Is Code Really Poetry?

In the “wrapper class” of the footer element someone wrote this: <h6>Code is Poetry</h6>. If the reader asks the browser “what is h6 in html” he or she might stumble on the w3schools explanation, which goes: “<h1> defines the most important heading. <h6> defines the least important heading.”  In the study of literature and language or rhetoric, we call this relationship irony. In this case, I would argue that the subtlety of the footer claim–Code is Poetry is a Fact Claim, but it’s also a Metaphor (it doesn’t say Code is kinda sorta like Poetry, which would be a Simile)–is an example of visual irony in relation to h1 and h6. Because while h6 is supposed to be a less kind a sorta header, on the WordPress website, if one bothers to scroll down to the footer, that “Code is Poetry” argument is pretty prominent. So, it must mean something.

I would argue, however, that WordPress in the future should reconsider the Metaphor as in a few years the casual scroller of its website might not know what it means or implies. It implies that someone thought about it. Someone was at a meeting and suddenly had a thought and said, “Hey, you know, we ought’a put Code is Poetry in the footer, man.” The boss, maybe Matt Mullenweg, responded, “That’s a fantastic idea. I know exactly what that metaphor’s all about.” Mullenweg was a PoliSci major in school. He also played the  sax in high school. He also likes music, you know all that useless stuff. I read all this at the Wikipedia page on Mullenweg. I made up the quotes.

Before the reader wonders at all this nonsense, the above paragraphs were generated by Faith Middleton’s interview and talk with Gina Barreca regarding the latter’s article in the Hartford Courant titled Humanities are at the Heart of a Real Education. As an aside, the title of the article is enclosed in h1 tags. The heart of Barreca’s piece goes to the current and all the past battles over what higher education in the United States should be doing, and, in addition, what constitutes an educated person. Hard or soft, Chemistry or Poetry, Math or English. Employment, unemployment. I hinted at this in an early post on the issue of programmers. The title to that one goes: “Do We Need More Coders”? My answer is an emphatic No and Yes.

Here’s another way of putting the problem. Are Universities and Colleges places where people should be trained or are they places where people should be educated? Barreca writes:

Administrators who market (their verb, not mine) education as a passport to success instead of defining it as pathway to knowledge are, essentially, advocating for the training of workers rather than for the education of citizens.

There are three terms that need defining here: “education,” “knowledge,” and “training.”

In a recent class I provided this metaphor to the students: You have a factory. You’re provided materials sufficient only to manufacture a Pinto. So you make a Pinto. Out comes the Pinto. The Board of Regents of the State of Connecticut observe this and say, with astonished dismay, “Where’s the cadillac?”

It’s not the most precise metaphor. Students are not Pintos. And I don’t like relating schooling to factories. That’s not the point.

Some of the students in class were Poets enough to grasp the figures of speech here. Most, however, had to no idea what “Pinto” meant.

Writ large, the Humanities is about significant stories. The story of women, the story of men, the story of horrors, the stories of success. What we did; what we didn’t do; what wasn’t said; what was known and unknown. It’s about the things we do to ourselves and why. Stories can be lost and forgotten.

To those students who hadn’t a clue about the Pinto, I told the story. They chewed on it for a while. They learned a little bit about the power of metaphor and that maybe paying for expectation might make sense in the long run.

On Change, Horses, and Water

For some reason I find this Fast Company article on Sebastian Thrun fascinating.

Here’s where I got really excited, regarding Thrun’s Stats 101 course and the relationship between the quality of the course and whether or not it would be successful:

Only it wasn’t: For all of his efforts, Statistics 101 students were not any more engaged than any of Udacity’s other students. “Nothing we had done had changed the drop-off curve,” Thrun acknowledges.

Here’s some context for the above quote that has nothing to do with online education, Udacity, or Smartboards. The good teachers I know mostly consider themselves failures. A particular semester will end and the dejected class of faculty will go back to the drawing board, rehearsing their future plays, and adding to the perennial checklist of things to alter for next time. At the beginning of the semester, the syllabus was newly minted with additional directions, already. Other content was added to stave off that unforeseen and persistent, naggly question. “It’s right there on the syllabus,” a teacher will say. “I’ll clarify further.” Done, as summer work. The links were refreshed. The Calendar was shined to perfection. And so the semester ends with half the students gone and pretty much the same ratio of grades puncturing the brains of the bewildered.

I had a conversation just the other day with a seasoned Psychology prof ready to go at the online course with a mouse pointer sharpened by “student success foreshadowing.” She paused. She said, “Yeah, we do this every semester.” But still, that video showing students how to find the directions for the assignment could always be made a little clearer.

Teachers worry a lot about students, learning, assessment, and curriculum. But they also know that revisions come with unforeseen consequences. This is something that novice faculty learn over time. We will always seek better learning and better clarity. That’s the nature of the ecosystem. Every course will tell a story and some courses can themselves be a story. Maybe the final exam is the climax. First we’ll do this, then this, then that, and by the time we get to Oedipus the student will have this, that, and the other thing to work with for improved analysis and interpretation of our despairing protagonist.

I pretty much have the curriculum nailed for my Comp II course. But it still doesn’t work right. There’s still a part of the story that’s missing. I’ll hunt it down next break and rewrite the syllabus.

But in all seriousness, the theme that appears to be missing in the story of Professor Thrun, at least as far as FC tells it, is that “students” are human beings. Human beings experience the world in the private space of their minds. Most of the time, I don’t know what my students know, and I’m just as much a solipsism to them as they are to me. Most of the time motivation, technique, expertise, and the relationship between effort and evidence are a mystery. There’s that old trick of the greenhorn writer  who scribes a query thusly: “This is the best damned story every” and so on. Here’s a hypothetical: we’ve had lots of geniuses over time who have walked the planet, shod and unshod. We could hire this superteam to construct the “killer app” of online or on-ground courses. The result will be the same, and this is where statistics get us into trouble. The students who grasp and demonstrate will grasp and demonstrate. Those who do not grasp and demonstrate, or, more importantly, do not demonstrate and either grasp or don’t grasp will grasp and demonstrate OR not. (Hm, that was tough to formulate.)

In my view, statistics are problematic in determining the success or failure of a college course, whether it smells of chalk dust or is warmed by binary code. Chafkin quotes Thrun here in regards to the “painful moment”:

As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students–1.6 million to date–he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.

“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Thrun tells me. “It was a painful moment.”

The arithmetic in my head tells me that 10% of 1.6 million is 160,000. Additional math leads to this after the equals sign: 8,000. This means 8,000 people passed whatever courses are a part of the smorgasbord. Is this a problem, given that out all the courses unmentioned in the above quote a million and change people did not eat their vegetables? We don’t know the reasons. We can’t know the reasons. Degrees of interest, access, modes, prerequisites, time, ability, attention, disagreement with technique? I would submit that this has little to do with “lousy” products and more to do with being human. The system I work with to do online ed is, in my estimation, not that great of a product. It’s not a fantastic communication tool, which is what a decent system ought to do best. At heart, any learning system is about getting ideas across and getting ideas back in a context that makes sense. Classrooms simulate that most ancient and persistent of situations: a group gathering to share ideas and maybe learn something in the process. The key here is “maybe.” Then again, why is “coworking” space all the rage these days? Because its pretty basic human stuff.

Here’s a further at heart: a) people cannot be forced to learn (or watch Youtube videos) and b) institutions cannot guarantee learning (no matter the quality of TED talks). See a). That’s why accountability in education will always lead to comedy sketches. And there’s more to doing it than just wanting to. I’m not a great fan of thinking about education in the context of for-profit because of the human quotient. Imagine if I sold tables to customers with a sign that said: this one got a C. My point of view on this is that education is best viewed as a public service that will succeed or fail on the tenacity and mindfulness of students, not chocolate-covered systems that when bitten into reveal their broccoli center (You know, the chocolate covered broccoli syndrome typically associated with education games).

Just to refer back to that first quote I started with. I say, join the club.

I think it’s fascinating that Thun is really bugged by his perceived failure. I would have to conclude that, given this, he’s a good teacher. Teachers who don’t obsess about improvement and who think they can actually teach well should find another line of work.


What College/University Transfer Should Mean

Given the implications of the content of this CT Mirror article, it would be interesting to consider what “transfer should mean.” It’s a good question to ask: how many courses from one institution should transfer to another institution in the higher ed “ecosystem” without compromising the authority of a degree granting institution?

Assuming scenarios. A student might take several courses at a university, then transfer those courses to a community college, such as Tunxis Community College, where I teach. That same student might accumulate a pretty good sized number of credits or hours. How many of these should the ending institution accept as accumulations toward, say, a degree in English or Biology.

The question assumes a paradigm. The model is: what constitutes a degree. It’s rare that universities differ all that much in their amounts and curriculum. Is Biology different in Kansas than anywhere else, assuming a graduate might go off and work somewhere in Washington State? All degree-granting institutions should have the freedom to determine the authority of their degrees within the construct of the larger discipline. So, claiming this or that number is the correct amount is both arbitrary and coherent.

My message to students is typically this: if you take a writing course and this course transfers to Yale, then consider yourself at Yale. That makes sense to me.

Do We Need More Coders?

John Dankoski did a fine show today on coding skills in relation to children, with some brief relational context built from issues (well, you know, maybe those old systems should be rebuilt). One idea that could have been developed has to do with curriculum. There were two driving questions in the broadcast: do we need more children learning coding (get em into Alice) and do we need more coders (grab some javascript skills). These are two separate questions. Another question is this: should school curriculum include machine logic and engineering in the bag? I think that’s the more significant question.

The reason it’s a significant question is because of the way people think about the purpose of an education. There’s a lot of talk today about S(Science)T(Technology)E(Engineering)M(Math) as a sort of new space-race for the future. But the acronym should be this: STEMH. Doesn’t make for a very good sound, but that H is for the Humanities. Okay, call it STHEM. Let’s say math is difficult. So is writing good poetry.

Let’s say we want to make something really complicated:

this.poem with an argument in the function generatePoem(poem) and eventually we’ll be sorting through an array.

One of the things we need to know is why something can be complicated. I don’t mean complicated in terms of thinking about why an activity might be difficult, like working through limits in calculus. Sometimes complication has to do with thinking about what we “might want” to do. The might adds complexity. For the above javascript we might want to make preexisting data available to the array. We might want to add an argument to the function: genre, for example. How?

The question could be: do we need more poets who can understand the complexities of machine code? BUT ALSO, do we need more coders who can understand human language? Those are good questions too.

June 10

Today I’ll be working on more fiction questions for the online course I’m teaching this summer. I’m using the required Blackboard Learn system. Options for assessment are much improved, but the design and management issues are still pretty crude.
Also some touch ups in the kitchen.

I don’t know, I think it’s a question of trust. Or its diminishment. The past exists in memory, artifacts, and, of course, Facebook data. Demos can’t exist constitutionally without trust in the contract.

June 10

Today I’ll be working on more fiction questions for the online course I’m teaching this summer. I’m using the required Blackboard Learn system. Options for assessment are much improved, but the design and management issues are still pretty crude.
Also some touch ups in the kitchen.

This is a test

When I went to the store the other day, I swear I saw a mouse.

This is a test

The Concept of Privacy

In all the hair-splitting going on about the US government intelligence apparatus having access to citizen activity metadata, I have yet to see a lot of crunching going on about what privacy means. It seems to me that privacy constitutes a relationship first between “I” and “me,” that is my cerebral activity, and how much of it leaks out and captured by another agent. Imagine Basho on his rounds, leaving poems on the side of the road for others to read and, in future, to be recorded in other forms. It’s hard to say whether another traveler is wandering by with a poem by Basho in their head. The observer can’t know what is in a person’s head. If I read a tweet, I don’t necessarily know if the “thought” is actually authentic. I simply take it as a “factual” grain.

This is a cut and paste of part of Twitter’s Collection clause:

Our Services are primarily designed to help you share information with the world. Most of the information you provide us is information you are asking us to make public. This includes not only the messages you Tweet and the metadata provided with Tweets, such as when you Tweeted, but also the lists you create, the people you follow, the Tweets you mark as favorites or Retweet, and many other bits of information that result from your use of the Services. Our default is almost always to make the information you provide public for as long as you do not delete it from Twitter, but we generally give you settings to make the information more private if you want.

The implication here falls on the idea of “choice,” that Twitter makes available “information you are asking us to make public.” Agreeing to the services by provided is something the user “asks” for and therefore the service complies with software. This seems fair, as it’s observed that people freely chose the service and that they understand that “you asked for it.” It would seem fair that the NSA could use this metadata, just like any one else who understand the API.

Here’s the Log clause:

Our servers automatically record information (“Log Data“) created by your use of the Services. Log Data may include information such as your IP address, browser type, operating system, the referring web page, pages visited, location, your mobile carrier, device and application IDs, search terms, and cookie information. We receive Log Data when you interact with our Services, for example, when you visit our websites, sign into our Services, interact with our email notifications, use your Twitter account to authenticate to a third-party website or application, or visit a third-party website that includes a Twitter button or widget. Twitter uses Log Data to provide our Services and to measure, customize, and improve them. If not already done earlier, for example, as provided below for Widget Data, we will either delete Log Data or remove any common account identifiers, such as your username, full IP address, or email address, after 18 months.

This is the sort of metadata any run of the mill database will have spaces for, IP, time stamps, whatever. People agree to this sort of backend storage, assuming they know what a device ID is. If they don’t, they might agree to use and basically lie to the service. Meaning: I agree but I really don’t know what I’m agreeing to because I don’t know what a device ID is. I would assume this data would be interesting to law enforcement. But my authentic question is: is log data private or public information?

In this, I think about passwords and the encryption tools, such as SALT, that make them work. Again, I am assuming that a password is related to a “thought” I might want to keep private, “to myself,” as there’s risk in making it “public.” We know, though, that passwords are stored all over the place. They are also persistently entered, altered, and key-logged by at least two listening systems, else the system wont open. In any event, everyone who uses Twitter possesses a password but it’s strange to think of a password as “private” as it is “shared” in a sort of “middle place,” a limbo, let’s say between private and public, or, as we say in modern terms, a database, which is sort of also like the modern rendering of a nature deity.

None of this, however, gets to a definition of privacy in the context of digital tools. Part of the legal stroke here has to do with “presumptions” of privacy. We have a reasonable presumption that our in-door conversations are none of the government’s business, therefore the government has no “interest” in peeping at us through the window: presumption and interest. Of added complexity is the notion of privacy itself in the linguistic storehouse. We know that digital culture has provided spaces for dispute about the meaning of choice and sharing. It may be that in the future people drop out of the culture and chose to live more selectively. Or people will sanitize their participation, so that all we get on Twitter are links to frog images. But metadata will still grow and accumulate, as data in and of itself is neither this or that until it’s related to something else. Jaron Lanier has an interesting opinion piece in the NYT on the nature of data gathering and manipulation that’s well worth plowing through in this regard.

In literature courses, we can trace how people have viewed the line between private and public ideas. People have probably always known that they can get into a lot of trouble by speaking their minds. The image of the secret police has made vigilance the protagonist to the lordly “eye’s” antagonist. When one signs onto the Verizon contract, one should also know that something physical needs to be stored. If it is a 1, then we can always read the 1, then scramble the 1 to hide its identity. But does this constitute privacy?

Years Ago

It was back in the 90s when I started telling students to watch for workers outside the US to suddenly realize that they wouldn’t stand for low wages forever. They’d organize and stand up. It’s now a story to follow and consider with much more seriousness.

Then people here might might wake up again too.

Paul Ford on “Machines”

From Paul Ford (from my growing lists of readings on technology)

If you read old manuals (I do), they were the same in the punch-card era. They’re the same now. What’s changed is, of course, the total penetration of the computer and Internet into society, and the way that this way of organizing the world has started to prevail, so much so that we sometimes fantasize about life five or six years ago.


Why Teaching is Cool


One of the cool things about teaching is the revisiting. We’ve had a few of these this week. You know who you are. But we also have those who revisit in different ways. Jason Davis was a massive person. A lamp. A voice. A speaker. He attended many of my courses and became a friend. Graduated Trinity College, Hartford.

Sadly, he has passed.

I was looking forward to reconnecting.

Swift passage to you.

Shakespeare and Masks

Yesterdays Shakespeare Uncovered on Richard the II gave me new insight into how to approach Shakespeare in the future. I’m a fan of Derek Jacobi and of the history plays, not so much of plays like MacBeth or Hamlet. What got me, however, was a video cut of Thatcher about to enter her car after the Heseltine issue and the look on her face, an image that follows a theme of Richard II. It’s not necessarily about the loss of power but the appearance of oneself into a new space minus it–when the self is stripped of its props or of what gave it shape and proportion. Looking forward to next week.

Prepping for Extremes

At the moment, the temp outside is about 5 degrees f. Last week we had our new generator started by the good tech, with his lap top and advise for self-tests. At initial test, the power went out and the generator came on a few seconds later and repowered the house. The machine continually assesses the Grid and will respond accordingly. Smooth and simple. Currently, it’s running off temporary propane while we wait for conversion to natural gas. Our addition is pricey so we figured a generator should be a part of the bargain. This equipment is watted enough to deal with the entire house, plus the addition, and should go smoothly if properly maintained. But we don’t have to worry about gasoline power and the dedicated gas will provide for future simplicity.

But it’s super cold. It would also be nice if we never had to use the generator. But it’s there; it’s big; it’s something around which to do more landscaping. It’s also amazing to think that such an expensive appliance might actually never be used. Given the changing state of the weather, this seems unlikely.

Inaugural Post: 2013

I’ve been away from this weblog for a time, thinking, changing course, working through. A new novel’s coming. A new year, with lots of exploring. New reference points. Those to thank, you know who you are. In any event, I’ve been reading lots of local, Simsbury history. Prepping for courses, with a mindfulness for ecology.

Vibert’s book has renewed my interest in the kinds of history and storytelling that makes better sense than general overviews. The day to day experience, for example, of people just after the initial push-out from Windsor Connecticut into the pine territories of northern Connecticut for tar and pitch to serve the naval concerns of England is a robust knowledge and wisdom. I’d love more mining into this subject. The social network is not new.