Author Archives: vihart

Social Media Systems and Democracy

There’s an article I’ve been meaning to write for 4 years. Every time I read another headline about fake news or social media and democracy, I once again say to myself “I’ve really got to write that thing I’ve been meaning to write!”

I hinted at it in a post about Google+ and the new YouTube comment system in 2013:

Now even discussion is curated by Google, rewarding those who talk often, and promoting hateful inflammatory comments because they provoke responses. Taking all the collected data and computational power of Google and using it to optimally encourage people to watch advertisements and argue with each other is, in this author’s opinion, brazenly unethical…

There’s a lot more to say about how this is part of a bigger picture involving various related companies and industries, but I think I’ll stick to the comments integration thing this time.

And then there’s this bit about YouTube comment curation from a post in 2015:

When I post a video, I create a space. And I choose what to fill it with. I could pretend to myself that I’m just letting it fill itself, letting people decide and express their own thoughts that I am not responsible for, but I know too much to fool myself like that.

When you let a space fill itself, it fills itself with whatever’s the fastest material. Ignorance is fast. Hate is fast. It takes a lot of practice to be fast at love and tolerance, so while there are those who are fast at it, there’s not enough of them. It also takes time and practice to get fast at cultural norms, but everyone gets that practice and becomes an expert, whether they realize it or not. People can judge what’s outside those norms really really quickly.

I created that comment section, and I’m the only one who can curate it. There’s no such thing as impartiality, only avoidance of responsibility and capitulation to those who are quickest to judge and spend the most time judging. The internet is not a 1-person-1-vote democracy. The only responsible choice is to either mute selectively, or mute everyone. Given the time it takes to curate comments, removing comment sections altogether is often the only choice.

Sometime I’ll make a longer deeper post about the systems involved in this sort of stuff.

Well, dear reader, I’d like to say that now I’ve finally found the time to write out my thoughts on the matter, but I really don’t… all my time for the last three months has disappeared into trying to find funding for my work. But I wanted to at least get something out there, and so knowing that I’ve at least ranted on this topic personally to people, I searched my email to see if I could quote some more quotes, and found a draft from April 2015 that I’d entirely forgotten about.

Some of it would be very different if I wrote it today, though enough of it is on the mark that I really wish I’d posted it back then. I’ll leave it as it was, both because I still don’t have the time, and also because I think it’s good to remember how I thought about these things years ago, before Trump’s campaign, before evidence of Russian interference and bots (though I like to think that maybe if I’d done the research and thinking required to finish this post, it would have occurred to me that the fastest users with the most scripted responses point to bots as an inevitability).

So with that preamble, here’s an email draft titled “Social media systems” from April 2015.

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Today’s topic, in honor of my deciding to talk publicly on the internet about systems philosophy, is social media internet systems and how they relate to democracy. Comment systems, twitter, reddit, email, etc. We’ll talk about four types of easy responses and four types of feedback loops that work together to make sure your corner of the internet is addictive yet unsatisfying.

In the Vi Hart school of systems philosophy, it’s not about what’s good or bad, right or wrong. That is a job for moral philosophy. I care about what is inevitable. I care about understanding the consequences of the systems we create, so that we can’t claim ignorance when the inevitable happens.
So, first, to quote myself: “Rating, upvoting, sharing, commenting. A pale illusion of democracy where those who are quickest to judge get many more votes.”

There’s a sense in which the internet is quite democratic, possibly even more democratic than our current implementation of democracy in government (for viral content, money only goes so far). On the internet, content rises to the top if it wins the popular vote. But unlike modern implementations of democracy, you get as many votes as you have time to give, all day every day, and most of those votes are taken by web companies without asking. And unlike the popular vote in democracy, internet popularity votes do not imply endorsement.
Votes that come from gut reactions take less time than anything involving actual thought.

Gut reactions are very useful things and voting from gut reaction is not inherently good or bad. When we see a video of a cop killing an unarmed person I personally think it is good and right that we should, without hesitation, respond with a gut reaction of horror and injustice. Many people do, and so this kind of thing can spread on the internet quite virally, but because there are political connotations and you might want to fact check first or make sure the wording of your tweet is respectful and conveys the gravity of the situation, it takes longer to cast your internet vote for the importance of police killings than to internet vote on the color of a dress. If there were one election and one vote, the important issue would win. But on the internet, The Dress simply gets votes faster.

Meanwhile, complicated issues that are extremely important but subtle, issues that require hours of research before you even understand it well enough to want to vote on it, those things cannot compete. Economically speaking, shallow votes are significantly cheaper to make.

I think of fast gut-reaction votes as being in one of 4 categories, with the 4 being the combinatorics of controversial or not controversial, common experience or identity attack.

1. Common human experience: Votes that are easy because they’re completely uncontroversial and of little consequence. Examples include cats being adorable, puns being groan-worthy, and sunsets being pretty. Most people agree, and even if you disagree, you don’t really care, so anyone can feel safe participating on the internet in the delight of adorable kittens without fear of backlash.

2. Common mass media experience: controversial but unimportant arguments over media that many people are assumed to be familiar with. Which house is better, gryffindor or slytherin, stark or lannister? Is the dress blue and black or white and gold? The opinions are strong and discussion is fierce, with each camp having its stock set of answers. But everyone involved knows that it does not really matter; debate is easy and by-the-script without the barrier of caring. It is understood that when someone argues against your camp, it is not a personal attack.

3. Common criticism: Examples include shallow visual judgements and stereotyping. There is a common cultural script for stereotypes and so these judgements can be expressed immediately and automatically. They are faster than less-shallow responses. Criticism is asymmetric and uncontroversial in that, rather than there being an opposing party with an opposing criticism, there are only those who criticize and those who find it irrelevant or in bad taste. Also in this uncontroversial-but-critical category, I put criticisms of inaction. If you want to criticize someone, it is always possible and always easy to think of something they didn’t do or didn’t say, and then criticize them for not doing that thing. It borrows the form of a thoughtful calling out of a glaring omission, but it takes no effort and contains no content.

The criticism itself is not controversial, but the making of it often is, which can spiral into easy gut reaction type four:
4. True controversy on party lines. Votes that are easy because they follow party lines. Similar to the above, but symmetric. There’s a template, made by someone else, that you can follow, of how things should be and how to respond. There is more than one template, and so whenever two people with different templates collide, they each follow their template, instantly, and the debate carries on. This is differentiated from true intellectual debate because this is the case where response and internet-votes is easy and instant; whoever stops to think gets outvoted by those following the script written by their in-group. In order for thoughtful responses to win over instant reaction, thoughtful responders need to exist in numbers significantly greater than those following the scripts.

It is possible to think long and hard about how you personally want to react to certain types of things, and then, having made the decision, react that way very quickly. But the internets ability to amplifying quick reactions works best when an entire group is all following the same template.

These four kinds of judgements are really easy to make and can drown out all other discussion if your system lets them.

type 1: Is the cat adorable? Yes. Is this other cat cute too? Yah, or maybe you hate cats and that’s easy too. Very few people need to agonize for hours in order to decide whether a cat is cute; the decision is visual, shallow, and of very little consequence. Whether you intend to vote on cute things or not, there are certain internet systems where every time you engage in a shallow visual act you are leaking votes; and thus trivial easy-to-judge pictures with no personal judgement are doomed to overrun any social media outlet that counts those votes.

Twitter likes Common experience tweets. Common experience votes can be given without context; twitter’s lack of organizational capabilities, the sheer volume of disconnected snippets, means that in order for a tweet to be self-contained it must rely on common context. Twitter originally was text based, no automatically integrated video and pictures, so originally short text jokes became prevalent. Puns are perfect because they are short inside jokes common to the speakers of an entire language.

2:

specialty sites with the context for the argument. Reddit, or a subreddit, will let you argue about game of thrones. The comments of an article about a subject will let people enjoy arguing about the trivialities of it.

3:
vine and stereotypes
4: twitter politics. politics. evolution, abortion, vaccines, feminism.

If the goal of a web company is to maximize engagement, they must encourage engagement that is easy and cheap to produce. They must create and share content that is economical in that it solicits comments written with the ease of cultural scripts.

So where are these scripts created?

1. Reactions considered and tested on the internet

Reactions scripted by experience making angry, stereotypical, or hateful comments on the internet often miss their mark when attempted in their unamplified real-world form. There’s something to think about if you’re relying on internet systems to make your voice stronger than it is in the real world, if you feel safer expressing your opinions publicly on the internet than saying them to anyone you know in real life.

2. Reactions considered and tested in the real world, then brought to the internet

In contrast, reactions created out of slow real-world thoughts and personal experiences often do better in the real world than on the internet. In many cases they can be brought to the internet to in turn help amplify real world actions. Twitter has had a large role in organizing marches for social justice and climate change and organizing disaster relief. The reaction on twitter is fast because the script was decided by previous understanding gained in the real world, that can be brought back to the real world.

Now the feedback loops come into play. Almost every action you take on the web is recorded and used to shape the actions future users are directed to take, which is a recipe for feedback loops.

1: the keep-voting feedback loop

Crowd-sourced popularity guarantees the promotion of content that generates user actions, not real life actions; the internet thing that inspires you to get up and do something means only that you are no longer internet voting.

Many internet comment systems are optimized for engagement. It’s nearly inevitable that any company that is winning at capitalism cares less about whether you like their product and more about whether you use it.

Imagine an image search engine where every time you enter a search term, it searches for images near those keywords, and then gives preference to images that previous users clicked on. Every time you click on a search result, that is a vote for what that search term should give to future searchers. You might imagine that this helps them give users relevant results, as crowdsourced by other users.
Say I do a search for, let’s say, a conference, to get a general feel for what it looks like. There’s various logos and graphics for it, and a picture of someone in an amazing cosplay outfit. Which looks cool, so maybe I click on in. And then I go back and keep searching for just a regular photo of the conference. When I find that photo, I stop looking.
Of course, those who get distracted by every cosplayer and want to look at all the cosplay photos cast more votes. It’s up to the search engine to decide whether it’s good or bad that people searching for basically anything will see a page full of irrelevant sexy photos and clickbait; the point is not that it’s good or bad but that it’s not surprising when it happens and it’s not the fault of the users but of the system.

When I do an image search, don’t click on anything, and immediately leaves the search site, that is usually a sign of a successful search. When a web search results in a user immediately clicking a link to another site and never coming back, this is the sign of a successful search. But for google, for example, successful searches are not the product; the user searching is the product, sold to advertisers. It is important that you search, not that you find.

It’s a classic systems pitfall: you get what you optimize for, not what you pretend that thing represents. When you create a system to optimize for most user actions, it doesn’t matter whether you’re imagining user actions represent meaningful engagement. It’s hard to quantify and optimize for meaningful engagement, but a love for data-driven approaches doesn’t justify using a data-driven approach on the wrong data. It is better to use fallible human judgement and intuition on trying to solve the right problem than an algorithmic approach that is guaranteed to solve the wrong one. If you optimize for clicks, don’t be surprised if all you get is clicks.

For example, YouTube’s shift in the meaning of subscriptions. At some point, some manager or board member decided that increasing subscription numbers was an important goal for YouTube. A YouTuber with 10 million subscribers would look good for the economic health of the company. Successful megacreators make it appear as if investing in creating youtube content is a reasonable choice. And so it was no surprise when YouTube quickly reached the goal of having a youtuber with 10 million subscribers after making some optimizations. All they had to do was change what it meant to subscribe to someone, as well as automatically subscribe all new users to a list of heavily-subscribed youtubers in an opt-out system. The system prefers ten million people shallowly engaging with one shallow content creator than to have those same ten million divided up among a thousand niche creators that they feel a meaningful connection to. YouTube will reap all the short term benefits and face all the long term hazards of cultivating a monoculture.

In theory when you want to work but feel uninspired, browsing the web should lead you to a great many wonderful things that really make you want to create something. But if you are browsing in a part of the web that promotes things using internet votes, you are all but guaranteed to only find things that elicit a quick easy user action and then leave the user unsatisfied and looking for more. In practice, inspiring and satisfying pieces of content are dead ends for user actions. Thoughtful pieces of content that take twenty minutes to read get one vote in the time it takes for pretty pictures and amusing memes to get dozens.

Reddit is probably the epitome of this because it’s always been explicitly internet-vote-based. Facebook and YouTube used to show you only individuals you subscribe to and everything you subscribe to, but have since decided to filter your content based on “algorithms”; so they now have all the symptoms of systems run by internet-votes and are fully optimized time-sucks.

For companies that run on advertising, this is the economical choice in the short term, though as internet ads become worth less it might not be enough. For a web company that provides a valuable service to its users, it is possible to turn those users into paying customers. But for web companies with enough popularity and momentum that they transitioned into providing a service to advertisers, where the users are the product being sold, well, if web advertising continues its current trend it will be interesting to see these companies trying to turn their own product into their own customers. Google and YouTube’s latest attempt at a subscription fee, for example, would have made sense a few years ago, but seems very strange indeed given their recent change in direction.

Twitter, in contrast, shows you only and every tweet from people you’re subscribed to (plus clearly-differentiated advertisement tweets). It is still an internet-vote system that disproportionately favors trivial content, but showing all tweets avoids the worst of this feedback loops. It is no wonder that many people find twitter to be a more functional news source than legacy news media.

Which brings us to:

2: the filter bubble feedback loop

You may have heard of this before [talked about here]; basically the content you give positive internet votes to is content you agree with, which leads to your being surrounded by content you agree with. This can be pleasant for the user, but it also can sustain harmful communities by making members of them feel normal. Anti-vaxxers, antifeminists, and climate change deniers, are mostly not particularly terrible or stupid people, they just are bubbled into communities where reality is unwanted and so social media algorithms make sure reality doesn’t have the chance to get in.

Again, we’re not doing moral philosophy, we’re understanding the systems that enable certain things.

The communities that survive best in their isolated bubbles are those that develop scripts for how to respond to conflicting opinions; these automated defense reactions mean you can out-respond anyone who considers their words in real time.

3: the voter influence feedback loop

Easy-to-make decisions happen faster, so people see those first. When voting is asynchronous and public, the fastest reaction gets disproportionate influence on future voter behavior. The fastest reaction is also not usually a very well-thought-out one. (also see stack exchange’s fastest gun in the west problem).

Pure statistics says occasionally things will quickly gain enough positive votes, out of pure chance, to rise to the top of promoted content areas, where they are more visible and can gain more momentum.

4: the creator motivation feedback loop

If a creator is motivated by gaining ever higher numbers, then that creator must make large quantities of content that appeals to ever higher numbers of people. If a creator is motivated by positive reactions but demotivated by negative reactions, inoffensive culturally-normal content wins. Most creators can handle the occasional negative comment, but pretty much everyone has some threshhold where if they get that amount of negative or hateful feedback they will not continue putting content in that space. It is easier to reach that threshold if the internet space you’re in harbors a culture that makes easy stereotypical judgments about your race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. And if you’re a creator who finds a barrage of trivial comments demotivating, whether critical or not, it’s difficult to find anywhere on the internet that seems worth existing in.

Personally, I consider businesses responsible for the inevitable results of the systems they create and I’d like to see more systems-creators taking responsibility for the results of their systems, though in my experience businesses prefer to cite their good intentions and when the inevitable happens they pass off the blame to their users.

Sometimes these scripts develop organically, sometimes they are explicitly made for this purpose. Last year’s “gamer gate” thing is of interest because the creation of the scripts is documented. It’s a case of a tiny insular community explicitly strategizing about how to overwhelm the internet by outlining standard responses and scripts for behavior. This strategy was extremely successful for a short period of time. When no one understood what gamergate was or how to respond, it was easy for a tiny group to overwhelm conversations. Members had so successfully filterbubbled themselves that many truly believed their grievances were legitimate and that the game industry, even mainstream media, would sympathize with them. But their strategy was successful enough that the filter bubble popped; the outside world realized ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away and finally took the time to respond. Gamer gate was confronted with reality for the first time and many previous gamergaters quickly disassociated themselves from the group, while the most invested went back to their bubble.

Gamergate’s mistake was trying to effect real world change, when their existence was only supported by internet systems. Scripted responses and instant outrage are amplified by internet structures, but real world actions are not. Internet groups that rally around making instant anti-social-justice reactions without aspiring to real world action can do a much better job at surviving with the helping hand of the many social media systems that amplify them.

Now democracy. Voter turnout is terribly low, and everyone complains their vote doesn’t matter. And yet, people mostly vote in the big elections where their vote matters least, rather than the small local elections and primaries where their vote is extremely valuable. But no one knows their local officials, and learning enough to be firm in your vote is hard! A simple democrat/republican party line vote, once every four years, is ever so much easier. Not only can you easily choose a side, but you can easily defend it, by following the party script.

Often in democracy, people feel they are not voting for their candidate, but against the other one. I worry about the extent to which this might, beyond being true, actually be the opposite case: that people are voting for the opposite candidate. Not in the election, but for the election. For example, most republicans are just as reasonable as most democrats, and yet the republican leaders are often complete caricatures that the party only backs out of loyalty and lack of other options (and vice versa). It is fascinating to me, this process by which a party ends up with leaders that party members actively dislike. I think it is probably the case that democrats, wallowing in easy votes against the most ridiculous republicans and following the script for judgements against those easiest to judge, make those candidates extremely popular. Republicans are left defending and further popularizing these targeted caricatures, and while many would like to vote for better candidates, voting for lesser-known candidates is slow and hard and diffused.

In a system where we imagine each other as monsters, it’s no surprise when we get monsters.

Vi Hart

You can support my work here: patreon.com/vihart

Totality

On August 21st, 2017, millions travelled from around the world to form new cities in fields, in parks, on mountaintops and on beaches, each individual leaving their lives behind for a day or a week, spending tens or thousands, hiking, driving, biking, flying, to a thin strip of time and space where for one or two minutes they might experience something.

The eclipse is of academic interest, of course. It is an observation. It is a triumph in the history of science and mathematics, demonstrating the practical applications of predictive power. Imagine not knowing this was going to happen, imagine before we could predict this, I’ve overheard my fellow pilgrims say. And yet, even knowing, even having pictures and descriptions and all the data, nothing can really prepare you, they say.

To see it alone, or in a crowd? My natural instinct would be to hide as far as possible from humanity and experience it by myself in an isolated place, to not have that experience sullied by the influence of greater humanity. Which is exactly why I chose to accept an invitation to a festival, and see it with 500 others. I’d heard eclipses are best in a crowd, with the same sort of crowd consciousness that creates emotion and excitement at a sporting event, and this is a feeling I’ve been trying to explore and understand. So I accepted the invitation to give a talk and workshop at the Atlas Obscura Total Eclipse event in Oregon. A day of lectures and events would precede the eclipse, with scientists and photographers and science and telescopes and math and excitement.

In the weeks preceding the event, I was too busy to do the eclipse research I’d intended. I was scrambling around frantically trying to save my research group, exhausting my network of any possible connections to funders and foundations. When the weekend before the eclipse arrived, I doubted I had time to go at all… I’d just gotten back from the east coast and was more burnt out than ever. If I hadn’t committed to giving workshops at the event, I probably would have skipped it. But surely after all the stress of the weeks before, I could take two entire minutes for myself? And maybe those two minutes, in this experience that’s supposed to be unlike anything I’ve experienced before, maybe it would give me a new perspective. Maybe I’d think of something I hadn’t before. Maybe the answer to all our funding woes was right in front of me all along, and only by the light of a total solar eclipse could I see it.

The festival itself was a pretty cool event, with scientists and telescopes and talks and friendly humans. With all the running around preparing and giving workshops and trying to find food and be in the right place at the right time, I didn’t really get to relax and enjoy it until the morning of the eclipse. Having acquired caffeine and a lounge chair, I settled in not long before the eclipse began, trying out my eclipse glasses for the first time. The sun was yellow and round.

Perhaps if this weren’t the first excuse I’d had all weekend, all week, all month, to settle down and lie in the sun for a bit, I would’ve been less eager to watch the eclipse from the beginning. Certainly very few others at the festival were interested in this part. Looking at the group as a whole, you wouldn’t think anything special were happening. But I wanted to see it begin, not just come in at the climax.

I’m not sure whether I expected it to start with a cookie cutter bite being taken out of the sun, but the way it started was that first the sun looked very yellow and very round, and then it started looking not quite so very round, in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on for a few moments, until the un-roundyness started to have a particular place, as if the sun were a little bit flattened somewhere on the upper right. It made me wonder, without the predictive power of science, at what point would you look at the sun and say “yes, this is an eclipse happening”? If this were only a very slight partial eclipse, would I second guess myself and by the time I rubbed my eyes and looked again it would be over as if it had never happened? I like to catch these liminal moments when they come.

Eventually the eclipse started to look like an eclipse, and I alternated between looking at the sun as if a piece were taken out, and looking at it as if it were blocked by a big round moon, and looking at it as if it were something else altogether. I looked at it as the sun chasing the moon and slowly overtaking it, I looked at it as a deflating balloon. For a bit it looked like the head of a cat or a fox, with two pointy ears. I looked at it as if it were not an eclipse at all, because without the glasses the sun remained its usual too-bright-to-look-at self. I knew the others at the festival knew it was happening, but it was easy to imagine they didn’t, that no one on earth did, that it could come and go unseen like so many mysteries.

I looked at it from the perspective of the sun, losing sight of the earth. And from the moon, accidentally rolling between the sun and earth. “Oops, sorry earth. Didn’t mean to block your light.” Like walking down the sidewalk and suddenly realizing you’re between a group of tourists and their photographer. Now everyone’s staring at you, moon. Usually no one would be so gauche as to stare at your dark side, but you just had to get in our way. Not your fault, you’re just trying to move along on your usual commute, we’re the ones in the way.

The first sign of the eclipse that didn’t come in the form of a yellow smudge through dark glasses was that I started to feel cold. I suppose that if the eclipse weren’t in the morning, dampening the heat of the rising sun, I might have noticed it earlier. I expected it to get progressively darker, but that’s not what happened. First came the cold.

Even as the sun approached a sliver, mere minutes before totality, the sun remained too bright to look at, the day looked perfectly sunny, and if it felt a bit cold and the shadows were a bit sharp, who could say why? Without the glasses and the foreknowledge, who could say anything definitive about that moment? It was easy to imagine people not knowing about a partial eclipse, telling each other: I felt such a strange chill this morning, there was this feeling in the air, a sharpness to the world. How strange, me too, me too.

Now I know why we cover this event with science. No matter how intellectualized, it’s impossible to guard against the supernatural pull.

As the sky began to dim, in those final minutes before totality, everyone was watching. The sun was a sliver of a crescent, and then the edges started to pull in. A few people started to cheer, and then more, as that sliver shrunk down to a dot. We egged it on. Come on, eclipse! Almost there! Yes! Yes, we did it! Eclipse achieved!

I cheered with the others, and laughed, as that last dot of sun disappeared. I’d expected the eclipse to look like something at that point, a corona around the sun, a dim circle, but through the glasses I saw nothing. Ah well. I took off the glasses to look around me at the dimmed landscape, smile at the people around me, see the sunset sky in all directions. Kinda cool, I guess, but is it really worth all the hype and trouble?

If there was one thing I’d learned about eclipses, it’s that you’re not supposed to look at them with the naked eye. I’d just assumed this applied to the total eclipse during totality as well, so it wasn’t my intention to look at it. But then I did. And then I could not stop staring at it.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but this wasn’t it. I’d seen photos of coronas around suns, but this wasn’t that. And I’d expected that those photos, like many astronomical pictures, are long exposure, other wavelengths, and otherwise capturing things the naked eye can’t see. I thought there might be a glow of light in a circle, or nothing, or, I don’t know. What I did not expect was an unholy horror sucking the life and light and warmth out of the universe with long reaching arms, that what I’d seen in pictures was not an exaggeration but a failure to capture the extent of this thing that human eyes, and not cameras, are uniquely suited to absorb the horror of.

I protest the idea that the sun, or the moon, or the hole in the universe where the sun was ripped away from us, was black. It was not black. It was a new color, perceivable to the human eye only in certain conditions. I’ve read the literature on color perception and color philosophy. I’ve got the ontological chops. I feel qualified to make this statement, that this thing in the sky was not black. I could understand why people would describe it as black, just as without a word for red you might describe blood as black. But it wasn’t, and so no photograph could possibly capture what it’s like, and no screen can yet display it. 

In a photograph, the eclipse is black, and it simply isn’t black in real life. In a photograph, the sky around the corona is black too, which is fine because the sky actually is black, but no photograph captures how the black is finally seen to be as rich and beautiful and colorful as we should have appreciated it to be all along but we’ve lost our chance because its every fiber is compromised, the corona is a howling spider sucking the life out of the darkness and into this godawful thing that shows us what nothingness looks like.

I know, intellectually, it’s not a hole or an emptiness. It’s the moon, now revealed to be this unholy unfeeling collection of matter hung precariously above our beloved planet by an invisible string. It is heavy, heavy, heavy in the darkness. 

The moon will never be the same; its dark side cannot be unseen. Gone is the being of pure light flying gently across the heavens. It is a corpse, a dead thing, the dusty remains of old Theia horrifically attached to its sister planet by a withering gravitational umbilical cord.

Color experience is about more than just wavelength or brightness, it is a thing dependent on human physiology. We’re highly evolved to experience different colors based on context, or see the same objects as fundamentally the same colors whether lit by a red dawn or noonday sun. And I tell you, next to the blackness of the sky, in an entire world with the wrong light, the eclipse was not black but some other color that screamed evil.

When the sun came back, when that unnaturally asymmetric corona slithered back out of our universe, when the blue sky started creeping back over the dark side of the moon to cover up what no one was meant to see, everyone cheered. Live music began. We danced and sang as the shadows started to grow soft again. After a few songs official events were over, and after several conversations with other event goers the sun was halfway back to normal. At this point I peeled away from the crowd, grabbed a couple beers, and lay back to enjoy watching that awful shadow leave and allow us our sun back. It was warm again. 

Watching the eclipse end over an hour after totality was my favourite part, the best part. Everything was becoming right again, all on its own. I watched as the sun became whole. Round and yellow with soft round shadows.

In those final moments, I felt a happy anticipation. There was no longer a bite taken out of the sun, and then it was kind of roundy with a dent, and then pretty roundy, and then very very round and yellow. I clapped and cheered to see the sun come back to normal. Only a couple others took note. Behind me, most of our little city had already disappeared. Around me, the staff were swiftly clearing away the infrastructure to return this two-minute city to an empty cow pasture. I put the glasses back on and enjoyed my 2nd beer while watching the beautiful yellow round sun above me.

When I looked around again, out of 500 eclipse-goers, there was just one lonely tent left in the field standing apart from the rows of identical staff tents. One tent, and one car in the parking lot.

I put the glasses back on and cracked open another bottle.

Vi Hart

You can support my work here: patreon.com/vihart

Never Forget

Last year I posted a short piece on 9/11, buried near the bottom after several other topics. I was hiding it down there on purpose—the emotions are still raw after all these years, despite how little my life was affected compared to many others. But I’m going to re-post, this time with feelings front and center, and with an introduction and afterword.

I moved from NY to SF 6 years ago, and occasionally in those 6 years a conversation will turn to the topic of 911. These are not turns of conversation I participate in; these are conversations that I silently endure with the feeling of “these people don’t know what the hell they’re talking about and I’m going to wait for them to shut up about it”.

I wrote the following as a response to the classic question I’ve heard and overheard many conversations about: “where were you when you heard?” Asked so innocently and discussed so innocently by people far from events, sometimes in conversations including people too young to remember at all. In a way, 911 was a moment that changed everything for the United States. But for many of us, it was not a moment. We didn’t just hear about it. We felt it, and we felt it slowly, and painfully, throughout an extraordinarily long day, and the days after, and we still feel it now.

I still feel it now. But I tend to shut up about it, and not just because I don’t like talking about my feelings. I know that, just as I instinctively feel alienated by west coasters’ real and honest feelings about seeing it on the news, there’s those closer to events who don’t want to hear about it from me. Who am I to have an opinion, hearing about it and smelling it and seeing the smoke from my comfy position on Long Island, having only ever visited the towers as a tourist, not personally knowing anyone who didn’t make it out? I know people closer to events, and they don’t want to talk about it any more than I do.

But I want to talk about it just a little, because these things change us, and through us, they change policy and government and the world.

The bulk of my family lives in North Carolina, and so while I was in the state, last night we had dinner together. Given the date, we got to remembering 9/11. Where we were when we heard, what our day was like, and of course, the family stories, which are not mine to tell.

As I was telling my own recollections of the day, which I haven’t thought about in many years, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in technology and communication between then and now. I was in school, and this was back when kids generally didn’t have cell phones, much less smart phones, much less laptops. Most classrooms didn’t have a computer, much less an internet-equipped computer. There was a loudspeaker announcement that told us about the plane crashing into the tower, and that announcement didn’t tell us why or how big the plane was or how bad the crash was and we were left to speculate, with no other way of gathering information, while the teachers were hearing the same thing we were, expected to go about the day as usual.

Oh, I should mention: this is in New York. I grew up in New York, and almost all my family lived there at the time. We have family and family friends who were in and around those towers. But by the sound of the initial announcement, it wasn’t serious, it was probably a small plane that accidentally crashed because of an instrument failure or something. So if I were to tell you where I was when I heard the news, well, I heard the news for the first time slowly, in many places, across the day, with increasing horror. I heard the news without twitter (which didn’t exist) or YouTube (which didn’t exist), I heard it without an iphone (which didn’t exist) or facebook (which didn’t exist). I heard it in bits and rumors, it was forbidden knowledge, the teachers weren’t supposed to be telling us any news, and generally the administration was trying to get the school through the day.

But our 2nd period teacher turned on the radio (a radio, an honest-to-goodness radio!) and we sat listening quietly all period. I was listening when the first tower went down, and when the second tower went down, and those of us who cried did our best to cry quietly, and then the bell rang and we went to the next classroom and tried to pretend everything was ok so that our rule-breaking teacher wouldn’t get in trouble for not keeping us in the dark.

As the day went on, in rumors and speculations not unlike twitter today, we tried to sort out what was real. The pentagon was attacked? Really? Surely that’s something a younger student made up?

It was a long school day. It ended. I went out to the pay phone and called home and finally learned that everyone was, whether by accident or skill, alive. And then at home we sat by the tv and watched the news, the same footage over and over and over and over

I learned not to obsess like that over horrific news footage ever again.

Today I’m coming home from visiting my family. I wrote this on my flight back to the west coast, and we’ll be descending back into SFO soon. In the last airport, eating a sandwich before my connecting flight, I looked up and was shocked by the sight of the footage on the tv, the smoke billowing from the tower, the clear blue sky in the background. It hit me with a visceral force.

I remember smelling that smoke for a long time after. Our perfect blue skies never quite returned.

I left a lot out of that story, but I’ll add just a couple things:

On September 11th 2001, after school on my way to the pay phone, I overheard a younger student telling his friend: “I don’t get why everyone’s making such a big deal out of this. It happened all the way in the city.”

I continued on towards the pay phone, silently judging him for not thinking about the fact that we were within commuting distance, that many of us had friends and family in those towers, that some of us were heading to the pay phone so we could find out if they were still alive, and that some of us might find out they weren’t. He didn’t know one of his classmates lost a parent.

At the time I felt superior to that student because I was taking it very seriously, but I was almost as ignorant. I was thinking about immediate loss of life, and while I did not myself feel any fear, I couldn’t miss the fact that there was an organized group of people who would see me and everyone I love dead whether we live in the city or not, and it was only the inconvenience of committing mass murder in the suburbs that made us not a likely target. But I wasn’t thinking at all about the political impact. I wasn’t thinking about war. I wouldn’t have predicted that people across the country would also think New York City wasn’t all that far away, or that I’d be crying in the bathroom of an airport 15 years later.

I also couldn’t have prepared for what I would see on the news later that day when I got home, what I would watch over and over and over until I was unable to watch it ever again.

I did cry in the airport bathroom last year. After I looked up from my sandwich and saw that footage on the tv, I hid in the bathroom and cried. I held in tears as I packed up my sandwich and grabbed my bags, aware of the irony that I had to work to hold in tears for extra long because of the bags that before 9/11 I could have just left at my spot at the sandwich counter. I felt betrayed by whoever had the bright idea of playing that footage on the news, on tv, in a sandwich shop, in an airport, on 9/11. Why do they think anyone would want to see that? Did they not think anyone from New York would be here?

A year ago I would have never written that, never “admitted” that I cried in an airport bathroom stall because a picture hurt me. But it punched me right in a place I don’t know how to name, and sometimes when we don’t know how to name something we pretend it’s not real or that it doesn’t matter.

I’d avoided those images for years because they hurt, and when I saw it again it brought me right back, and I was already tired and stressed from weeks of travel, and I was going to cry, and I wasn’t going to do it in public where a well-meaning stranger would ask if I was ok, and then I would say that I’m from New York and seeing the footage upsets me, and they would be perfectly understanding, and then they would try to be nice to me, and it’d be a whole big deal or whatever, and of course it’s not a big deal, not for me really, just as so many other things are not big deals and so we don’t talk about them because then other people might act like it’s a big deal and then want to know why we’re making such a big deal out of something that’s not a big deal, as if we big dealed it by letting the fact of its existence escape from the realm of unacknowledged truths.

And I wouldn’t have written it on the internet a year ago, because I’m not interested in random stranger’s sympathy, or trolling, or armchair diagnoses. But, y’know. I’m trying to get better at practicing what I preach when it comes to feelings being ok to talk about, and that just ’cause you talk about something doesn’t mean you’re trying to make it a big deal, and if someone makes a big deal of it that’s on them, and that the reason we mark the day is so that we can safely small-deal them within appropriate parameters, and tomorrow no one will care how I feel about 9/11.

I said I wasn’t going to tell stories that are not mine to tell. I’d like, at least, to end this by saying my friends and family came out unscathed, but it’s not really true. Survivor’s guilt is a hell of a thing. Just as the dust works its way deep into lung tissue and slowly grows into a cancer that claims victims years later, the emotional damage is a wound that bleeds and bleeds, that left untreated can grow, become infected, can twist into other forms, can claim victims years later.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 did a far better job injuring us than anyone could have predicted. We talk about fear and anger and sadness, but none of those feel like the right words to me. To me it feels like an injury, mostly healed, and if I walk on it just the wrong way maybe I feel the pain for a moment, maybe suddenly and strongly enough to make me cry for a minute or two, not out of sadness or anger or fear but just because it hurts. I’d only describe it as an emotion because I can’t point to a place in my body where the injury is.

I don’t agree with everything the US government has done following the attacks, but I suppose I’m writing this partly to address a certain cynicism I sometimes see in response to 9/11 remembrances, and even to the phrase “never forget”, as if it were all about pushing political agendas and acting “patriotically correct”.

When I say “never forget”, this is not a statement of will, not a command or a purpose or a political vote. When I hear “never forget”, when I hear it from politicians or see it posted by random strangers, I don’t hear a statement of purpose, egging us on to seek revenge for the secret benefit of greedy motivations. To me, it’s an expression of this thing inside me that has no better name. I will never forget. I couldn’t if I wanted to. And I find it comforting that we have at least some expression of this particular wound that so many share.

Never forget.

I wish we had better words, better actions. I wish I were more comfortable talking about my feelings. I wish I was one of the students who cried in front of the whole class when we heard the live radio coverage, when we heard the first tower go down, and then, unbelievably, unthinkably, the 2nd. I wish I was properly grim when I heard President Obama announce they killed the fucker who did this to us. I was happy. I cheered. I’m glad he’s dead, no matter how little it solves, no matter what my brain thinks about the whole thing.

Never forget.

I understand that many experience today’s 9/11 remembrances as a politicized thing that reminds them only of the worst of what became politically possible in this country following those events. That makes a good deal of sense, and I’m angry about those things too. But cynicism is easy and impresses no one. The fastest way to make a fool of yourself is by mocking someone else’s words because you don’t understand them.

Never forget, never forget, never forget.

Pi Day 2017: Venn Piagrams

Well, it’s 3/14/2017, time for the 7th annual Vi Hart Pi Day video:

This came after months of kinda obsessing over diagrams and Venn diagrams in particular. It started with reading Lakoff and Johnson’s “Philosophy in the Flesh” and deciding to try making embodied container schema of various sorts in virtual space:

During the research for the writeup I did on that project, I read John Venn’s original 1880 paper, and was inspired to try some embodied Venn diagrams, eventually creating an entire Venn Diagram House:

The writeup on the Venn Diagram House has more on the motivation and takeaways from that. Relevant for this post is that after creating the ovenn with venn burners, it seemed obvious to put a venn pie in there. Making one for real didn’t seem too interesting until Pi day started looming near, and I do have a tradition to keep, so that’s how that happened.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 5.01.31 PM

But first, I continued making virtual Venn stuff, including an entire interactive Venn Diagram Museum of Geometry, Topology, and Algebra. When working on the geometry section, doing an exhibit on the Reuleaux triangle seemed obvious because they’re so much fun, and as long as I’m doing intersections might as well do a bit on the Vesica Piscis, so that was in my head when I started working on the Pi day video.

Here’s the writeup on the Venn Diagram Museum and a walkthrough video:

The above virtual projects are public in Anyland for Vive, if you’ve got one. And if you’re interested in other virtual projects like this or want updates on these projects when they happen, check out elevr.com.

Happy Pi Day!

Let Me Convince You To Take Action

On the virtue of good habits, rather than anger and dramatic causes, for sustaining democracy.

If you wait for big motivating problems before acting, you’ll be comparatively ineffective both because of waiting too long and your own lack of practice engaging with politics, which makes you susceptible to those who would prey on your anger and disappointment.

Transcript:

Great musicians spend years learning to play, great writers spend years learning to read and write and tell stories. We love the myth of immediate success out of nowhere but the truth is that stuff takes work, stuff takes practice, and anyone willing to put in the work can gain some level of accomplishment.

This is advice that I hope you’ve heard before, but it applies to more than just personal success.

There are forces in the world that would like you to believe you are powerless, that your actions don’t matter. That your votes, your donations, your calls, your protests, don’t matter. That truth doesn’t matter.  That you can trust no one, not even yourself, that all choices are equally bad, the system is broken, everyone is corrupt, you can’t change anything, there are forces in the world that are actively trying to manipulate you into giving up your power.

But you are powerful, it just might take a little bit more time and effort than you were hoping for. Let no one convince you that your opportunity to use your power comes only once every four years, and only if the right candidates are presented to you.

There are those who would love to force Trump voters, many of whom were reluctant to vote for him, to become Trump supporters, pushed to the extreme by their constantly having to defend their own choice and by extension Trump himself, even as they start to realize he’s not going to keep his promises to them. I know there are those who voted for Trump and are already acting on their concerns about him, because voting for someone doesn’t have to mean supporting everything they do until the next election. You can vote for a flawed candidate and then work on the flaws.

I know people whose support for Bernie Sanders was both their first real political action, and their last. There are forces who would convince you not just that his loss was unfair but that the answer to this unfairness is to withhold your participation, to somehow punish the system by standing idly by, watching and criticizing your own democracy for making mistakes it could have avoided with your help, could still avoid with your help. What do you think you’re left with when no one participates in a democracy?

Question the motives of those whose cynicism promotes only inaction, those whose moral posturing demands only inaction, those who would tell you the way towards positive change is to do nothing. Be wary of arguments with self-selected strangers who engage with you solely for the purpose of disagreeing with you and telling you to stop. There are plenty of good faith discussions to be had with those around you, your neighbors your friends your family your community, who you might disagree with on some things or have different knowledge and experience but you can find common ground and be accepting of each other’s humanity and work together. Spend your time with those people, not with those who would target you as an opponent to be beaten.

Remember there is such a thing as truth and reality. Remember that in the US we have the constitution, a foundational document that gives us common ground. It is not partisan to denounce unconstitutional actions. Everyone, including the electoral college, has plenty of good reason to reject Trump given his disregard for the constitution, his conflicts of interest and the conflicts of the people he’s choosing for his team, he never had strong Republican support, doesn’t have popular support, and is on track to be very destructive if people don’t step up and do more than just criticize each other.

By the way, the electoral college doesn’t vote until December 19th, and technically they can vote for whoever they want. And I mean anyone; a couple electors this year say they’re voting for Mitt Romney. Electors are chosen by the state’s winning party, and it’s possible that enough electors will stick to their morals and deny Trump a majority, in which case the vote would go to the house of representatives meaning your congressperson might be deciding this election. Maybe not, but there have been elections where entire states worth of electoral voters got together and voted for someone else. So there’s something you could practice engaging with politics about, whether it’s because you do want the electoral college to vote for someone else or don’t want them to or maybe you don’t like the idea of the electoral college altogether. If you don’t like the system, our system was built to be able to change itself, but only if you participate in it, and for those who work better under a deadline, it’s not so long before the December 19th electoral vote.

If you don’t think your actions can immediately cause the change you want, that’s fine, not all actions have immediate results, or obvious results. But participate anyway. Politicians can safely ignore those who don’t participate or who participate only once and then get discouraged. And if enough people don’t participate, they can ignore all of us, and that is how democracy fails. There are other powers in the world who would like to see us fail in exactly that way. But participating in politics gets easier with practice, and it’s something that everyone can learn how to do.

Step 1: Make a list. Paper, digital, whatever, give it a fancy title, this is the list that you can then populate with other actions you might like to take, and the goal is to do one or more of these actions… every Tuesday during lunch, for example, just for 5 or 10 minutes, during Action Time. It’s easy when it’s a habit, and if you can find a buddy to team up with for Action Time, that’s a good step 2.

The great thing about having a list and a time to act on it is that instead of constantly worrying about the state of the world or stressing over the news while you’re supposed to be doing other things, you can just put your worry on your list and get back to what you’re doing until action time.

Here’s some things on my list:

1. Call my Congresswoman to congratulate her on being elected House Minority Leader. I’ve called her before about other things but this is partly because it’s easy practice making congress calls and partly getting another call on the books so that congress knows that this citizen is paying attention. I will probably reach a very nice intern who will be happy to hear the support and to pass along my comments and if they have time I’ll ask them if there’s anything else that should be on my radar and they will be thrilled to tell me all about important political happenings that don’t reach tend to reach the headlines and we’ll both end the conversation happier and better informed.

2. Email my friends in Oklahoma and Texas and ask if they would make a call to their local politicians about women’s rights, this is on the list because I saw some scary stuff in the news that I wanna do more than just be mad about. 

3. Look up my local party headquarters and events, I’ve been meaning to check out what’s up around here and maybe there’s an event I’d be interested in, maybe not, I dunno.

4. Something about Education? I’m not sure what yet but I do tend to get dragged into education policy discussions and I’d like to help counter the damage DeVos could do to public education.

5. Call state governor and local politicians expressing a hope that our supermajority of Democrats will play nice with our state Republicans rather than getting infected by Trump drama partisanship.

6. Subscribe to a local news source. Because reading and supporting real journalism that answers to subscribers, not advertisers or clicks, is essential for holding politicians accountable, fighting corruption, and staying informed, and I’m not paying for anything local enough to care about my local politicians right now.

What else? If I lived in a Red state, I’d be calling my state’s Republican party to ask that our Republican electors vote for anyone but Trump. If I lived in Louisiana I’d be trying to get everyone around me involved in the current senate race. If I lived in the UK, I’d be making calls regarding the Brexit negotiations, if I lived in France or Germany or any other democracy I’d be paying attention and taking action while I still can. You can call with friends, letters are good too, you can gather a group and help each other, you can have a letter writing party, you can call on speakerphone with a friend who’s better at phone calls than you are, with practice it’s just as easy to complain to your representative as it is to complain to your friends on social media though you can keep doing that too as long as you’re not doing that exclusively.

It’s good to have a long list you can work on even just for five minutes a week, avoiding the drama and pressure of putting all your hopes in one giant push for one person, one big rallying cry for the most dramatic political thing ever. Changing the world doesn’t require stress and anger and all-encompasing negative emotions. It’s a skill that takes regular practice just like everything else in life so make a list, schedule in some Action Time, and relax. We got this.

If you’re in the US, find out who your representatives are here: http://www.whoismyrepresentative.com/

You can search their name to find out more about them and their positions, or you can just call them and ask!

Hank Green’s excellent video about how to write a letter to your representative, with examples and info in the description: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mp4h-3vQafk

There’s tons of videos on the internet of people calling their representatives, so you can get an idea of what it’s like.

Want to know more about the electoral college? Mickeleh’s video series on the electoral college has uncommon depth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zac-2V7CTs He argues against the idea that they should change their votes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2vV9xBOSmY

UK person? Rosianna on post-Brexit political participation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLxzv6HmyHk

The internet is full of information for wherever you are and whatever you care about. Also talk in person to friends, family, and people in your community, to learn what they know and help each other take action!

A Mathematician’s Perspective on the Divide

On election night 2016 I had flashbacks to the 2000 election, staying awake late into the evening glued to the television hoping that Florida would come through for, well, in 2000 I was a kid and a total Democrat just like my parents. And I remember how deeply unfair it felt when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election to George W. Bush.

Two things about that election stuck with me, that ended up transforming how I think about politics. The first was how close it was. Even back then I had a good enough intuition for statistics to know that if presidential elections consistently come up so close, within a few percentage points almost every time, that’s not random. The second strange thing was this whole idea of red states, blue states, and swing states. A lot of people focus on the swing states but what I found much more mathematically compelling is that there are red states and blue states. Why are there states that don’t change their mind?

The feelings from that election night followed me through the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars I didn’t want and all the way to the polls once I was 18, but in the mean time it was taken as a given in my entire liberal bubble that obviously Bush is stupid and Republicans are stupid and I went along with this way of thinking until those old questions started to dig at me. Why aren’t the Democrats, who are so obviously correct, winning by a huge margin? Why are there Red states at all? The standard answer in my circles seemed to be that, well, if Bush is stupid and Republicans vote for him it’s because they’re stupid, and if Republicans are stupid and half the country is Republican, then it must be that half the country is stupid, look at us the smartest teenagers ever, struggling to make our way through the land of the stupid.

The aura of logical language lends the voice of authority but it doesn’t make something true in real life. I learned that red states are red because they have more rural areas, and blue states are blue because they have bigger cities. I learned that whether you’re Democrat or Republican can be pretty accurately predicted by where you’re born, and no one chooses where to be born. I had to consider that if I were born in a different place with a different family I would be an uncompromising Republican who makes fun of stupid liberals and believes all the anti-liberal stereotypes, and I realized there’s also plenty of awful people who are Democrats just because of their circumstances.

I learned why elections are so close, that if one side leads by a lot, they can put fewer resources into campaigning, while the losing party shifts their platform to appeal to more voters, meaning that Democrats and Republicans are not two fundamentally different types of people with fundamentally different ideologies, but moving targets in a self-balancing system. I had to entertain the premise that maybe Republicans and Democrats are equally intelligent people doing the best they can with what they know, and as I got older and my world grew, I’ve met many very smart and wonderful Republicans who have led me to believe that, as usual, my younger self was too quick to judge.

That is the divide I want to heal. The divide that made my teenage self mock Republicans for their big gas-guzzling trucks while I enjoyed the invisible urban infrastructure that paved my roads, picked up my garbage, and delivered the gas I used to heat my home through hidden pipes. I want to heal the divide that makes some liberals not just mock but actually fear people who find personal and cultural value in gun ownership, the divide that makes us forget how easy it is to demand we all get rid of something that only other people value. I want to heal the divide that leads many nonreligious city dwellers to fundamentally misunderstand the social infrastructure roles of the church in rural communities, caring for the sick and the poor in places far from the offices of government-funded social programs. The shared infrastructure of cities makes it easier, more efficient, to improve quality of life with less money, to adapt to changes in the world, to recover economically.

That’s the usual divide, but with Trump I think there’s a different story, and it’s not one I’ve seen anyone else telling.

You see, a lot of people were surprised by Trump’s victory, and this surprise has led to a lot of speculation regarding the polls and where they went wrong. Which they weren’t really that wrong because Hillary won the popular vote by a large margin so it’s not like there’s some mysterious chunk of Trump supporters we didn’t know about, but anyway. The difference between the polls and the outcome led to this obsession with pointing at different bits of the polls to try and explain why Trump won. It’s the standard fallacy of focusing on what’s measurable because that’s what is easy and incontrovertible. It’s evidence, it’s proof, and anyone with basic math skills can compare numbers in the completely logical agreed-upon form, and let’s combine that with my other favorite intellectual mistake: the one where you get what you measure. If you measure race, you get race, if you measure gender and sexuality, you get gender and sexuality. Media has been taken over with arguing about these things because it’s easy to pseudo-rationally argue about what number is bigger than what other number. The media is centering the conversation around identity politics because that’s what the data is, but it’s not what the data shows.

Like, Trump didn’t win because of lower black turnout, though voter suppression worked pretty good there. Trump won and also we measured black voter turnout. We measured lots of things.

So I took a fresh look at the data. Lots of data, in larger contexts, and weeks later I’ve finally come to a conclusion.

I was wrong. It’s not really about liberal vs conservative, city vs country, white vs multicultural, not this time. It’s really about old and young. Not vs, and not necessarily as individuals but also as communities and as a culture, ok here we go:

First the shallow data part. Edison Research, which does the US election exit polls, shows that over-45s voted Trump while under-45s voted Hillary, and other polls show other breakdowns, over-50s voting for Trump, the trend of all the polls is that the older you get the more you’re a Trump voter, while Hillary was strongly favored among younger voters. 18-29 most strongly, and 30-45 also. And voter turnout in those age groups looks pretty normal, though if younger voters turned out like older voters did Hillary would’ve won in a landslide, meanwhile Baby Boomers are getting older, lifespans increase, and the older you are the more you turn out to vote so this was a good election for appealing to older voters, and older didn’t used to be a Republican thing but Obama’s appeal to young voters set the stage to take the G out of the GOP this year. But it’s not the pure demographics that popped out to me, but the correlations.

Correlations like… that many rural areas are increasing in average age as young people seek opportunities in the city and the older population keeps getting older, industry changes, and they’re left without a job they’re trained for, and it’s not like there’s a university in town where they can learn new skills and qualifications. Which means this statistic is related to the economy, though remember people who make less than average voted for Hillary, and how much you make is also correlated with age, so while poor young voters voted for Hillary, Trump’s voters are worrying about retirement and healthcare in a system that is failing them on both counts. Age is correlated with race, and US demographics are getting increasingly diverse which hasn’t really hit the voter pools yet, and also consider religion. I don’t mean diversity of religion, I mean the middle-america sort of religion where the church isn’t just a community but the community, with a cohesiveness that trickles down from older members.

I want to talk about age not because it excuses anything, but because it changes how we should approach this. When people living in different places reject each other’s way of life, that’s something to compromise and come together on. But if it’s really that younger people are looking towards the future while older people want to go back to how things were, that’s a different conversation. Trump didn’t just lose the popular vote, he lost the younger half of America.

America has changed. Younger voters are multicultural, we have a diverse range of identity, we’re adaptable, we’ve had 4 different jobs in multiple industries, we don’t expect job security or abundant natural resources or to have the world our parents had. We adapt, and we care for each other, not just in the USA but around the world, because we are connected, we are informed, we have the world at our fingertips. We worry about how we’re going to deal with the environmental issues that have been handed to us, how we’re going to end the wars that have been handed to us. Everyone wants to leave a better world for their children and it would be natural for older folks to be a little resentful that we find so many flaws with the world they’re handing to us, but this isn’t the story of two Americas, it’s a story of new Americas, about a country that has improved and changed many times over. There’s no sides to fight and win. This is a gap you bridge by being kind to each other, by asking older America not to reject America’s youth and younger America to respect our history and our elders and make sure they are not forgotten in a world of new technology. There’s a difference between the young angry neo-nazi Trump supporters that have been so emboldened by him, so encouraged by his administration, and the voters who are older and disconnected and who I think actually make up his base.

Dark forces in the white house would divide us, Steve Bannon is pretending Trump’s win was about a culture war between nationalists and liberals, pc culture and working-class middle America, rather than a generational difference. The same think pieces the media was writing about millennials years ago are now being rewritten as pieces about liberals, but we’re still the same people and we’re not going away. Legacy media is obsessed with the idea of identity politics while we’re already over it, we’re just trying to understand and respect each other in a changed world. And maybe with all these new changes we did forget to include older people’s struggles. Maybe we fell into the fallacy of valuing the lives of hypothetical future people more than the lives of those already here in our communities.

Older voters didn’t grow up with the idea of climate change, it’s not about liberals being smart and Republicans being science deniers, the numbers tell me it’s about age. Statistics tell us Trump voters are uneducated but remember education levels have increased with time and that’s a good thing, and also maybe we have some work to do in bringing education innovation to people who aren’t in school, and don’t come into contact much with more recently educated people.

Older voters didn’t grow up with the internet. The numbers show that older you get the more time you spend watching television, that’s where information comes from for a lot of people, and legacy media, in their efforts to be fair to the other side and get ratings from their audience are completely missing how pro-Trump they sound to younger demographics, whether they—or Trump—think they’re being pro-Trump or not. Maybe when young people rejected old media and went to the internet, we didn’t think through all the side-effects.

Maybe we can spend some time teaching older folks about climate change and how to sort out hoaxes on the internet, and they can spend some time teaching younger folks about the importance of turning out to vote and how to use telephones to call representatives.

Trump played to people’s fear, not just to general economic anxiety but about retirement and their legacy and their own mortality. Fear of the existential threat posed by imaginary invasions. He knows how to speak to people his age, to white people who grew up during the cold war, and in places where support will trickle down because of community structure.

There’s an important difference between those who fear the unknown and those who hate the known, between those who avoid someone because they don’t want to be hurt and those who engage with someone because they want to see them suffer. The former behavior might not be acceptable, but it’s approachable. You can talk about it.

I don’t make excuses for bigotry but maybe we can change how we approach it for the large share of Trump’s voter base who might be active in opposing it if we give them space to. There’s plenty of older folks who are excited to be challenged and engaged by the young American culture, who are willing to admit they’re wrong when they’re wrong, even if it challenges their authority.

 But from what I’ve seen of Trump and Bannon, they enjoy seeing the suffering of those who disagree with them, they seek to punish those who oppose them, and you can’t have a successful dialogue with someone who would like to see you hurt. Democrats won’t work with Trump, but Republicans can’t work with Trump. They could obey him, but they can’t work with him. Whether the white house reflects it or not, there is no future in Trump. The world already changed.

Some of Trump’s voters just want to burn it all down but most of them have shown that they care about the future of our country, they are engaged, they want to work hard, and maybe we can find a direction for that energy that we can agree on, rather than leaving older generations behind. Because we’re going to have this same problem when we’re old and future generations are fluent in technology we can’t imagine, that connects them to information and understanding that we can’t access effectively. Let us learn now how we bridge the gap of age in a world of increasing information technology.

Can we call our older friends and family and tell them our concerns, tell them about the world we see? Can we listen to their stories? Can we remember that our representatives and senators are also mostly older and didn’t grow up with the internet and aren’t reading our twitter feed and give them a call to share our concerns? Can we reach out personally to those who get their information that way? Can we find a way to disagree in our opinions but agree on the facts? Can we ask those who grew up in a different time to support us? Can we ask those who grew up in a different time how we can support them?

I feel mostly hopeful but there’s a certain bittersweetness to it and I can’t help think of my grandma. I lived with my her when my mathematical work started becoming popular, I respected her dictatorial authority in her home and I forgave her the occasional comments that one would call “old fashioned” when said by your own grandma. But I often think about the fact that when she was ill, she made a conscious decision to die rather than leave home. It’s not an uncommon choice. We are defined by the things we value more than ourselves. My grandmother made a home; and as frustrated as I was with her unwillingness to use the internet or accept a broader range of identity, she made me welcome in the home that was worth more to her than her own life. 

And so, to the future generations who value the lives of all of us equally, I entreat you to remember that life is to be honored universally but spent individually. Be kind to those who truly define themselves as Americans first, those who would whole-heartedly welcome you into the country they would give their life for. That is a kind of nationalism to be respected, and I think we can find a way to come together in support of America’s new culture while still honoring those who got us here.

[This post, including video, is Public Domain CC0]

slopes

Vi Hart Weekly, Sept 27, 2016

Welcome back to Vi Hart Weekly! As you know, every week has a theme, and sometimes when the theme is less obvious people enjoy drawing their own connections and trying to guess it. Spoiler: last week’s theme (or at least the one I intended) was tiny things / scale.

Now on to this week!

1. Improvisation of the Week:

Some piano + voice improvising I did after work on some day I forget. I forget what it sounds like, because getting it out of my brain is what recording and sharing things is all about. Bye piano thing!

I like Audacity for sound recording because it is so very simple. It doesn’t do hidden secret things or try to be smarter than the user. But when recording this I had a problem where occasionally Audacity would insert a bunch of zero values into the samples. All the information is there on either side, just these extra bits create an awful click sound.

I was hoping to be able to quickly search the samples for strings of zeros and remove them, but unfortunately they’re not quite zero, making it a little harder. Just getting rid of strings within a certain range could false positive on soft sections too. Really the thing to do is look for sudden changes in slope that go to/from zero. I managed to get rid of most of the clicks!

2. Vacation of the Week:

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I’m feeling good and am later than usual for this weekly because I managed to take three days of vacation!

Says my brain. Really two of those days were the weekend, brain, and those don’t count. Ok, so one day of vacation, says my brain. Except I worked until 2pm before leaving for said vacation, so.

But pretty good, doin’ pretty good on the actually-take-time-off-and-don’t-burn-out thing. I only filmed one video while on vacation and I didn’t even edit it on vacation. Taking time off is important for being able to continue doing work, but it’s easy to look at that time and regret that I got so much less done in the past week than in weeks when I work constantly! A reason not to judge productivity on a weekly basis. Need larger sample sizes to smooth over the zeros.

3. What’s up at eleVR:

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-4-26-21-pmWe’ve been spending some time lately organizing our many projects and blog posts, and I’m constantly amazed at how much we’ve done. So many experiments forgotten and dug up as we go through old bits of research. Our projects page is awesome.

One of these old experiments we never documented was when we tried making 360 video with just a normal smartphone and a cheap clip-on wide-angle lens, to see how inexpensive simple consumer VR creation could be. So I wrote up a post about that, and cut our old documentation footage into a video (in the post too).

But the big news is that Evelyn Eastmond is officially joining my team! I’m really excited about this because she is exactly the kind of deep-thinking world-aware artist-programmer I love working with, and I’ve been wanting to work with her for a while. So I’m just thrilled that she’s agreed to join. And now she’s in the regular eleVR blog rotation too, so you can check out her posts.

4. Vi Hart Video of the Week:

I posted about this in my previous blog post because videos sometimes get their own posts, but it’s still the Vi Hart video of the week.

5. Paper of the Week: Inventing Graphing: Meta-Representational Expertise in Children, by diSessa, Hammer, Sherin, and Kolpakowski

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Recommended to me by Paula Te in relation to my work on Real Virtual Physics, this is a fun paper that describes a 5-day activity with a group of sixth-grade children where they are encouraged to invent and improve on different ways of representing motion.

It’s interesting to read through the thought processes of the kids as they critique various invented representations, and move towards things resembling traditional representations of motion (distance over time, speed over time, etc). It was also interesting that a big sticking point was how to represent the duration of a stop. Ah zeros, always messing things up.

I think there’s something very important about understanding what kind of thing a representation-of-motion is, and what information it should contain, that can only be gained by working with more than one kind of representation-of-motion (even if some of them aren’t very good). Once one knows what kind of thing it is, then looking at traditional representations makes more sense.

It’s also interesting to read transcripts of bits of students’ discussion, and how critique of peers—who are indeed the world experts in their own invented representation—can motivate deeper thinking than discussion of an existing standard representation (which even the teacher might not know the reason for various choices).

Lookin’ At Slopes: The Calculus of Bad Driving [part 1]

I made a video! Again! It’s just a thing that happens sometimes.

This one is a true story about when I got mad at a taxi driver that skidded through the crosswalk in the rain, and why they were DEFINITELY DOING MATH WRONG.

Part 2 will be out next week, maybe?

Also, obviously I started writing this script a long time ago because it hasn’t rained in ever. But I still think if California focused more of its policies and funding towards higher quality math education, it would make our streets safer.

Transcript:

Today, I was walking across the street and this taxi comes zooming up to the crosswalk at a red light and slams on the brakes and skids across the crosswalk a foot in front of me and I’m like, dude, it’s raining, do you not realize how that affects the derivatives of your position over time, my goodness, I was one foot away from being turned into a pancake by your bad math education.

Now, every driver knows that speed is what happens when you change your position over time (such as the changing position of your car as it approaches the position of the crosswalk) and that acceleration is a change in speed over time (such as, y’know, how even if you change your speed by decelerating as much as your brakes and road conditions allow, you will still be going a positive speed by the time you reach the crosswalk, ). What many drivers don’t seem to know is that these changes are related by mathematical laws. Some drivers are like, you’re here, and then later you’re there? No one can explain this.

And, I can understand that. The idea that anything ever goes anywhere is kind of tricky if you’re Zeno and calculus hasn’t been invented yet. I mean, say you’re 20 meters from the crosswalk. How does one hit pedestrians if before you can get to the crosswalk you have to drive halfway to the crosswalk and then you have to drive halfway between there and the crosswalk and then halfway between there and the crosswalk? and so on. If each of these steps took the same amount of time, then that would be quite an interesting deceleration, you’d never hit anybody like that. But say you drive those first 10 meters in one second, and those next 5 meters in half a second, and the next 2-and-a-half meters in a quarter of a second, it doesn’t matter how many infinite bits of distance you’re adding up, you can break apart those 2 seconds and 20 meters in whatever way you find interesting but 2 seconds later you’ve still gone 20 meters and 2.1 seconds later you’re still trying to ruin my day.

There’s this stereotype about California drivers that whenever it rains, which is rarely enough these days, traffic stops because all the drivers are freaking out like what is this substance all over the ground, we don’t know how to do math to it.

The common wisdom seems to be that when it rains, you should just drive slower. A classic error of calculus, because it’s not really the speed that’s the problem with rain, but how it affects acceleration.

It’s like this: you’re goin’ along at a constant speed, uh, this is time and this is speed and this line is nice and flat so no change in speed is occurring, you’re just driving at 50 miles an hour. But then, oh no, there’s something in front of you, so you slam on the brakes. Now your speed is decreasing, decreasing, until you hit a speed of zero and stop. If you’re at a slower speed to begin with, then this line intersects zero earlier, you can stop faster. So far so obvious.

The slope of this line changes depending on your car and on road conditions: maybe you come to a stop real quickly, or maybe your brakes are bad or the road is icy and you just kinda glide for a while until finally you hit zero. Your car might be able to decelerate real fast when it’s dry, but not so fast when it’s raining, and then even if you start out slower it might take longer to actually stop. You can’t just drive slower, you have to leave more distance between you and the car in front of you, and start braking earlier when you’re coming up on a light, which is why that’s what they tell you in driver’s ed. Whereas if you’ve got lots of room and can decellerate for a long time, you can start at a greater speed even if it takes a while to decelerate to zero. Which is the part they don’t want to tell you in driver’s ed.

Of course, this is graph is kind of misleading because it’s not like the crosswalk is here, this axis shows time, not place. And when we need to stop, we usually don’t care about when to stop so much as where to stop. This graph shows the speed of a taxi that needs to stop at a crosswalk, but let’s overlay the position graph in red, same time axis, different y axis, so we can show where the crosswalk is . Here’s where the Taxi is when I see it coming towards the crosswalk, here’s the crosswalk, 20 meters away. So the driver is going along at a constant speed, that’s this nice linearly increasing distance, realizes it’s a red light and slams the brakes here.

It’s slowing down, and the distance over time starts this nice deceleration curve. Of course, in my case it doesn’t reach the flat zero slope of a stopped car until it’s gone through the crosswalk. Wish it could stop sooner, but once you decide to stop, there’s a max decelleration, you can stop faster if you have better brakes or less momentum or if the ground is dry but there’s always a max slope your speed can drop, which means a max curve your position can take so there we are in the crosswalk. 

Accelleration, speed, and position, these things are related so don’t run me over in the rain. Lookin’ at slopes.

But the story doesn’t end there. We’re leaving off with the taxi driver stopped in the crosswalk but what happens next will surprise you. Or, not really so much, but I wanna talk about hover cars? Anyway see you next time for part 2.

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Vi Hart Weekly, September 18, 2016

Welcome back to Vi Hart Weekly! I am glad you are here!

1. Designer of the week: Otto Zenke

In particular, his miniature rooms, of which there are several in the Greensboro history Museum, which I was at last week. Curator Jon Zachman was kind enough to let me put a spherical camera inside one of these tiny rooms and tell me a little bit about history behind them. It’s a pretty compelling use of spherical video:

2. Geometric space of the week: Hyperbolic Three-Space

This week I finally got around to documenting a project I did with eleVR, Henry Segerman, and Mike Stay, back in 2014. Or at least, I documented a little bit of it. We made hyperbolic virtual reality.

In this video I show an unusual property of an unusual tiling of three-dimensional hyperbolic space. Hyperbolic space gets really big really fast, but not fast enough to fit six cubes around an edge without something very interesting happening at the vertices:

3. Book of the week: The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife is a subtle piece of literature. In some ways it is very small and personal: one young woman recollecting stories surrounding her grandfather, in the days following his death. It only very subtly connects to bigger themes and bigger events, in a way I very much appreciate. It is well-written with evocative imagery, and just the occasional hint of that sort of literary cruelty à la Infinite Jest, if you know what I mean.

4. Pint of the week: Organic Sugar Plum Grape Tomatoes

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Tiny tomatoes are, in general, the best food. This is because, being tiny and numerous, a pint of them has more surface area than a pint of larger tomatoes. Sometimes cherry tomatoes are tiny enough. This time, grape tomatoes and the best tomatoes. Because of their size and elongated geometry, they are almost entirely made up of outside.

Because they have so much outside to eat, and that’s where pesticides tend to sit, the organic component is extra important when eating a pint of tiny grape tomatoes.

5. Paper of the week: Assessing student learning of Newton’s laws: The Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation and the Evaluation of Active Learning Laboratory and Lecture Curricula, by Ronald K. Thornton and David R. Sokoloff

This is related to my work on Real Virtual Physics. It describes the assessments they did with students using tracked physical objects to learn about speed, acceleration, and visualize them as graphs, etc.

My favorite thing about this paper is that when discussing student answers it doesn’t refer to answers as being right or wrong, but instead refers to answers as either aligning with Newtonian physics or not. It mentions some other conceptual frameworks students use to think about motion, and the idea that having a model of physics in your head, even if it’s wrong, is it good sign of student ability to learn. It reminds me of some some of the stuff Papert talks about, that memorizing laws of motion is pointless if one doesn’t know what kind of thing a law of motion is. Papert recommends students get experience with microworlds that have different kinds of laws of motion, before trying to learn what the laws of motion of the actual world are. Of course, Newtonian physics is not our most accurate way of modeling real motion, so I appreciate this paper’s emphasis on teaching students to think in a Newtonian way, rather than teaching them the right answers.

My least favorite thing about this paper is that it is evaluating a curriculum and learning tools at the same time that it is evaluating the evaluation used to evaluate those tools. The results could mean nothing more than that teaching to the test yields higher test scores. They do address this issue by correlating responses to different question types, and it sounds convincing and everything, but it certainly leaves more work to be done.

Paper is online here.

6. News Introspection of the week: explosion in Chelsea

Whenever a breaking news story is going viral on twitter, I take the opportunity to introspect by asking myself what I want to be true. This kind of awareness is important to limiting the effects of confirmation bias and becoming more able to understand the world as it is.

It’s easy, on twitter, to judge others and get outraged about what they want to be true, but that’s less helpful. Some people want whatever truth supports their politics. Some people like big news because big news is exciting, and our human brains can’t help wanting exciting things sometimes. Me, I’ve learned I like tiny news. Maybe I have enough excitement in my life.

I’ve practiced news-introspecting enough to recognize, when I saw Chelsea trending, that I wanted the explosion to be minor and accidental, that I would be drawn to things that support that wish, and more skeptical of reports that it was an organized terrorist attack that caused serious harm (and more reactive against anyone speculating that might be the case).

It’s looking right now like the truth is somewhere between those things, an intentional act of terror that is not connected to outside groups, and that we are very lucky in how minor the damage was. And I’m aware that now I am happy to stop following the story, while those who are hoping a connection to terrorist groups will be discovered are more likely to keep following, so if evidence in that direction is discovered (even if it’s not certain yet) their beliefs will be confirmed, and then they can stop following too, so we all get what we want. Hooray!

7. Pumpkin Spice of the Week: Pumpkin Spice

Documenting this thing because, well, because:

 

The last screenshot is from this site that analyzes headlines for clickbaitiness: http://coschedule.com/headline-analyzer

I did that bit because it is my headline art.

Seriously though, pumpkin spice seems to be one of those cultural things that secretly broadcasts some secret group affiliation. Also I would actually like to have some, but it turns out that not all places are forcing pumpkin spice into everything. Instead I have no pumpkin spice but lots of over-analysis.

THE END

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Vi Hart Weekly, September 11, 2016

Welcome to Vi Hart Weekly! As you’ve probably noticed, a common thread between each Weekly is that each one has a theme, a common thread. This week’s theme is Common Threads.

1. Art of the Week: Where We Met

I live in SF and travel a lot, so I regularly get to pass under Janet Echelman’s “Every Beating Second” in the San Francinco airport. Last weekend I got to see one of her newest installations in Greensboro, NC, “Where We Met”, and it’s something else entirely. Outside, subject to the wind and weather and changes in light, it has a life and presence unlike any public art I’ve ever seen. Day and night, the park is full of people lying in the grass underneath gazing upward.

Perhaps because the sculpture is still relatively new, I overheard many conversations from people discussing the sculpture, an exercise in noticing, inventing and asking questions to each other. What does the shape have to do with the tension of the strings? Is the color at night because of the color of the art piece or the color of the lighting? What material is it made out of, how strong is it, how heavy do you think the entire sculpture is? Does the shape mean anything or is it just random?

It’s beautiful to overhear such focused noticing happening not in a gallery, but in a public park, by all sorts of groups of people. And quite wonderfully, answers to many of these questions can be found in the Greensboro History Museum right next to the sculpture, in an exhibit titled “Weaving Wonder with Historical Threads”. I was pleased to be able to touch some of the material the sculpture is made out of (hooray tactile learning!), as well as learn the secret behind the sculpture’s design, and its connection to the textile industry.

A related mini-exhibit, right inside the entrance to the museum, asks visitors to weave threads according to their own answers to a few questions (and the color thread depends on the visitor’s home location). I love the simplicity and tactility, and that the result is a sort of infographic data visualization thing.

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2. Book of the Week: Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook

Continuing the theme of education and active learning, and realizing that while I knew a lot about Montessori education but had never read anything written by Maria Montessori herself, I read “Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook”. It’s quite interesting to read the very precise curriculum descriptions and motivations for every detail of every activity and how it contributes in subtle ways to a child’s future learning. While I was familiar with the overarching ideals and structure of Montessorian education, I hadn’t realized how detailed, thorough, and intentional a curriculum existed, one which apparently most schools labeled “Montessori” follow only in part, if at all.

Many of the educational materials and concepts she invented are familiar to me, but some seem to have been gotten left behind, including exercises involving feeling different materials, a children’s haptics library. Recall Margaret Minsky’s haptics library, which we discussed a couple weeks ago! Now I want to play the Montessorian game where I gather a bunch of material samples in pairs, mix them up, and have to pair them back up blindfolded, by developing and using various sorting strategies, as well as developing my ability to focus attention and achieve completion of a task, as well as learning the delicate touch and physical delight in my environment and all those things she describes so eloquently in her curriculum.

3. Noticing Math in Things of the Week: Jump Roping

I went to the National Folk Festival in Greensboro NC last weekend, and while I saw many excellent performances from all over the world (the festival is national but the folk is international), one particularly caught my mathematical interest.

I’d seen some competitive jump roping before, and it’s pretty impressive. But at the festival the Bouncing Bulldogs did some moves I’d never seen, involving multiple people holding more than one jump rope, for example three girls with three jump ropes between them, weaving themselves over and under the shared jump ropes in a way that must require a great deal of experience and intuition with certain topological patterns. Here’s the closest thing I could find on YouTube, by another group:

I’ve heard of jump ropes as an active educational tool for things like counting and number patterns (jumping rope while counting up by twos, down by odd numbers, or even just using the string of the jump rope to measure, braid, or… perhaps weave?), but there’s some deeper mathematics going on in these multi-person jump-roping tricks that I believe have yet to be vigorously studied. I think there’s a lot of fertile ground here, and the art of jump roping is ripe to be revolutionized by mathematics in the same way juggling was. Also, the world could always use more great mathematicians, so it would be good if we could figure out exactly how their intuition for these forms could transfer to existing mathematics.

4. Snake of the Week: This One Particular Rat Snake

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This is my new snake friend! I didn’t realize they made them so big in North Carolina. 

Not for jumping rope with.

5. Presidential Chocolate of the Week: Obama Kisses

Before North Carolina, I went to Washington DC to meet with some folks from the Office of Science and Technology Policy about active learning in mathematics. There’s not much to say about the meeting itself, besides that they seemed to pick a good group of people to meet with them, and if that meeting is the start of a conversation rather than a full one, it won’t have been a waste of time. Also it was nice to be recognized by the Chief Technology Officer of the United States, Megan Smith, who I think is pretty great. But the most tangible result of the meeting is that apparently when you have a fancy White House Meeting you get Obama Kisses. Every liberal’s dream. I’ve got to stick with this education policy thing so that I can dream of Hillary Hugs someday.

Each kiss is threaded with a paper ribbon that I was hoping would say something like “thanks for visiting, sure wanna hear more of your policy ideas later”, but it’s just the usual message of love:

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I’ve got a lot of thoughts on the meeting, and education policy in general, that will take me some time to sort through and write up.

6. Never Forgetting of the Week: 9/11

The bulk of my family lives in North Carolina, and so while I was in the state, last night we had dinner together. Given the date, we got to remembering 9/11. Where we were when we heard, what our day was like, and of course, the family stories, which are not mine to tell.

As I was telling my own recollections of the day, which I haven’t thought about in many years, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in technology and communication between then and now. I was in school, and this was back when kids generally didn’t have cell phones, much less smart phones, much less laptops. Most classrooms didn’t have a computer, much less an internet-equipped computer. There was a loudspeaker announcement that told us about the plane crashing into the tower, and that announcement didn’t tell us why or how big the plane was or how bad the crash was and we were left to speculate, with no other way of gathering information, while the teachers were hearing the same thing we were, expected to go about the day as usual.

Oh, I should mention: this is in New York. I grew up in New York, and almost all my family lived there at the time. We have family and family friends who were in and around those towers. But by the sound of the initial announcement, it wasn’t serious, it was probably a small plane that accidentally crashed because of an instrument failure or something. So if I were to tell you where I was when I heard the news, well, I heard the news for the first time slowly, in many places, across the day, with increasing horror. I heard the news without twitter (which didn’t exist) or YouTube (which didn’t exist), I heard it without an iphone (which didn’t exist) or facebook (which didn’t exist). I heard it in bits and rumors, it was forbidden knowledge, the teachers weren’t supposed to be telling us any news, and generally the administration was trying to get the school through the day.

But our 2nd period teacher turned on the radio (a radio, an honest-to-goodness radio!) and we sat listening quietly all period. I was listening when the first tower went down, and when the second tower went down, and those of us who cried did our best to cry quietly, and then the bell rang and we went to the next classroom and tried to pretend everything was ok so that our rule-breaking teacher wouldn’t get in trouble for not keeping us in the dark.

As the day went on, in rumors and speculations not unlike twitter today, we tried to sort out what was real. The pentagon was attacked? Really? Surely that’s something a younger student made up?

It was a long school day. It ended. I went out to the pay phone and called home and finally learned that everyone was, whether by accident or skill, alive. And then at home we sat by the tv and watched the news, the same footage over and over and over and over

I learned not to obsess like that over horrific news footage ever again.

Today I’m coming home from visiting my family. I wrote this Weekly on my flight back to the west coast, and we’ll be descending back into SFO with its lovely Echelman sculpture soon, “Every Beating Second”. In the last airport, eating a sandwich before my connecting flight, I looked up and was shocked by the sight of the footage on the tv, the smoke billowing from the tower, the clear blue sky in the background. It hit me with a visceral force.

I remember smelling that smoke for a long time after. Our perfect blue skies never quite returned.

7. Child On A Plane of the Week

Despite that I’m not that into children or planes, I actually quite like children on planes. They’re a controlled and restrained breath of fresh air in a crowded box full of adults desperately pretending not to notice each other. The little girl in front of me is asking “Would you rather be a solar system, a hedgehog, or Hermione?”

It does sound very nice to be a solar system, but I think I’d most like to be Hermione, who with all her power and intelligence dedicated her life to doing what is right rather than what is easy.

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