lasting support. And yet, I have fewer students in most of my classes than most local parents have children in their homes. I have more time to focus individual attention on my students than their parents do.
On Friday night a few local students brought out drums. Yup'ik song and dance is a tradition hanging by a thread, but you can get a fair impression of it from these videos by Anchorage-based band Pamyua.
Pamyua Ocean Prayer:
Modern Yup'ik song and dance are usually performed in a school basketball court, because these are the largest meeting spaces available in most communities. Here's an example of the tradition as I found it Friday night:
And here's a sample of my own poor recording:
The repetitive, choral verses and the beat of the drums put me into a meditative state which I could imagine floating over the whole audience. And I wonder if the musical style could be performed in English, with words drawn from the western mythos, and what effect it would have on an audience in a small space. I'll try to find better examples of music similar to what I heard.
A few pictures:
23 Mar 2013: NWEA Conference Presentation
I'll be presenting at the 2013 NWEA Fusion conference in June on the statistics of using student-growth for teacher evaluation. How sure can you be? will address:
- The meaning of "a typical year's growth" as defined by NWEA.
- How NWEA identifies a historical cohort for evaluating student growth.
- The best statistics that NWEA provides for contextualizing student growth.
- How to quantify the uncertainty of a teacher evaluation derived from student growth data.
17 Feb 2013: Fire, I
All of our friends had warned me not to talk to him again. It wasn't my fault; he came to me.
A new batch of results had trickled in over the Marconi Tuesday night. And though I owed a heavy debt to pedal away on the dynamo, Wednesday morning found me at my desk writing another gridded sheet.
My pen dipped ink. Into the second column of all forty-eight rows I had already transcribed each patient's initial pain-scale report beside their study subject-number, and now moved through each of the forty-five slips of paper delivered to me from the transcriptionist. Matching subject-number to subject-number, I noted each new pain report in the third column. One slow sip of tea for every ten entries.
Then the column of differences. I worked my pen to fill in forty-five deltas: changes between pre-treatment and post-treatment pain. The subtraction column came more slowly than the transcription that preceded it, and I worked slowly and carefully. Methodically, he might have said, if he was in a good mood.
The next column was the squares. After every product I glanced up to the window, beyond which the moving sun kept time against the branches of a eucalyptus tree, and ravens, indifferent to science, called out to each other in throaty rasps. Even at twenty-five I had begun to lose my perfect vision, and I had decided to allow my eyes frequent and regular breaks, breaks which I will admit to taking some pleasure in.
This was my tri-monthly ritual. My life was a circle that I walked from the garden, to the lab, to the Marconi, to my desk, and back again. Every three months I produced several new strains of comfrey. The most promising I sent out by post to doctors up and even down the coast, for burn treatment. They applied these new strains as salves and recorded their effects upon patient-reported pain. I received the results by wireless, and on that Wednesday morning I was computing standard deviations and t-tests. Tomorrow I would return to the Marconi to pedal back in all the power my work had consumed: garden, lab, Marconi, desk.
The results of three months of work came into focus as I summed squares for the control and experimental group. That's when I looked up to the eucalyptus and saw him standing at the edge of my door. Cycle interrupted.
I felt a mild wave of nausea, indicating either fear or excitement; I didn't know which.
"James", he said.
I nodded at him, hesitant to speak.
As he turned his eyes away from mine, biting his lip, digging his hands into his pockets, the nausea eased a bit.
"Right. I know I said I wouldn't." He paused, "I was in the library and I saw something on comfrey, alkaloid content and color. I..."
After two moments of wordless hesitation, one hand emerged from its pocket with a slip of paper, holding it out to me to take.
There is a small set of delicate bones which lever against each other to carry the vibration of sound from the ear drum to the cochlea. When the brain perceives some disaster of enormous magnitude, a tree about to crash within feet of the listener, a fall from some great height, the flash of an explosion, a set of muscles in the middle ear move to pull these bones apart, to save them from beating each other to fragments in the immanent clamor and leaving the ear deaf. And as I considered reaching out to take the slip of paper, the possibility of reaching out to him, these muscles strained heavily in an effort to protect my hearing from any possible catastrophic result.
All sound muffled out into the beating of ocean waves. My balance reeled and my mouth went dry. My nausea became acute. And in this state I moved too quickly to stand and reach out and grab the paper, and our fingers touched.
The moment ignited a fire which suddenly inflamed my stomach and lungs. Adrenaline locked my muscles to my frame, preparing them to move with explosive action. My brain stumbled through fantasies of shallowly buried desire. Half of me struggled to pin him against the wall and tear off his clothes; another half struggled to put my fist through his repentant fucking face. The two managed barely to keep each other from action as I stared at the ground, afraid of letting his image rally either impulse to victory.
After what must have been less than three seconds of deep and rapid breathing, I managed to raise my eyes back to the window to stare at the sun beyond the tree and tried to focus my racing mind on silent counting.
"Right," he said, following my gaze beyond my office. "I'm...I know I said..." He let the words trail off for a moment, and then turned towards the door to leave.
10 Feb 2013: Learning to Program Well
For the last decade I've described myself as able to program anything I want to, but poorly.
I've built things in C, C++, php, java, matlab, and python that other people have used. But I haven't had a formal computer science course, and I've always felt the lack of it.
A post by Wesley Tansey showed me how to change that with the new "massive open online course" (MOOC) phenomenon. From my lower-left corner of Alaska, I'm taking a Harvard introductory computer science course with 50,000 other people from across the world.
The grading and feedback are minimal, and completion earns you a certificate rather than credit. But the community is large, the content is quality, and I'm engaged in a way I wouldn't be just by reading a book.
Here's my schedule:
- HarvardX's CS50x, Introduction to Computer Science
- Princeton's Algorithms, Parts I & II
- BerkelyX's CS188.1x, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence I
After these I'll take more engineering courses in machine learning and artificial intelligence to supplement the theory I learned in school.
CS50x is designed to teach people who have never programmed before, and it's designed well. If any friends want to join the course, I'd be happy to help you work out any of the problem sets.
07 Nov 2012: History as Logos, History as Pathos
History is the record-taking of past or present events for the benefit of future audiences. In A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman states that modern scholars have a particular difficulty discerning precisely what occured in medieval times:
The chronic exaggeration of medieval numbers—of armies, for example—when accepted as factual, has led in the past to a misunderstanding of medieval war as analogous to modern war, which it was not, in means, method, or purpose. It should be assumed that medieval figures for military forces, battle casualties, plague deaths, revolutionary hordes, processions, or any groups en masse are generally enlarged by several hundred percent.
Tuchman explains the reason for this inflation:
This is because the chroniclers did not use numbers as data but as a device of literary art to amaze or appall the reader.
Modern scholars have a difficult time discerning precisely what occurred because medieval scholars were not concerned with recording precisely what occurred. They practiced an alternative mode of history.
To the modern, western mind, the method of the chroniclers seems corrupt. We use history as a means to preserve true records of cause and effect in social/ecological systems. Realism in history helps us understand our actions in a historical context, and better guides our decision-making. Fantasy in history corrupts our decision-making.
The medieval mind used history to a different purpose. The chroniclers provided their histories as a means to inspire action through emotional effect. Some realism would have been required to provide a shared context between chronicles and a shared context between a chronicle and the experience of the audience. But embellishments, which strengthened the emotional persuasiveness of the histories, were well suited to the medieval uses of history.
The modern decision-maker relies on realism in record-keeping to make logical decisions, while the medieval mind relied on fantastic embellishment in record-keeping to inspire action through emotion. These historical traditions conflict with each other, but are well suited to the purposes of their creators and their intended audiences.
In future posts, I'll build two threads that generalize on idea:
- If you impose a perspective of realism on a historical tradition rooted in ethos or pathos, you destroy that historical tradition. If the audience of that historical tradition is still alive, you have impovershed that audience.
- That logical arguments carry cumulative effects that do not diminish with time. Emotional arguments are more persuasive individually, but do not build upon each other and decay in persuasiveness over time. The accumulation of logical arguments is a component of the effectiveness of Western civilization.
04 Nov 2012: What Is Love?
Practicing the bass line and chorus "What Is Love?"
This is a style I've never tried before—holding down a key and getting rhythm with the bellows—and it's also testing my ability to move around the bass keys.
The chorus is pretty easy, but there are other parts of the melody that will be harder.
From this guy's video.
03 Nov 2012: All Through the Night
Here I am on the accordion I brought to play up here.
This is my first try at transposition. My sheet music was in the key of G, but I felt most natural singing it in C. Music theory seems very interesting, and I've ordered a book to fill myself in.
10 July 2012: Staff Cultural Orientation
I'm returned from ten days in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where I'll be teaching, having attended a staff cultural orientation with fifteen new teachers and one new principal.
We spent five days in Akiachak where the district headquarters is located, addressing the same questions I've been asking myself about the imposition of western culture on native peoples. We explored two threads:
- The Alaskan sub-arctic is a dangerous and difficult place to live. Yup'ik culture, a product of thousands of years of social evolution, contains a set of implicit rules for thriving in this environment. The language encodes a mindset or worldview that helps its speakers adapt to living here (see the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), and this effect can't be translated into and transmitted through English. By interrupting the generational transmission of native culture, we are interrupting the transmission of this worldview and set of rules which allow the people to survive the sub-arctic.
- Through the media and education, western society imposes a worldview and a set of values on the native people. For a variety of geographic, economic, and social reasons, most Yup'ik are unable or do not want to participate in the mainstream western lifestyle. This creates a psychological conflict, which may result in questions about identity and feelings of inadequecy among people who have been made to feel that mainstream western society is superior to their own traditional society. Many native populations are in absolute psychic crisis because of this conflict.
The message was: accept your own ignorance and seek to be an aid to the residents, not a guide.
The other five days we spent in our own villages. We were assigned to wonderful mentors among the village residents, who invited us into their homes and introduced us to a bit of their subsistence lifestyle. We also had a chance to meet those of our students who were attending summer school. The kids definitely try to see whether they can get under your skin, but I feel I passed their tests.
I've started to read Enlightenment's Wake by John Gray. Gray writes that the fulfillment of the Enlightenment is the central project of western civilization. In my own words, the Enlightenment is the instantiation—the particular form, realization, or instance—of the Conqueror Mindset in western civilization; other cultures would have different projects of progress centered on the universalization of Sharia and Islam, Confucianism, etc.
So as westerners, we believe that science and reason can help us produce a template for a prosperous society with a minimal set of rules that allows people to fulfill their own independent, personal values. Since the template allows people to define their own personal values, it can in theory be lain-over any population without disturbing local culture, so long as the population chooses to value and retain that culture. But Gray points out that independence is itself a value that is taken for granted by this Enlightenment project, and that we may be better served by a model of civilization which does not allow for independent assignment of value.
By my interpretation, if you lay the Enlightenment project over a culture which assigns value collectively then the native culture will crumble and fail. More thoughts to follow.
21 Apr 2012: The Conqueror Mindset
I now have a contract, for teaching secondary mathematics in Tuluksak, AK:
View Larger Map
Tuluksak is populated almost entirely by native Yup'ik. Anyone can guess that the culture will be different. But how different can two human cultures really be? This video got me thinking that the answer could be "very different". The relevant quote:
And performance is the bottom line in the culture of the lower 48. Here [in rural Alaska] it's not performance; it's family and community. So there's a real conflict there, between the two ways of life. I had to give up the performance approach to the community/family approach.
Why the drive to perform? Almost every major culture on earth is descended from a conquering society. My ancestors were bumming around western Europe until they were conquered by either the Romans or the Vikings. Latin America was conquered by the people conquered by the Romans. What started as a small nucleus of kingdoms in China eventually made most of East Asia into vassal states. India, North Africa and the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the pre-Columbian Americas have similar stories.
The majority of human cultures, including the native cultures of your ancestors, have been displaced by a small handful of empire-building cultures. Each of these few cultures ascended because they cared about performance; if they hadn't cared about performance they would have been absorbed by some other, more effective culture. We are the cultural descendents of performers. They have passed to us the conqueror mindset: a desire to perform beyond the needs of survival and comfort.
Ran Prieur likes to point out that there are cultures which have no concept of freeloading. If we enjoy our labor and we're able to survive comfortably, why should we care whether others benefit enough from our work that they themselves don't have to work? Ran suggests that it's because we don't actually enjoy our work. I'll also blame the conqueror mindset. The conqueror mindset says that there is always work to be done towards the advancement of society, that we must continually progress in our capabilities, and that everyone can and should contribute to that progress.
The conqueror mindset is the engine of science and industry which continually asks, "How can this be done better?" The conqueror mindset pursues "better", "improvement", and "more". Those are constantly rising bars, standards which can never be reached. A culture without the conqueror mindset, though, might pursue "enough", or "comfort". These are goals that can be reached, goals that you can reach and then stop working towards for awhile.
Consider that it took us ten-thousand years to go from pottery to metalworking. And the atlatl may have been the height of technology developed in the thirty-thousand years of fully-modern humans preceding pottery. These transitions would not have taken millenia if "better", "improvement", and "more" were fundamental human drives.
Until the mid-20th century, the Alaskan interior didn't seem to have many resources worth conquering. Like with many native populations, there was continuous and low-level inter-tribal warfare until western intervention. But the region never produced or attracted the serious attention of a real empire-building culture until America found the whole region well placed for a defense against the Japanese, and saturated in oil besides.
When Richard Stasenko says that the Yup'ik he taught are not focused on performance, it says to me that their culture was not produced by conquest. And it has some really difficult implications for my role as a teacher. Western education does not teach you how to survive comfortably, to enjoy life in your community among your family, to know when you've done enough. Western education prepares for the jobs of tomorrow, prepares for excellence, prepares you to extend human knowledge, to be a contributing citizen. These are the goals that were given to us by our conquerors. What do I teach to a person who has no interest in the jobs of tomorrow?
It's not a hopeless question, just my own prompt for thought.
21 Apr 2012: The Serenader
I've got to break up two heavy posts, here, with some more accordion.
Apologies for my mic topping out. I'll turn down the boost next time.
17 Mar 2012: Praxis II Mathematics, 0061
Studying for this month's Praxis II Mathematics Content Knowledge test was tough. Every source on the internet claims that there are no good professionally produced practice tests; people find the real thing terribly more difficult. So I wasn't comforted by the fact that I was doing well on all of my pre-tests.
I think they must have eased up this season, because the test was only somewhat more difficult than the ETS-produced practice test. Based on my performance in practice, I'll guess I missed 3 to 5. If you're concerned like I was, you can benchmark your progress against my history:
- I finished the Cliff's Notes (2006) tests in 60-75 minutes each, scoring 40-43 per test.
- I reviewed each of these tests, and recompleted them in 45-60 minutes per test.
- I did this guy's test. It took me about an hour (it's a half test, so that's equivalent to two hours on a full test) and I got 21 (or 42 on a full test).
- I completed the ETS-produced practice test in about 75 minutes, scoring 43.
When test day came I spent 90 minutes on my first pass, marking maybe 8 questions as educated guesses. On my second pass I was able to turn 7 of those into solid answers.
I'll post an update when I get my score back!
I hope that helps anyone who's freaking out about the test based on message-board chat. The Praxis2Math.com test was definitely tougher than the actual test I took. The ETS produced practice test was only somewhat less difficult than the actual test, and is worth the $14. The Cliff's Notes (2006) tests were good practice, but definitely much easier than the actual test. The Cliff's Notes book was a good book, though, to review principles from.
Update: I scored a 181
24 Feb 2012: Eine kleine Akkordeonmusik
It's not spectacular, but I wanted to share my progress so far on the accordion. It'll be a nice benchmark to look back on in a couple of months. I'm taking lessons from Duane Schnur's Accordion Site.
Is the song about an insensitive monkey or a hypersensitive weasel? Both!? Neither?!?
18 Feb 2012: A Mathematician's Defense of Functionalism
Mind and Function
A central question in philosophy of mind is what constitutes the basis for concious experience. One branch of modern philosophy—functionalism—claims that any system which functionally replicates human thought and behavior would also replicate human conciousness. Other philosophers suggest that functional equivalence to the human mind is insufficient for producing conciousness, that concious experience transcends the ability to produce thought or behavior.
I wrote this essay just as I was moving from advanced math into brain and behavior. It's a mathematician's defense of functionalism against the arguments of John Searle, the Chinese Room thought experiment, et al.:
Functionalism, the idea that mental states are characterized by their function, formally arose in the mid 20th century in response to earlier attempts at demystifying the mind(Levin, 2009). Many felt that behaviorism had failed to describe the mind at an appropriate conceptual level, or that attempts such as identity theory were overly restrictive upon the conditions of mental states(Levin, 2009). Functionalists declared that the particular physical processes underlying mental activity in an entity were inconsequential; what mattered was the functional role a state played in that entity's existence.
...In this paper, I don't try to prove that functionalism is true. Opponents of functionalism will always be able to find harbor in the the ineffable, the empirically unobservable. I only wish to show that functionalism is valid, that it's plausible, that it's potentially consistent with our experience of the world.
...We can formalize this notion a bit more by appealing to the mathematical formulation of isomorphism. Let G and H be sets, and the function f be a one-to-one mapping between them. Let ★ be the function from G to G that we wish to preserve. Then f is an isomorphism with respect to ★ iff f[★(a)]=★'[f(a)] for all a in G...<read entire paper>
29 Nov 2011: Projects Added
A machine-learning driven art project, inspired by a hallucination, producing images from algorithms similar to those our cameras use to detect faces...Read More
A Python MUD
A toolkit for running psycho-visual experiments in Matlab...Read More
A Modern Trivium
Modern education does not teach us how to think, and only barely teaches us how to learn. In contrast, Medieval formal education began with these very topics, taught via the Trivium. I'm interested in combining the Trivium with models of self and group driven education...Read More