Josh Haas's Web Log

Archive for April, 2011

Oh, I could build a tool to do that

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So after I wrote about what I would teach if I was substitute teacher for a day, I realized that it doesn’t have to be hypothetical. I build web applications, and this is a pretty good candidate for a simple web application to walk people through the process.

Here’s what I’m thinking: you sign up with an account, and submit things that suck, both for you personally (my apartment is too small), and broader issues that you care about (the park next door is all littered). You can keep them private, or share them anonymously or publicly. You can then enter suggested action steps for your own problems or for other people’s. The site tracks over time what happens with each of the problems, and gives you feedback and points or whatever for solving them.

This is a mockup of how I’m visualizing the submission form (I just registered the domain


(Warning: building mockups in MS Paint is extremely hazardous and should only be attempted by trained web professionals).

Thoughts? Advice? Would you use this?

Written by jphaas

April 29th, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Substitute teacher for a day

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In my last post, I asked the question, what would you do if you got to be a substitute teacher in a middle or high school for a few days, and got to teach whatever you wanted? What’s the most important, most impactful thing that would make a difference in the lives of your students?

I guess it’s only fair that I take a stab at answering it. (I still want to hear other people’s answers… if I hear any good ones I’ll post them in a follow up). It’s a little scary to imagine myself responsible for making a difference in the lives of a roomful of kids, but here goes…

For me, I think the number one most important lesson is the power of taking responsibility for your own life. There’s two parts to this lesson: 1. nothing is going to change unless you say “I am going to make it change”. 2. You’re not on your own — once you take responsibility for making something change, it’s fair game to bring in others to help.

Those two beliefs are basically acts of faith. You can go through life not believing them, and maybe things will turn out okay, but you’ll be at best a passive spectator in your own life. When I think about the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of person I want to share the world with, this is where it all starts.

Standing up in a classroom and talking about this idea is worthless, though. This is the kind of thing that has to be shown, not told. I don’t know if this would work, but what I would try is walking the class through the steps one by one for things in their own lives:

1. Identify that there are things I want changed. This can be really hard, because it’s easy to get used to problems and become blind to them. The strategy to deal with that is to put aside the thought of solving the problems until I’m done identifiying them — keep it purely hypothetical.

Lesson plan: Have the students take out a piece of paper, and write a list of problems that they are having with their lives. This could be anything from getting bad grades in math class, to not being as popular as they would like to be, to being worried because their mom was diagnosed with cancer, to hating their hour-long bus commute to school, or anything else.

2. Figure out what I want. It can be hard to be honest with myself about what I really want in a situation! Also, I need to balance realism with ambition: I need to set my aspirations high, but not so high that it really does become impossible.

Lesson plan: Have each student write down, next to each problem, two things. First, what they would do if they had a magic wand to fix the problem. Become a math genius. Become the most popular kid in school. Have their mom recover. Switch to a different school. Second, one thing that would make the situation substantially better even if they couldn’t make it go away. Get good grades in a different class. Make a few new friends. Make their mom feel better and less afraid. Find something fun to do on the bus ride each day.

3. Commit to taking responsibility to make the change. This is the hard, critically important step. The thing to note here is that there is always a cost to getting what I want (‘be careful what you wish for’) and if I am not willing to pay the cost, I am not going to succeed in making the change.

Lesson plan: Have the students imagine that they have just waved their magic wand. Write down anything scary or unpleasant about the new situation. Will other kids think they’re I’m a nerd if I get good grades in math class? If I’m the most popular kid in school, will I be under a lot of pressure to keep that popularity up? Then have them ask themselves, is it worth it? If the answer is no, cross the problem off their list. If yes…

4. Generate ideas. The question here is “What is one small action I could take today that would move me closer to improving the situation?” Or, “If James Bond / Superman / Sherlock Holmes / Barack Obama / The Man with the Iron Mask was in my shoes, what one action would they take today?”

5. Ask for help. It’s often much easier to see the solutions for someone else’s problem than it is for my own.

Lesson plan: Have students write down one of their problems along with what they want on an index card. Label it with a code that is anonymous to everyone else but that they’ll remember. Redistribute cards, brainstorm solutions for the problems on the card that you get, then mix the cards up again and have people retrieve their cards.

6. Execute! The homework assignment is to do as many small actions as you can. The class discussion the next day is, were you able to? What went well and what went badly? What did we learn? Then the homework for the following day is, try again….

Written by jphaas

April 28th, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Education: Not better, different

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One of my biggest personal pet peeves is that the American education system is basically useless in terms of preparing students for life.

One of the cliches about the value of a liberal arts college education is that it’s supposed to teach you to “learn how to think”, as opposed to the rote memorization of knowledge. Okay, so my first problem with that: what is the twelve years of education leading up to college supposed to teach? How to hold your pen? And then my second problem is that once you actually get to college, you’re taught how to think a little bit, but as measured by volume, that’s only a tiny fraction of the contents.

There are various cynical theories about how public schools are basically glorified daycare centers to keep children out of the way of adults. Whether or not that’s true, the net result is that the primary things schools teach are: a) a level of basic literacy in language, mathematics, science, and culture that’s woefully un-competitive with the rest of the world, b) how to anticipate what authority figures want, and c) how to sit still, shut up, and raise your hand when you have something to say.

Seth Godin recently wrote a really great blog post that sums up a major trend: the era where you could guarantee yourself a comfortable economic future by coloring within the lines is basically over. The rise of the internet is wiping out a lot of career paths, and the new opportunities that are opening up are ones that require creativity and entrepreneurialism, attributes that are completely un-correlated with getting a 2400 on your SATs. (This is probably related to why a lot of top graduates from Ivy League schools take jobs in finance: investment banking is one of the rare lucrative pockets of the economy where this trend hasn’t taken over yet).

Speaking personally, the thing that’s gotten me the most job opportunities — my ability to develop software — is something that I learned almost entirely outside the classroom. I did learn valuable things in school (how to write, for instance), but on an hour-for-hour basis, when I look at the time I spent in class and doing assignments, and when I look at the lessons I’ve learned that I consider important, the whole thing has been criminally wasteful.

There’s a lot of innovation going on in the education space — the charter school movement, for instance — but I’m worried that most of it is oriented at doing a better job against our current goals: getting more kids into better colleges with higher test scores. What I really think we should be doing is changing the yardstick. What we need are graduates who know how to think for themselves, set and achieve goals, and engage with the changing world flexibly and creatively. Happy, healthy, and sane would be good too. Right now those are all peripheral to what education focuses on, which is tragic.

I have a question for everyone: if you got to be a substitute teacher in a middle or high school for a few days, and got to teach whatever you wanted, what would you teach? What one lesson is the most important thing you could convey? I’ll share what I would do over the next few days…

Written by jphaas

April 26th, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

And his name shall be “Awesome”

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Good writing is writing that conforms to Strunk & White’s dictum, “omit needless words; omit needless words; omit needless words”. Good writing is humble; authors say no more, no less than what it takes to make their point. This takes an element of courage, because authors must be willing to strip their message bare and expose it naked to the world.

Great writing is writing so humble that it folds back around and becomes arrogant. Great writing is fearless. My favorite writers project an almost obscene confidence, as if they are saying “yes, I understand that others use the English language that way, and now I choose to use it this way instead.” They use extra, needless words, and they use them because they damn well want to use them, and of course they could make it shorter but that wouldn’t be as fun.

Here are three examples:

Steven Pressfield argues in The War of Art that failing to act on one’s passions is the root of all suffering:

If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage, and dandruff.

Yes, that’s right, the cure for dandruff is pursuing your dreams. Man, think of all the money you could have saved on Head & Shoulders. And you know what? He says it with such conviction I sort of believe him.

A few lines from “Lean times in Lankhmar”, by Fritz Leiber, imho the best short story ever written:

…the gods in Lankhmar sometimes seem as if they must be as numberless as the grains of sand in the Great Eastern Desert. The vast majority of them began as men, or more strictly the memories of men, who led ascetic, vision-haunted lives and died painful, messy deaths. One gets the impression that since that since the beginning of time an unending horde of their priests and apostles (or even the gods themselves, it makes little difference) have been crippling across that same desert, the Sinking Land, and the Great Salt Marsh–to converge on Lankhmar’s low, heavy-arched Marsh Gate–meanwhile suffering by the way, various inevitable tortures, castrations, blindings, and stonings, impalements, crucifixions, quarterings and so forth at the hands of eastern brigands and Mingol unbelievers who, one is tempted to think, were created solely for the purpose of seeing to the running of that cruel gantlet.

The word “crippling”, cannot, in fact, be used to refer to a form of progressive movement — that usage does not exist in the English language. Did Fritz Leiber know that? Probably. Did he care? Nope. “Chutzpah” as a term was probably invented by someone who had just read a Fritz Leiber story. But Leiber gets away with it because he leaves you with images — hordes of impaled and crucified priests, crippling across an endless desert, for instance — that you will never forget.

Finally, some dialogue from Byan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, which is a graphic novel and thus not real writing at all:

The protagonist Scott is getting his ass kicked by his nemesis, Todd, who has psychic powers because of his vegan diet. Todd’s girlfriend Envy, who has just learned Todd cheated on her, is watching.
Scott: “I can’t even get near him! I need some kind of…like….last minute, poorly set-up deus ex machina!!!”
Immediately prior to this, Scott was almost — but not quite — rescued by an intervention that can only be described as a last minute, poorly set-up deus ex machina… so… wait a second…
Two men pop up out of nowhere.
They are pointing their fingers at Todd as if they were holding imaginary guns.
Cop 1: “Todd Ingram, you’re under arrest for veganity violation!”
Todd: “What’d I do? What authority do you represent?! YOU CAN’T DO THIS! I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING! YOU CAN’T PROVE ANYTHING! I’M A ROCK STAR!
Cop 2: “We have it on record that at 12:27 this afternoon you did knowingly consume a restricted food item.”
Cop 1: “Gelato, bitch.”
Todd: “What? It… it wasn’t me!”
Envy: “Hang on… Are you saying gelato isn’t vegan?”
Cop 1: “It contains milk & eggs, ma’am.”
Envy (thinking to herself: “it sounds delicious”)
Envy: “…is chicken parmesan vegan?”
Cop 2 (aside): “Is it?”
Cop 1: “I’m not sure. Isn’t ‘parmesan’ like a rodent or something?”
Envy (pounding on Todd): “YOU LIED TO ME!!!!”

There is so much WTF in this passage I can’t even begin to parse through it. And yet the logic — in regards to the salient plot details, and more subtly, Envy and Todd’s respective reactions in light of their characters — stands up flawlessly. Dadaist it may sound, but it’s constructed as carefully as any scene in a Eugene O’Neil or Arthur Miller play. And if you didn’t know what a parmesan was, wouldn’t you think it sounds like a type of rodent?

Written by jphaas

April 26th, 2011 at 3:59 am

Posted in writing

Nutrition, Psychology, and Reductionism

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I have the most ridiculous 2 am thoughts.  Like, why am I thinking about this right now?  It’s totally random.  Anyway, here goes:

So there’s an ongoing debate in the sciences about “reductionism”.  If I’m a reductionist, I believe that psychology and nutrition are just applied biology, that biology is just applied chemistry, that chemistry is just applied physics (and is physics just applied math?)  Note that you can remove the word “just” and make the reductionist position sound less condescending, depending on your taste.  If I’m not a reductionist, I believe that there are facts / laws about psychology + nutrition that can’t be paraphrased / explained in terms of biology.  These facts “supervene” on the underlying physical facts, or perhaps they “emerge” from a sufficiently complex system, whatever that means.

It’s an unsolved debate right now.  On the reductionist side of things, you have chemistry, which (as I understand it — chemists please jump in) reduces to physics fairly nicely.  For instance, the interactions of the periodic table can be explained in terms of the mixture of protons, electrons, and neutrons in an atom.  As you get further and further out from chemistry, though, our ability to deductively reason about things gets weaker and weaker.  I think (oh god I’m sure I’m getting this totally wrong) that RNA folding into proteins is currently partially reduced to chemistry: we can explain why any given protein structure is stable by reference to chemical bonds, but on the other hand, we can’t reliably calculate in the other direction and figure out what combination of RNA will fold into any given molecular shape (though we’re working on it).

If you zoom out to psychology and nutrition (which I’m picking on because a) they are generally labeled as being “science” vs something like sociology or economics where people feel obliged to qualify it as being a “social science”, and b) because I find them interesting), we really know stunningly little, and our ability to make meaningful predictions at the level of the whole human being is pretty much, despite all the research that has been done, garbage.  That’s a strong statement, but let’s look at the state of the art.

In psychology, for a large part of the 20th century, the establishment took Freud’s theory that the mind could be subdivided into the id, the ego, and the superego seriously.  In terms of scientific rigor, I’d put that as roughly comparable to Hippocrates’ theory that the human body consists of yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm.  Over the last 40 or 50 years, things have gotten a bit better, and we know now things such as: if I fry brain region X, you lose ability to do Y, and if I feed you drug Z, this will stimulate brain region Q.  There’s also been a plausible effort done mapping out a lot of the more automatic circuity of the brain: we can tell a reasonable story, for instance, about how incoming light becomes representations of objects becomes emotional reactions, or text becomes sound becomes words, and back that story up with descriptions of the way neural networks grow and interact.  But when you move past the stuff that happens more mechanically, and start trying to understand personalities, creativity, intelligence, etc., it’s basically a giant mystery.

There’s a fair amount of literature on those topics, but my strong sense is (and I want to write a longer, better researched entry backing this assertion up because it’s definitely my opinion) that that research is essentially psuedo-science, in a very particular way.  It sounds like science, because the researchers form hypotheses, do proper controlled experiments, and find statistically significant results, but if you look at the theories that those experiments are testing, they’re somewhere in between “begging the question” and “making shit up”.  For instance, (citation needed) there was a study that found that of a group of nuns, the ones who were more optimistic tended to live longer.  Okay, nice, so a journalist reports “psychologists prove optimism is good for your health”.  But although that makes a nice headline, we haven’t actually learned anything, because “optimism” is just a word for people who got a certain score on a survey that some researcher made up (in fact, a lot of psychological research consists of building such surveys to provide definitions for various terms).   We don’t actually know if “optimism” is a meaningful description of the way people’s minds work, or whether “optimism” is just the symptom of something else, like a runny nose could mean a flu or it could mean allergies.    We don’t have the power to deduce anything about optimism in general.

Likewise nutrition is in the same basic state.  Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food does a really good job laying out exactly how little we actually know about nutrition.  Quiz: is margarine or butter healthier for you?  Answer: not sure, but I’d bet on butter.  And yet margarine is successfully, to-this-day, marketed to people who would prefer butter but feel obliged, for health reasons, to pass it by.    The big problem with nutrition is similar to the big problem with psychology: you can do a study that demonstrates a correlation (feed rats more of a particular nutrient, see how many develop cancer), but we don’t have a theoretical framework powerful enough to draw conclusions about the operation of the entire system.  Quiz 2: suppose I show you that feeding rats antioxidants reduces cancer risk, and suppose I show you that feeding rats fiber reduces cancer risk.  What happens if you feed rats both antioxidants and fiber?  Answer: trick question — not enough information!  What if — and this kind of complicated interaction happens all the time in cell biology — the antioxidants trigger cellular processes that, combined with the fiber, release a third chemical that actually increases cancer risk?  We can’t answer that question without performing another experiment.  So when you step back and try to answer the big questions that people care about, like “is vegetarianism healthy?  is veganism?  how about low-carb diets?  how do I lose weight?”  you get a lot of conflicting, confusing information, which is why people keep on successfully writing and marketing diet books.

So, back to reductionism.  Because psychology and nutrition have not been succesfully reduced to biology, it’s an open question about whether or not they can be.  The question is important, because whether or not you believe the answer is yes determines to a certain extent how you set about doing research.  For instance, if you’re a reductionist, you probably want to know if “optimism” can be mapped to something in the brain, such as a particular configuration of neurons, whereas if you’re a non-reductionist, you doubt there’s a clear mapping and so treat it as a basic element of research (or come up with your own theory instead — I kind of like “yellow bile” as a basic element of human psychology).

I’m going to go out on a limb and say the answer is “none of the above”.  I think it’s very likely that concepts that we care about, such as “optimism”, “healthy”, “happiness”, etc., don’t map neatly to underlying physical phenomenon.  The reason I don’t think we’re going to be able to find neat mappings is because those concepts are in part descriptions of reality but in part value judgments.  One person’s definition of healthy might be longevity.  Another person’s definition of healthy might be “able to benchpress 300 lbs”.  Most people are going to have a mix of those things, with millions of little factors thrown in, such as “how do I feel?” “how do I look?” “how energetic am I when I get up in the morning?”  You can try to nail down and quantify pieces of that, but you’re going to lose the gestalt of healthiness.  To me, I think “healthy” and “happy” are like “beauty” — you can debate whether or not something’s beautiful, and there is some element of an objective character to the discussion because people will agree or disagree with each other based on physical evidence, but at the end of the day you can’t prove anything.

So, I don’t think you can “reduce” the kind of questions that nutritionists and psychologists are interested in.  But neither would I say that they are scientific facts in their own right (yellow bile!)  Rather than thinking of psychology and nutrition as sciences, I think a better paradigm is to think of them as a branch of design / engineering.   People think of them as science because the human body and mind already exist and we want to learn about them, but if you think about it, it’s just a coincidence that we have a starting point that already exists… we can still imagine redesigning them from scratch (in theory… in practice, not any time soon…) and, more to the point, we can modify them.

So why do I think psychology and nutrition should really be a branch of engineering? Consider the similarities:

-There is more than one right answer in engineering.  Is an iPad better or worse than a Lenovo laptop?  Neither; or rather, it depends on what you’re using them for, and even then it is still subjective.  Likewise, there are plenty of examples of people with radically different diets living long, healthy lives, and people with radically different psychological makeups and life experiences being happy.  I’ve read so many flame wars between proponents of one diet vs another, or one set of beliefs vs another, that would just go “poof” if both sides recognized that there is more than one right answer.

-Certain things don’t work.  If you ignore the laws of physics when architecting a house, it will fall down.  A laptop produced today runs much much faster than a laptop produced ten years ago. Likewise, certain diets will kill you, as will certain psychological attitudes & beliefs.  Engineering is subjective, but it’s not relativistic.

-Engineered systems are complex, and must be understood as a series of interactions and tradeoffs.  The human body and the human mind are considerably more complex than anything engineers have ever architected, so assuming that there are simple laws for describing them seems naive, when you look at the amount of judgment and detail that goes into, say, designing a car engine.

-There is a design / aesthetic component.  When evaluating the tradeoffs of different solutions, people are going to weight them differently based on their individual values, and that’s totally legitimate.

-You can apply the scientific method to do benchmarks on a design, but a benchmark only tells you so much.  Examples of benchmarks in engineering:  How many pounds of pressure can a given structure hold?  How fast can a database system perform a join of two large datasets?  Both questions can be answered via the scientific method, but neither will tell you the answer to “is that a good design for your structure / database?”  For me, this is the most important consequence of thinking in terms of “engineering” vs “science”.  Much of the research being done in psychology and nutrition seem to be along the lines of benchmarks.  “What is the correlation between nutrient X and effect Y?”  “How do people who journal regularly rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10?”   You would never design a car through those kinds of tests; at best, they’re useful for evaluating your designs after the fact against a certain narrow set of criteria.  But that’s really what we want out of those sciences: the ability to design diets, make smart life decisions, be healthy and happy.  So why are we treating them like a science?  If you think in terms of engineering, then research becomes about building prototypes, sharing best practices, critiquing design decisions, debating aesthetics.  You try things, you see what works, when something doesn’t work you ask “why”.   That seems more productive to me than putting a rat or a psych undergrad into yet another controlled study…

Written by jphaas

April 12th, 2011 at 8:20 am

Posted in philosophy