February 26th, 2011
You may think of live coding as a necessary evil: the thing you have to resort to when a connection fails and you can’t get at a running example, or when someone asks a question you’re not sure of the answer to and you have to try it out in real time. Admittedly, memories of coding in public (especially the connection-failure ones where you end up writing an entire Rails application on the spot…) are not always pleasant memories.
But I’d encourage you, as a trainer, to embrace live coding. Don’t wait for things to go wrong before you do it; weave it into your presentations and examples by design. You’ll find that the rewards are well worth the risks, and that the risks can be successfully managed without too much effort.
Live coding in presentations and Q&A
Live coding usually doesn’t happen in silence (except when something’s gone wrong). I use it in tandem with answering questions and presenting topics. I think with my fingers; I’m more comfortable and confident saying things about code while I’m writing code. Whether you’re that way in general or not, live coding can keep things lively in your classroom.
Sometimes the answer to a question doesn’t come to me unless I can do some typing; sometimes the answer comes to me but wouldn’t mean much or be clear enough without live code to illustrate it. I’ve never had the impression that anyone thinks less of me as a programmer or as a teacher because I’ve resorted to trying something out before answering a question. Furthermore, the technique of trying things out is, itself, an important one, and a good lesson for your students to learn. “Is Hash#update a destructive operation?” someone asks. “Let’s ask Ruby,” I reply, and then try it out on the screen in irb. (By the way, update is destructive. So is merge!. But merge isn’t, and there’s no update!. No wonder I have to keep checking.)
“Let’s ask Ruby” is a good slogan to keep in mind, and a good one to impart to your students. I’m always surprised when someone sends a question to a Ruby mailing list that could easily be answered by typing a few characters of code into irb. But it does happen; apparently the trying-it-out habit isn’t ingrained in everyone, and the classroom situation is a good place to try to instill it.
As for live demos during presentations: I show code snippets and examples on slides, but I often end up tabbing away from the slides into a console session and showing live examples of the language features and idioms that the slides describe. In this context I see live coding as a kind of bridge between static presentation and having the students themselves do some coding. Obviously having me code isn’t the same as having them code; but I believe that seeing me enter code on the screen encourages them to do the same, to an extent that seeing a static example doesn’t.
Managing risk with semi-live coding
There are certain things I don’t like doing from scratch live. Deployment with Capistrano is one of them. It never seems to go right all the way along. I’ll take the fall for this—I have no reason to assign blame to Capistrano—but I have to live with the fact that live Capistrano installaton and setup demos are, for me, risky.
So I do my live demo of Capistrano, but I do it with the help of a list of steps, written on a piece of paper, and I prepare a certain amount of it in advance. (It’s the permission settings and passwords that always get me.). I don’t hide the list of steps from the class; there’s no detrimental effect to their seeing it, and if they think my use of a script like this means that I’m inadequately skilled, then at least now they know!
Having the demo scripted reduces the risk, if not to zero then at least pretty close. Deciding when you need this kind of aid is up to you. For me it’s Capistrano; for you it might be something else. The main thing to remember is that the usefulness of a live demo for the students is that it’s dynamic and engaging. It doesn’t matter if you use a “cheat sheet”, any more than it matters whether a pianist plays by heart or from the music, as long as the performance is good.
The “cheat sheet” technique applies mainly to fairly complex code demos that you can predict and plan in advance (as opposed to those that you do spontaneously in response to a question, or as a sample illustration of a language feature). Losing your way in the demo isn’t the only risk of a lengthy demo, though; there’s also the lengthiness itself. You don’t want to get embroiled in irrelevant details, nor to start boring the class.
Managing lengthy demos with the cooking-show approach
I draw inspiration from television cooking shows, in the matter of dealing with code demos that might otherwise be too long or detailed. These shows often use a kind of time-lapse technique. The chef mixes some ingredients and gets everything to the point of putting it in the oven. Then, instead of waiting in real time for the cake to bake, the chef produces a finished cake that’s been baked beforehand. The lesson can then resume at the point of frosting the cake.
The cooking show approach can be very handy for in-class demos. It’s particularly suited to cases where you want to demonstrate how to do something relatively small, and then want to show how it fits into a finished application. Rather than have the students sit through the writing of the whole application, you can write the bit you’re talking about—a data validation directive in a Rails model file, perhaps—and then run the whole application and show that it fails when the data is invalid. Or you might walk through the creation of one class or module, but then have the others already prepared so that you can fast-forward.
On cooking shows, the fast-forward technique might apply to the overall process (baking a cake, say) or to a subprocess that doesn’t lend itself to real-time presentation, like waiting for dough to rise or chopping large quantities of onions. The TV chef might illustrate the chopping technique, but then pull a bowl of pre-chopped onions out of the refrigerator and thus condense the time-frame.
The same thing applies in training. The time lapse you incorporate may involve a whole application, or it may involve a repeated task at one level of abstraction, analogous to chopping onions. By all means do a live demo of adding a “has_many” association to one or two of your models. But if you’ve got a lot of such cases in your sample application, consider doing most of them in advance and leaving just those one or two to do as a live demo.
So keep your irb session open, even during your slide presentations, and think creatively about semi-live and cooking show-style demos. Live coding keeps things in the moment, and adds motion and interest to the features you’re trying to put across.
February 4th, 2011
There’s no such thing as pure lecture in my technical classroom. From the very beginning I encourage students to open up program files and interactive interpreter sessions and play with them while I’m talking. Meanwhile I’m often bouncing from a bullet list on a slide, to a console where I demonstrate a coding technique in real time. And much of the time I’m not even presenting; I’m walking around the room helping people with their hands-on exercises.
In writing about modes of instruction—lecture, demo, hands-on or “lab” mode—I am drawing artificial boundaries. In the classroom it’s actually a blend. But bear with me; the artificial boundaries aren’t entirely artficial, and they allow for some salient and helpful points to be made.
In today’s post I’ll be talking mainly about lecture mode: the part where you’ve got the class’s attention and you’re sitting there saying stuff and showing slides and writing code in a file or console. In later posts we’ll look more closely at some specific points about code demos, as well as some ideas for making the most of hands-on exercise time. This time around we’ll focus on the verbal and its cognitive underpinnings.
The teacher’s “advantage”: the z-axis
The biggest problem people face when speaking to a class about a topic is trying to say too much. In fact, it’s largely for the purpose of isolated and tackling this problem that I’ve separated lecturing out as its own topic.
Consider a lecture snippet that consists of the following two points:
To create a Ruby hash, put the keys and values in curly braces. You separate keys from values using the so-called “hashrocket”, '=>'.
Never mind for the moment what’s being projected on the screen (maybe bullet points, maybe a live code demo). The teacher wants to make those two points verbally about hashes.
Now here’s what happens: a feeling of guilt kicks in, a kind of full-disclosure compulsion. How (one’s teacherly conscience prompts one to ask oneself) can I mention curly braces as literal hash constructors, and not at least mention that they’re used for other things?
So now we’ve got two main points and an aside, with the main points flowing into each other and the aside understood to be in parentheses, so to speak:
To create a Ruby hash, put the keys and values in curly braces. (Curly braces are also used for code blocks, but that's a different usage.) You separate keys from values using the so-called “hashrocket”, '=>'.
But you still feel like you haven’t done your pedagogical duty; or maybe that voice in your head is telling you that if you don’t say at least a little bit about operator overloading in general, as a kind of placeholder, your students will later come to feel that you omitted an important topic reference. So, for either nurturing or self-protective reasons, we get an aside inside the aside:
To create a Ruby hash, put the keys and values in curly braces. (Curly braces are also used for code blocks, but that's a different usage. (Lots of operators are overloaded in Ruby -- square brackets, for example.)) You separate keys from values using the so-called “hashrocket”, '=>'.
You know you’re digressing but you’re confident that the main topic is moving forward effectively and that the digressions will serve as useful placeholders for later discussion. You have no doubt that what you’ve done amounts to the utterance of two main points, with a bit of embellishment but clear and communicative nonetheless.
In other words, you perceive the asides as occupying a space somehow different from the space of the main points; you perceive them along a kind of z-axis, oblique to the main axis of exposition—something like the axis of depth shown here:
The only problem is that what your students are actually hearing—what they, rather than you, perceive—is more like this:
The lesson? Have mercy on your students. They’re probably smart, but they don’t have the necessary experience in the topic to evaluate, as your verbal presentation unrolls before them, what’s a main point and what’s a digression. They don’t have the background, so to speak, to pick out the points in the foreground.
Sure, if you make an aside about Led Zeppelin or how to bake bagels, they’ll get that it’s an aside. But if you chase down every little technical opening or clue in your own speech, if you pepper your exposition of a subtopic with points from elsewhere in the general topic, it will only serve to confuse your listeners and add to their anxiety about mastering the subject matter.
When in doubt, lieIn the preface to The TeX Book, Donald Knuth has this to say about topic flow:
Another noteworthy characteristic of this manual is that it doesn’t always tell the truth. When certain concepts of TeX are introduced informally, general rules will be stated; afterwards you will find that the rules aren’t strictly true…. The author feels that this technique of deliberate lying will actually make it easier for you to learn the ideas. Once you understand a simple but false rule, it will not be hard to supplement that rule with its exceptions.
Lecturing without filling in all the details that you know are lurking in the topic feels like lying. It’s OK, though. In fact it’s your responsibility. You’re not really going to say everything, even if you try to cram some extra points in. All these digressions are no more than token efforts, when measured on the scale of the full complexity of your topic. So treat them very skeptically when they present themselves to your brain for delivery to the class.
I don’t mean that you have to become robotic or cleanse your speech of every molecule of outside reference. (Your students won’t let you do that anyway, once they start asking questions.) But try to shake the feeling that you have to cover the entire canvas with your brush on the first pass through. The learning canvas is random access; you can come back to things instantaneously at a later point when they fit in.
And remember that you are not being tested. A lecture is not an oral examination. Even in an oral exam you’d probably want to do more than just a brain dump; all the more should you pick and choose carefully what you say in lecture mode. No one is keeping score. They’re just trying to connect the dots and learn from you.
It’s tricky, of course, because subtopics do have circular dependencies and there are a lot of enticing sub-subtopics on almost any path through a topic. The art of lecturing on technical material (and lots of non-technical material, for that matter) is the art of presenting a non-linear topic in a linear way. Correspondingly, the discipline of lecturing is the discipline of not trying to say everything in the course of talking about any one thing.
Listening to yourself
When you’re talking to a class, you’re performing. I don’t mean you’re being a phony or putting on an act. I mean “performing” in a more technical sense. I’m a musician, so I understand this best in connection with music.
The most difficult and in some ways the most mysterious thing about musical performance is that when you’re performing, you’re also listening. It’s an instantaneous process: the listening part of you tells the playing part of you how things are going and what adjustments have to be made, yet somehow the adjustments aren’t exactly adjustments to anything because they precede the actual production. You can’t really listen to something you haven’t played yet, but that’s what it feels like.
Like I said, a mystery. Let’s leave it at this: performing means letting go but it also means carefully monitoring what you’re doing.
With experience, you learn to listen to yourself as you lecture. When I’m explaining something, part of my brain is creating and delivering the explanation. Another part is consuming it: I’m listening to myself and instinctively spotting the gaps, fuzzy spots, and glitches, hopefully before they happen. I’m also making quick, executive, performative decisions, perhaps literally as I’m drawing breath, as to what’s really relevant and what isn’t.
My impulses, for what it’s worth, tend fairly strongly toward the fill-in-every-detail direction; I need my inner musician (or my inner editor with a red pencil, if you like) guiding me and directing topic-traffic so that I can keep things moving forward. It works, too; but it’s something I had to become conscious of to master.
Presenting a topic with the right balance, the right arc, and the right (probably small) coefficient of digressions, means you’re truly in the teaching zone.
Next up: advice on code demos
January 27th, 2011
For me, the most challenging thing about training is accomodating people who come to a class from different backgrounds and with different levels of experience and knowledge. So let’s dive right into that.
How different are different levels? At times, very.
I remember a Rails class whose members included a participant in that year’s “Rails Day” contest (i.e., a very experienced Rails developer), side-by-side with someone who had literally never written a computer program and never seen a command line. The latter person was a front-end designer, and I have every reason to think she was skilled and successful. But she did not belong in that class. (To be fair, the Rails Day guy probably didn’t either—except that he was actually there in part to help some of the other people in the class, who were his co-workers.)
Given a room with that diverse a population, what you can say? I mean that quite literally: what can you say? What sentence can come out of your mouth that’s going to make sense to everyone in the room and hold everyone’s attention? You don’t want to aim too high and confuse the less advanced people. But you don’t want to bore the more advanced students by aiming too low.
Managers sometimes err (quite understandably) on the side of sending more rather than fewer people to fixed-cost, on-site training courses; and even with public courses, self-selection based on advertised course requirements and content doesn’t necessarily serve to keep the group at one level. If you train, you’ll face this issue early and often.
Still, there’s a lot you can do to make the experience rewarding for everybody even in a very mixed-level group. Here are some suggestions—in no particular order except that the first one is the foundation on which all the rest, and indeed all of your training activities, must be built.
A. Deliver what you promised to deliver
This comes absolutely first and foremost. If the course was sold as a beginner’s course, then you have to provide a worthwhile course for beginners. If it’s an advanced course, you have to give the advanced students the best experience you can. Beyond this you can tweak and adjust; but delivering what you promised has to be the starting point.
Occasionally you’ll get a class where everyone is at the same level as each other and it’s not the level you advertised. That doesn’t happen often, but if it does, you can go ahead and recalibrate the whole curriculum. I did that once with a programming team who had much more experience than I’d been led to expect them to have. They were too polite to come out and say that they were too advanced for the curriculum, but it was pretty obvious. So we changed gears on day two and spent the remaining days on more advanced topics and code critique.
That’s a rarity, though. You’ll find the truly mixed-level class to be much more common, and whatever you do to optimize the experience for everyone, you must stay rooted in the curriculum you’ve promised to cover.
B. Make the prerequisites clear in advance
When you’re discussing the course skill-level with the client or prospective participants, show some tough love: be clear and firm about the prerequisites. It’s in everyone’s interest. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Use clear terms like “not suitable” or “too advanced” or “only right for beginners” if those terms apply.
Course prerequisites don’t have to be fine-grained, but they do have to be clear. “Everyone in the course should already be experienced with at least one object-oriented programming language” is an example of a reasonable prerequisite. So is “The participants need to be at least somewhat comfortable in a Unix-like environment.” You don’t need to know whether they know all the command-line options for grep. You just need to establish the basic requirements.
If you’re teaching a dependent technology—meaning, the way learning Rails depends on learning Ruby—address the role of the parent technology. You can teach Rails to people who know Ruby, or to people who don’t; but mixing Rubyists with non-Rubyists in a Rails class is problematic. Make sure you’re in accord with your clients about any assumed parent-technology baselines.
B. Try to control the teacher/student ratio
To the greatest extent that you can, keep the teacher/student ratio at 1/15 or better. Beyond about fifteen, in my experience, you hit critical mass: the amount of help needed by the students expands beyond the confines of the available time for one instructor, so you fall further and further behind.
This is ancient wisdom, of course. Universities like to brag about their tiny class sizes and all of that. And with training classes (as with universities, incidentally), you can’t always control it. But if you’re presented with, say, the prospect of providing hands-on, closely-coached technical training for twenty-five or thirty people, see if you can find another instructor—or at least a lab assistant who can troubleshoot software installation and other matters so that you’re not doing everything.
D. Have extra material in reserve
Try to have some ideas for extra projects up your sleeve, above and beyond any in your stated curriculum, particularly for students who are too advanced for the course. Bring a few books with you, and if someone isn’t feeling challenged enough, point them to a chapter that you think they can learn from. They won’t feel shunned; they’ll feel relieved. The whole problem is that the too-advanced person shouldn’t be there in the first place, so anything you do to help them not be bored is in their interest.
E. Enlist the help of the more advanced students
I’m thinking of situations where, say, one student is clearly over-qualified for the exercises in the workbook, and another student is struggling. It’s possible that the best course of action is for the over-qualified student to pair up with the struggling one and help them out.
This is a tricky strategy, though. It’s your job, not theirs, to do the teaching. The situation has to be really right before you ask students to teach each other.
But it often is really right. For one thing, teaching something helps you consolidate your own knowledge—so everybody wins, including the student-teacher. And some people would rather spend the time engaged in an activity with someone else than go off and work on an application or read a book.
As the teacher, though, you have to make sure that the result is at least as great as the sum of its parts: all parties involved have to understand and accept the plan. You don’t want it to backfire and have either student (or both) think you’re trying to brush them aside. Be circumspect about this option, but keep it in mind for the right situation.
F. Master the art of not answering questions
Don’t get me wrong: in general it’s good to answer questions. But when questions come from students who probably shouldn’t have taken the course in the first place, and are shifting the focus onto material that’s either too simple or too advanced, it’s your job to protect the class.
When I get a too-advanced question, I usually answer it quickly and, if need be, incompletely. I don’t want to digress too far from the curriculum—and above all I don’t want to make the less advanced students feel anxious because they can’t follow what I’m saying. You can always ask the advanced student to talk to you about their question later; but you only have one shot at making the dynamics of the classroom work for everyone. So answer the question quickly; offer to go into it privately later; don’t get into a lot of examples and demos based on the question (that can really make the other students feel abandoned); and move on.
Too-basic questions can be harder to deal with than too-advanced questions. In fact, it may be through such questions that you first discover that some of your students are under-prepared. This may be a good time to consider a temporary ad hoc student-teacher system (see E., above) where someone else in the class helps the person, assuming it’s something that can be communicated relatively quickly (like how to start Ruby from the commandline, creating a MySQL database from scratch, etc.).
G. Make it easy to move around the materials (e.g., staged code shapshots)
For the main do-as-you-go application in my Rails workbook, I’ve got twelve code snapshots. Each one represents the state of the application at a particular point in the book. If a student falls a bit behind, or wants to skip a section they already know about, they can move to a later chapter or section and “fast-forward” by swapping the appropriate code snapshot into their working code directory.
Furthermore, if I need to fast-forward through a topic, I can then pick up from a particular code snapshot and keep going. I might do this with a couple of topics if, say, a client has asked me to deliver a four-day course in three days—or if I’ve just fallen behind a bit and want to get the class back in sync with the courseware. (I don’t make a habit of falling behind but I do try to provide enough material that compressing one or two subtopics won’t be a tragedy.)
Staged code snapshots aren’t the easiest thing in the world to maintain, but they’re a good example of adding an element of independence to the classroom experience for students who want to adjust the pace.
H. Talk to the person in charge
I’m thinking here mainly of private, on-site training engagements (though the principle could be extended to on-going discussions with individual students too). You’ll probably have a discussion at the beginning and/or end of each day with the manager who set up the training. You should definitely bring any issues about class preparedness level to that person’s attention.
When you do, you’ll find that ninety-nine percent of the time the manager will say something like, “Yeah, I was afraid that it would be too easy for Julie” or “Bill said he’d learn Ruby on his own over the weekend but I guess he didn’t.” The manager knows the team. None of what you say is going to be a huge surprise.
Be sympathetic, though. The client didn’t do this to make your life hard. At worst, they just didn’t think it through in terms of preparation and were eager to get the most value out of your skills. Everyone’s acting in good faith.
Sometimes, the manager will take someone out of the training after the first day. I always feel a pang of guilt at this—but I shouldn’t, and you shouldn’t. It’s a correction that will make things easier and more productive for everyone, including the person who shouldn’t have been in the training in the first place. Of course you want to challenge yourself to make the experience accessible to and meaningful for as many people as you can. But don’t be Utopian about it; there really is such a thing as a person for whom a given class at a given time just isn’t right.
Here’s a summary of the suggestions we’ve just gone over:
- A. Deliver what you promised to deliver
- B. Make the prerequisites clear in advance
- C. Try to control the teacher/student ratio
- D. Have extra material in reserve
- E. Enlist the help of the more advanced students
- F. Master the art of not answering questions
- G. Make it easy to move around the materials (e.g., staged code shapshots)
- H. Talk to the person in charge
Handling the mixed-level classroom successfully is not easy. You need to stay alert and to keep applying energy to the situation to make it as good as it can be for everyone, while delivering what you promised to deliver. A mixed-level group requires agility and adaptability, but with structure.
Some of the training companies I subcontract with do Likert scale evaluations (“Strongly agree, Agree, Neutral…”—that kind of question). One of the questions is often about the pace of the class: much too slow, too slow, perfect, etc. In a mixed-level class, I don’t expect everyone to say the pace was perfect. I aim, though, for the mathematically best result possible: I want the curve to max out at “perfect” and fall away (hopefully not too far) to the sides.
Then I know I’ve done my best.
January 24th, 2011
This introduction is the first—number zero, if you like—in a series of articles about technical training, intended to be read by trainers but of interest, I hope, to a variety of teachers, managers, and interested learners from various backgrounds. After this introduction I am planning at least three further articles, addressing such topics as how to handle classes with mixed levels of experience and what’s involved in choosing among different teaching modes (lecture, hands-on, etc.). After that, we’ll see.
Not all teaching is training. But as far as I’m concerned, all training is teaching; and teaching is a fascinating, challenging, absorbing art. I’m not going to philosophize at any length about the terminology. I just want to make it clear that in this series about training, I consider myself to be addressing a branch or style or permutation of teaching, with all that that implies.
I’ve taught a lot and I’ve been at it for a long time. From 1992 to 2005 I was on the faculty of the Department of Communication at Seton Hall University, teaching media history and research to undergraduates. Meanwhile I’d been programming computers as a hobby since 1972 (with some gaps, but pretty steadily since 1990), and I’d become a Ruby and Ruby on Rails expert.
By mid-2005, my academic career and my supposed hobby were on a collision course. I had a year-long sabbatical coming up, with the expectation that I would write an academic book; but that summer I signed a (non-academic) book contract with Manning for Ruby for Rails.
The timing was favorable for a change. Ruby beckoned; and with a sabbatical scheduled I wasn’t expected to be in the classroom anyway. So I changed careers: I resigned from Seton Hall, instead of taking the sabbatical, and started to earn my living as a Ruby consultant, author, and trainer.
I figured I’d finish Ruby for Rails and then get a programming job. I did finish the book, but instead of getting a job I set up a one-man consultancy, Ruby Power and Light, and started taking on short-term contracts—and a lot of training jobs. I trained and trained. In 2006, I traveled to something like twenty-three cities, from California to Sweden, training people in Ruby and Rails.
I continued to make my living mainly from Ruby and Rails training through most of 2009, at which point I started working full-time as a developer at Cyrus Innovation. I’m still involved in training projects, though, especially (though not exclusively) a recurring training event called The Compleat Rubyist. Teaching isn’t my main bread-and-butter at the moment, but it is a part of me and always will be.
I hope you enjoy the series.
Next up: Handling mixed levels of experience in a training class
March 23rd, 2010
I’ve noticed that people routinely pronounce “accreditation” as if the first ‘t’ were a ‘d’: accredidation. I’ve been wondering why, and I have a theory.
First, consider that ‘t’ often becomes a ‘d’ sound before ‘ed’. “faded” and “fated” can sound very similar. “imitated” is pronounced more like “imitaded”.
Now, it’s also true that while “imitated” sounds like “imitaded”, no one says “imiDation” instead of “imitation”. Nor does anyone say “visiDation”, “mediDation”, or “cogiDation”. So why “accrediDation”?
The reason, I believe, lies in the past tense form of the word: accredited. In that word, the ‘t’ after the ‘d’ sounds like a ‘d’ (like “imitaDed” and so on). I surmise, therefore, that something along the following lines happens when people pronounce “accreditation”: The brain gets to that first ‘t’ after the ‘d’ and, out of habit born of d-ifying the ‘t’ in “accredited”, pronounces it as a ‘d’.
What the brain doesn’t quite take into account is that there’s a syllable “missing”. If the past tense were “accreditated” instead of “accredited”, then no one’s brain would ever have thought that there were two ‘d’ sounds in a row, and no one would say “accredidation”.
It’s the only theory I can think of that explains why this word alone, among all the -itation words in the language, gets pronounced this way.
November 13th, 2009
I am very pleased and excited to announce that I have accepted a Senior Developer position with Cyrus Innovation, Inc. Cyrus is based in New York City. I will be, at least for the foreseeable future, assigned to a team working on-site at a New Jersey client. It’s a work-place I’ve been in before (I’ve done training for them), and I know some of the other members of the Cyrus team who work there. So while it’s definitely a big change for me and a new adventure, it’s also a familiar and collegial environment that I already know I like working in.
And it really is a big change! The last full-time job I had was my professorship at Seton Hall University (1992-2005).
The question is (drumroll…) why now?
Throughout the years that I’ve been doing freelance and independent consulting and training, I’ve regarded the prospect of a fulltime job with ambivalence. On the one hand, it’s less independent. And much of the brainstorming I’ve done this year about whether or not to seek a fulltime job has been kind of depressing, because it’s been motivated largely by the fact that my freelance business has dropped off a great deal (and I have no marketing skills, which means that when the market gets tight, I tend not to remain competitive). I’ve also been conflicted about fulltime jobs because I am very settled where I live and do not want to move.
On the other hand, I’ve always understood that a fulltime job would provide a measure of continuity and security that I’m increasingly feeling the lack of in my independent work. And, even more importantly, there’s the sense of belonging to a team of colleagues. I’ve always looked with a pang of envy at friends who are part of a development team, and whenever I’ve spent even a couple of weeks on a team helping out, it’s been incredibly stimulating. I always go through a big learning spurt when I work directly with other developers, and I don’t do nearly enough of it.
So I’d reached the point where I was interested in a full-time job but, fussy customer that I am, it had to be one that didn’t require me to sell my house and move, and that I had very, very good reason to believe would provide me with the kind of collegial environment that had been, for four years, the thing I had pined for the most as an independent. (I also didn’t want to telecommute, because sitting alone in my house literally all the time is not the right formula for me.)
Well, fast forward a bit and here I am, having found what I was hoping to find! That’s the story. I start December 7. (And all the “date that will live in infamy” jokes have already been made :-) Wish me luck!
July 16th, 2009
I’ve watched no more of the Sotomayor hearings than has happened to be on while I’ve waited for the guy behind the counter to toast my bagel, and things like that. I don’t see much point in watching them, since it’s pretty easy to predict what her critics are going to ask her and say about her, and not terribly interesting to hear her answers.
But I do want to say something about this “wise Latina” thing, if I can do so without boring myself as well as you to death.
With very few exceptions, all Supreme Court justices, ever, have been white men. So have most other judges in the U.S. That means that someone, somewhere along the line, felt that white men make wiser decisions than people who are not white men. Maybe closer to “everyone” than “someone”, in fact.
White male jurists never have to say anything public to the effect that white males as wiser, as jurists, than people who aren’t white males, because it’s been said for them. It’s been said by virtually every President who has made judicial appointments and nominations, every Senator on whom the strangely homogenous pattern has not weighed heavily, and every citizen who never considered withholding a vote from the perpetrators of this centuries-long exercise in exclusion.
In short, the entire history of the Supreme Court and much of the rest of the judiciary amounts to a sustained assertion that white men make wiser decisions than anyone else.
So along came Sotomayor, and expressed a different opinion. She expressed an opinion that was not the opinion on which the entire history of the Supreme Court has been predicated. She espoused the belief that white men do not, in every imaginable case, make wiser judges.
How dare she?!
Doesn’t she realize that The Universal Opinion on this subject has already been established?
Of course it’s the same old thing. The belief that white males are wiser is so widespread, so ingrained, so taken for granted, that it seems natural. You don’t have to think about it; your thinking has been done for you. And you don’t have to be so gauche as to say that you believe it, because as long as you don’t saying anything, it will be assumed that that’s what you think.
All Sotomayor did was to respond. She was responding to history. History was saying—loudly, repeatedly, in chorus echoing down the centuries—that white men make wiser jurists. Sotomayor said: maybe not, under some circumstances.
Think of it this way. Sotomayor walks down the street every day, her whole life, and every couple of blocks, somebody says to her: White male jurists make wiser decisions than anyone else. Senators say it; Supreme Court justices say it. Citizens say it; Presidents say it.
After a lifetime of that, Sotomayor says: well, not necessarily.
And everyone gets mad at her.
The every-couple-of-blocks thing represents about one millionth of one percent of what Sotomayor, and the rest of us, have actually had communicated to us over our lifetimes. So why the hell shouldn’t she respond? And why are people treating her like Oliver Twist asking for more gruel?
March 20th, 2009
Here’s a passage from The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart, published in 1906. I’ve included some context but the main thing I’m interested in is the appearance of the word “cool” in the second paragraph.
“Nonsense,” he said. “Bring yourself. The lady that keeps my boarding-house is calling to me to insist. You remember Dorothy, don’t you, Dorothy Browne? She says unless you have lost your figure you can wear my clothes all right. All you need here is a bathing suit for daytime and a dinner coat for evening.”
“It sounds cool,” I temporized. “If you are sure I won’t put you out—very well, Sam, since you and your wife are good enough. I have a couple of days free. Give my love to Dorothy until I can do it myself.”
I can’t see what “cool” means in the second paragraph, other than “cool” in the slang sense that we use it. My understanding is that “cool” in that sense started, or at least came into common usage, during or after World War II. In any case, 1906 seems insanely early for it.
But what else could it mean in the quotation above? The wardrobe described in the first paragraph doesn’t suggest a particularly cool climate. Is there some other nuance of the word I’m not getting?
I shall leave comments open on this one, at least until the spam gets intolerable.
February 2nd, 2009
I hate it when athletes thank God when they win. My reasons for hating it have nothing to do with my own atheism. I hate it because it’s narcissistic and because it’s theologically infantile.
If you win a game and then thank God, and do not thank God when you lose, you are going on record as believing that God wanted you to win, and that a victory by your opponent would have represented a thwarting of God’s plan.
But how do you know? Isn’t it possible that losing is what God has planned for you, and that it will do you good? Maybe losing will strengthen your character. Maybe your opponent needs the win (or the prize money) more than you do, and God somehow managed to figure that out in spite of being dazzled by your greatness. Maybe you should be thanking God for protecting you from the sin of pride by not letting you win a spiritually meaningless, entirely earthly contest.
But I’ve never seen an athlete drop to his or her knees and thank God after a loss. Why not? Because the ones who thank God when they win have a dinky, anthropomorphic conception of God. Their God is “the man upstairs,” the Santa Claus figure, the parent who may or may not give them the birthday present they want. And to hell with the other kids. Me, Me, Me.
So what gives? Where does this all come from? Whose big idea was it to thank God only for bringing about what they themselves wanted to happen anyway?
Let’s go back to ancient times. Things were different with respect to thanking gods, because there were lots of gods and the gods took sides in the contest. It made sense for the Greeks to thank Athena for the victory over the Trojans because Athena was, at some Olympian level, duking it out with Ares and Aphrodite. The Greeks’ powerful friends prevailed over the Trojans’ powerful friends. And the Greeks understood that someone had actually made an effort on their behalf, faced uncertainty, and prevailed. So they thanked her.
Dear athlete: Do you think that God faces uncertainty when you play a tennis match?
Do you think that God has to make an effort on your behalf to make sure you win?
Do you think that God’s enemy is rooting for your opponent?
And if you don’t think all that, what exactly are you thanking God for when you win? I mean exactly. Not just vaguely that you’re happy, and happiness feels good, so it must come from God. That’s theological babytalk.
The best thing that can be said about thanking God for an athletic victory and not for a loss is that it’s an ignorant corruption of what was a perfectly reasonable pagan practice. If you’re a monotheist and thank God for a win, you’re making a statement about your own inherent worth, and what you believe is God’s opinion of that worth, in comparison to the inherent worth of your opponent. You’re asserting that your victory is of the Lord to an extent that a victory by your opponent would not have been. And you’re implying unmistakeably that your opponent is in league with God’s enemy.
In other words, thanking God for an athletic victory is stupid, uninformed, thoughtless, self-absorbed, and about as far from anything religious or spiritual as you can get. I understand the whole thing about religion not being the same as rational thought. But this isn’t even the same as religious thought. It’s just vanity.
December 29th, 2008
Announcing the opening of WishSight!
WishSight is for managing wishlists and gift-giving. It lets you see who’s given (or promised) what to whom, and it lets gift-givers for particular people communicate with each other, via a comment-board, so that they don’t duplicate gifts.
It’s based on a Christmas-list application I wrote in 2005 that my family and friends have been using every year since then. It’s completely merchant-unaffiliated. You can post links for the gifts you want, and they can be links to any merchant.
WishSight helps you cut down on gift duplication, and increases the chances that people will get things they actually want, without the gift-givers having to do a round-robin of email or phone calls to pin down who’s buying what. And chances are they don’t all know each other anyway—which doesn’t matter on WishSight, because you all communicate by leaving comments directly on your mutual friend’s wishlist.
All you have to do is:
- sign up
- list the email addresses of people who you want to be able to see your wishlist
- get those people to sign up and “whitelist” your email address
- list your wishes
- stake “claims” on other people’s wishes
There’s no stealth: the email addresses are only used internally to determine who’s allowed to see whose wishlist. Also, you can list email addresses even if the people haven’t signed up yet. Once they do sign up, they will automatically have permission to see your wishlist and claim your wishes. No two-sided “handshakes” required; you just whitelist people.
Have fun, and let me know if any questions or problems!
December 21st, 2008
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that other forms of hate and prejudice are extinct, or even on the wane. But it feels like the stars anti-Muslim sentiment and homophobia are in the ascendancy.
It’s very much about statements that don’t sound aggressive or hateful, on the surface, but that would never be made if hate didn’t lurk just below. I’m thinking, for example, of a report I heard on the radio of some attack or other, involving “three Muslims of middle-eastern descent.” I might have the phrasing of the “middle-eastern descent” part wrong (though it was that or close to it). In any case, the salient bit, for me, was “three Muslims.”
When was the last time you heard a crime described as having been committed by “three Christians”? How about “A Jew broke into a convenience store…”? So what’s up with “three Muslims”?
What’s up, of course, is hate. I don’t think the radio announcer or the newswriter hates Muslims. But they do operate under a compulsion to mention explicitly that Muslims are Muslims, and ultimately that’s so that the listenership can be put on alert to hate them. Does the phrase “three Muslims” have explanatory power? Did these people do whatever they did because they are Muslims? No. There’s no reason to mention their religion except out of habit of mentioning the fact that Muslims are Muslims.
Back when I was a university professor (1992-2005; in this case somewhere around 2003, I think), the school newspaper had a kind of “person-in-the-street” feature, where they’d ask a few people around campus a question and print selected answers. One week, the question was something about Iraq. One of the people quoted in the feature said something along the lines of, “Bomb them all off the face of the earth.” Or “Blow them all up”—words to that effect.
My response was to call the editor-in-chief of the newspaper into my office and have a little chat with him. I was under no institutional imperative to do so—I was not involved with the paper directly—but it seemed to me that I had an opportunity to teach him perhaps the most important lesson of his college career. “If the question of the week had been about how to improve the cafeteria food,” I asked him, “and someone had said, ‘Line the whole cafeteria staff against the wall and shoot them dead,’ would you have printed it?”
Of course he would not have, and said that he would not have. “The fact that what we would not say about the cafeteria workers, we would say about the entire population of a Muslim country,” I explained, “is the dehumanization process at work.” I do believe he understood and took my point on board.
So we mention that people are Muslims, and we lower the bar when it comes to suggesting (or, if you like, joking about) their violent deaths. And it’s all very dangerous and should be sending up serious alarms.
Labeling the gay as gay is an even more popular pastime. The world has settled for a breathtakingly stunted view of what homosexuality entails, and how it manifests itself. It manifests itself, by the way, as itself, not as an obsession with the song “YMCA” or an expertise in designer footware. Hey, more power to you if you have that expertise. But the set of all men who do intersects in a miniscule subset with the set of all men whose primary sexual orientation is toward men. Ditto for all the stereotypes.
Of course, the world can’t deal with the idea that homosexuality manifests itself only as itself, because if that’s true, it means you can’t tell who’s gay; and that, like being unable to tell who’s Jewish, is unacceptable. The workaround is to pretend that you can tell who’s gay, resorting to babytalk about your “gaydar” when the stereotypes, as they must, fail you.
And then, following a fairly tight train of thought, there’s hatred of gays.
First of all, let me explain that I include, as hatred, the “love the sinner, hate the sin” horseshit espoused by the Catholic church. It is, to be sure, a kinder, gentler hatred than the burning-at-the-stake kind. The idea is that you’re enlightened enough to acknowledge that some people just are gay. But you also understand that, as gays, they must never indulge in the kinds of sexual activities they feel interested in. So you, as the compassionate believer, offer to contribute to their happiness by giving them support and encouragement as they fight to maintain their chastity.
The church, of course, has two thousand years of experience disguising hate as love. But this one is particularly devious and malign. Let’s cut to the chase: the only reason that one adult human being would try to stop another adult human being, on a lifelong basis, from attaining romantic and/or erotic satisfaction is that he or she (human one) hates him or her (human two). No amount of theological stroking can change that. It’s hate.
Not news, of course, that the Pope and friends hate gays. But interesting to see how slimy and prurient they can get, in the process. Anyway, let’s move on.
Actually we can borrow a concept from the church: “invincible ignorance.” When I read the stuff about homosexuality being a choice (note that it’s not that sexual preference is a choice, just homosexuality—which makes it kind of weird to describe it as a choice), my reaction is that if you put twenty articulate, knowledgeable people in a room for twenty years with the person who’s taking the “choice” position, that person would emerge still saying that homosexuality is a choice. There’s no point of entry for explanation, and no point of contact with reality.
It’s pathetic, but I still count it as hate. At least it leads to hate. Or from hate, perhaps. Or maybe these people are actually choosing to be vicious, and could stop themselves if they really wanted to. It’s hard to know. They’re not saying.
With gay marriage on the news radar these days, more and more of this kind of discourse is showing up: the choice thing, but also the “gays recruit people” thing (which is actually backwards; have these people ever watched television commercials?) and, most disturbingly of all, the “gays prey on children” thing. And each of these things embodies two problems: first, that people believe it; and second, that it’s acceptable to say it publicly.
Which hateful statements are acceptable and which aren’t is a kind of lump under the carpet that moves around but never goes away. Unfortunately, the underlying hate never goes away either—and ultimately, no matter which targeted people or groups we’re talking about, it’s the underlying hate that matters. But who gets to say what, and when, and with what consequences (or lack thereof) is, in itself, something that I think it’s worth keeping fairly close tabs on.
October 3rd, 2008
The bailout bill has just passed. I know very little about economics, little enough that I don’t feel entitled to a strong opinion one way or the other on whether the bill should have passed. But I am suspicious of it.
I’m suspicious of it, for one thing, because of the fear-mongering that has surrounded it; it’s very reminiscent of the ongoing “Terrorists will come and kill your family if the executive branch doesn’t get a blank check for waging undeclared war” campaign, and things in that vein.
But I’m even more suspicious of the bill because of all the rhetoric about how it will help “Main Street” as well as “Wall Street”. I don’t know whether it will or not, but what troubles me is the fact that this kind of rhetoric makes it sound like Congress and the Bush administration are desperate to help Main Street. The fact is that, in general, they’re not.
Every microsecond of every day in the history of this country there have been uncountable opportunities for the government to help citizens with financial problems, difficulty paying for a home, lack of job opportunities, inability to get credit, and all the rest of it. The thrust of the behavior of the government for most of the history of the country has been not to bother helping such people to any significant degree.
Now, all of a sudden, helping Main Street leaps to the front of the congressional and executive agenda. I’m disinclined to buy it. If the common weal were really a government priority, we would have known by now. I find it immensely suspicious that the greatest outpouring of social concern, at least as measured in money, comes tethered to a Wall Street bailout.
If Main Street is going to benefit from the delivery of a de facto blank check to Wall Street, surely it would not benefit any less from having money delivered to it directly. But you don’t hear any talk of, say, the government purchasing houses for the victims of fiscal mismanagement. I suppose it would have taken too long to draft a bill that did that; and as we know, the earth would have left its axis if the bill had not been passed this week….
July 4th, 2008
During the week of July 6-12, I invite and encourage everybody who includes links in their email, blog posts, online chats, and other documents, to link to something other than Wikipedia.
I’m not trying to be a Wikipedia slayer. It wouldn’t matter if I were; that’s not going to happen.
I just want to remind everyone that there are thousands and thousands of interesting, well-informed, thought-provoking, educational websites out there, written by professors, researchers, doctors, artists, scientists, practitioners of every craft and industry—and however you slice it, these websites are getting a raw deal when it comes to links.
It’s not about whether Wikipedia articles are accurate or not. Some are, some aren’t. But that’s true of
The best thing about the Web is that it isn’t an encyclopedia. And Wikipedia is evidence that when Web culture meets encyclopedia culture, encyclopedia culture wins. Sure, Wikipedia is collaborative. Most encyclopedias are. They still give off an aura of total, centralized, complete knowledge and authority. And that’s not very Web-like, is it?
- If you’ve got a point to make about grammar, look for an English (or whatever language it is!) professor’s site. There are some great ones. Point the person you’re arguing with to a couple of those.
- Countries have their own informational websites, some official and some written by people who live there. Many of them are multi-lingual. Are they “balanced”? Probably not, at least not in the network news way. So much the better! Balance on the Web emerges from the quantity and interplay of sites. It’s not supposed to be embodied in every document. How boring!
- Wikipedia is great for technology-related topics. But so are lots of other sites. Are you sure that Wikipedia’s description of the algorithm you’re discussing on that mailing list is really the best? the clearest? the most engaging?
- You get the idea! Strike a blow for the richness of the Web, and for the beauty of discourse that doesn’t try to be poker-faced and non-committal, even about important issues. Rediscover the expertise of the many Web contributors who write about their own specialties and have taken the time to share their thoughts.
There’s a lot to learn at Wikipedia, but it’s time to spread the linkage!
June 7th, 2008
A guy I was chatting with in the men’s lounge of the spa at Harrah’s in Atlantic City was telling me about “slide words.” I can’t find anything about them (and I’ve tried “slider words” and a few other variants) anywhere. I don’t think he made the term up, and he certainly didn’t think he had.
Anyway, even though I can’t find any background information or previous discussion, I am going to talk about “slide words” (or whatever they’re called).
A slide word, I gather, is a word or phrase that has come to serve as shorthand for an entire argument—except that the argument isn’t really there. We’re all just supposed to think it is. The slide word acts as a black hole, drawing further discussion and thoughtful debate into itself and killing it.
Slide words are bad because they take the place of actual analysis of situations and events. Every slide word has a kind of implicit, “Sigh. Here we go again” attached to it, even though the “again” part is asserted through the use of the slide word itself and not actually demonstrated.
I have something to say here about three slide words: conspiracy theory, Chinese menu, and bikeshed.
“Conspiracy theory” is perhaps the best example of a slide word. Consider the following exchange, which is made up but is actually very similar to several I have had:
Other Person: Why haven’t we heard about it?
Me: It was in the news briefly. I guess it was considered more prudent to downplay it.Other Person: That sounds like a conspiracy theory.
With the invocation of the term “conspiracy theory,” all further discussion of what might have actually happened is discredited. The events surrounding the death of John Kipalani’s son need not be examined in any detail; nor need the press coverage (or lack thereof). “Conspiracy theory” plays the role of a rebuttal of the statements about the Challenger disaster, even though it has no actual connection to them.Here’s another example:
Me: The only people who profited from 9/11 in any way, financially or politically, were George W. Bush and his family and friends. I therefore assume, as a matter of the simplest logic, that Bush had something to do with it.Other Person: What are you, a conspiracy theorist?
Again, the slide word (or slide phrase) gets played as if it were a trump card, when in fact it has nothing whatsoever to do with the question of Bush’s culpability in the 9/11 attacks, and neither refutes the logic that’s on offer nor adds information that might bring about a reconsideration of that logic.
Another slide word I’ve come across, in a somewhat narrower setting, is “Chinese menu.”
When I was teaching at a university, I was involved in lots of discussions, formal and otherwise, about core curricula: what they should include, how they should be administered, and so on. I remember that in one series of such discussions, any time anyone suggested anything along the lines of having students choose one or more courses from each of several course groupings, someone else would say, “That’s like a Chinese menu.” Eventually it became just “Chinese menu.”
I have no memory of any discussion of
Another slide word, a rather obnoxious one that seems to be enjoying considerable popularity these days, is “bikeshed.” If someone says “bikeshed,” they’ve said all they need to say (or at least all they think they need to say, and certainly all they’re planning to say) to establish that what you have been talking about is trivial and not worth discussing.
Saying “bikeshed” to someone, instead of telling that person outright that you find his or her statements trivial and worthless, is not only needlessly indirect but, in most cases I’ve seen, wrong.
The original bikeshed concept, as I understand it (which is from second-hand accounts, so I could be wrong), had to do with the phenomenon of committees spending more time arguing over what color to paint the company bikeshed, than over the allocation of funds to build a nuclear power plant.
The problem with the typical usage of “bikeshed” today is that there’s no nuclear power plant in the picture. It’s more likely to be a bunch of people on an email list discussing the best name for a proposed new method in Ruby, or something like that. Then someone who feels superior to the discussion (which would exclude the creator of Ruby, as well as many of his colleagues, associates, and friends) comes along and says “Bikeshed.”
But if we weren’t talking about method names, we’d be talking about literal constructors for runtime objects. And if not that, then perhaps the question of whether parentheses around parameter lists in method definitions should be mandatory. All of these things are important to people interested in the Ruby programming language; but, with respect, I will state unequivocally that none of them is as important an issue as nuclear power.
Furthermore, saying “bikeshed” implies
that you think the group you’re addressing not only is wasting its time on the
current topic, but has a history of spending too
Thus slide words. I’m glad there’s a name for them, even though it’s puzzling that the only person who seems to have heard the name is that guy at Harrah’s.
September 4th, 2007
I love reading Wikipedia, and I’ve learned a lot from doing so. I’m not, in other words, rabidly anti-Wikipedia. But I do have a few serious concerns about it.
It seems to me that Wikipedia is, in effect whether or not in intent, pushing the Web in exactly the direction it isn’t best suited for: namely, centralization of information. Mailing list posts and IRC channels are full of links to Wikipedia articles, on everything from… well, on lots of things. It seems that the standard way of saying, “If you’re not familiar with the term I just used, here’s how to learn about it” is to provide a Wikipedia link.
I strongly suspect that this is automatic on the part of the people doing it—automatic, that is, rather than based on a thorough search of all the resources available on a given topic and a reasoned decision about which is best-written and/or most informative. That’s the thing: Wikipedia provides something close to one-stop shopping. You’ll find something on almost anything.
Furthermore, Wikipedia itself seems to buy into and cultivate the image of itself as a centralized, objective source of information about everything. One symptom of this is the fact that links within Wikipedia articles are always, or very nearly always, links to other Wikipedia articles. In spite of how open it is, in terms of contributions, it’s ultimately a closed system.
Yes, external sources are indicated at the bottom of articles. But the providing of sources, while important in terms of academic honesty and paper-trailing, never stopped scholarly publications from taking something very close to a “voice of God” position with regard to their subject matter. And it doesn’t stop Wikipedia from doing the same thing. How often have you bothered to go look up all the books and articles listed at the bottom of a Wikipedia article, and carefully analyzed how the information was gleaned and pieced together?
The editorial emphasis on balance and completeness and objectivity is another troubling sign. What’s wrong with balance? What’s wrong with it is that it’s a mirage. Any undergraduate who’s taken a reasonably decent mass communication course knows that what the news media call “balance” is simply an editorial or presentational style. And it requires constant reinforcement. “We report; you decide,” says Fox. “We’ll give you the world,” says at least one radio station (or conglomerate, probably, at this point). The idea is that the discouse provides a perfect substitute for the reality, so you can consider yourself to have been served the reality when you consume the discourse.
Wikipedia operates, I believe, in exponentially greater faith than the news media. But the philosophy of representation is the same, and it’s very old-school. An article is a simulacrum of a discrete, finite reality, and an article’s suitability for publication can be measured by how closely it has cloned that reality. While there’s often room for improvement, every article has the noble goal of achieving a perfect fit with its subject matter, and the potential to do so.
The fact, however, is that it’s not in the nature of written discourse to be a perfect fit with some arbitrary slice of reality. It doesn’t work that way. There’s no shame in acknowledging this, but Wikipedia battles against it.
What troubles me is not just that it’s child’s play to debunk the “voice of God” philosophy of discourse, but that I’d thought the Web was doing a pretty good job teaching people that reality and discourse actually map to each other sloppily, crazily, contradictorily, and ironically. Measured both by its editorial policies and by its wide, eager adoption as a centralized authority, Wikipedia unfortunately pushes against this more intriguing and, I would argue, more balanced take on things.