The era of the irrepressible teacher

Blogs were supposed to be the medium that empowered citizen journalism. Much digital ink was spilled pushing this idea back and forth:

“You bloggers are self-absorbed and undisciplined!”
“Oh yeah? Well you journalists are arrogant and out of touch with the real world.”

It was all pretty silly. I can see how a journalist might feel threatened these days, but whatever is destroying journalism as a career, I promise you it’s not bloggers.

I think when we look back on this era, it will be clear that the most important category of amateurs unleashed by the web wasn’t wannabe journalists but wannabe teachers. You probably know the story of Salman Khan and his startup academy. He’s an extreme example of a gifted teacher who started teaching over the web in his spare time. He’s doing it full time now, and he’s making a huge difference in the world. Khan has done a lot to capitalize on the merits of the web, as opposed to simply repackaging the instruction you’d see at an institution.

I keep running into these sites now, really high quality instruction provided for free by someone who has the teacher bug. It’s remarkable and encouraging. Want to learn quantum computing? Michael Nielsen has a series called Quantum computing for the determined. He uses a format for which he credits Salman Khan as inspiration.

My favorite new site is Kalid Azad’s BetterExplained. I first came across his quick guide to Git (Git is a software management system). Of more general interest is his Visual, Intuitive Guide to Imaginary Numbers. He launches his discussion by reminding us how weird negative numbers are. And so they are. Good stuff.

Why is Kalid doing this? Because he can’t be stopped! I find it interesting to think of the web not as something that empowers natural teachers, but as something that removes the weights that have been around their shoulders. It’s sobering to think how many great teachers there are that have been thwarted by the pain of teaching as a career path. But that was then. Now is their time. Sit back and enjoy the show.

Getting help from people like me

I want to let you know that I appreciate all the work you do for me. You write Wikipedia articles for me, you buy my crap on eBay, and you solve my computer problems. You’re so good Time made you Person of the Year back in 2006. Remember that? Your mom was so proud!

The big thing I notice in a post-Google world is that when I need help, I almost never get it from the pros. Not from the vendors or the documentation writers. Not from the technical support staff. I get my help from you.

I’ve been saying this for a while, as in this invited piece I wrote for Desktop Engineering last year: MATLAB Central Has Answers to Share. The same principle applies at The big idea is that nobody understands my pain like someone who shares my pain. If someone is paying you to think about my pain, that’s never going to be quite as good.

Here’s a recent example that spurred me into writing about this topic one more time. I was using Word the other day and added a horizontal line by typing <dash-dash-dash-dash-return>. Did you know you could do that? You get this nice line that stretches right across the page. It’s pretty cool… until you want to get rid of the line. You can’t delete it. You can’t backspace over it.

These days I know not to waste time worrying about what to do next. Looking at the Microsoft documentation is a fool’s errand. Don’t bother! Instead I went to Google and typed in these words: I can’t get rid of the annoying horizontal line in Word. The first item solved my problem. Naturally, Microsoft would never refer to the line as “annoying.” But that’s one of the words that led me straight to my solution.

(By the way, it turns out the line is the border of an invisible table.)

Wendy swims the Charles

Boston has long been known for its dirty water. Boston Harbor, the “dirtiest harbor in America,” was a campaign liability for 1988 candidate Michael Dukakis. It’s hard to change a reputation, but the harbor is actually very clean these days. Just today the Globe had a story on a massive holding tank to prevent sewage outfall during heavy rains, calling it the last big piece of the Boston Harbor cleanup.

The Charles River, which as we like to say here, empties into Boston Harbor to form the Atlantic Ocean, is also famous for its filth. But wait! Here’s a picture of my wife Wendy (she’s on the right) with another Watertown swimmer, Katie O’Dair. And what are they doing? Why they’ve just finished swimming a mile-long race in the Charles sponsored by the Charles River Swimming Club. The FAQ for the site doesn’t pull any punches: “the short answer to the question of whether the Charles River is swimmable is, quite simply, ‘no.'” But happily we learn, “the Charles River Swimming Club has put a number of measures into place to ensure that the race can be conducted in a safe manner.” Like the obligatory tetanus shots before and after the race. Kidding! I’m kidding! Just look at the smiles on those kids. They’re the best evidence of the improving fortunes of the Charles.

Although I still think the organizers missed a great opportunity to call the race the Up-Chuck Plunge.

But I ordered the Dissostichus eleginoides!

One of the interesting side effects of cheap DNA sequencing technology has to do with your dinner plate. All your food comes to you with detailed identification in the form of DNA, but you didn’t have any way to read it. As that changes you’re going to have a much much better idea of what you’re eating and where it came from. That may be a little disconcerting.

Mammal and bird meat comes from carefully managed farms, but fish is the last remnant of Man the Hunter-Gatherer, Homo grab’n’eatum. This is slowly changing with the increase of aquafarming, but it still amazes me that so much of the world’s protein is sourced with such an ancient pre-agricultural technique, sticking it to the Tragic Commons on the unregulated high seas. The technology has improved over the years, but even so, we don’t come off looking very clever.

Recently Oceana, an ocean conservation group, issued a report called, wait for it, Bait and Switch. This report shows that much of the time the fish you are being served, even in fine restaurants, bears no relation to the fish you ordered. That red snapper? It might be any of a rogue’s gallery of bottom-of-the-boat rabble.

This report got a lot of press, and the outlook was generally gloomy: you’re being duped by the corrupt seafood industry. But I think this is great news. When you turn on the lights in your kitchen and see cockroaches, it’s disturbing. But those roaches have been dancing on your dishes every night. At least now you know about it! Now you can do something about it. Cheap DNA machines are turning on the light, and now we can start to do something about it. Soon you’ll carry a DNA Barcoder on your belt. Begone bogus Bass! Sayonara crappy Crappie!

And, oh by the way, what’s this D. melanogaster doing in my soup? I hope it was locally sourced.

The great solar ka-BOOM!

Did you hear a loud CRACK in the sky about three days ago? That would have been the sun having the worst case of indigestion we’ve ever observed.

Here’s a remarkable movie assembled from instruments aboard three different NASA observatories: SDO, the SOHO, and STEREO.

The sun looks like it’s been wacked by a Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. The thing that amuses and amazes me is that you can see fragments from the explosion falling back into the sun and catching fire. So help me, if I saw that in a movie I would complain about how ridiculous it was. Don’t those solar special effects people know anything?

I also like how, when things go to hell on the sun, I can take comfort in the fact that humans didn’t screw it up. Sure, we’ve sterilized the seas, bleached the coral, scorched the earth, and poisoned the air. But the sun? Hey buddy, that’s not my shift!

Sapir-Whorf: the Coriolis force of language

Did you know that Eskimos have 20 words for lame linguistic analogies? Do you suppose this shapes their view of visiting linguists? I understand they can distinguish among many subtle variations of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or the Isumannaallisaavigissavaat meeqqap angajoqqaaaminiit taakkua piumasarinngisaannik avissaartitaannginnissaa hypothesis, as it is known in Tuktut Nogait.

Amateur linguists (hey that’s me!) are easily seduced by linguistic relativity, also known by its cocktail-party name, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s very appealing, this idea that the language you speak shapes the thoughts you can think. George Orwell played on this with his imagined Newspeak language in 1984, the notion being that politically incorrect thoughts become impossible so long as you think only in Newspeak.

Among language professionals, linguistic relativity has lost much of its charm. The so-called “strong form” that Orwell described has been discredited. Just because Germans have the word schadenfreude and we don’t doesn’t mean I can’t take pleasure in your misfortune. And, watch this, if I like the word schadenfreude, I can just appropriate it by removing the italics. Boom! It’s mine now. Eskimos (Inuits) really do have lots of words for snow, but it’s only because Inuktitut is an agglutinative language. So when they say qanik, it means falling snow. Qanittaq is recently fallen snow. Qannialaaq is light falling snow. And so on. They just mash all them little word blobbies together. It’s not like I can’t describe the same snow with my mealy non-agglutinative English. Oh look! I just did. So is that a profound linguistic insight or merely a somewhat interesting distinction between two languages?

But even among the pros, a weaker form of linguistic relativity is on the rise. Here’s a Scientific American article by Lera Boroditsky called How Language Shapes Thought. I recently listened to a Long Now lecture by Boroditsky on the same research. She’s pretty pumped up about relativity, but I came away with the sense that Sapir-Whorf is the Coriolis force of language. The Coriolis force is the thing that supposedly makes the toilet swirl counter-clockwise (in the northern hemisphere). Here’s the thing: the Coriolis force is real. You can measure it. But at the scale of your toilet, it’s tiny. It’s completely swamped by a dozen other larger forces. As a result it’s almost never the actual reason your toilet swirls this way or that. Similarly, you can do fascinating experiments that show there really is something to linguistic relativity. Russians really are measurably better at distinguishing between shades of blue than you are. It’s true! But do these effects happen at a scale that really matters, once they smash into all the other forces that influence human behavior? I doubt it.

Good stuff for a cocktail party though. By the way, did you know that pigs’ tails curl the other way in New Zealand?

Kickstart Craig and save the world

My brother-in-law Craig is an artist who spends a lot of time thinking about shelter as part of his work. As a sculptor, he’s created a variety of artworks that play on the notion of dwelling. But he’s also done the work of an architect in creating well-designed livable spaces, including one that he lived in: the Octagonal Living Unit, or OLU.

Motivated by a desire to create cheap and affordable housing for those in need, Craig has adapted the OLU design and re-imagined it with novel high-tech materials. The result is an OLU for the 21st century, a small house that is inexpensive, easy to build, well-insulated, and much more lovely than a lumpish haul-in you might find in trailer park lot. It hath, as Vitruvius might say, commodity, firmness, and delight.

Here’s what Craig has to say about it.

Are you sold? Are you ready to put some money behind it? Here’s the Kickstarter page where you can sign on as a supporter. Tell ’em Ned sent you!