Archive for January 2008

you ought to be thinking like me

So as part of my ongoing campaign to read everything except for what I’m actually supposed to be reading, I subscribe to a variety of CS teacher blogs. This blog post wandered across my radar by talking about what useful stuff all students can learn from science education. Not that this is a topic I am unfamiliar with. I have read many an persuasive, impassioned essay about how subject X teaches you important skills that will revolutionize your life. Or how it would, frequently, if people only taught it properly.

I have decided this argument is a bit off. Even though, by and large, it is presented to me by a variety of important smart and passionate people who no doubt have more teaching in their left pinkie toe than I have in my whole body. I like these important smart passionate people, and by-and-large I am down with their various educational goals methods and crusades.

But I challenge everyone to give me a subject, that if studied deeply, will not give people revolutionary habits of thought. If you ask the clerk in your local indie record store, I feel confident he will swear to you that his music had helped him think in different better ways that anyone could benefit from. If you were to watch all 11,430+ episodes of that profoundly philosophical TV series General Hospital, I feel confident that you could write a book entitled “Everything I really need to know I learned from General Hospital”. I think it’s just a natural characteristic of learning that learning something new changes the way you approach the world.

Now I’m not certain what General Hospital has to teach us. And maybe science does make a more “informative, resourceful, and creative human being”. But is there a subject we’re currently teaching in schools that could not be supposed to teach something similar? Certainly science will teach you something different than reading the great classics of western literature. But if you were to ask which one was more useful, I think you’re assuredly going to get yourself into a fight which each side claiming how much subject X changed their life.

What annoys me most here is that this argument is happening almost completely over the heads of students. When we talk about turning these lofty goals into teaching methods they become insidiously implicit: a learner might think he’s playing a simple video game, but in fact this game might be designed to teach him to think or talk or act in a specific way. There’s nothing more subversive than that. And yet rarely do you see a teacher try to “sell” this idea to students: knowledge is almost always presented as if it were just picking up generic “facts” and “skills” that will help you up the road.

Not that I think we should ought be teaching generic facts and skills with no hidden agenda. Education is about changing people and I think people want to be changed – we should be upfront about our goals though. And when we’re talking about curriculum change, we should realize that just saying subject X teaches some blandly good thing like “problem solving” or “creativity” is really saying nothing in particular. What kind of creativity and what cool things is that gonna do?

Learning Text Editor Keybindings

Hey all you editor effiency nuts out there. I ran across an interesting study yesterday (here I’m using “interesting” in the fancy-Ph.D. sense of the word, which means approximately “boring” in layperson speak). It’s part of The Transfer of Cognitive Skill.

Basically, what the experimenters did in this case was teach a bunch of typists (typewriter typists) to edit documents in EMACS. After they had learned how to do that for a day, they trained them on something they called perverse-EMACS: basically a version of emacs that had every emacs key combinations rejiggered to be different. The question was – how long would it take them to adapt?

The answer was somewhat surprising: within a day (approximately) all EMACS/peverse-EMACS confusions were more-or-less elliminated and the typists resumed their normal-speed improvement curve. The authors speculate that totally nonfunctional combinations are quickly weeded out – the only thing that persists long term is suboptimal combinations that are partly effective.

The implications seem to be that more drastic editor changes are learned faster. Somewhat counter to our usual logic, seems like? Maybe its time for all those novice vi-users to block out their arrow-keys, eh? Question for you guys: are there any other functional but suboptimal combinations you habitually use that might be better to break than continue to allow yourself to remember them?

Spring break!

Yes I know it seems like you just got rid of me. But due to some coincidences, various agencies are paying for me to be in Portland the weekend before my spring break. So I’m taking the opportunity to hang out in Seattle while school’s out. I will be in Seattle Sunday March 15-Thursday March 20th.

The hunt begins

I must admit that I did not miss the traditional summer scramble for internships. My goal for this summer was to do some actual teaching – a lofty goal that might be made more complicated by the fact that it is summer time when every real professor in the world becomes a itinerant bum, combing random colleges for teaching assignments to supplement their income (my future career – woo!). And what better way to prepare for the life of a professor by madly resume-spamming to every HR department who foolishly posts an email address on a public webspace?

In particular – I’m madly sending resumes to every college in the Seattle area in the hopes of hanging out with all you wacky nerds this summer. So if any of you should secretly have deep powerful connections with any CS departments out there, now’s the time to pass along my resume. Not very fancy, I know. Blatant rip-off of this online sample, I know. But if anybody out there in net land has suggestions on things I ought to be mentioning or whatever, let me know.


As a Ph.D. student I am not really supposed to be taking classes. Classes could only serve to distract me from the important business of being a grad student. A grad student’s primary “job” is to write papers that nobody reads. Ideally, in those papers are complicated math that looks really hard. After enough papers have been written, the grad student is considered to have made a “contribution to the field” by which is meant an obscure term that nobody understands. “That’s Dave” they’ll say “he’s the expert in Compugraphapharmolgy Optimization. But I’ve never really understood it.” Compugraphapharmolgy is like Dave’s secret “ninja name”.

I am not supposed to be taking classes – I am supposed to be working on me ninja name. But if you don’t take any classes, the university beings to send you threatening emails to the effect of “Sign up for something or we make your fill out forms till your wrists explode”. Avoiding forms is one of the primary quests of my life, so I’m taking a few classes:

Artificial Intelligence. Just so all you naysayers didn’t think I’m not taking any real CS. There are MPs. There are finals. There are lectures so boring that your brain attempts to escape through your years – 3 days a week at 9am. Sigh. The good news is that the professor does make some effort to make things engaging – with varying amounts of success. And we get to program Lisp. Woo!

Foundations of Educational Technology. A discussion class where we read papers about using technology to encourage learning. Highly important for my Learning Sciences qual. And the great thing about discussion classes is, you basically don’t have to do any work beyond enduring the poorly informed commentary of your peers.

Interactive Narrative. Studies the strange and mysterious field where computer programs are designed to writes stories in various ways. Odd and maybe completely useless. But fun. And I like fun. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to do an interesting project in this class – and maybe even get published in one of this field’s obscure publications. Isn’t academe crazy?

Somebody actually uses ruby evdev!

It’s just so cool when you look out across this vast strange internet ocean and find somebody else using what you have built. Here’s the link –

Maybe he’ll email me if he has any questions. Anything at