Summer Book Club, post #1

This post is my participation in the Summer Book Club proposed by Laura Ritchie. I want to start by saying that this is a great idea and I’m really glad that it motivated me to read Toward Personal Learning: Reclaiming a role for humanity in a world of commercialism and automation. I won’t explain it here, if you’re interested, please, read Laura’s post.

I also want to say that I haven’t read posts by others yet because I thought it could spoil my thoughts.

My overall reaction to the part I’ve read is hard to explain. One time while reflecting I was struck by a thought that everything written seemed like the only obvious thing to me, that models explained there were the only ones which may work. It seemed so right and logical that I didn’t even had to convince myself that these ideas were right. The problem was that I didn’t know things described in the book. This contradiction was new to me. Seems like all my life I knew that there was a solution but I couldn’t explain which one it was. And now I read the book and nod to myself “yeah, that’s right, that’s how it is supposed to be” but it’s all new to me. Now if somebody asked me “Okay, our system is broken but how can we do better?” I would have some answers.

I also want to warn you that I might make many parallels with my experience in programming but don’t worry: I will not talk about actual programming but mostly about social aspects of it. I think anyone who knows anything about craftsmanship and apprenticeship can find it relevant.

Let’s start by talking about experts. I think it is a huge pain point now, when people listen to the ones with the strongest voice instead of the ones with proper arguments. Internet should have given equal voice to everyone but we are far from it.

Internet also made it harder to tell apart false claims and opinions from facts. There are whole industries whose sole purpose is to make you think the way they want and name things the way they want. What can we do? How can we prepare people for this endless ocean of opinions?

We need to teach kids critical thinking from the very beginning. It is not quite the way I was taught and I believe that not much has changed since. We should try to empower people as much as we can. Critical thinking is not just a useful skill, it’s one of the most important ones. One of the most powerful ways to teach someone is to say “do not believe me, check it yourself”. I think one of the best ways to do so is to not teach kids theory and then make experiments but to find it out empirically first and then explain why it works like that.

This leads me to the thoughts about Buddhism. Skepticism is one of the fundamental principles of many Buddhism schools. When I first learned about it I was amazed by it. It is contrary to everything I knew about religion (I may be wrong but I think most Religions don’t encourage their devotees to question their believes).

The interesting thing about skepticism is that it not only helps you to evaluate thoughts from the outside but it helps you to check your own thoughts. I have a specific trait: I am very trusting. I also have weak memory. If somebody told me something, I would just keep it in my brain, with time forgetting who told me that and I might even think that it was my own thought. Getting older I started to question many of my beliefs and I was amazed that so many things that seemed fundamental and common were either questionable or not true. Someone (probably without bad intention) made me into believing a questionable or false thing, probably because of the lack of expertise. It is just unacceptable for the people with access to the Internet: it is pretty easy to make your own research on most topics. Please, question yourself, especially before sharing your thoughts. Separate facts and opinions.

What was new to me were talks about elite in science and educations. I often had thoughts that it is unfair that there are “special” universities and schools but I didn’t think how it hurts education in whole.

Elite exists not only on a large scale, but also in various little details. Stephen makes brilliant notes about teachers who don’t really share, who make you dependent on them. They often trick you into thinking that they are great, that they’re sacrificing something to teach you and you wouldn’t have as much with other teachers (it’s often very subtle). When you feel that your teacher tricks you into thinking so, it might mean they either think they’re really special or actually feel insecure inside. Such teacher often makes you think that their field is very hard. Please, be careful with such teachers. I have had some teachers like that and I don’t wish anyone having such a teacher. Please, be mindful.

Stephen makes brilliant example of what education should be like: instead of telling people what’s in the book, teach them to read (“of course, that’s obvious”). I really, really like this idea. Of course, not everyone wants this, because “reading” may be harder but we should encourage people as much as we can. The way it resonates with me is thinking about IT. So many companies make money off people who cannot do things themselves. I think many people would question their spendings if they knew that setting up their devices is not that hard. Big companies try to make you think that they do something that cannot be done by someone else – be it Google (vs. DuckDuckGo) or Facebook/Twitter (vs. Mastodon) or Apple. They will trick you into thinking that by “hiring the best” and by getting huge investments they managed to do something “magical”. Usually, it’s not true. Don’t believe them. Go and try things yourself. You may think that you’re infinitely far but usually you’re closer than you think, you just don’t know that. Educate yourself if you don’t want to be exploited.

Another thing that I liked is that Stephen says that he finds drafts more authentic. I cannot agree more. I first encountered this thought in Hayao Miyazaki’s work “Whisper of the Heart”, where one character encourages a young girl to write by using the metaphor of raw ore. If you’re reading this, please note that this is more of a draft than a polished piece of work and I would like it to stay this way. You can see how I think and possibly feel connection. We shouldn’t require brilliance from everything, should we? (reflection note: probably this is the reason why I like indie games and music and software – it’s unfinished, it evolves, it’s real).

Should I mention that I never knew about connectivism? I am pretty impressed by the ideas of this theory. I really like how Stephen defines “knowing” something as “recognizing” something. I think it’s very true for programming – if you recognize a pattern, a construction, an algorithm or a bug – you know it. It was also interesting to think with the author about language: is it an accidental artifact of evolution or a direct instrument? Stephen doesn’t have the answer and neither do I. I doubt anyone does and I even doubt it may be answered.

One chapter I really liked is called “Feelings of Science”. It is very relatable to me because 1) it is very relatable to programming 2) for the last few months I exercise myself in coffee tasting. In this chapter Stephen gives us examples when our inner sense can be more precise and informative than some formal set of rules. “putatively ‘objective’

measures of morality are crude instruments, and that our own sensations are fine-tuned detectors

of moral nuance that can be developed, through practice and experience, into reliable measures

of morality.” Again, I cannot agree more. The more we automate – the less things people can do better than machines. What’s left to us is improving our “detectors”.

Software engineering may look like very “mechanic” field with no room for creativity. Fortunately, it’s not true. One needs really good measures to be a good programmer. Every day of work consists of thousands of decisions with many factors which should be taken into account. Is it readable? Is it “flexible”? Is it reliable? It is performant? How fast can we do this? Does is feel “hacky”? Is it the right level of abstraction? Is it the right model? In programming there are things we call “patterns”. It’s like a known method of solving a concrete problem. There are also “anti-patterns” – either not the best way to solve a problem or a misused pattern. What separates one from another? Nothing but our inner “detector” of what’s right and what’s not.

Of course, if such a mechanical discipline requires such senses then morality would require much more complex and precise ones. I cannot explain how important it is for society to have proper perception. It is obvious for democracies but even authoritative states to take this into account. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. Russian government loves to make a rumor about something just to check how society will react. I cannot openly write about a thing which happened in 2014 but I bet you remember. I remember being shocked and I remember people being so cruel to their neighbors and justifying everything the government did. Had society other perception – things could be very different.

One of my favorite chapters (so far) is “New Forms of Assessment: Measuring What You Contribute Rather Than What You Collect”. It talks about the way our economy and our teaching is shaped now and how we can/ could do better. One of those “obvious” things I felt in love with. Of course we can do better now, we just have to start somewhere. We should make more experiments on how we evaluate contributions.

One of the great ideas is assessing by measuring help. Like helping other students. I helped others a lot but mostly it felt like an additional burden – there were never any perks for that (except better relationships maybe), quite the opposite. This system could produce such good teachers and make studying more enjoyable and just plain better.

I was always unhappy with our grading system. We have only 3 valid marks – 5, 4 and 3, and 2 equals “F”. It just doesn’t have room for any fair evaluation! But the worst case, of course, is a situation when a teacher decides that there can be no more than “x” excellent marks, for example. It is one of the most unfair cases I remember.

Evaluation of what they do rather their “mass” is the only system which makes sense nowadays when “fast but small eats big but slow”.

The simple idea of receiving credits for open-source contributions is something that I never seriously thought of. But imagine for a second it was true. What a world would it be! First, it would be a great help for contributors who often “burn out” way too often. But for the students themselves it would bring a lot of benefits:

1. Students would finally be involved.

2. Students would see real code before getting their first job. It is really, really important, too many people lack this.

3. Students would get used to open-source and would be less afraid to contribute (the first contribution is always the hardest!).

And it would work the same with any other system or field.

Instead, a similar system should be applied to measuring what public good does company provide. I know, it sounds super hard but it is a worthy goal, isn’t it? Let’s start somewhere.

A little chapter about Computer Use Guidelines had bigger effect on me than I anticipated. “Don’t write malicious or destructive code” should be something like a Hippocratic Oath for programmers. I rejected one lucrative job offer and I think I am about to reject another one of the similar nature I think just because I didn’t like the way my work would be used. It’s nothing illegal but still I think it’s not something I would be proud of being old.

Stephen starts a post about Robot Teachers talking about doctors and teachers and how they’re highly valued in Canada. It resonates with my experience of studying in Finland but I decided to not include the part of comparing Finnish and Russian systems and teachers because it’s not really related to what Stephen writes. Let’s just say that not everyone is so lucky to have good education and health care and many Nordic countries somehow figured it out.

Stephen opened my eyes to privatization of education. I never really thought why automated systems may be not as good as they seem.

I’ve been reading some thoughts on inequality and I was surprised to find out that some people think that the only way to get rid of the income gap is to wait for another war and things would fix themselves. I think this alone is the sign that our economy doesn’t work as it should. What really could fix income gap is public education and universal health care. We are doing less than we could as a society and as a humanity. Of course there will be people who will benefit from suffering of others but when some of us are suffering it hurts us all. You know all of this of course and I beg you to remind the ones who don’t understand why it’s important.

Stephen proposes something that I would just discard in my head as unrealistic but I believe that if he thinks it’s possible – it should be. It is something common, something like an environment rather than a delivery system. It will make traditional education obsolete. I think I was looking for something like this as long as I’ve been studying (2/3 of my life). Something every person is responsible for. “Of course it should be like that” I was thinking. Isn’t this the answer to the teachers being irrelevant? Solution for spending quarter of students’ lives on things they don’t want or need? All this time students could be contributing to the public good.

I ask myself “Can we start building this now? Without waiting for the government?” (don’t blame me for this, my whole life I have been taught that I cannot change anything about any institution and seen too many people being punished for thinking otherwise). Could we… make a cooperation? Where everyone could share and learn. How to avoid becoming a “club”? I am afraid I don’t have answers and we should ask someone smarter and more experienced. What we can do today is asking these questions and looking for people who have answers.

Among programmers we already share a lot: tutorials, code and experience. Somehow after years it became clear that it would benefit everyone. Now we have obligation to explain it to others.

Summer Book Club, post #1

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