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The Number 7 Slot

Sunday, 12 Jan 2020, 22:23 UTC

It was Friday afternoon of the first week back at school. Week one is difficult for me. My feet start hurting again. My voice falters and Throat Coat is in order. I am tired, even though we just had two weeks off. I know it will be better next week, but it just doesn’t seem right that week one should feel that way.

The period was just about over. The students were finishing an exit ticket. 

“Mister, where should we put them when we’re done?” someone asked.

This really shouldn’t be a mystery. We had exit tickets last semester. They went in the turn-in box every time. But, it’s a new semester, a new year. 

“Right over here,” I said. (I was standing near the classroom door which is where the turn-in boxes are — one for each period.) “Right here in the number 7 slot.”

“Seven!?” someone said. “It’s fifth period Mr. Hasan, not seventh.” Half the class was staring at me.

Dang. For 45 minutes there, I was blissfully, if erroneously, thinking that it was the end of the day. Oh well. 

Anand Giridharadas

Sunday, 12 Jan 2020, 13:55 UTC

Anand Giridharadas, as his about page begins, is a writer.

He is the author most recently of Winners Take All which sadly, in spite of a valiant go last summer, I have not finished. (So many books, so little time.) Why I didn’t stick with it, is beyond me. His writing is a joy to read, and his message resonates with my soul.

This morning, I discovered that I had a long-unvisited browser tab open to an Time article by him (How America’s Elites Lost Their Grip) which is worth reading for his main thesis (that we are at the cusp of an Overton-window shift that is making possible an era of reforms challenging late stage hyper-capitalism) but also shows what a spectacular writer he is.

To my eye, his brilliance is his ability to weave stories into the substance of his points. But the language he uses to construct the stories is a marvel. Here are some snippets (emph added) from his Time article.

History is the story of conditions that long seem reasonable until they begin to seem ridiculous.

or

It seemed to come as a surprise to Bezos that … many weren’t excited by … giving his company a few billion dollars in tax breaks that wouldn’t be available to a regular Joe starting a business.

or

Many others … had bolder-faced names, but McGlashan was significant because…

or

… for you, that may be a big fine. For Facebook, it was such a feathery tickle …

or

… resulting in Sackler wings and institutes and centers … that allowed the grim machinery of drug peddling to grind on

or

what Epstein revealed was … systemic rot in our culture—especially at our universities, which have become drive-through reputational laundromats.

or

Peak billionaire may be a billionaire deciding to … and then running against a maybe–billionaire

Reputational laundromats. Yow, are we having fun, yet? Even my spell checker does a double-take on that. Oh my.

Transparency For The Holidays

Sunday, 05 Jan 2020, 23:05 UTC

The Chachi comes down here, sometimes. Stays here, or stays downtown in the hippest part of the city where walking is entirely sufficient unto whatever the day might bring. Walking works here, too, but this place here is far from hip. And she came here in December.

When we said “Come on down” to her on the phone, it sounded as if she hadn’t quite expected an immediate affirmative. And then… well she was committed. So The Chachi came here in December, leaving the shoveling of neighborhood sidewalks and driveways to some other good Yankee soul, because she was down here, and down here there is no snow.

No snow. And mild, if sometimes gray, days. Good days to be in Texas rather than New York. Although as for that (no offense intended to anyone), pretty much any day so qualifies.

One warm day when The Chachi was here, she embarked on a once-a-decade (by our reckoning) project of washing the back windows. They had become, shell we say, opaque. Ask her, she would perhaps confirm this assessment. Though as for that, our eyes grown accustomed to the opacity.

The Chachi took to the task with characteristic determination. I understand that several passes of soapy, vinegary water were required. And rinsing. And squeegeeing. (Is that really how it’s spelled!?) And then there were the bedustspecked screens which she tackled with a brush and a bucket in the backyard, which brings to mind a photo we have in the family of my grandmother in a dress and heels armed with a broom (and a bucket?) in some backyard somewhere doing something functionally equivalent to something approximately similar.

Apple. Tree. Fall not far from. (Sans dress. Sans heels.)

In any event, now that The Chachi has returned to the land of wind and snow and Yankees, we have this token of her visit, this visible (or invisible) gift she left us: our backyard. We can see the backyard clearly now! 

So, thank you for the transparency, Chach. And for the Holiday Week. The guest bedroom is available, any time.

Where’s Your Brother?

Friday, 03 Jan 2020, 13:39 UTC

“Where’s your brother?” I asked Izzy.

She had been barking at the front door and then barking at the back. When the frantic cacophony dissipated, I realized that Charlie was no longer in his bed by the fireplace that we never use. Loud noises startle him, and her barking certainly qualifies.

Izzy didn’t answer my question.

“Where’s your brother?” I repeated. And I began a scan of the house.

Down the hallway? No. Under the table by the door? No. 

You see, in his senescence Charlie frequently falls into reverie. And with his permanently dislocated hips, he frequently gets trapped. Trapped under things. Trapped in corners. I figured he was trapped in reverie somewhere. But where?

“Where’s your brother?” Izzy remained silent.

Trapped under the dining room chairs? No. Standing behind the philodendron in the dining room? No. Under the rocking chair? No.

“He must be in the closet,” I said.

I went into the master bedroom — the only room with an open door, all of the other doors closed to shorten searches like this one. I looked into the walk-in closet. There he was, in the darkness, motionless, staring into the darkerness under the hanging clothes.

“Don’t worry Izzy,” I said. “I found him just where we thought he would be.”

I walked up to Charlie slowly and stroked his back. Startled out of his reverie, he jerked his head around to look at me. I picked him up and carried him outside to have him wander instead around the backyard in the sun. He did this until he was ready to come back in and settle back down in his bed by the fireplace that we never use. And he will lie there until his sister starts her barking again.

They Don’t Represent Us (Part 1)

Monday, 30 Dec 2019, 23:48 UTC

A book: “They Don’t Represent Us” by Lawrence Lessig

Some notes about Part 1, in which Lessig talks about the flaws in our system…

Lessig divides his analysis of inequality problem into “us and them” which he tackles in two chapters.

Chapter 1. (Them)

Five aspects of inequality: (1) the ability to vote, (2) gerrymandering and polarization, (3) the Senate and its rules, (4) the electoral college and winner-take-all apportionment, and (5) money.

Lessig points out that these inequalities do not uniformly bend our system to the wealthy/elite but rather facilitate dysfunction to the point that our government no longer functions. There are too many points where change can be “vetoed” with the result that no problems get solved.

Chapter 2. (Us)

Three technologies and a market: (1) polling and radio/TV broadcasting, (2) cable, (3) the Internet, and (4) advertising.

Lessig concedes that our culture has blossomed but laments that our democracy has suffered. 

…shared reality is gone. Consuming … individually has rendered us isolated collectively. Think lounge chairs in echo chambers. We are ideologically alone, together. We are divided and ignorant … driven to even more division and ignorance. (p. 83)

To his mind, it is the attention-driven advertising industry that is at the core of this dysfunctionality, as questions like “What is true?” give way to “How do we get more eyeballs?”.

Having constructed this argument, Lessig still has 30 or more pages that wander thru AI and Google and Facebook. Data science run amok in the service of business models. How we are ignorant of key issues and incapable of self-government. 

I confess that amid all the detail in those 30 pages, I lost the kernel of his argument. Still, I look forward to the second half of the book that addresses solutions.

Lost in Math (or Eye Rolling about Big Thoughts)

Sunday, 29 Dec 2019, 09:41 UTC

A book: “Lost in Math” by Sabine Hossenfelder (who blogs at BackReAction). A quote…

“How patently absurd it must appear … that people get paid for ideas like [those of Xiao-Geng Wen and his collaborators]. But then … people also get paid for throwing balls through hoops.” (p. 192)

Let’s explore this a bit.

Big thoughts about physics: To give you an example of what Hossenfelder is alluding to when talking about his “ideas”, listen to Xiao-Geng Wen’s description of his ideas (at 5:36): “Maybe our space is a string liquid, and we live in a noodle soup.”

Big thoughts about basketball: To give you an example of Hossenfelder’s point about “hoops”, listen to Coach Daniel’s description of the clearout: “which occurs when the big man … on offense … clears out the rim-protecting big man on defense”.

For better or worse, as much as this kills me to concede, you shouldn’t roll your eyes at one of these without rolling your eyes at the other. We should take Hossenfelder’s observation as a precaution against such one-sided eye-rolling.

His Father’s Writing

Saturday, 28 Dec 2019, 17:43 UTC

“Do you read your father’s writing?” she asked. 

There was silence. I stared at my hands. I knew the answer. She had to ask again.

“Do you read your father’s writing?”

He shook his head. Mumbled a no. She asked why.

“It’s just too weird,” he said. She asked why. He talked about being the subject and reading about himself.

It’s true, that he used to feature prominently. Biking and running on the trails. Camping trips. But that was when he was young(er). It has been a very long time since he’s appeared here.

Oops.

Eye Contact

Saturday, 28 Dec 2019, 12:49 UTC

1. On Eye Contact

In Switzerland, I understand, it is considered poor form to toast someone without making direct, intentional eye contact with them. Having been told this, Trudy and I have adopted the habit. Whenever our glasses meet in cheer, so do our eyes — intentionally, with the unspoken knowledge that we are following the Swiss tradition.

But of course, eye contact is more than a Swiss tradition. You might argue that it’s part of being a decent person. Acknowledge those around you. Greet them with a smile and a sparkle in your eye. You might argue that it’s just good manners. If so, count me as rude, for I find eye contact hard to initiate and difficult to maintain.

I am not alone in this. But as the years go by, I find that even I yearn for a glance from a neighbor driving by or a nod from one of my students in the hall. As you might imagine, getting eye contact from teenagers in the hall is a dicey proposition. 

Perhaps making eye contact is just something that needs to be explicitly taught. If so, and given that I am a teacher, then perhaps this responsibility falls to me.

2. Making Eye Contact with Me

“When you are done with the final,” I said, “please put it in the purple tray by the door, and return to your desk.”

“And if you want to use your phones, first make explicit eye contact with me.”

That was simple enough. And in the end, all of them did as I asked, in all cases catching my attention and motioning silently so as to ask if they could use their phones — in all cases but one.

This student is one of the best. Scores high. Understands well. Asks questions. Takes good notes. So it was no surprise that she also followed my instructions — followed them to a tee.

At some point during the final, I looked up and noticed her silently sitting, hands on desk, head turned, eyes focused on me. When I saw her and she saw that I saw her, her eyes widened slightly, but she didn’t move, didn’t make any gestures, just stared more intensely, impeccably following the instructions I had given: “Make eye contact with me.”

Eye contact having been made. The protocol had been followed. She knew it. I knew it.

I smiled and nodded my head imperceptibly. And with this signal, she reached into her backpack and pulled out her ear buds and phone.

Three x minus nine

Friday, 27 Dec 2019, 22:18 UTC

“Three x minus nine?” I heard one of the guys say.

There were three of them huddled together near the classroom door. The semester was drawing to a close. Our last lesson with new material was behind us. What remained was a day or two of review and then the final. These guys were taking the review days to heart.

“Three x minus nine? You mean three x equals nine, don’t you?”

He got up from their huddle and walked to the whiteboard to look at the details in my worked out solutions to the semester review packet they were working on.

“Ooooooh,” he said as he looked at the solution. “You switch the x and the y.”

I never did figure out exactly what the confusion was, but it doesn’t matter. I stood silently and watched as he turned, returned to their huddle, and explained to them whatever it was that he learned. I think that counts as a victory.

Automating Inequality

Friday, 27 Dec 2019, 10:27 UTC

A book: “Automating Inequality” by Virginia Eubanks. Some notes…

The book is a remarkably specific, in-the-trenches look at the role that automation is having in our country, how despite its patina of objectivity, the technology is contributing to a new kind of growth of inequality in American society. 

The argument is based on three case studies: (1) an Indiana project to automate the determination of eligibility for social services, (2) a Los Angeles system to categorize the homeless and provide relief, and (3) an Allegheny County Pennsylvania system to algorithmically assess the risk of child neglect and abuse.

The narrative of these case studies weaves together stories of specific people with more general historical and policy observations. It is an effective way to make the big points without losing the audience. Sadly, losing me as the audience is a real risk. I was able to make is all the way thru the book — a testament to the effectiveness of its narrative perhaps, or maybe a sad exception on my powers of concentration.

There is a chapter that reflects on the nature of what the author calls the “digital poorhouse” that is perhaps the biggest take-away for me. Her summary goes something like this…

(1) At root, Americans believe in three things: liberty, equity, and inclusion. (2) Liberty can be thought of in two ways: freedom-from and freedom-to, and the digital poorhouse diminishes both. (3) Equity can be thought of in two ways: equal treatment and equal value, and the digital poorhouse diminishes both. (4) Inclusion can be thought of in two ways: assimilation into the broader culture and integration of our whole selves, and the digital poorhouse diminishes both. I really like this analytical framework, although I might argue with the author’s premise that these are in fact the core values Americans hold (even granting that they might be implicitly held), but that’s not a useful argument to launch into, here.

The concluding chapter addresses how we might “dismantle” the digital poorhouse. I haven’t read it, yet.

Ok, so that means that I have not yet finished the book, and so my lame powers of concentration might yet catch up with me. Wish me luck.