Beyond that, though, we’ve grown ever more aware of the problems with centralizing the internet. Traditional blogs might have swung out of favor, as we all discovered the benefits of social media and aggregating platforms, but we think they’re about to swing back in style, as we all discover the real costs and problems brought by such centralization.

From this, explaining why Signal v Noise is leaving Medium. Look, don’t get me wrong, I would love a return to blogging. I would personally benefit from a return to blogging. But I really see no reason to expect a return to blogging.

Every blog is either (a) a legacy blog, created during the heyday or (b) the blog of someone with a significant social media presence. Blogs don’t even bother with the blogroll of old — blogging is entirely dependent on already having the potential to draw a readership. If you’re starting out blogging now, how could social media not be part of the puzzle?

Maybe blogs are ready to “swing back in style” in the same retro sense that vinyl sales are growing, I don’t know. A small minority defined against the dominant culture — that still seems to me the future of blogging.



Some choice quotes from Jeff Tweedy’s memoir

I think I want to use this blog to share more quotes from things that I’m reading. Right now that’s Jeff Tweedy’s very funny and touching memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back).

I thought this was perceptive about the changing function of music reviews:

I will say that today, reviews aren’t quite the same as they were back in the early ages of rock journalism. Reviews back then devoted way more ink to trying to describe what music sounded like. That was their main purpose. It’s why people read them, because it was the only way to decide if you wanted to spend your money on a particular record.

I’m already looking forward to explaining those weird CD sampling stations that they used to have at Barnes & Noble to my kids.

From rehab:

I’d sit in group sessions and listen to other patients talk about their lives, and what they’d endured was beyond anything I could imagine … One guy told us about seeing his father murder his mother when he was nine and that he had his first taste of alcohol that night because his father forced him to drink whiskey, thinking it would make him forget what he’d seen. Hearing a story like that made me ashamed of how little I had had to survive and how much pain I’d derived from so much less actual trauma. What was I gonna say when the group got to me? “Um … I cry a lot. I get scared sometimes. I have headaches, and it makes it hard to make music.” That was the worst of it. I was out of my league.

One time, after a group session, a few of us were in the smoking room and I confided to them, “I feel like I shouldn’t even open my mouth. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I think my situation compares.”

“Listen to me, motherfucker, listen.” Getting right up in my face. “Mine ain’t about yours. And yours ain’t about mine. We all suffer the same. You don’t get to decide what hurts you. You just hurt. Let me say my shit, and you say your shit, and I’ll be there for you. Okay?”

Pain is pain is pain is pain. To elevate someone else’s pain is ultimately to make it strange — to alienate that other person from you.

Reading “A Root Cause of the Teacher-Diversity Problem”

Check it out here, it’s great.

So far the main effect of having a second kid in the house has been to make me, in pretty much every way, a little bit dumber. You know what I mean by dumber: not as clever, etc.

Anyway, one of the ways in which I’m dumber is that I’m a worse reader with worse impulse control. So last night I found myself reading an article right before bed (another mistake) and having trouble understanding a perfectly clear article by Melinda D. Anderson (the one I mentioned). And then I had the questionable decision to tweet the author my questions.

I really feel for journalists on Twitter. How do you know when to engage, when someone is worth talking to? Melinda was very generous in helping me understand what she wrote, as was Grace Chen, so I figured I’d write a bit explaining what I understood, out of thanks.


About 15% of public school students are Black:

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About 16% of public school students were Black in 2012, but only 7% of teachers were Black.

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(Figures and sources from this NCES report.)

So even as Black people make up about 12% of the general population in the US and even as that share of the population is modestly rising, the percentage of Black teachers is not increasing. A disproportionate percentage of the teaching population is not Black.

The question is, why? There are roughly two sorts of answers.

Supply-side: The issue is in the pipeline. This is mostly what people talk about, and it takes myriad forms: Black people graduate high school and college at lower rates, and hence are less available for teaching positions. Black people are disproportionately uninterested in becoming teachers, for whatever reasons.

Indeed, that NCES report that I linked to focuses on the pipeline:

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But there’s another set of factors to look at: what if the teachers are there, but schools just won’t hire Black teachers?

Demand-side: Districts are biased, either implicitly or explicitly, against Black teachers. For reasons rooted in stereotype or false-associations, Black candidates are less appealing to schools, so they don’t get hired.

That’s what Melinda wrote about in the Atlantic piece. She wrote about districts that were sued for being biased against Black teachers, and the court agreed. (Or, rather, one district was issued a decision by a court to stop discriminating against Black teachers, and another took action after they got spooked by a suit that was in the works.)

One thing I was wondering is whether it’s really possible to disentangle supply and demand considerations. If Black teachers experience bias in school hirings then they’ll be less likely to pursue careers in schooling. If you start with a dearth of Black teachers in the pipeline, biases will creep up. These factors might not be possible to truly separate.

My own school has disproportionately few non-White teachers (and students). Is the issue supply-side or demand-side? Both, probably, though I suppose it only matters to the extent that this helps a school decide what to do. As Grace points out, most in education prefer to frame this as a “won’t somebody think about the children” issue, i.e. it helps kids to have Black teachers. I’m not saying I’m skeptical of that, but as Grace notes this could be a way for schools to avoid responsibility for bias — the dearth of Black teachers is then not unlike having not enough computers or too few pencils.

But how do you tell a school to stop being biased against Black job candidates? The answer for both of these schools was affirmative-action policies. Is there a stronger case for affirmative action in the presence of bias than if the problem is in the pipeline? I think so, though I feel fuzzy about how to think about this.

Many people I talk to who are otherwise strong advocates for diversity in the teaching force are uncomfortable with affirmative action. But maybe there’s an important difference to folks between affirmative action to correct a present bias vs. affirmative action to address a historical bias?

I’m confused. Melinda said at one point in our Twitter chat that she wrote the piece to provoke thinking and discussion, and it’s definitely done that for me.

“A liquid moon”

Winter Trees William Carlos Williams
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.                                                                           

What of the moon can be said to be liquid? Not the rock itself, but rather its light, which flows from surface to reflective surface (or from branch to branch).

This reminds me that we only know of the moon as reflected light — save for a few of us who have actually gone and touched the darned thing. The moon can appear huge or small, white or orange, but all this is really a trick of the light, which over time flows into various shapes and colors.

And that reminds me that literally all that we see is only reflected light, and is liquid in that same sense. Some things we touch most things that we know, for most of us, we know through seeing (or our other liquid senses — smelling, hearing). The entire visual world itself is liquid as well, in this sense, and all these images and reflections flow like the moon does. The “wise trees” tell us this truth, about the flowing nature of our perceptive worlds — that’s my read, at least. Your’s?

Mathematical and Scientific Crises

[This post is wildly speculative. File under ‘playing with ideas.’]

On the continuing and fascinating saga of the ABC conjecture and Mochizuki’s befuddling proof:

Five years ago, Cathy O’Neil laid out a perfectly cogent case for why the (at that point recent) claims by Shinichi Mochizuki should not (yet) be regarded as constituting a proof of the ABC conjecture. I have nothing further to add on the sociological aspects of mathematics discussed in that post, but I just wanted to report on how the situation looks to professional number theorists today. The answer? It is a complete disaster.

From Andrew Gelman’s post on the ongoing replication crisis facing psychology and many, many other fields:

At this point, certain earlier work was seen to fit into this larger pattern, that certain methodological flaws in standard statistical practice were not merely isolated mistakes or even patterns of mistakes, but that they could be doing serious damage to the scientific process. Some relevant documents here are John Ioannidis’s 2005 paper, “Why most published research findings are false,” and Nicholas Christakis’s and James Fowler’s paper from 2007 claiming that obesity is contagious. Ioannidis’s paper is now a classic, but when it came out I don’t think most of us thought through its larger implications; the paper by Christakis and Fowler is no longer being taken seriously but back in the day it was a big deal. My point is, these events from 2005 and 1007 fit into our storyline but were not fully recognized as such at the time. It was Bem, perhaps, who kicked us all into the realization that bad work could be the rule, not the exception.

Two entirely different scientific controversies occurring in entirely different fields and of an entirely different nature. They have nothing in common. Right?

Right? I don’t know if there’s anything here, especially as a non-expert in this (and any) field.

(Sigh. I do love teaching, but sometimes I wish I had a knowledge base and expertise that I could really rest on. All this stuff of controversy makes me wish that I could really speak with authority on any of this fascinating stuff. A different lament for a different time…)

OK, so let’s toss one more scientific controversy into the mix: Yann LeCun’s post about AlphaZero-style machine learning, and the opaqueness of AI’s solutions to human observers:

The main message was, in essence, that the current practice in machine learning is akin to “alchemy” (his word). It’s insulting, yes. But never mind that: It’s wrong! Ali complained about the lack of (theoretical) understanding of many methods that are currently used in ML, particularly in deep learning. Understanding (theoretical or otherwise) is a good thing. It’s the very purpose of many of us in the NIPS community.

But another important goal is inventing new methods, new techniques, and yes, new tricks. In the history of science and technology, the engineering artifacts have almost always preceded the theoretical understanding: the lens and the telescope preceded optics theory, the steam engine preceded thermodynamics, the airplane preceded flight aerodynamics, radio and data communication preceded information theory, the computer preceded computer science. Why? Because theorists will spontaneously study “simple” phenomena, and will not be enticed to study a complex one until there a practical importance to it.

And maybe this is the tension that unites all three of these scientific controversies. We aren’t living in an moment marked by intense industrial or even informational explosion. Rather we are living in an age of immense theoretical constructions that outstrip any single person’s ability to understand them. On the corporate side this includes the algorithms of Google or Facebook. The controversy over machine learning is of the value of algorithms whose methods are unknown to the operators — e.g. facial recognition software whose methods for identifying faces would itself need to be studied in order to be comprehended.

Now, the crisis facing psychology and other sciences isn’t exactly new and its causes include non-open data practices as well as publication bias and a commitment to conceptual replication. (More here.) But it seems that a lot of scientists were treating statistics itself like a black box. You collect some data, and then toss it into the statistics pot and, boom, out comes an effect. Science was using statistics as a big, mysterious theoretical edifice, and now we’re grappling with the aftermath.

And maybe this is a way to think about the Mochizuki controversy. True, the edifice he’s created is impossible to penetrate and basically no one understands it. But that puts it in good company, along with machine learning engines and the statistical packages that psychologists run their data through. Maybe there was a time when science was about understanding, but now we’re trying to take science beyond mere understanding, and struggling to find the rules of engagement.

“Nobody is every going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically.”

“Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom. Classes are for riders, and riders are just going to use their knowledge to serve their elephants more effectively. If you want to make people behave more ethically, there are two ways you can go. You can change the elephant, which takes a long time and is hard to do. Or…you can change the path that the elephant and rider find themselves traveling on. You can make minor and inexpensive tweaks to the environment, which can produce big increases in ethical behavior. You can hire Glaucon as a consultant and ask him how to design institutions in which real human beings, always concerned about their reputations, will behave more ethically.”

From Haidt’s The Righteous MindThe elephant/rider metaphor is sort of clumsy, but his point is that rationality usually chases our moral intuitions; it’s rare for reason to override those intuitions.

Could an ethics class ever change the moral intuitions? Could a math class? What does ever change those moral intuitions?

Haidt’s answer seems to be that most changes to our intuitions come from our interactions with other people who we admire and want to admire us. I don’t know what that could mean for the possibility of moral education.

The first 100 pages of “The Righteous Mind”: Reactions

It’s interesting so far! Here are some passages that caught my attention:

Emotion is a bit harder to define. Emotions were long thought to be dumb and visceral, but beginning in the 1980s, scientists increasingly recognized that emotions were filled with cognition. Emotions occur in steps, the first of which is to appraise something that just happened based on whether it advanced or hindered your goals…Emotions are not dumb. Damasio’s patients [i.e. sociopaths, -MP] made terrible decisions because they were deprived of emotional input into their decision making. Emotions are a kind of information processing. Contrasting emotion with cognition is therefore as pointless as contrasting rain with weather, or cars with vehicles.

Yes! Love this thought. Though I wonder why we should think of information processing as more global than emotion. Would it be equally possible (if somewhat radical) to say that all cognition is a kind of emotion? Would that change how we thought of thinking? (I’m thinking about this in light of Alan Jacobs’ post, titled “thinking as delight.”)

The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs. When discussions are hostile the odds of change are slight…But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephant leans towards that person and rider tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments.

And what if there is affection, admiration, and a desire to please the other than doesn’t come in the form of an argument? What if it’s just an internalized, idealized picture of this other person’s moral expectations?

Reminds me of the Talmud (Sotah 36b) which says that when Potifar’s wife demanded that Joseph sleep with her, he looks out the window. He has a sort of vision; he sees his father’s image reflected in the window. This vision tells him: “Your brothers’ names will be inscribed on the stones of the ephod, and you will be included among them. Do you wish for your name to be erased?” And, as the story goes, Joseph says no and gets thrown into prison for it.

What if holding some sort of image of a moral paragon in your head is the way to do and feel the right things?

If people can literally see what they want to see — given a bit of ambiguity — is it any wonder that scientific studies often fail to persuade the general public? Scientists are really good at finding flaws in studies that contradict their own views, but it sometimes happens that evidence accumulates across many studies to the point where scientists must change their minds. I’ve seen this happen in my colleagues (and myself) many times, and it’s part of the accountability system of science — you’d look foolish clinging to discredited theories. But for nonscientists, there is no such thing as a study you must believe. It’s always possible to question the methods, find an alternative interpretation of the data, or, if all else fails, question the honesty or ideology of the researchers.

This is immediately recognizable in others, and therefore should be something that I recognize in myself. I’m sure I do this.

If I am getting better, it’s because I’ve expanded my social circles online to include scientists and research-minded people who would hold me accountable. I would feel embarrassed to believe in a discredited theory. And I’ve incorporated this into my identity, though “identity” just seems like the individual-facing consequence of my social connections.

This is sort of a disturbing thought. Am I only open to research because of my social connections? Do I balance this openness with a skepticism of science as applied to teaching because of the educators who would expect that of me? Where does the individual begin, and the social influence end? Never, I suppose.

Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in cognitive psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people. As they put it, “skilled arguers…are not after the truth, but after arguments supporting their views.” This explains why the confirmation bias is so powerful, and so ineradicable. How hard could it be to teach students to look on the other side, to look for evidence against their favored view? Yet, in fact, it’s very hard, and nobody has found a way to do it.

So the Humean, emotional, non-rational view of judgement leads to a social perspective on learning. It’s almost never rational argument that leads to someone changing their views. It’s rational argument used in the service of social signalling that helps people change their minds.

Or is this not his view? I have 247 more pages in which to find out!